Caroline Sinders: Online Harrassment

PowerToFly Staff

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by Marie Elizabeth Oliver

When SXSW canceled her panel because of security concerns, Caroline Sinders found herself at the center of a nationwide controversy about online harassment and free speech. Major media outlets, such as BuzzFeed and Vox, spoke out on her behalf and issued public statements threatening to boycott the conference. Over the past six months, Caroline has continued to fight against inequality and share solutions to improve the way women are treated within online communities. PowerToFly caught up with Caroline ahead of her presentation at the Collision conference in New Orleans to talk about what it was like to be targeted by Gamergate, why she won't let harassment slow her down, and her advice for other women in tech.

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You went viral this past fall when your SXSW panel got canceled because of harassment. What was that experience like?

I had been writing and doing a lot of studies and user interviews around people affected by Gamergate and online harassment. I tweeted that I was working on a talk for SXSW. Two women I was twitter friends with asked me to do a panel with them. We came up with, "How Do You Use Design To Mitigate Harassment in Gaming Situations?" We were nervous about talking about it on social media because we were worried about getting trolled but we decided to just do it anyway.

Gamgergate started a campaign to downvote our panel. Our public voting was compromised, so SXSW said they wouldn't count the votes, and instead they relied on the integrity of what we discussed in our proposal. We were accepted to speak, and it was really exciting! A Gamergate panel was also accepted. Panelists from Gamergate were engaging in aggressive behavior online with my panelists. Gamergate was calling for actions against us and saying they were going to show up to our panel and demand answers.

I emailed SXSW because I was the organizer to have a quick talk about security. This should never be something women should have to justify. My security concerns weren't intense. I said I think we need a moderator, and we need crowd control. But then they canceled our panel and the Gamergate panel because of harassment. I felt like I was living in an Onion article: "Online Harassment Panel Gets Canceled Because Of Online Harassment"

I was especially concerned because last April, I had to file a police report because someone was harassing my family. My mother had a SWAT team sent to her house because of the online research I was doing. I'm excited my mom will be at Collision and is going to hear me talk. In the past whenever I would speak in the South, we'd have this awful conversation where she wanted to hear me speak, and I've said, "It's not safe for you to come." And she says, "Then why is it safe for you to go?"

SXSW ended up asking you to speak at an anti-harassment summit they organized in response to the controversy. How did that go?

We ended up working closely with SXSW to figure out our security concerns, and they created an online harassment summit around our panel being canceled. We had a lot of conversation back and forth about safety and what that would entail. I was pretty happy with how it ended up. I think it could have been better, but it's hard to complain. We were really far away from the conference. It was low attended, but a lot of important people came. I think we should have been in the main conference. I think that would have been better and stronger. I understand why they did it, but I don't think it would have been hard to implement the kind of security we requested.

You wrote in Slate: "Being a woman in tech is fraught with all kinds of complications, and speaking up against inequalities in technology and harassment leaves victims open to more harassment... I don't want the girls I mentor to enter a tech and games world that's like this." Can you speak a little more about how you personally overcome this struggle?

One of the ways I overcome it is I really, really don't like being told what to do. I was talking to my dad about SXSW, and he asked why I did this. He asked me, "Are you ever going to stop? Even if it hurts us, your family?" And I said, "No, even if it does, I don't want to live in a world where a woman can't say what she's thinking."

What I'm doing isn't that radical. I'm just a woman with an opinion trying to talk about inequality. I don't want to live in a world where women are afraid to have that kind of opinion. I don't want to make in that world. I don't want to exist in that world. I think it's important to highlight on paper that it's not that crazy. I'm not doing anything way out there. I'm talking about what it's like to be a woman in technology. I don't think any woman should be afraid to have that opinion. I can only control it in how I react. I don't think I could live with myself if I ever stopped talking about it.

What advice do you have for other women in tech, specifically those who feel intimidated to speak out about harassment or discrimination?

It's hard for me to have advice. I think people should do what they're comfortable with. If you're being harassed, that's horrible. You should know there is a community out there that cares about what you think and what you have to say. But I understand why you'd want to keep quiet. I have tons of talented friends who aren't vocal about it, and I think that's OK. I think every person needs to do what's right for them. It's a personal negotiation. There aren't any right answers, just what's right for you.

How did you get started in tech?

In my day job, I'm a UX designer and user researcher who works in machine learning. I grew up in New Orleans, went to high school in Houston and went to college in New York. New Orleans has it's own very distinct culture. I've always been interested in studying that. When I was studying photography in school, we talked a lot about the future of photography. This was right before Instagram. I've always been interested in the way in which technology changes the things we use and impacts the culture of creators.

I got my masters degree in interactive communications at NYU, where I studied under Clay Shirky. We studied human computer interaction, social media and fandom - how people organize online and create these online communities with their own cultures and languages.

I've spent the last two years studying online harassment inside of social media. I'm focusing on how online harassment exists and what it looks like. I look at it as a design flaw and not just a flaw of human beings. For example, how does the structure of twitter change the way people congregate online? How does that affect the kinds of things people do and how they talk to each other? I'm not as much concerned about the why as I am the how. I have a day job, but I call this work my 6-11.

Do you think the fact that Collision organizers gave away so many free tickets to women will have an impact on the culture of the conference?

I hope so. I think that's a great place to start. I think that's an awesome thing they did. The only thing I think they could do to improve on is helping cover people's travel and having free childcare. The tickets are great, but can people really afford to come and stay? If they're the primary caregiver, can they drop their kid off somewhere? It's not just a ticket involved in the cost. I know I've been invited to conferences where I can't afford to show up because I can't pay for my flight at that time. These aren't small things. Women are still paid less than men, it's still hard to get into technology as a woman. Women are often the primary caregivers. If someone's traveling here, who's gonna pay to watch their kids? I run a conference called FACETS, and I think next we're going to try to provide childcare.

What ideas are you currently pursuing for curbing harassment through technology?

How you use UX design to create semi-private spaces inside of twitter, for example, set certain content to "friends only" or content you can't reply to. Those privacy settings are really important to highlight. If you allow people to not just see everything, but to have the ability to set how open and acceptable they are... if you add privacy and toggle individual tweets, you would get more varied and nuanced settings. Privacy is what creates these really great hidden, friends-only networks, and that's what creates safer online communities.

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