The “Sex Work and the Web” plenary, April 25th. Photo courtesy of Aaron Thompson.

When the Theorizing the Web 2014 committee got together to construct an anti-harassment statement, I don’t think any of us thought that we’d actually have to enforce any of it. If you’re creating and maintaining a space like TtW, and nothing has actually happened before, it doesn’t seem like something that’s likely in the future, although intellectually you know it’s a possibility. You create something like this because it seems like an important statement, and because you want to protect your space and the people in it, and because you want to be welcoming. But like any contingency plan, it’s never something that you put together because you actually expect it will be imminently used.

Yet this April, pretty much out of the gate, ours was.

A lot has been said about the incident in question – at the time it happened and after – and I don’t want to rehash that here. I don’t think it’s useful, and I honestly don’t think it’s very interesting. Suffice to say that a conference attendee was behaving in a way that violated the principles of our conduct statement on the TtW Twitter hashtag, and in a way that made people feel harassed and unwelcome. They were asked to leave the physical space of the conference itself, which they did. That’s really all that needs to be said.

What I want to talk about, rather, is what it meant that it went down the way it did, and the logic on which we were operating. Because I think both are important, and both indicate some significant things regarding how we protect and maintain spaces that are digital every bit as much as they are physical.

Right from the start, we were basing our statement off of what other conferences like ours had done and had found successful. We wanted to make it clear that Theorizing the Web is a space that’s not only open to but actively welcoming of diversity, and that we recognize that diversity carries with it a social context of unequal power relations. Safe spaces must, by definition, take into account these systems of power. We constructed the statement as not only an expression of expectations, but a statement regarding the specific kind of space we wanted to create.

So what we did with the idea of “space” was significant. It was a small part of the statement. It was given its own line, but it might still have been easy to miss. But it ended up making all the difference in terms of how things unfolded.

In keeping with a central theme of Theorizing the Web, we also want to remind you that what is said online is just as “real” as what is said verbally.

This single sentence contains several implications and assumptions, one of the primary ones being that if the physical “space” of TtW is one that we want to construct and protect, the same is true of its digital “space”. One of the things about TtW that we all value – and that others seem to value as well – is its vibrant hashtag discussion. As we’ve cultivated the conference, we’ve tried to make that discussion an integral part of how the event works. That implies that we bear some responsibility for the protection of that discussion as well. In that statement, we were indicating that we were prepared to act to ensure that the space was safe and welcoming for everyone.

I’m not sure any of us really had any clear idea of what it would look like if we had to. I’m not sure anyone really could, short of knowing from experience. I’m saying none of this to put us forward as some kind of shining example of How To Do It; rather, I’m emphasizing how – although we were drawing guidance and inspiration from others – we were also to a very large degree making it up as we went.

Because sometimes that’s just what you do.

So what ended up happening was that someone was asked to leave a physical space on the basis of what they were doing on Twitter. Which – let’s face it – is strange, if for no other reason than I think few of us are at all accustomed to seeing it happen.

But let’s look more closely at the actual practicalities of what happened and how we did what we did.

We stated that we would act in defense of the hashtag. Somewhat to our own surprise, we ended up having to act in defense of the hashtag. But that action was purely symbolic. People seemed to feel that it was a powerful symbol, but it was just a symbol. Removing the person from the physical space had no practical impact on their ability to keep talking on the hashtag. They could have continued all they wanted, and the only recourse people would have had would be to block them or to stop using Twitter entirely. We may have acted in defense of the hashtag, but the fact remains that we couldn’t actually do anything to compel anyone to leave the hashtag.

So what happens in that case, where they don’t leave? What do we do? I don’t know. I think that’s an open question, and I think it’s one that eventually we’ll have to answer, because if there’s one thing I think we’ve learned it’s that things don’t happen right up until the point when they do.

It’s also worth noting that, adding to the complex interplay between physical and digital that was a fundamental part of the incident in question, the removal (“blocking”, even) of the person from the physical space was recorded and shared and discussed via social media. People saw it, and they talked about what they saw and how it made them feel and how it made them perceive the spaces they were in. The significance of that can be interpreted as an action with symbolic power that had feet solidly in both “spaces” – which were really a single space – from which this person was both physically and symbolically removed. The sheer complexity of all of this makes it even more important – and potentially more challenging – to consider our actions and their meanings carefully, on all levels.

One of the most difficult and potentially fraught parts of creating any kind of anti-harassment statement is dealing with the question of what you’ll do, as curators and maintainers of a space, if and when someone violates the principles of that statement. It can be easy to make a statement and incredibly hard to put it into fair practice – something that I’ve had sad occasion to see in the science fiction and fantasy community, where policy enforcement has been a problem at even well-respected cons. So we asked ourselves and we continue to ask ourselves: How do we do this? What do we do when it goes wrong? What are we able to do, and where do our abilities fall short? Can anything be done about that? How do we engage with the people we’re intending to protect and empower, and the people whose help we need?

This is our space – our space. Not in the sense of ownership but in the sense of responsibility and obligation. And it’s also our space in the sense of community, something that extends beyond any core group and into the hands of everyone who participates. Something that we all help to create. I think we’re still in the process of figuring out exactly what all of that entails.

This is a work in progress. It always will be. We need your feedback – and your assistance – in making this happen next year and in the years to come. We started this conversation at the end of April in a studio in Brooklyn with a statement and a few minutes on Twitter. Let’s not let it end there, with a pat on the back and a well, that worked out. We can’t say for sure that it did, or that it will. There’s more work to be done. Let’s get started.

Sarah curates and maintains their own (reasonably) welcoming space on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry