SXSW has become one of the largest events in creative technology and emerging media, offering networking events, workshops, panel sessions and keynotes to thousands of attendees each year in Austin, Texas. The advertising industry, music industry and tech industry pilgrim to Texas to rub shoulders, get inspired and cross-pollenate our industries with new knowledge shared freely in tons of panel discussions. It's the pre-Cannes warmup party, where the audience is still a majority from the US, but the reach is global.
This year, SavePoint - A Discussion on the Gaming Community was slated to be one of the panels. "The panel will focus heavily on discussions regarding the current social/political landscape in the gaming community, the journalistic integrity of gaming’s journalists, and the ever-changing gaming community, video game development, and their future." Those listed as panel hosts were journalist Lynn Walsh, Perry Jones from "the Open Gaming society", Mercedes Carrera, STEM educated activist, and Nick Robalik head of development at Pixel Metal games. I say "slated" in past tense as SXSW cancelled the Savepoint panel, and a panel called "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games". The Guardian's headline read: SXSW festival pulls pro- and anti-Gamergate panels after 'threats'. Then SXSW reinstated both panels, but now as one long day-panel on the topic of harassment - which isn't the topic that "Savepoint" was going to discuss. Adland caught up with Nick Robalik, whom we spoke to last year about Gamergate, to try and shine some light on what actually happened.
Dabitch: From what I gather, you were one of the panelists set to appear at the panel "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community", scheduled for SXSW. Then the panel was cancelled, as was "Level Up: Overcoming harassment in Games".
Nick Robalik : " Yes, that's correct. The panels were cancelled, then un-cancelled, and now some form of online harassment summit is being planned - which has absolutely nothing to do with the original topic of the #SavePoint panel. Let's just say "mistakes were made" in the handling of that, but things seem to be moving forward in a more reasonable fashion at this point in time. Sadly, the internet outrage machine spun up before providing time for rational decisions to be made by human beings who do more with their time than complain about things they don't like on the internet, and the pendulum is just now swinging back into the realm of sanity."
Dabitch: Was the "Savepoint" panel voted into SXSW via web vote?
Nick Robalik : " I was actually asked to join the panel as a replacement for another panelist who had to drop off, so I can't really say for sure. The general chatter seems to point to #SavePoint being included through a separate voting process, but I can't verify that. As the SXSW organization has said, public voting is not the only way for a panel to be approved for inclusion in their events. "
Dabitch: What was the original plan of discussion for "SavePoint"? How had you come to be a part of this panel?
Nick Robalik : "My understanding of the original plan for #SavePoint was to discuss the greater gaming culture - an international community that includes people from from all walks of life - and how it's been affected by false media narratives. This is why Lynn Walsh, an Emmy-winning reporter and president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), was on the panel. Mercedes Carrera, a community advocate, minority and a person with a STEM degree, was another. After another panelist dropped off, I joined as an independent game developer who, thanks to my marketing background, has ample experience dealing with the media and advertising industries and as someone who is a firm believer in standing with his audience. I'm also an SPJ member and a former university professor.
Basically, I was brought onboard because I've been outspoken about my interests: education and community. I am passionate about this topic because the gaming community has been so good to so many. I hate to see it constantly tarred and feathered in the media. Gamers are often so welcoming to such a diverse range of people. As a community, it provides an almost familial level of support to those among their ranks in need."
Dabitch: SXSW then reinstated the panels, now changing the topic to be a full day discussion on (online) harassment. How do you feel about this topic change? Will you be a part of this?
Nick Robalik : "This situation is still fluid, and so I wouldn't take anything as written in stone quite yet. The topic change is a clear attempt to shift a conversation about the gaming community into one focused on an overstated issue of online harassment. It is a highly disingenuous move spurred on by those who make money by stirring up false narratives to avoid the topics that gamers are actually interested in hearing about, plain and simple. I can't really blame SXSW for the position it finds itself in - they're stuck dealing with unreasonable people who want to avoid public discourse at any cost."
