SXSW

Big ideas, but too few ears to hear them at SXSW Online Harassment Summit

Posted March 12th, 2016

Five months after the cancellation of two South by Southwest Interactive panels due to threats created a national story about diversity, online harassment and misogyny, a Summit created specifically to address the matter arrived with low attendance and tight security.

But that didn't stop presenters from engaging on a topic that become endemic to practically anyone who communicates online or belongs to a social network at the first Online Harassment Summit. Trolling, harassing and ugly behavior have become just a part of life online and several of the panels tried to express solutions while also sharing horrific stories of what women, people of color, children and even pets (yes, they get threatened, too) are put through.

But it's unclear how far the messages will carry. Not all of the event was live-streamed, including one highly anticipated panel,  and attendance at opening and closing programming was sparse. "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment In Games," one of the two panels that caused the firestorm of criticism in the first place, drew about 50 attendees to the Hyatt Regency Austin and three 9:30 a.m. panels at the Hyatt drew even fewer and was not streamed to the web, apparently due to a room mixup.

Omar L Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMANAttendance at some panels was low at the Online Harassment Summit for South by Southwest Interactive. At the "Level Up" panel, about 50 showed up to the Hyatt Regency Austin.

The day included politicians, game designers, ACLU and Anti-Defamation League representatives. A second panel, "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" originally canceled was moved away from the Summit to its own slot on Tuesday. 

Security was tighter than usual for a SXSW Interactive event not involving the President of the United States: bags were checked at the Hyatt entrance and attendees were asked in each panel to adhere to the Summit's code of conduct and to not leave any items unattended.

A morning panel, "Is A Safer, Saner and Civil Internet Possible?" explored briefly the #GamerGate harassment situation that led to the Summit, but moved on to the consequences of attacks on, for instance, women journalists online, who may opt out of the profession, or women of color. The panel also addressed the problem of revenge porn online, which has proliferated to about 3,000 websites, and how online communities such as Reddit are failing to keep abuse in check while others, such as Twitter, are trying to improve.

"Reddit is failing every women in every marginalized community spectacularly," said Giant SpaceKat game developer Brianna Wu, who has been outspoken online on the subject of threats to women.

Panelist Shireen Mitchell was still critical of the festival's decision to keep the "SavePoint" panel in the schedule while also canceling a separate panel she proposed about women of color and superheroes. She said she told the festival, "You're putting me in a position where I'm going to be attacked and harassed. I'm putting my panelists in danger."

The "Level Up" panel was largely focused on whether there are ways to design that could help encourage better behavior or help curb abuse. 

For instance, Facebook has recently added more emotion-conveying emojis to its Like button, which the panelists dismissed as a waste of engineering that helps promotes the social network's false ethos that it has solved harassment by creating an open, non-anonymous environment.

"Facebook disproves its own idea when you see how much harassment is on FB. (Harassers) don't feel they're doing anything wrong," said panelist Katherine Cross of Cuny Graduate Center.

The festival has not said whether it will have another Online Harassment Summit next year. This year's event, held at the Hyatt, was a hike from many of the panels at the Austin Convention Center and it's possible that the subject matter may have been tough for some attendees who may have preferred to party with St. Bernard dogs, Grumpy Cat or celebrities at other higher-profile panels.

Interactive festival director Hugh Forrest said on Sunday that SXSW plans to post the live-streamed panels online, hopefully by Monday.

On attendance, he said in an email, "Many of the sessions at the Online Harassment Summit were very well attended. We did find that numbers dropped in the afternoon but varying factors play a role in the attendance of any session at SXSW."

Edited to add: Story has been edited to reflect that five panels were live-streamed on the SXSW site, including the morning "Is A Safer, Saner and Civil Internet Possible?" panel. The "Level Up" panel was not live-streamed.

Edited Sunday, March 13, to add: more information on live streams and comment from SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest.

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