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SXSW Cancels Two Panels in Wake of "Threats of On-Site Violence"

The Festival's administration cites "preservation of the big tent" as major motivation for the cancelation. [UPDATED]

At some point SXSW went from
At some point SXSW went from "that place that band I like is playing" to "the place venture capitalists draw inscrutable infographics about apps and 'disruption.'"

Update: Perry Jones of the Open Gaming Society has forwarded along the organization's response, including future panel plans. It is available here.

Original story below.

SXSW, a yearly festival of media makers, critics, and technologists, has announced the cancellation of two gaming related panels, "SavePoint - A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games." In a statement released early this evening, SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest stated that over the past week SXSW had received "numerous threats of on-site violence" related to these panels.

But that isn't the only reason cited for the cancelation. Instead, the main thrust of Forrest's statement today was that the two panels in question had themselves engaged in an unwelcome style of debate:

SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.

However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people can not agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.

There's one problem with this statement, though. The "dialogue" that Forrest is references here just doesn't exist.

Yes, "SavePoint" was officially being hosted by a group called the Open Gaming Society, which has its origin on KotakuInAction, a group that calls itself the "hub for GamerGate discussion on Reddit." And yes, "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" was going to feature Randi Harper, Katherine Cross, and Caroline Sinders--each of whom has spent some time over the last year critiquing, studying, and writing about GamerGate. But "Level Up" wasn't going to be a panel about GamerGate at all, it was aiming to be a discussion about how careful design of technologies and games can address the problem of online harassment. In a comment provided to Giant Bomb, Cross explains:

The panel was meant to be a wide ranging discussion about how we might design websites, social media, and online games to be less susceptible to online harassment and hate mobbing. We were going to discuss various design proposals, including some already extant in the gaming industry that have been proven to work, but our panel was meant to be a solutions-oriented discussion of harassment in general.

It is unfortunate that SXSW alleged us to be "GamerGate" related. We did not mention GG in the proposal nor in the actual text of the panel description. GG is but one of many manifestations of online harassment and we did not want to get myopically bogged down in one case study, nor in relitigating its specifics. We wanted to discuss the wider problem and solutions thereto.

I could understand why someone with only superficial knowledge of these panels might see them as competing or in dialogue with each other. But they simply weren't--and as director of SXSW Interactive, Forrest should have a lot more than superficial knowledge.

Worse, Cross also told us that SXSW did not alert the "Level Up" panelists about the threats of violence, nor did they respond to the panelists' own concerns about security. There was no discussion between the panelists and SXSW's management about the cancellation, either: It was a total surprise to Cross and the others. It all paints a pretty bad picture of SXSW Interactive.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't mean to say that there's never an instance where a panel needs to be canceled. If SXSW felt that it simply couldn't provide the security necessary after talking with the panelists about the risks, then I'd be more sympathetic. But given the lack of dialog between SXSW Interactive and the panelists involved, this feels less like a regrettable necessity and more like a washing-of-hands. It's ironic that Forrest's post is titled "Strong Community Management," because this incident suggests that SXSW Interactive lacks the ability to manage its community, or else doesn't have the desire to dedicate the time, money, and energy to do so in this case.

There's a second element of irony here, too--and a more depressing one. As stated above, "Level Up" was supposed to be a panel discussion on how smart design of systems can be used to prevent abuse. In effect, Cross, Harper, and Sinders were going to explore how one might actually build something that protects the very things that Forrest holds up as SXSW's goals: "Diverse people and ideas." It's really a shame that the panel was canceled, because it seems like SXSW's management could've gotten some tips.

As of the time of publishing, I've received no response from the Open Gaming Society or from SXSW Interactive. I will update this story if that changes.