SXSW, why i attended and marginalized populations

(updated 03/17/05)

OK, SXSW was awesome. I’m sure the Flickr photos show the amount of ridiculousness that went on. There was more. I could pretend to discuss the panels but, let’s be honest, i didn’t attend many. I did however miraculously make it to mine. I spent a lot of time talking with people, hearing people’s stories. I got to meet lots of bloggers i didn’t know, got to hear about what other people loved about certain technologies and learn about a few new ones.

Malcolm Gladwell made the entire trip worth it for me. OMG… to have a speaker who was able to speak to the issues of marginalization at a tech conference in a way that people listened by focusing on the experiments took my breath away. I hope at least a fraction of the packed room heard the implications of what he said, of what Blink says. Take his key example: orchestras thought that they were judging men and women equally and that women were just not as good. When they started putting up a curtain at the auditions, suddenly, the ratios changed. Drastically. We have biases in every interaction, unconsciously. And in order to level the playing field, we have to actively work to deal with those biases because we have to change the social structure in order to rid ourselves of the biases.

Speaking of which, i feel the need to address the why sxsw post by Liz and David’s why etech post. I chose to go to SXSW. I was actually part of the 5% who applied to etech, only my application was rejected because it wasn’t emerging. That’s fair. But as an academic, i can only go to conferences that i present at. I wasn’t even thinking about SXSW until Tantek approached me to speak on a panel there. At first, i hesitated at his puppy dog eyes. And then i started talking to the gals and realized that it would be a great opportunity to meet up with folks. And then when i saw the program, i got ecstatic to see that issues of identity and other risque topics were going to be actively dealt with, all in the topical structure of SXSW. And there were going to be diverse keynotes, not all of which were technically focused, but applicable to the tech crowd. This made me very very very excited.

David argues that the reason that Etech should be forgiven is because their applicant pool was dismally lacking diversity. I think he’s wrong. Of course it is dismal and not due to a lack of talent out there but due to social networks. Lots of people don’t even know that they can submit proposals. Almost all of the speakers at this year’s Etech were floating around Etech last year. They’re already part of the in-crowd. What percentage of Etech applicants attended Etech in a previous year? Given that a small number of women attend the conference, there’s going to be a poor representation in applicants. And there were even fewer people of color.

More importantly, marginalized populations often don’t think that their voice matters as much as the dominant voices. If we’re not part of the social network, we’re going to think that even less. I didn’t know you could apply to be at Etech until after i was invited to go – i never would’ve even considered applying. And i didn’t know how SXSW panels magically appeared until two days ago.

It’s socially and culturally not an equal playing field. You can’t build a meritocracy on top of that and one doesn’t exist. There are biases at every level. And if you want diversity, you need to actively go after it. Conference organizers – reach out to the women and people of color you know and ask them to brainstorm with you. Actively invite marginalized groups who you know are doing great stuff (or get your friends who are women, POC to do so). Make sure you have diversity on your board. Put together identity-driven BOFs. Invite diverse groups to the low-key events where they’re underrepresented so that they can meet and greet (because not all get-togethers are conferences). Do *NOT* expect them to come to you. When you do so, you perpetuate hegemonic forces – you become part of the problem. Meritocracy doesn’t emerge by just pretending it exists and without equal grounding, it is not possible.

Update: After a conversation last night, i wanted to clarify a few things. In conferences like SXSW and Etech, there’s no clear delineation of what is an acceptable topic or not (as opposed to say CHI). I mean – what is interactive or emerging? Additionally, the review panel consists of a very small number of people (all of who are pretty much guaranteed a slot). At CHI, there are hundreds and hundreds of blind reviewers. At SXSW and Etech, the metric is “interesting” – this is where we get ourselves into trouble. Interesting to whom? To the un-diverse review committee?

At CHI, everyone who is working in the field of HCI knows about it and gets to decide whether or not they appreciate the scope. Many of us in the margins grumble regularly, but still submit our work there. Not everyone working on emergent or interactive knows about Etech and SXSW. A few small percentage of people in each field go. Who goes is very very driven by social networks. Given the homophilous nature of social networks, the longer you go without diversifying, the less diverse it will get and you will have to work harder and more explicitly because you will not get random diverse applications when it’s seen as non-diverse. Thus, you have to be explicit to counter that process. People who apply to these conferences have mostly gone to it before or been recruited. If your audience is not diverse, you won’t have a diverse application pool.

