Interview: Why SXSW Cancelled a Panel on Digital Harassment and Design


feature image via Alfie Photography / Shutterstock.

We’ve spoken to Caroline Sinders before. I emailed her after I read her piece on Narratively about her mother getting SWATted. I’ve chatted with her about our different creative projects over iced teas; I’ve chatted with enough times since that I consider her a friend. So when word started to spread that her previously approved South By Southwest Panel, Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games, was cancelled because of digital harassment, I nearly had a rage stroke. I seriously cannot believe a large conference, one that hosts celebrities and CEOs, one that shuts down entire sections of Austin, Texas, does not have the resources to keep three women on a panel about harassment safe.

Since chatting with Caroline on Thursday, SXSW has offered to reinstate Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games. SXSW is now positioning them as a part of a possible day-long event focused on combatting harassment. Save Point, the ethics in gaming journalism panel, has also been asked to participate in the same day-long event, though their panel was not originally described as dealing with harassment.

Let’s talk about what happened first, and then we’ll get Caroline’s thoughts on SXSW’s Harassment Summit. The interview has been edited for length and flow.

Ali Osworth: All right then summarize exactly what happened and then we’ll get to the nitty gritty questions. What happened here? [This picks up where we left off after Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games endured a Reddit down-voting campaign.]

Caroline Sinders: After the voting closed we all kind of just pushed it out of our minds and forgot about it. We figured we’d hear what we heard when we heard, right? SXSW seemed to have been taking all of our concerns seriously around the voting. You know, they were doing everything they could to really work with us at that time. We were also told that Gamergate was submitting a panel (well we figured that out from Reddit) but our SXSW representatives said to not worry. Even if for some crazy reason we accept it now, even if the deadline is closed, we will keep in mind that they started this campaign against other panels and we take that really seriously. You know? They’re like, “Just don’t worry about it. Just let them think they can do this.” And we’re like, “Oh, these all seem to be very reasonable things.” So I found out October 7th that my panels had been submitted. I also helped plan an educational panel, which was also accepted, really exciting. And then I was told, “Okay, you’re in. We’re also excited, just don’t tweet about it.” And I was like, “Okay, I can totally do that. I will not talk about being accepted.” And then around the 20th, Arthur Chu, who started the original email to let us know that our panels had attracted a downvote campaign, let us know that the Gamergate panel, which had been planned on Kotaku in Action, by multiple members of Gamergate, had been approved. And he had said that it looked like it had never gone through voting and it’s not on Panel Picker, the voting site. [Editor’s note: this panel is called Save Point, just FYI.]

So from previously dealing with our representative and also just in general being a person of the world, I was pretty aware that a lot of people don’t really know what Gamergate is or aren’t really sure what it means or what it does. So I quickly emailed the person who had let me know that our panel had been accepted and I just sent a quick email around a) security concerns and b) what was the rationale and c) I don’t know if you know but they actually did this downvoting campaign around us, I just wanted to give you a really quick heads up as to what’s going on. You know, like things of that nature, and then our contact didn’t respond.

Then they sent us a new website to go through to make sure everything was filled out correctly and that we were applying for all the right kind of day passes and that everything was fine, and this goes into backend systems, CMS feeds, into the SXSW website. I went back in to check everything and my name had somehow glitched out and wasn’t in the CMS, so I emailed this person back immediately and was like, “My name isn’t here and my panelists are, but I’m the one logging in.” And then he responded within a couple minutes and was like, “Oh no, okay I just looked at it. Don’t worry you’re in the back and it’s gonna take an hour to be there.” And I was like, “Great. By the way, did you see my email? My other email?” And then he didn’t respond. So I let an hour or two go by and I checked and then my name was back so I was like, “Fantastic!” So then I emailed this person again and said, “Hey Andrew, by the way, my name is back, everything looks great. FYI did you see my other email?” And then I get a response a couple hours later where, and I can forward this to you, where it’s effectively like, “Hi Caroline. Yes, at SXSW we appreciate a diversity of voices, we can’t all agree with them, that would make for a boring conference.”

