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SXSW's Online Harassment Summit tackled big ideas, but few solutions in sight

Caitlin McGarry, Leah Yamshon | March 17, 2016
The event drew a low turnout despite months of controversy.

People have been buzzing about the Online Harassment Summit during South by Southwest Interactive since it was announced back in October. The day-long series of discussions on Saturday was put together after a panel on harassment and online gaming scheduled for Interactive was canceled due to threats of violence. The ensuing controversy prompted SXSW organizers to schedule a more formal discussion of online harassment, and everyone remained on guard. We were reminded of the event’s code of conduct at every corner, and we experienced more thorough bag checks at the summit entrance than at most TSA security checkpoints.

But for all the talk of the Harassment Summit in the months leading up to SXSW, the event was sparsely attended, and the panelists were largely preaching to the choir. People who deal in harassment and threats on the Internet are not the audience for an event like this, and representatives from the networks where that harassment happens weren’t in attendance, either. The participating panelists brought thought-provoking ideas and the conversations were lively and informative, but at the end of the day, we had more questions than answers. Was SXSW the right festival for this summit? Was the decision to put the summit across the river from the Austin Convention Center a good one? Why didn’t companies like Twitter and Reddit send any representatives to take part in the discussions?

Here were our biggest takeaways from the SXSW Online Harassment Summit, which ended on a somewhat hopeful note despite the lack of resolution.

It’s the platforms, not the people

You can’t force people to be nice, especially not on the Internet. Not even Facebook, which requires people to use their real names, is immune to problems of harassment and bullying. Panelists agreed that it’s not people who will change, but the platforms they use.

“I think one of the most toxic things tech companies have done is seeing their users as customers,” said CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Katherine Cross, who spoke on a panel about harassment and online gaming. “Whether they like it or not, they were creating communities. By not having a community development level focus, they’ve allowed the most toxic tendencies to flourish.”

Social media companies intend for their communities to harbor positive interactions, but many of the panelists agreed that these good intentions are just not cutting it anymore—especially platforms like Reddit and the location-based Yik Yak, which have a level of anonymity around them.

“I can’t say this clearly enough—Reddit is failing women in every marginalized community spectacularly,” said Giant Spacekat cofounder and game developer Brianna Wu, who spoke on a summit panel about online harassment against women. Reddit largely stays out of monitoring content, encouraging users to monitor themselves and each other instead. This has left some users feeling threatened and unsafe, with little or no support from platform leaders. 


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