One concern that was raised regards the % of women working in these fields. We’re not talking computer science – not everyone at Etech/SXSW is a CS person. We’re talking technology-related. And there are lots of folks who can inform emergent and interactive that aren’t CS folks, especially when you have huge tracks that are supposedly on social. I know so many women working in the social tech field – they just aren’t part of that network. Most of the social tech events that i go to and throw are more like 40/60 – just not the ones that are part of the “social software” network.

Additionally, i don’t believe that the % in the field is a good metric for a conference – i believe you have to surpass that through explicit effort in order to affect the field as a whole. Conferences are networking events and need to be treated as explicit social activities meant to diversify the field. I’d bet most people who attended Etech or SXSW came home with a lot more contacts and relationships, even if only built on beer. Those are people that we’ll all run into again, we might even work with simply because we had contact to personalities (not just resumes) at a conference. And if that group isn’t diverse, it will affect our work environment as well as our social and general professional.

This is why i’m so invested in this. I’m not an idiot – i know that i get invited to talk partially because i’m a woman. But i believe in opening up the tech field, i believe in diversifying it. And to do so requires more than motions towards meritocracy. If i can be a tool to aid in that activity, fine, but it also doesn’t have to be me. It just has to be someone.

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21 thoughts on “SXSW, why i attended and marginalized populations

  1. Shelley

    Well said, both you and Liz.

    I was also rejected, but I think I got the form letter. But I had to shake my head a bit when you talked about your talk being rejected as not ’emergent’ enough. Not because of your saying it, but because of the planners using this when they have sessions like the following, with Ben Trott:

    “In this hands-on overview, attendees will get a review of how weblog platforms have enabled new types of web services and open data formats, along with a look to where these services will lead. The session will describe the breadth of new connected services that developers can take advantage of using RSS, Atom, FOAF, TrackBack, authentication, and other technologies as building blocks.”

    These technologies are so old, their knees creak when they walk.

    What worries me more, though, is that this year it was almost as if the planners didn’t even care about diversity–or people’s reactions to lack of it. It was almost blatant, and instead of the standard O’Reilly 10% women attendance, we had 9%.

    It’s getting worse, not better.

  2. Jon Garfunkel

    Yes, Blink is fabulous, I cited it on my research on this. But you could also read into Gladwell’s vignette about the orchestra that blind auditions work best. So to do that on the web, we could suggest that people de-gender their blogs. That’s not saying that women need to write like men. But perhaps it’s arguing that the “folksy” aspected blogs may not be so important in the long run.

    I fully agree that we need to push conference organizers a little more. I’ve been pushing one of them for over a month now, and I was surprised at the blase response. I’ve got my theories, though.

  3. Jon Garfunkel

    Also I will update my piece with the reactions from you, Nancy, regarding SXSW.

    Shelley– yes, maybe they should be called submerging technologies though. I’m still looking to do research on conversations with folks. I remember that Shelley and I both wrote about what lies in conversation.

  4. Jay Allen

    Danah, just so you know, when I put together my panel for SxSW, Hugh made it very clear to me that I was to pick people who were not already on a panel and to include more women. This was a big initiative for him this year, unlike in years past. All in all, I think it really increased the diversity and somewhat dampened the echo chamber that has been prevalent in previous years.

    By the way, Shelley, while I agree that weblogs, syndication and the rest may be old in comparison to some other things on the internet today, there is a huge amount of completely unrealized potential in them. I’m guessing that it’s these emerging *uses* of the technologies that interested the eTech people.

  5. Pub Sociology


    I am soooo jealous of Lane and Chuck and danah, down in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest (SXSW) music/culture/technology/whatever conference. Especially since hearing that Sleater Kinney rocked out last night. Lane got close enough to take this…

  6. Many-to-Many

    why sxsw? part 2

    I also attended SXSW and not Etech and i wrote an extensive post about why and what needs to be done. In short, i believe that you can’t acquire diversity at SXSW or Etech simply through a CFP. These are…

  7. Foe

    danah, I find your social network take on this issue really compelling.

    Most of the women who presented at ETech last year – you, me, Liz, Jo, Priya, Molly… – don’t seem to even be in attendance this time round. This speaks volumes about the difficulties in keeping women engaged with that network, in addition to the effort required to include them in the first place.

    Now, I have to say that I had a really positive experience of ETech last year, and O’Reilly followed up by inviting me to eurofoo. And yet, I didn’t make it to eurofoo and haven’t returned to ETech this year. I have a pressing work deadline, and a tight conference budget (which I’ve decided to spend on Interaction Design and Children instead), but what else is going on here…?

