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« Folksonomies at Etech | Main | why sxsw? part 2 »

March 16, 2005

why sxsw?

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Posted by Liz Lawley

This year, two tech conferences directly related to social computing—SXSW and Etech—were scheduled so close together that many of us with an interest in these topics had to choose between the two. Clay and David and Ross are at ETech. danah and I were at SXSW.

Me & Molly @ Blogger PartyWhy did I choose SXSW? The biggest factor for me was the gender balance. Increasingly, I’m finding that I want to be in places where there are women I respect and enjoy to spend time with. It changes the nature of the conference experience for me. I feel more at ease, more relaxed, more like I belong.

This year’s Etech is perhaps the least diverse yet. Of the twenty featured speakers on the main page, one is a woman, and none are people of color.

At SXSW, in contrast, strong and wonderful women were everywhere. I don’t recall seeing a single all-male panel. When I hung out in the hotel bar, my companions were mostly women. When I went to the evening parties, everywhere I looked there were other women.

So Many Great Women at SXSWThree of my co-authors here on misbehaving—Gina Trapani, danah boyd, and Caterina Fake—were there. Fabulous women like Molly Steenson and Molly Holzschlag and MJ Kim and Cecily Walker Kidd and Adina Levin and Mary Hodder were there. Not all the faces were male. Not all of them were caucasian. The voices were rich and varied. The vibe was open and warm. There were more conversations than there were pontifications. (SXSW doesn’t call panel participants “speakers,” either, which I like. We’re panelists. A subtle distinction, but one that makes a difference.)

Many of the topics being covered at ETech are things I’m interested in. Ideally, I would have gone to both. But O’Reilly made a decision to move ETech up this year and place it in competition with SXSW—splitting the audience and forcing too many of us to have to make a choice. MJ at Gawker PartyFor me, conferences are far less about the presentations and far more about the people and the connections. And I chose SXSW because it offers me a far richer environment for those connections than ETech.

I’m reminded of a quote from Tom Melcher, formerly of, that I use often in presentations: “If you build a place that women love, the men will follow. The reverse is not true.” Perhaps more conference organizers need to take that line to heart.

(Update: David Weinberger posted about why he’s at ETech, and an interesting dicussion about the gender balance there is brewing in the comments of his post.)

(Update 2: Trolls will be disemvowelled. Keep it civil, please.)

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Eric Anderson on March 16, 2005 1:31 PM writes...

Disclosure: per the gentrified pronoun, I'm a white male.

Parallel conversation in the MSM:

Or, should I ask, is it parallel?

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2. Bud Gibson on March 16, 2005 3:45 PM writes...

I sort of wonder in these things. Does the market decide? I mean really. I too had to make the choice between SXSW and eTech, and while diversity was not an explicit consideration, SXSW just looked like it had more options. It appealed more to me, and I am a white male with some vested interest in making sure white males are not cut out just based on some arbitrary quota system.

I sometimes wonder when I read you and Dana (Boyd) what you think the solution is. I hear about a lot of problems (and actually agree with many), but I don't hear a lot of solutions.

It seems one possible solution is to just offer options. Competition is not bad. In this case, it worked out in many people's favor. Just because O'Reilly does it does not mean that you are forced into following their lead.

So what if O'Reilly just wants to offer a white guys only conference. If it's too much of an insider game (the essence of the white male complaint), only people who feel they are insiders will go. Given the power law distribution we see everywhere, that's likely to only be a few people.

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3. Liz Lawley on March 16, 2005 4:26 PM writes...

Well, for me, the solution recently has been to go to conferences where I know there will be women.

But there are other solutions, as well. There's been an interesting discussion brewing about this in the comments thread of one of David Weinberger's posts:

I like the idea of more blind reviewing of proposals, for example. But also would like to see conference organizers proactively reaching out to interesting, talented women (and there are plenty) to "seed" their conferences.

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4. Francois Lachance on March 16, 2005 4:42 PM writes...

