It’s the worst nightmare of many conference organisers. You pour love and sweat and tears into organising an event, put in place a Code of Conduct, try your best to communicate what that means to your community, but someone screws up, and people are hurt. People you tried so hard to protect and look after.
Exactly that happened this year at Webstock, an event crafted with so much love by the team behind it.
Let’s break down what happened, though.
The final speaker of the day started their talk with a reference to their previous visit to New Zealand, where they’d spoken about manatees giving blow jobs. Webstock has sign language interpreters, and the interpreter signed this. The audience laughed. The speaker played off this, repeating it several times in a quick succession, causing more audience laughter from many, and the sign language interpreter to look increasingly uncomfortable. The speaker moved on to the body of their talk. The duration of this was less than 30s.
The remainder of their talk had many things I personally disliked, but that I don’t consider CoC violations (including going well over time).
Several people left the auditorium in protest. Several more raised concerns via social media channels. There was no vocal feedback to the speaker.
During the talk, the organisers apologised via social media channels, acknowledging the incident. Immediately following the speaker's talk, the organisers issued an apology to their entire room for the breach of the code of conduct. They spoke to the interpreter, making sure they were OK and apologised. They also directly (and privately) addressed the speaker, explaining the breach and why people were upset. The speaker was not present at the remaining conference events (at that point, only the after party remained).
Many people on Twitter who were not present at the event came out of the woodwork to assert the breach should’ve been handled differently. These are my personal opinions only, but here’s my feeling about them:
The incident, lasting less than 30s, was the only breach during the talk. Organisers have to make a call about whether the incident requires completely stopping the talk, interrupting, pulling slides off etc. In this incident, the team chose to closely monitor the talk for further breaches, and address immediately following the talk, both directly and to the entire conference audience.
This will always be a judgment call, but I believe their response was appropriate in this instance for a single incident. During the short incident, there was no obvious/at scale audience feedback to the speaker that their actions were inappropriate (something for the audience to reflect on).
Side note: At Kiwicon, like at Webstock, the breach was addressed immediately following the talk. It’s also not helpful to try and pit organisers against one another — each incident is different.
It’s a mistake to assume that because the nuclear option (stopping the entire conference) was not chosen that there was no response plan and that the team were not monitoring and handling the situation. It’s particularly not helpful to assume this if you were not there.
The incident was addressed in multiple ways and the speaker was not present at further events.
The Webstock code of conduct, whilst in Webstock-y language, covers all the parts outlined by Ashe Dryden in her requirements for a Code of Conduct
It’s derived from the Geek Feminism Code of Conduct, with inspiration from the Kiwicon one (also derived from the same).
Additionally, it addressed contempt culture as well as harassment.
This is a hard one. In an ideal world, of course, you wouldn’t book a speaker who breached your code of conduct. But the reality is that we don’t keep a master list of speakers who’ve breached codes of conduct beyond the Geek Feminism one, where nothing appears.
Your whisper network is not global.
In response to the incident, several people on Twitter mentioned this had been done before, but it took some digging to find writing or information about this (and I mean specifically Googling the speaker’s name and sign language). Unless you were warned or specifically went looking for that exact incident type, there was no clear way to know this. Researching the speaker online surfaced many, many glowing reviews.
Here’s where it gets interesting because I think this is where we, as an industry, have to own some things.
I found two write-ups mentioning similar behaviour:
Both describe a similar incident with a sign language interpreter. Interestingly, both dismiss it as anything serious, putting it down to quirkiness or stating that it is funny. Whilst it does not in any way excuse their actions, the speaker has received years of reinforcement from our communities that we find this acceptable behaviour. I could not find a single reference that any conference organiser had addressed this behaviour with the speaker previously, or that any audience had rejected this behaviour previously.
This is how culture shifts work - what we are prepared to accept and call out changes over time as our community values shift more towards inclusiveness and empathy and we raise our standards for the what we’re prepared to challenge or ignore.
To use what Jared Spool so aptly described in his talk, this creates a situation where the speaker was, I believe, unconsciously incompetent: They weren’t aware that their behaviour was considered unacceptable. I reiterate that this doesn’t make it OK at all and the interpreter should never have had to deal with this. In an ideal world, we’d all know everything that was unacceptable, but this is the real world and we all have to learn from somewhere, and that place is normally making mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are our own, and sometimes they are ones other people make.
I think there needs to be a separate discussion about how we handle restorative justice within our own communities. We need to talk about supporting victims of harassment and breaches, but also how learning happens. If we don’t give people a chance to improve, they never will.
Personally, I hope the speaker is reflecting on the incident. I’m sure they are sitting with a lot of discomfort right now. Being consciously incompetent is not a pleasant experience, but it’s vital to unpacking our problematic actions. I hope the speaker will apologise and address it publicly, both because it would enable apologies for the earlier linked incidents (which I hope they realise were similarly inappropriate) and because incidents like this can and should be learned from. It should be a cautionary tale to other speakers (and other audiences against laughing). It should be a chance for the speaker to leverage their network and privilege to ensure that others don’t do the same.
As someone in the audience, I think the team handled it appropriately. Remember that incident response is likely not yet over.
I think many people, including a lot of the audience and me, are doing some soul-searching over their personal response. Over their ability to either recognise the incident in real-time, or in how they responded. I wish I'd not allowed my reluctance to get out of the centre of a row to prevent me from walking out. And I honestly wish I'd been less harsh on the speaker publicly, and had been able to find some empathy in that moment for everything that had led to that point. (I don't regret speaking up at all, because supporting victims will always be the most important thing).
For me, it was a small dull spot in the delightful shining constellation that was Webstock this year. The conference was, in every other aspect, a delight and a pleasure to attend, and nobody I spoke to felt any differently.