The cost of sharing and coordinating has dropped substantially in the last decade, allowing unorganized groups to work together quickly and effectively through shared awareness. New social tools and methods of communication help ordinary people organize groups and events with little effort or planning. Shirky (2008) argues that the documentation of information is directly connected with the rate of group organizing. He explains that social tools (like blogs) allow people to produce permanent, public documentation by publishing information online at relatively no cost. Shirky elaborates on this point, explaining that to “speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly” (p. 171).
In addition to promoting social awareness, public documentation also creates new possibilities for action and change: “Whenever you improve a group’s ability to communicate internally, you change the things it is capable of” (Shirky, 2011, p. 171). As a result, groups can have both a positive and negative social effect. Shirky explains that the distinction between real and online life is becoming increasingly blurred, changing how we exchange information and interact with one another. The internet provides a space for people to meet other like-minded individuals and form groups without the need for social approval. On the other hand, this freedom also extends to criminal and terrorist groups, making it easier for them communicate and organize. Shirky explains that social tools only amplify our existing capabilities and the receptiveness of a social tool depends on its value in comparison to existing practices.
This week’s reading made me think of a current news story involving the cancellation of two public discussions scheduled to take place at the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in March 2016, in Austin, Texas. According to the Washington Post, the SXSW festival is one of the largest technological conferences in the country. The cancellation of two panel discussions- one on gaming journalism integrity and the other on harassment in gaming- resulted from “numerous threats of on-site violence”. This occurred after the forums were linked to Gamergate, an online community known for harassing women (game developers, users, critics) involved in the gaming industry, using the hashtag Gamergate as a digital signature. Gamergate users have been accused of various acts of harassment including: posting misogynistic comments, publishing personal information (private phone numbers and addresses), as well as rape and death threats. The Washington Post describes the Gamergate controversy as “the undying culture war around diversity and inclusion in video games”. In a statement, SXSW event planners explained that to ensure the safety of attendees they felt they needed to cancel the discussions. The cancellation has created a lot of public backlash, especially because one of the forums was based on digital harassment.
One of the panel’s speakers, Caroline Sinders, gave copies of her communications with SXSW organizers to the Washington Post which highlight the neglect of the event organizers. Sinders claims that the Gamergate community is well-known for online harassment and that event planners ignored her request for security provisions prior to the event’s cancellation. She believes the events could have gone on as scheduled if planners acknowledged the social impact of digital harassment and the need for organizers to take these matters seriously. Rather than confront the very issues leading to the panel discussion, SXSW decided to avoid the conflict by cancelling the forums altogether.
I think this article illustrates how online groups can use social tools for destructive purposes. Do you think the SXSW planners were justified in cancelling the panel discussions? Is it possible to manage online harassment without sacrificing anonymity or user freedom?
Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. Penguin Books.