Three years ago Shelley Powers suggested harnessing technology to diversify the voices on the program at the Emerging Technologies conference.


Have there been experiments with hybrid formats? Conferences that have both an online and in-person component?

I ask because some conference in the world of community development operate with break outs in small groups and report backs to plenaries. It is a form nicely suited to geographically distributed participants hooked up with on the spot participants. Yes, yes aka as "affinity groups"

I am only noting this to suggest that if the problem is also described as access to opportunities for networking alongside the description of the goal of achieving more gender balance in air play then ... who knows?

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5. Transom Dupresne on March 16, 2005 5:42 PM writes...

Strtgclly, f y wr ntrstd n hlpng crt gndr blnc, rthr thn slf-jstfyngly lmntng th lck f t, y shld hv ttndd tch. Mks sns, n? t lds n t sspct ths s bt "my prty ws mr fbls thn yr prty" rthr thn nythng sbstntv.

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6. Liz Lawley on March 16, 2005 6:01 PM writes...

I did attend ETech last year (and presented). And I had an invitation from one of the conference organizers to attend this year.

But I think Tim O'Reilly's decision to move ETech up this year so that it conflicted with SXSW was a really bad move, and it resulted in many women who might otherwise have gone to both instead choosing SXSW.

I was tempted to "disemvowel" your post because of the gratuitous "self-justifyingly" swipe. Try to stay civil, okay?

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7. Jason on March 16, 2005 8:06 PM writes...

I should be going to get some dinner before going to some of the music festival shows while I'm still here at SXSW but I had to respond to Transom's comment.

In the "Where are the Women of Web Design?" panel, Molly talked about a conversation she had with a young black man who was interested in web design and tech but never considered it as an option for him. He said, "I always thought that was just for people who looked like Bill Gates."

Strategy isn't really the point. The point is creating space in which people feel like a conference is for them. There were 14 black people at SXSW interactive this year. 14. I'd venture to say that is double who was here last year and probably more than double and one of the reasons many of them were there was because there was a panel featuring black people and that put the idea in there head, "this conference is also for me."

It is important to create space that people feel wanted. It is important, if the desire for everyone to be successful in your field matters to you, to consider why more women, more minorities, more whomever do or don't attend certain conferences and how to encourage that.

This is my first SXSW and I made more professional contacts, connections, and enhanced my career than I have in years. That's what a lot of conferences provide and if women or minorities aren't also in that mix, they are being limited.

This isn't about blaming or putting people at fault but increasing the awareness of how having all male speakers or all white faces at a conference might discourage women and minorities from attending, unintentionally.

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8. zephoria on March 16, 2005 10:23 PM writes...

Right on Jason!!

I strongly believe in active inclusion rather than simply saying that not that many people asked to be included. When you don't feel like you sit at the table, you don't think to ask. I never knew that one *could* apply to talk at Etech before Rael asked me to 2 years ago - i figured it was invite-only. I didn't even know that you could propose panels at SXSW until two days ago and i never would've thought to ask to be on one. Thankfully, Tantek recognized the importance of diverse voices. I would wage major money that marginalized populations think to ask far far less than the straight white guys.

Also, meritocratic approaches to these things is a nice ideal, but it's a fiction. We don't even realize that we have biases that we perpetuate. Etech is all about Emerging Technology - who's emerging technology? For whom? By whom? Breaking the cycle requires each level to actively include marginalized populations.

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9. Tristan DeSoto on March 16, 2005 11:52 PM writes...

"W dn't vn rliz tht w hv bss tht w prptt."

Ths s spclly tr f ppl wh blv thy r nbsd r crsdrs fghtng bs.

"t s mprtnt t crt spc tht ppl fl wntd."