And this email doesn’t address my security concerns at all, so I respond with, and again I can forward you this email as well, “Cool, I totally understand that rationale. That being said, can we talk about security? Some of our panels in the past have been disrupted and we just want to make sure that the Q&A doesn’t get rowdy.” So we don’t get a response, and then the next day it comes to my attention that one of the panelists in the Gamergate Save Point Panel has a history of following women around at conferences and taking photos of them. So I then email that again and I’m just like, “FYI, I can totally jump on the phone. I would love to have a conversation about this and really work with y’all. You know, it’s not a big deal, I just wanted to give you a heads up that this has also come to my attention and this person has a history of following around Zoe Quinn, who is a colleague of someone on my panel and I just want to make sure that we don’t have any issues for my panel.” Right? Like, I would say pretty regular, laid back, respectful email. I don’t hear anything back and then people started talking about this a little bit in the media and then I got an email out of the blue that the panel had been cancelled and there had been threats made against my panel, and I actually hadn’t been aware at all that there had been threats made against my panel.

A: Do you know what the content of the threats are?

C: I don’t. I have no idea. They didn’t tell me.

A: So what kind of pushback are you engaged in with SXSW right now? Is there an appeals process?

C: We are in contact with them and I would love a chance to speak at SXSW and I understand from their perspective how confusing and difficult this must be, especially if you’ve never had to deal with online harassment, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. I know Randi, Catherine and I want this panel out there, and it doesn’t have to be at SXSW, it could be at a variety of other places. And that’s sort of what we are focusing on now. We still have a really good idea, and it’s a design talk. That’s what I really want to stress. It wasn’t about Gamergate at all, it’s a design talk around how to design against harassment. I am a huge nerd around design solutions with real world capabilities and implications.

A: So what happened was threats were made against your panel even though it had nothing to do with Gamergate, and even though it had nothing to do with Gamergate, your panel was cancelled.

C: Yeah. Our panel was misconstrued, I think, in the greater system. I think our panel was misconstrued to be about Gamergate because of the members on the panel, but it’s actually a design talk. Randi runs a non-profit to help companies deal with harassment. Katherine [Cross] has a PhD in Sociology and studies social media and groupings in online games, people interacting in that space. And I’m a user-researcher that focuses on social media. Nothing in our panel was about Gamergate. Gamergate was going to be maybe on a slide, we hadn’t even gone that far to decide that yet, but this was not a panel about Gamergate.

A: So if SXSW were to rescind their decision, would you speak there, or would you not?

C: I think I would. I’d have to confer with my panelists. We originally submitted this to SXSW, but it also depends. It depends upon security, it depends upon security for other panelists that are not myself, this includes any of the other panels, the thousands that were submitted through Panel Picker. I think that security isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. I’m very open to talking to SXSW and I’m really, really open to having the talk there. It’s also a talk I want to have at other places, and it’s all about the right venue that fits our needs, but I’m open to a lot of different things right now.

A: Have you seen the media about people and companies pulling out because of this decision? Buzzfeed is what comes to mind immediately. What do you think about that?

C: I really appreciate the solidarity that not only people are showing, but also large scale companies. It’s also one of those things where it’s also like, you know, this also represents their brand. Does a brand want to be associated with a conference that cancels an anti-harassment panel because of harassment? Right?

A: [laughs] Oh, Caroline. I can’t believe this is happening. It makes me have a rage stroke.

C: Oh, girl. Girl, let me tell you about that. It’s hard—it’s hard to maintain grace under fire, you know?

A: Yea, you seem really even right now, which is amazing.

C: I think it’s the shock. I think the reason I’m so even and upbeat is that it’s been really awesome to get so much support from people and to hear that people are interested in the panel and what we wanted to cover. I mean, that makes me feel really warm and fuzzy.

A: Is there anything that our readers can do to support this panel and you and an open and honest dialogue about harassment in digital spaces? Is there anything that our readers can do right now?

C: Yeah! I would say yes. There’s a bunch of things that can be done. I think any time readers apply for a conference it’s always important to inquire about and look at the Code of Conduct and Safety and have an open dialogue about that. I think, at this point, I would recommend against tweeting at SXSW only because the person running that social media account has nothing to do with the decisions that are being made. Look into and submit panels of your own at conferences. If this is something you want to see, email people and let them know. Send requests. If there’s ever anything where there’s a call for what events you want to see, articulate that, but also articulate what kind of conference you want. As an attendee you have a lot more voice than you think. Maybe that includes mandatory safe spaces, or security, or a push for more diverse voices. These are things to think about outside of SXSW. I’m saying this mainly because at this point only one or two people at the bottom of the decision making tree are being really overwhelmed and there’s no reason to keep overwhelming them, but make it known what you want as a conference speaker and a conference attendee.

