South by Southwest is launching PanelPicker today, which each year helps the conference generate many of its hundreds of panels with the help of the public. For 2017, SXSW Interactive's director says the event is making changes to address harassing activity in PanelPacker. Last year, threats, harassment and strong criticisms of how the conference handled the cancellation of several panels that were eventually reinstated led to the creation of an Online Harassment Summit in March.
In an email about the PanelPicker launch, longtime Interactive director Hugh Forrest said, "Yes, we will take a much more active role in monitoring and moderating inappropriate comments on the PanelPicker. Users who engage in abusive language will have their accounts terminated." But he did not detail how those increased efforts would be carried out in terms of staffing.
|What is South by Southwest's PanelPicker?
The website, which launched today, allows anyone to submit an idea for SXSW Interactive, Music, Film or SXSWedu. The person who submits a panel must include confirmed panelists, a video and other information about what the presentation would include. For 2016, SXSW received more than 4,600 proposals. The deadline for panel submission is July 22. Voting on panel ideas runs from Aug. 8 to Sept. 2. Public votes count for 30 percent of the selection process. A SXSW advisory board counts for 40 percent of the decision and the remaining 30 percent is decided by SXSW staff. Those whose panels are chosen for the conference receive a free badge allowing for attendance to SXSW Film, Music, Interactive or SXSWedu.
SXSW is also combining PanelPicker's Interactive, Music and Film sections. Those submitting a panel idea may only submit one and won't be required to choose which branch of the festival it goes to, in hopes of creating a more unified experience, Forrest said.
"For 2017, these paths for the SXSW conference will all be the same," he said. South by Southwest takes place March 10-19.
Those submitting a panel idea for SXSW edu, which takes place March 6-9, may submit for that separately and in addition to the main SXSW fest.
Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sisters and Stop Online Violence Against Women, was a panelist at this year's festival as part of the Online Harassment Submit and says she plans to submit another panel idea for 2017.
But, she says, she encountered many difficulties in last year's PanelPicker that ranged from harassment that continues in the form of daily targeted hacking of her website today, to having a SXSW Film panel on women and comic book heroes rejected while a panel on diversity and online harassment was only to be accepted for SXSW Gaming , which took place several days after SXSW Interactive.
"I said you're putting me as a woman of color in a situation where people you know have already harassed me, that my session is going to be presented to them," Mitchell said. "Everyone I know with Interactive will not be present. You're putting me as a woman of color in a place where hostility is expcted, but you take away my support system because you think I'm not that damn important."
Mitchell ended up on "Is A Safer, Saner and Civil Internet Possible?" a March 12 panel as part of the Harassment Summit. That, she said, also presented problems; it was segregated from the conference's main Austin Convention Center activity and heightened security required bag checks at the door at the Hyatt Austin Downtown, two factors she said led to low attendance at the Summit.
Kami Huyse, a Houston-based CEO of Zoetica Media, who also spoke on a panel at the Online Harassment Summit and presented research on harassment issues at the conference, said she welcomes changes to PanelPicker.
"I am very glad that they will address the issues with abuse and trolling in the PanelPicker. It is a great start," she said.
But Huyse also has questions about how the SXSW staff will carry that out.
"Will they be responding to complaints? Some abusive behavior goes beyond simple name calling to baiting and being purposefully argumentative to stir the pot and cause distress. Will these behaviors also be monitored and how?" she asked.
Huyse says she's unsure if she'll submit a panel for 2017 as she was also disappointed the Online Harassment Summit was not more closely integrated with the rest of SXSW.
"SXSW has a unique opportunity to start a bigger conversation that would make a real impact on the problem of online harassment, but it can't be accomplished as a sideshow to the main event," Huyse said.
She also said the event should be more transparent about how it chooses panelists, and could consider hand-picking main-stage panels on controversial topics that would sidestep the PanelPicker entirely. That's something the conference often does with some topical subjects that emerge between the time the PanelPicker ends and SXSW starts.
Forrest said that over the years, the conference has learned that specificity of topic and pre-event prep work are two factors that lead to successful presentations.
"We ask that potential speakers seek to cover one small part of the topic at hand in as much detail as possible. By contrast, trying to cover all elements of the topic at hand usually doesn’t provide attendees that kind of substance that they want. In terms of pre-event prep work, the more that panelists communicate with other speakers before the event, the more likely they will have a successful session," Forrest wrote in an email.
Mitchell said she thinks the problems that emerged from last year's PanelPicker could be symptoms of a lack of diversity within SXSW itself and that the sheer volume of submissions creates a monitoring problem that's not easily solved.
Nevertheless, she plans to participate, she says, because she feels it's important to have a presence and to address these issues head-on.
"I”m still going to submit a panel because I will not be silenced," Mitchell said. "Whether they pick my panel or not, I don't care," she said. She plans to attend SXSW even if her panel submission is not part of the conference.