Wll tht's tr f ll typs f rgnztns gd nd bd, pn nd clsd, nd bsltly mnnglss n cmprng Tch nd SXSW. n dmcrtc scl prctc, t's prbbly gd d t ncrg prtcptn n spcs whr n's slf r n's ds r nt nvrslly "dsrd" r whr y'r nt rlnt n flng cmfrtbl bcs thr r thr ppl rnd wh hppn lk lk y (s f tht ws rlbl wy f cnfrmng grmnt wth thm...). Thr's qt dffrnc btwn "cmfrt" nd mnngfl r prdctv nggmnt.

n ny cs, 'd b ntrstd n hrng mr bt th mprtnt dstnctn btwn "spkrs" nd "pnlsts". s t tht spkrs dn't pnl r pnlsts dn't spk? D spkrs spk n t tm whl pnlsts tlk vr ch thr? r s t cs f spntnty vrss prprd rmrks? Why s n bttr thn th thr? s n mprvsd cnvrstn nhrntly sprr t prprd lctr nd why?

f brkng th cycl rqrs ch lvl t ctvly ncld mrgnlzd ppltns, whr s th trch prgrm t ncld dwrvs, spstcs, th hmlss, schzs, nd thr vrd vcs, nd t wht pnt n ths ccphny d y sy t yrslf "w hv chvd qty!"?

r s t jst mttr f bstng tht my prty ws bttr thn yr prty - frm f ltsm rnclly ndrpnnd by prtnsns t nclsvnss?

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10. Shelley on March 17, 2005 12:18 AM writes...

Tristan, let's start with the 'marginalized folks' that make up 50% of the population, and go from there, okay?

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11. tristan desoto on March 17, 2005 12:38 AM writes...

xctly Shlly. Tht's th crcl pnt hr. Th vl f SXSW vr Tch s tht t s crnvl nd nt cnfrnc, nd ll mnnr f mrgnlsts r thr, whl sm prvlgd ltsts tr t rdfn t s th lks Clb n rvrs, whr thy cn fnd ppl wh lk nd thnk jst lk thmslvs bcs thy wrn't nvitd t th Gvrnr's Bll.

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12. Jason on March 17, 2005 3:22 AM writes...

Tristan, why not just say "diversity isn't important to me" and move on?

It's a valid point of view. I know many tech heads for which that is the case. They are only concerned with talking tech and it doesn't really matter for them who they are talking to or who they are not.

I'm on the opposite end of that spectrum. Who is in the room talking or not talking does matter particularly for those of us who are interested in social networking software, in the ways in which people use the net, and in design. It makes me a better web developer. It makes me a better content creator. And, as a manager of people, it makes me a better manager. My staff is all women. Talented women. I want them to be active participants in the larger web dev community because it makes my team better and I want them to prosper in our community.

And that goes equally for minorities in my staff, myself included. I also think it is important for those faces to be sprinkled throughout conferences, on tv as experts, in magazines as experts, etc. because role modeling is important in getting non-traditional techies to know they can succeed in the field.

I think all of us should want that but I understand that for some of us that seems like an extra burden and one that makes the difficult job of coordinating these events more difficult.

I, on the other hand, think that it is worth the extra effort.

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13. Tantek on March 17, 2005 4:22 AM writes...

Excellent write-up Liz. My additions:

It is my opinion (and personal experience) that when you include a more diverse set of viewpoints (which may or may not correlate with racial/ethnic/gender/etc. diversity, but often do), panels are greatly improved.

I encourage both conference and panel organizers to put serious effort into seeking out speakers and panelists who would intelligently and critically question the assumptions and biases of those doing the organizing. Again, both panels and the conference as a whole are greatly improved.

I've also noted an anecdotal inverse correlation between the number of big ego'd speakers/attendees throwing their (metaphorical) weight around and how much diverse viewpoints are valued/encouraged at conferences. This is not a comparison of any two conferences in particular, but more of a general statement drawing upon years of experiences with numerous conferences.

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14. Liz Lawley on March 17, 2005 8:54 AM writes...

[Transom and Tristan are apparently pseudonyms for the same troll, and I'm starting to use Theresa Nielsen-Hayden's advice in dealing with trolls.]