One of the things you can tell your readers to do is attend and support awesome conferences that support women and marginalized voices. So like, Facets Con, my conference, we’re really, really affordable and really focus on diversity and safety. I actually pinned to my Twitter, if you want to link to this, a whole storify account of different female makers and schools and publications and conferences to attend, and I’m going to keep adding to it every week, but it’s a long storify account of different things to look at. And I would say those are the places to talk about and champion and send your money and to yell about and be happy about, and then say why, you know? Say like “I had such a great time at Different Games. I like that it’s run by women and there’s gender neutral bathrooms there,” you know? It’s outlining those things and it’s really putting your dollar where your activism is.

A: I think that’s all the questions I’ve got for you, but is there anything that hasn’t been asked by me or by anyone that you really want to make known, you really want to get out there?

C: For sure. So here’s the thing. This was a design panel around how to design against harassment in digital spaces, this is not an anti-Gamergate panel. We were in no way calling for the other panel to be removed. All of our questions around security were about controlling rowdiness during a Q&A session, we didn’t want anything to get out of hand. And all of our emails were also about security that we wanted extended to the other panel [Save Point], if they wanted it. This was not about us saying that we have more security concerns. I’m concerned about Save Point going into a contentious space, as well as having people disrupt their panel, as well. And that contention was sort of created by SXSW and the situation, especially by marketing us as the anti-Gamergate panel and them as the Gamergate panel. But I mean, safety really needs to be a concern for everyone. We should all have a right to security.

I asked Caroline if she and her panelists were going to accept the offer to be a part of SXSW’s Harassment Summit, and she said they were on the fence. I asked what would have to change about the offer to convince them to accept it, and she responded: “Talks of security, where and how our panel will participate, and Save Point being moved back to its regularly scheduled programming in SXSW. It’s a journalism panel, put it where people who are seeking digital journalism will find it.” I clarified. You mean SXSW wants to include Save Point in an anti-harassment lineup? To which Caroline simply replied, “Yeah.”

You can read Caroline’s piece on this whole experience over at Slate. If you need some jokes to lighten the mood, Chris Kluwe (former NFL football player and previous hilarious anti-Gamergate commentator) has a piece on Medium.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. Caroline is far too gracious towards gamergate and save point, which shows she is a bigger person than I could ever be.

    As far as I’m concerned, even if Caroline’s panel was about gamergate, SXSW still should not have approved gamergate’s application. This “both sides of the argument” defense is so ridiculous, it’s not even funny. Gamergaters are a bunch of harassers hiding behind the stupidest of excuses in the history of excuses (“We’re doing it for the journalistic integrity in gaming” JESUS are you for real!!!) and you don’t put harassing assholes and their targets in the same room, this ain’t rocket science you stupid ffing morons! (and by you I mean SXSW. And gamergaters. And Donald Trump.)

    When you have to choose between people who threaten to rape people for stating their opinions and those who stand up to them, you choose the latter. It’s not that complicated. There is no grey area here.

    • agreed. Caroline’s doing an amazing job; SxSW has a lot of employee training and policy revising to do.

      The alt conferences sound excellent btw; thanks again and keep up the great work.

  2. I have so many feelings that I can’t even articulate right now, but this seems like it would have been a great panel. I hope that it can happen somewhere else, or that organizers of this event will get there heads twisted back on straight and realize their entirely problematic response to this harassment, and reinstate the panel with proper security measures. The wrong people are discouraged from speaking when rather than pushing back against harassment, people in positions of power stand aside silencing those who have been harassed in the process. This seems like a really great and interesting panel, it would be cool to see this at Guilford College; here we have a first year seminar called Creativity and Problems, and this panel reminded me of this class.

  3. Wow, this is insane, there is so much wrong with the whole situation, thanks for bringing it to our attention. Caroline’s responses come across so well, really strong and thoughtful, keeping the bigger picture in mind. Chris Kluwes piece is also brilliant, but in a way for me, the clarity of Caroline’s message reinforces her message far more. I’d love to read more about her panel’s work at some stage.

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