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Proposal for a sane code of conduct for (tech) conferences

Context

Certain conferences have adapted a "Code of Conduct", all derived from the same text. e.g. http://jsconf.com/codeofconduct.html e.g. https://us.pycon.org/2013/about/code-of-conduct/

While I agree with the intent, I strongly object to the particularly wording, for the following reasons:

  • The only thing it's concerned with is harassment, setting a very negative tone. It suggests that unless warned, monitored and policed, many conference attendees will intimidate, insult, grope and stalk each other. It presumes the worst and treats exceptions as the norm. This does not match the actual experience of attendees at events.

  • It then goes on to equate harassment with being offended on every politically sensitive topic in the book. Yet offense is in the eye of the beholder. Two people can have a conversation and each think the other person said offensive things. Someone who is offended is not automatically being harassed, and assuming all offense is deliberate ignores the intent of the person causing it.

  • Without further clarification, 'sexual images in public spaces' and 'sexualized material' are considered unacceptable and lumped under harassment as well, regardless of context. This is prudish and short-sighted, forcibly equating harmless jokes a 12 year old might make with outright criminal conduct and crass objectification for monetary gain.

  • It focuses on punishment rather than resolution, threatening expulsion, police involvement and suggesting that a personal escort may be required in order to feel safe at a social gathering of likeminded people. Accused offenders are expected to shut up and comply.

Proposed Code of Conduct for Conferences

Summary

Be excellent to each other, keep calm and enjoy the ride.

  • We welcome and promote diversity in our speakers and attendees.
  • We encourage attendees to approach each other with an open mind and without prejudice.
  • We prefer face-to-face communication over social media backchannel talk and gossip.
  • We expect everyone to promote their ideas tastefully, appealing to everyone, not just the in-crowd.
  • But if the worst happens, find a staff member or organizer, and we will take your concerns very seriously.

Celebrate Diversity

[name of event] is an event where people come together to meet, share, listen and learn. We believe the best way to accomplish this is to value and promote diversity in our speakers and attendees. People of all shapes, colors, sizes, ages, genders, orientations, abilities and walks of life are welcome. We aim to select speakers on the merit of their ideas, not who they are. We do our best to make the conference accessible to everyone and welcome feedback and suggestions to achieve this.

At the same time, we realize diversity goes beyond ticking off all the United Colors of Benetton, and that equality of opportunity does not necessarily result in equality of outcome. Existing demographic trends in the community and industry will be reflected at the conference, and no-one should be considered less valuable simply because they are part of a perceived majority. Disabilities are not always visible, gender and sexual orientation are not binary, religious views can vary wildly under the same label, and nobody likes being lumped into categories.

It Takes Two To Tango

Human interaction is messy and communication is hard, and stepping outside one's comfort zone necessarily implies discomfort. Whether through a difference in perspective, past experiences, or because of cultural and language barriers, the possibility of misinterpretation is always there. Give fellow attendees the benefit of the doubt, and treat them like you would like to be treated. Understand that different cultures can have very different ideas on what is considered appropriate, and that not everyone is a fluent, native speaker.

If offense does occur, the best way to address this is between the parties involved. We encourage conference attendees to be receptive to personal criticism as well as speak their mind openly. However, we acknowledge that confrontation is not always the right answer, and are available to discuss incidents and help mediate disputes in private.

But Not Two-Thousand

Everyone feels the temptation to share, tweet and blog their experience, whether positive or negative. People on the outside will only receive a very narrow view of the event, colored by their own experiences, and just because someone attends a conference, doesn't mean they give up their right to privacy. Twitter is not an appropriate conflict resolution medium. Little is gained by inviting the masses to comment on a one-sided account, particularly when emotions are still running high. When in doubt, take a deep breath, put away that smartphone, and stick to face-to-face interaction.

That said, we encourage all attendees to share their experience after the conference is over and everyone's had a good night sleep in their own bed. Live-tweeting snippets or pictures out of context can be fun, but is ultimately more about the tweeter than the tweet.

High-School Is For Teenagers

Speakers and sponsors should keep in mind that they are acting in an official, highly visible capacity at the conference, and that their particular choices can send a strong signal to attendees. Talks and exhibits should be designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and in-jokes, memes and shallow appeal should be avoided. Booth babes and studs are not welcome, and costumes should display craftmanship first and foremost, not meat market potential.

We encourage first time attendees to set aside feelings of intimidation, and remind repeat attendees to make an effort to welcome newcomers. Empty chairs at tables are meant to be filled, and no-one should be eating alone at lunch.

That said, conferences often act as meeting places for friends who rarely see each other, and hence you can expect some minimum level of exhuberance and excitement to color the event, particularly at dinners or other social gatherings in the evening. Adults sometimes make off-color jokes, particularly between friends.

If Something Goes Wrong, We Will Fix It

If despite our best efforts the worst has happened, we will take matters seriously, including warnings and expulsion if deemed appropriate, after discussion with all parties involved. We will not hesitate to involve local law enforcement if outright harassement occurs.

If you feel harassed, remember that the vast majority of people at the conference are on your side, and that just because someone didn't speak out, doesn't mean they silently endorse what was said or done. It takes courage to stick out ones neck, and martyrdom is rarely pretty for anyone involved.

@remy

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commented Jun 3, 2013

I have a great deal of respect for you Steven, so I hope you take my feedback as objective.

The tl;dr of this all is - I think just the following could be added to the conference code of conducts to remove any doubt (or there abouts):

Two people can have a conversation and each think the other person said offensive things. Someone who is offended is not automatically being harassed, and assuming all offense is deliberate ignores the intent of the person causing it

The point being that being offended does not equate harassment. Indeed it can even change your world views sometimes.