Jason, thanks for weighing in on this.

danah, a major factor for me in choosing SXSW over ETech this year was that Jay Allen asked me to moderate a panel. I hadn't proposed talks at either conference this year, and was leaning towards ETech because I'd been offered a free pass in. But being asked to speak trumps being allowed in the door. And there is most definitely a ripple effect, with people going to conference that feature voices that resonate with their experiences.

Somebody asked about the difference between "speakers" and "panels" (on David's thread, I think). At SXSW, panel topics are approved by the organizers, but individual participants are not. Panel organizers are free to invite whomever they'd like to be on their panels, which makes it easier to include new voices, and makes it more about the topics than about the names.

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15. Clay Shirky on March 17, 2005 10:08 AM writes...

I just caught up with this thread last night. Liz is right, and we need to do something to improve the gender balance.

After reading this post, I went downstairs and found Rael, and we talked about it for a while, and brainstormed some ways to fix the problem.

I don't think this is an issue of blind tests -- we accepted a higher percentage of proposals from women than men. The problem is, as Liz noted, one of recruiting -- we got so few proposals, that even with a higher acceptance rate, we had very few women presenting.

The macro problem, I think, is that the conference committee got inundated with responses to the CFP, which made us lazy -- we sorted from that pile, rather than asking ourselves the hard questions about representation.

Off the top of my head, I think we can try to write the CFP in ways that make a desire for inclusiveness explicit; distribute it in places where we know more women will see it; and recruit not just speakers but attendees.

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16. zephoria on March 17, 2005 3:23 PM writes...

Clay - i disagree. CFPs typically work for populations that know your conference intimately. Etech is already so undiverse that this isn't going to work. Secondly, women are less likely to try to enter a community that they don't know than men and they aren't going to think that they have a valid voice, especially to strangers. Third, proposals are still judged on "interesting" and interesting is based on the committee which means that it is heavily weighted by the folks that you know. Somehow, i suspect that all of you approved each other's proposals.

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17. Tristan DeSoto on March 17, 2005 9:04 PM writes...

ntrstng tchnq f slncng vcs tht ttr ncmfrtbl trths r pnns tht y cnsdr mrgnl r wld lk thrs t cnsdr mrgnlzd. Th trm "dsmvwlng," f crs, s symptmtc f rthr vscrl hstlty whch y cn fnd n rchc r cntmprry ccnts f "mny t mny" ntrctns tht hvn't yt bn grntd th pprvng glss f bng rprsnttv f lbrl/tch vngrd.

sggst y cnsr ths mssg nd clm tht t s nsty trll, rthr thn hmrs trfl tht t ts wrst cld cs ntllctl dscmfrt, r dlly, dvncmnt.

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18. Seb on March 18, 2005 4:01 PM writes...

The quote that struck me in danah's comment was that "interesting is based on the committee". Could we find good ways of extending the influence on what is considered interesting beyond core committees? Might that help?

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19. Joe Clark on March 19, 2005 3:04 PM writes...

I don't understand this cutesy but ineffective "disemvowelling" business at all. Try that in Canada and somebody could sue you for creating a derivative work and infringing on his or her moral rights.

Meanwhile, several panels I liveblogged were all-male. It was neither here nor there. The most technical panel I attended was three boys and three girls, which was also neither here nor there.

It of course could be viewed as ill-advised to focus on the sex of panelists when other factors could also be taken into account. In both my panels, I was the only queer person on stage, and I don't recall any people with disabilities presenting this year, aside from some blind people who announced recipients of the AIR Awards. Are we, and they, also neither here nor there?

Further, I am reliably told that Hugh Forrest asked everyone who had an idea for a panel to nominate women who could serve as panelists. He could confirm or deny that report.

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20. Patrick Corcoran on March 21, 2005 1:36 PM writes...

I thought ETech was great this year.

But I will be honest. More than once I looked around and said to myself (and any friends who were within earshot) "I'm kinda tired of pasty white guys who know it all".

I meant that in the kindest possible way.

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