  8. Ms. Jen

    Hi Danah,

    Ms. Jen here. I also enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s keynote and it has been the jump off point for 3 conversations for friends who have arrived for SXSW Music. In each of the discussions there was a least one woman who had read a book of his and one who had seen him speak and we all ended on the issue of marginalization.

    The funny thing is that each of these sets of women work with technology in some way or another and they come to SXSW Music each year and I have yet to convince any of them to come to Interactive. Some of it is the $$$ and the extra days off work, and more than a bit of it is that they don’t see their passions and work as intersecting the male dominated computer field.

    I will drag some of the crowd out next year if only by hook or crook.

    smiles, jen ;o)

  9. Marcela

    Huh, well I had never heard of etech until you mentioned it and don’t really know what SXSW’s about. I’m saving up my money for CHI and SFAA–I guess these are more diverse than the one’s you were talking about.

    Some of the conferences I ‘ve gone to are SHPE, Tapia Diversity in Computing, Grace Hopper–much more diverse crowd and probably some overlap in topics, though obviously not as specialized and guess pretty different social networks. Not much cross-pollination.

    In terms of marginalization and not feeling voice matters as much as dominant ones, it’s been a struggle but doesn’t feel like there’s much support for emerging voices that maybe aren’t quite as gregarious or confident. Grad school has been kind of a disappointing experience just because of the constant negative messages that my voice doesn’t count, but I guess maybe Toastmasters would be better preparation for learning how to be more articulate and present my ideas.

  10. Keith Jenkins

    Thanks for keeping this conversation alive on an intelligent and thoughtful level. This is not about name-calling and pointing fingers, its about making things better and more informative for everyone.

  11. Good Reputation Sleeping

    Keeping it Real

    apophenia: SXSW, why i attended and marginalized populations. Good Points, well stated: “It’s socially and culturally not an equal playing field. You can’t build a meritocracy on top of that and one doesn’t exist. There are biases at every level.

  12. Community Mobilization

    Marginalized Populations in the Circut

    After reading danah’s and Liz’s post about the equality in numbers in the blogospher / nerdosphere / speaking circuit I felt compelled to add a bit to the discussion.

  13. antipopper

    links for 2005-03-19

    atelierEUROPA: The Spaces of a Cultural Question An E-Mail Interview with Brian Holmes conducted by Marion von Osten (categories: brian-holmes labour work immaterial-labour multitudes) OTHER WORLDS: Social movements and the making of alternatives &#82…

  14. paul


    i can take a stab it from my (lack of) latin/greek/whatever, but i can’t find it in the dictionary.

    care to clarify?

  15. MKD

    Hey Z.,

    You should check this:

    & this:

    I usually like your posts on the problems about “boys” and the struggles of grrrls, but I always wonder…especially because of my work around the world, that this problem is really a problem of white American rich boys (and grrrls)…

    I think I am closer to Rebecca’s position: that its a really boring conversation in the end of the day. But I am apt to shift my opinion on this… (again…)

  16. zephoria

    I wanted to respond to Ping’s comments about exclusivity. First, i totally know where he’s coming from. I don’t agree with all that it takes to be relevant or at least by those metrics, i’d be a complete outsider as almost none of them represent me. Or maybe i’m just not interesting.

    The thing about conferences – all conferences – is that they have elements of exclusivity. The reason that i go to conferences (and the reason that many of my friends go) is to keep up with friends who we often only see once a year. I love CHI for this reason and it motivates me to publish there. I went to SIGGRAPH for three years after i stopped doing graphics because all of my friends went and there was no other time to go. The regular visitors of a conference get to know each other and they create an insider/outsider impression simply by having intimate relations with each other and being ecstatic to see each other.

    This doesn’t mean that these folks don’t want to meet new people, but i’d bet money that those of us who knew >100 people at the conference spent more time with folks we knew than folks we didn’t. I sure as hell did. That said, i was stoked to get to know new people and i am now hanging out with half a dozen new people in SF as a result of SXSW. And when i go to CHI next week, i will see my girls mostly but i’m sure i’ll get to know at least one new person.

    This is precisely why i’m motivated to diversify conferences early on in their iterations – once that dynamic starts where everyone knows everyone, it’s harder to break out of it, harder to diversify. I don’t believe it will ever be possible for a conference to rid itself of the appearance of exclusivity simply because too many people know each other and are sooo excited to see each other once again.

  17. fling93 loves fishies

    Gender Balance

    I noticed that my Audioscrobbler chart of my most frequently listened-to musical artists is remarkably gender-balanced. Six of the top twelve are women (Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Alanis Morissette, Dar Williams, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan), as are …

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