Theorizing the Web and conferences as technology

Theorizing the Web was an amazing conference: the organisers and volunteers did a great job of finding a diverse mix of speakers and putting together a well-run event with a minimal budget. As my voluminous notes suggest, I came away with a bunch of new ideas and information which I’m sure I’ll be processing for a while to come. I was also very impressed by the organisers’ commitment to making attendance economically accessible: this is far too rare for academic (and academic-ish) conferences.

I do want to reflect a bit, however, on some of the ways in which my experience of TtW contrasted with AdaCamp. I enjoyed both tremendously, and there were aspects of TtW that weren’t present at AdaCamp (including a very strong analysis of the relationship between capitalism and technology). AdaCamp also has a very different format (it’s an unconference requiring applications to participate, and with much smaller attendance) than TtW, so I don’t want to imply that every part of AdaCamp’s policies could, or should, be transferred to TtW. I’m sure, also, that there are important ways in which AdaCamp’s policies are incomplete.

I have to note that I’m speaking from my own experience, which comes with its own limitations. So, for example, microaggressions related to gender are much more visible to me than those related to race or accessibility issues. Similarly, if I’m more aware of the ways in which many spaces are unsafe for trans people, it’s because I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the work of trans activists to highlight these problems (often at significant personal cost): many cis people will not be aware of this work. So this discussion will be missing a bunch of stuff, because I’m still learning myself.

Discussions at Theorizing the Web paid a lot of attention to the politics of technology: what does it mean to think of algorithms as architecture that shape our experience of the Web in particular ways? What does it mean if key communications technologies are privately owned? How do particular design choices contribute to platforms being safe or unsafe? A conference is also a technology, though. So it is useful, and important, to be thinking about how the conference-as-technology shapes particular relationships and power structures.

This becomes especially important when an event is likely to be attended by people who are risk of harassment or abuse, either within the conference or from external threats. At the moment, that potentially includes anyone who is writing about feminism and the Internet. Two of the women on the h8 panel yesterday had experienced sustained and potentially life-threatening online abuse (which transferred to offline spaces). There’s also clear evidence that gg is paying attention to academia, as well as to feminist game developers and game critics.

Flore Allemandou, “Lanyards”

Dealing with this shouldn’t be left up to people who are at risk, it should be something that the whole community works at. It also shouldn’t require having to take the potentially-alienating step of opting out of a practice established as an event norm. The photo policy at each event is one example of this: at TtW the deal was basically, “you’re going to be photographed, your photograph will be used however people want to”, although presumably individual participants might have attempted to avoid being photographed, and speakers might start their talk by asking that the audience don’t photograph them. In contrast, at AdaCamp the lanyards used for name badges were colour-coded red (never photograph), yellow (ask before photographing), or green (go ahead!). This allowed participants to pick the option that most suited them without having to feel like they were making a fuss if they chose not to be photographed.

It also made a huge difference to me that these policies were reinforced by the organiser at AdaCamp. As well as reminders that it was okay to change your lanyard colour at any point, Skud stepped in to say that it wasn’t okay to approach yellow-lanyard people and say, “I’m going to take a photo, okay?” and assume that a lack of dissent meant consent. She also gave reminders about ableist language (suggesting alternatives), and about the scent policy. TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is an excellent first step, but as far as I could tell it wasn’t mentioned in the introduction to the event or followed up with reminders in-session.

Building better cultures around conferences and other events should not just be up to conference organisers and volunteers. Participants also need to step in and say something (when they feel safe doing so). But this is much easier to do if organisers have already helped to set up a culture in which there are clear expectations around behaviour (including language). It’s much easier to say, “please remember than in the opening session the organiser asked us to avoid that language” than, “I’m very uncomfortable with that language”.

There’s a tendency in some places to see codes of conduct and safer spaces policies as autocratic, a way of enforcing rules in a top-down way. In some ways a top-down approach is necessary for temporary spaces (in the same way that conference organisers choose speakers and create a program, or choose participants, or a location). But safer spaces policies aren’t usually created in isolation: they grow out of discussions, challenges, and praxis built by feminist and trans activists, PoC, accessibility advocates, and others.

There were a few policies that would be relatively simple to implement at TtW, and which would not put too much pressure on resources, including:

  • A clear photograph policy, including an easy way for people to signal that they don’t want to be photographed.
  • A request that participants write their pronouns on their namebadges.
  • A scent policy (I nearly left this out because my first response was, “oh, scents don’t bother me”, and then I realised how ridiculous that response was).
  • Opt-in options for sexual content that don’t require participants to avoid important talks or spaces: while the looping video featuring disembodied genitalia was an interesting addition to the conference, playing it next to the keynote (and somewhere visible from the street) made it hard to avoid. Marking it as an option in the program (and with signs in the physical space) and playing it somewhere easier to avoid would be more appropriate.
  • Announcements, including reminders if necessary, about key aspects of the anti-harassment policy.
  • Announcements, including reminders, about who to contact about problems (there were reminders about this online, which was great, but with the wifi issues not everyone was online during the conference).
  • [Edit: also clear policies and moderation in question sessions, which I discuss in more detail at the bottom of this post.]

There are also some steps which feel important to me but might require more resources to implement, including:

  • Childcare (because our activist and academic spaces should have room for parents).
  • Accessible spaces and pathways. (I’m not sure how, or whether, participants with mobility issues could reach the basement talks. [Edit: organisers have clarified that there was an elevator!])
  • Access to enough bathrooms, drinking water, and snacks. This might seem extravagant, but for participants with mobility issues, fatigue, or related issues, it can make a huge difference to have basic requirements easily available. (I did really like that the organisers reminded people repeatedly that those without mobility issues should help out by going across the street for bathrooms when possible.)

It is awkward to write about these things, or raise these issues in academic or activist spaces. It is awkward to feel like I’m making trouble and being a bother. But it feels important to me. Honestly, I have minimal ability to effect change around many of the issues discussed at the conference: it’s interesting to consider the impact of Facebook’s algorithms, to examine new legal frameworks for regulating online spaces, or to consider the role of crypto in activist work in the Middle East…but I have limited ability to do anything about those things. But the technologies and processes of academic conferences is an area where I do have some agency, and I hope this contribution comes in useful in thinking about what we want our academic spaces to look like.

5 thoughts on “Theorizing the Web and conferences as technology

  1. thanks so much for these thoughts! as the ttw chair, i’m forwarding them to the committee for discussion :)

    i dont know if we’ll internally all agree on everything, but very much agree that the harassment policy should have been mentioned in the verbal announcements. that’s our mistake, and we should have known better after having to bounce a person violating the policy last year.

    i think the most interesting discussion will be around what the photo policy should be, given that we are very much into making it a ‘public’ event, even with the tradeoffs that implies. but either way, you are right, for next year there should be a policy and it should be clear. that was probably the most consistent feedback we received all year

    also, just fyi, there was an elevator that people who couldnt use the stairs were using to go to the downstairs panels.

    1. Thank you for the response and clarification! All of the responses by organisers/volunteers have been very thoughtful, and I know the conference is still growing, so I’m very optimistic that you’ll develop policies that work well for TtW.

  2. Pingback: How to conference

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