Earlier this week, SXSW Interactive, the popular annual tech festival held each March in Austin, announced it was canceling two schedule panels about gaming culture and online harassment. The move prompted backlash from feminist advocates and media outlets, including BuzzFeed and Vox Media, both of whom threatened not to attend the festival if SXSW didn’t reverse its decision.
In a Slate column on Thursday, Caroline Sinders–an organizer for one of the canceled panels, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games”–wrote that SXSW said “our concerns were misplaced” and didn’t honor her requests for security during the panel. Since SXSW allows the community to vote on prospective panels, Sinders had first reached out to festival representatives while her panel was being considered for inclusion, after finding that it had received a slew of negative comments. Writing in Slate, Sinders disclosed her email correspondence with SXSW, which shows that festival representatives repeatedly dismissed her concerns about harassment from the GamerGate community, even after her panel was accepted into SXSW.
When Sinders wrote to SXSW and asked that there be security at her panel, she never heard back from the representative–that is, not until SXSW opted to cancel the panel. At that point, she was informed that SXSW had fielded threats over both her panel and another panel, called “Save Point: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” As Sinders writes in Slate, SXSW felt “there was no way to have a civil conversation.” She continues:
So many things about this situation could have been handled better… Most importantly, SXSW could have taken our concerns seriously when we first voiced them in August. I understand security can be hard; I understand wanting to show all sides of an issue and creating a panel that is “of the moment.” But SXSW created a disingenuous and potentially dangerous situation. Just as our panel was about design, the Gamergate panel was (technically) about gaming journalism. Moreover, the emails I received are not the proper response to a woman participating in a tech conference who has security concerns. It downplays my lived experiences, as a person. If there were threats made against my panel and my co-panelists, I should have been informed. If there were threats made against the Save Point panel, they should have been informed as well.
Her primary concern, Sinders says, was that there be crowd moderation during her panel. She also notes that she “would still love to speak at SXSW” and that she wants to help create “a tech community that is safe and open for everyone.”
As of Wednesday, Re/code reports that SXSW is considering putting together a full-day event on online harassment, and that it wanted to include both BuzzFeed and Vox Media in the day’s programming.
Update: SXSW confirmed on Friday that it will host a day-long “Online Harassment Summit” on March 12. In a statement, director Hugh Forrest apologized for canceling the “Level Up” and “Save Point” panels. “Earlier this week we made a mistake,” he said. “By canceling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry.”