Dabitch: How were you informed about the cancellation of the "Savepoint" panel?
Nick Robalik : "To be clear, the #SavePoint panel was never really cancelled, though its topic was slightly changed to fit into the new "online harassment" track that SXSW announced last week. With March still a few months away, I wouldn't be surprised if the point of the panel in the discussion shifts again. As for how I found out about the topic change, the same way as everyone else: the press release on the topic. I think SXSW didn't expect the spin up of clickbait media so quickly, and has had their hands full dealing with people who don't want to see a productive discussion take place for one reason or another."
Dabitch: Were you invited or consulted about the all day harassment panel?
Nick Robalik : "I wasn't consulted about the new panel. I don't believe many people outside of SXSW were. Certainly no one who was on the #SavePoint panel. As far as my participation, I do expect to be there to participate in whatever form the #SavePoint panel takes."
Less illuminating than I had hoped, though one thing is still abundantly clear. Any time anyone mentions "Gamergate", threats will follow. Earlier this year when the society of professional journalists had a panel discussion on ethics, they received bomb threats and had to evacuate the Koubek Center. Michael Koretzky, who arranged the event, had received threats leading up to the conference, and hired extra security to sweep the buildings the days before. Koretzky had no intention of cancelling. It wasn't until after lunch, when the security could be seen as breached (as many people had entered Koubek Center), and calls placed to Miami News and Miami PD stating an exact time a bomb would go off, that the buildings were evacuated. For the record, there were no bombs found in the Koubek Center.
So, once again a panel discussion that to some is seen as "pro gamergate", is cancelled due to threats. Panellist Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning investigative journalist, going to SXSW specifically to talk about journalism, yet dozens of media outlets have portrayed the "Savepoint" panel as a pro-gamergate panel. At the same time, they'll state that the panels were cancelled due to threats made by Gamergate, though I fail to see the logic in one group cancelling their own panel.
Last year I agreed with Adage that advertisers needed to pull out and stay away from the parties engaged in #Gamergate, including anything Gawker, to stay away from the corrosive ink that is being associated with the big internet boogeyman, and don't be fooled this matters to advertisers. The problem is, going anywhere near it will have you brandished, like our Twitter account and other journalists', which has been blacklisted thanks to a blocklist created by Randi Harper, who ironically was on the "Level Up" anti-harassment panel scheduled for SXSW. Failing to understand that the usefulness of twitter for news organisations, journalists & yes, brands, lies in their ability to see their audience, as well as for the audience to see them, Randi declares us an 'autofollowback' style account and scoffs at our concerns.
— Randi Lee Harper (@randileeharper) July 25, 2015
The magic words "death threats" appear in her tweet, which is the smear that will never come off, so it is wise for any brand to stay as far away from this as possible - lest you too end up on a blocklist and lose the ability to communicate with 4800 twitter colleagues in one fell swoop like we did when a large group of people, including journalists, used a poorly programmed tool advertised as a saviour to clean up their twitter. One can not fault SXSW for deciding to cancel the panels that drew all the negative attention, as they have a large events security to handle and need to separate the signal from the noise. One can fault the current state of journalism for allowing internet trolling to become such a huge issue, that journalists can not even discuss the topic anymore. The default stance of journalists pressed for time - we all are - covering #Gamergate is to go with what the majority are saying: it's a harassment group. They'll regurgitate what's already been written in other articles, or the wikipedia which we all know can be used to plant the narrative you want, and the bogeyman grows from there, like a snowball rolling downhill. Journalists are mislead by trolls such as the GNAA, or sarcastic internet comedians like Jace Connors, or just your random attention-seeker.
This phenomena is not a new one, but it's grown exceptionally with the dawn of Twitter being used as a journalists main tool. When journalists quote tweets made by a twenty something lesbian woman, who later turns out to be a thirty something black man, it's little wonder they wish to step away from the topic at large. The lesson really should be step away from twitter, which has turned into a weird scene of ambulance chasing for trigger keywords and trolls. Lots of trolls distracting the discussions for the lulz.