On your proposal (like I said on twitter, I think it's useful for this kind of feedback to happen). I think the summary should keep your opener but only include the last bullet point, removing all others.

In general, it's incredibly wordy. Most people won't read a conference code of conduct, like they won't read a privacy or terms. It's also a code of conduct for the conference organisers, rather than the delegates - which is fine, but I'd clearly position it as that.

The exception is your last section (and probably one or two lines from before that point) - "If something goes wrong, we will fix it". With my organisers' hat on, the conference code of conduct is my promise to my delegates, my promise that they're in a safe environment - which is why I don't find too much value in the previous sections.

The most important thing for me during my conference is that each case (not that there has ever been any) will be handled case-by-case, because simply put: it's nearly never straight forward, and we'll listen to everyone involved.

I don't like to get too involved in these conversations, simply because it's very complicated and no one really agrees, but there it is.

@OscarGodson

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commented Jun 3, 2013

I, as well, have a lot of respect for you. This is a great write up, but it is very wordy. Even if everyone at a conference reads it I don't think this is going to change their behavior. It could be summed up to almost be "don't be a dick." The people who are not dicks don't need to be reminded to, for example "make an effort to welcome newcomers" or even more obvious "'sexual images in public spaces' and 'sexualized material' are considered unacceptable ".

These people are adults. If they're going to be a dick gists / rules like these aren't going to make them stop. If you're expecting to use this just as a way to point to something and have a reason to kick some people out, that makes sense, but generally I'm not sure if this will actually proactively change some socially oblivious attendee's behavior.

@niaccurshi

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commented Jun 3, 2013

Well, the question here is who's behaviour are you trying to change? I'd say the tone of this is to largely tell conference goers that if they feel offended, or further to that harassed, they should consider maybe if it's worth making a fuss, that maybe they're part (the whole?) of the problem, and that they should think about relaxing before they make a complaint.

I mean, sure, you'll deal with a complaint if you have to...the tone just suggests it will be a begrudging action dressed up as "Well, of course we'll deal with your complaint seriously", unfortunately it has a level of sincerity quite a few levels below that which will give someone who needs to feel confident in the organisers the courage they need to step up.

I agree with Remy :)

@KuraFire

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commented Jun 3, 2013

I made a bunch of edits to remove the victim-blaming language and make it more generally inclusive, here: https://gist.github.com/KuraFire/5701729

(direct diff of the two versions)

@jonathantneal

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commented Jun 4, 2013

On the subject of @KuraFire's inclusive edits. He has modified document to make it more inclusive as in less specific to particular events in recent history. For example, Twitter is only used as an example and not as a defined subject. His changes also make the document more inclusive in its description of conferences are more public and less private. For example, an omission was that "because someone attends a conference, doesn't mean they give up their right to privacy" and an addition was that "industry events are public workspaces". These changes are hardly extreme, but notable - the former example expands the original text, and the later changes its course.

I personally liked most of his changes, and I hope that many of them are brought in.

@JustPlainHigh

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commented Jun 10, 2013

I am a libertarian anarchist. Rules are for people too stupid to be let out in public (but who escape out into communal spaces anyway). I like Iain M. Banks' "The Culture" solution of assigning a "slap-bot" to people who can't behave themselves. Unfortunately, we are some way off in terms of technology. Which is a shame, really.

So instead, I would suggest:

  1. Absolutely no rules.
  2. If consensus amongst fellow conference goers is that [x] is a douchebag, [x] should be made to wear a sign that says "I am a douchebag and too stupid to be let out in public unsupervised". [x] will also be "supervised" by some suitably buff conference organiser - making sure [x] goes about their business in a reasonable fashion.

Stupid actions demand stupid repercussions. If you spend your life trying to come up with rules or statements to cover every eventuality of stupid human behaviour, you'd better believe in reincarnation because you're going to be a while.

  1. People who stood by and did nothing while stupidness was perpetrated (like in the case of harassment or bullying) will be made to wear signs that say, "I am a lily-livered chicken with no moral compass". They will have a helpful volunteer to go around with them and "supervise" the implementation of an acceptable moral code - like not allowing another human to be abused in their presence.

I am sure that many people will think my suggestion outrageous. Shrug. I guarantee that you will have to publically "slap-bot" only one person at any given conference. Thereafter the conference will be the most polite, friendly, helpful, all embracing, hug-fest of all time. Ever.

Now somebody reading this may also be outraged at the public trashing of someone's "image". Very simply, do not go somewhere and do something stupid. Then your "image" is safe. If you feel there is a chance of you doing something stupid, do not go. Your "image" is still safe.

In all my professional life, I have never needed to be told how to behave reasonably. When I've got severe PMS crankies (yeah, I said it) and am more likely to tell someone to "beep beep beep a stick beep up beep beep beebeeeeeep", you know what? I sit somewhere quiet and morosely eat chocolate until the urge to murder people subsides. This is reasonable and considerate behaviour.

If someone can't take the time needed for personal growth, why are we wasting our time trying to think of words that "might" persuade them to not act like douchebags? I would much rather spend my time making the world awesome with wonderful code. Or looking at other people's awesome code :).

So, in summary: No rules. If you piss people off you will be shamed in front of everyone (and probably on Twitter too). The end. The threat of public humiliation is a very powerful thing_. As soon as "punishment" is quiet and discreet (which it almost always is - *rolls eyes_), it is rendered ineffective.

Just something to think about.


*I am not saying the "victim" should be dragged into the limelight. But the "perpetrator" should not be afforded discretion.

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