This is not the post I wanted to write. The post that I wanted to write, that I in fact have mostly written and would have posted days ago if not for this distraction, was about what a great success Golden Gate Ruby Conference was and how proud we are of putting on a top-notch conference that raised the bar in many ways. But I'm the person who is responsible for the technical program at the conference, and with the astounding level of distress over the presentation Matt Aimonetti gave at my conference, it's clear I need to do something.
First off, I want to apologize. The technical program at GoGaRuCo was my responsibility. I could have done a better job and prevented this from happening. Everyone had the best of intentions and there are good reasons why things happened the way they did, but that doesn't excuse the lapse. As a first-time conference organizer there was a lot that I had to learn as I went, and this is definitely an important lesson. I haven't yet figured out the best way to prevent this from happening again, but I'm determined to find a way to do better next time.
And to be clear, I don't think Matt's talk was appropriate for a professional conference. If an employee of Google or Apple or Microsoft gave that presentation at a company event, he likely would be fired. I know that many people found the talk informative, creative and entertaining, and I'm not arguing against that. But there were people who found the sexual imagery in the talk objectionable or felt alienated by the atmosphere it created, and that's not okay. I think there are ways a talk with that title could have been given that would have worked, but the talk that was delivered didn't.
The most commonly used word to describe people's negative reactions to Matt's talk that I've read in online discussions is "offended". From what I know, this is not accurate. I haven't spoken to any conference attendee who said they were offended by the talk. I've heard that people felt insulted, alienated, threatened or unwelcome. I don't know if that makes a difference to people's arguments, but I think it is a distinction that matters.
This all has been particularly frustrating to me because we specifically tried to make GoGaRuCo a conference that would be welcoming to women. I looked for women speakers for the program to make the conference more women-friendly, and was so pleased to get Jacqui Maher, who gave one of the highest rated talks of the conference. When we announced Jacqui was speaking, we had several women register right away. We also made arrangements so that a nursing mother had a private space to use her breast pump. Leah and I talked about the number of women who registered often, and did our best to talk to women and get them to attend. And I don't think doing any of what we did deserves any kind of special credit - I think it should be just part of what you do if you want a quality conference.
3% attendance by women may seem low (and it is), but compared to most other regional Ruby conferences we were way ahead. One of the other regional conf organizers said how he wished he could have more than 1% women at his conference. But after all that, we end up known as the conf with the sexist pr0n talk. Sigh.
There's no way I'm going to make this go away, defuse the issue, or correct all the wrong assumptions about what really happened and why. But it might help to know more about how this happened.
I've mentioned before that we tried an experiment putting together the program. Half the speakers were invited directly. I contacted people I knew could give a great talk, and asked them to do one for GoGaRuCo. Each of those conversations had some back-and-forth about the talk and what I wanted to see at the conference. There were no proposals for me to read or evaluate, so these conversations were important. Then there were talks that were selected by attendee voting. We asked for talk proposals, put the proposals up on a website, and registered attendees voted for the talks they wanted to see. Matt's talk was selected by this voting process. There was some amount of conversation I had with the selected presenters, but not as much as with the invited talks. After all, I had descriptions of the talks in the proposals so didn't feel I needed to do anything. I also wanted to respect the results of the voting process. The whole point was for there to be content accepted that I wouldn't have necessarily chosen myself.
Matt's original proposal did not include very much detail about the technical content of the talk. I worked with him to expand the proposal to include sufficient detail to include it in the set of proposals. As a sometime editor with some experience with professional detachment, I tried to keep out of the business of telling him what he should be proposing and focused on getting a proposal that would help voters make their choice. I could have refused to post the proposal, or told Matt to clean up the "pr0n" spin if he wanted to have it included, but I didn't consider that the actual talk would go over the line. To compound things, Matt has told me that the talks we had over grooming his proposal gave him the impression that I was approving doing a talk that included the porn theme. I had a long talk with Matt last night about this, and I can see how he would see our conversations as approval of the content of his talk. That doesn't mean I think Matt's talk was the right talk to give or let him off the hook for what he did, but if nothing else did, this makes my role in the matter clear. It also shows where I need to do better.
I have been to many conferences, spoken at a few, and been on program committees. I've never known any conference to pre-screen presentations or give speakers guidelines about what content is acceptable. We all assume people know what is appropriate and usually that's the case. There have certainly been inappropriate talks given before, and I expect there will continue to be so in the future. But we make the same decision over and over, to let speakers express themselves in their own way, and to use their creativity and passion to communicate in a way that is engaging. Usually that gives us good results. Sometimes it doesn't. I don't think that censoring presentations or imposing content guidelines would help much, if at all, and I don't think it would be worth the potential loss of creativity and quality. It's certainly worth looking at how to improve things, but there don't appear to be any easy answers.
People are getting really upset over this, and that's completely understandable. There has been a lot of anger and name calling and finger pointing and arguing in general. I've gotten angry myself too. But I think most people are coming at this with good intentions and are representing what they believe in. Maybe that's naive, I don't know. I do think that this has turned into an important conversation about women in our technical communities, and I have to hope that something good will come of it in the end.
I'm pretty overwhelmed by this issue and have spent way more time on it than I have to spare right now, but if there's something you to have to say to me, I want to hear it. I don't know how soon I'll be able to respond, but I'll do my best.
Update: I realize those without some previous knowledge of the Golden Gate Ruby Conference might not realize that the awesome Leah Silber was co-organizer of the conf with me. She did most of the heavy lifting on the logistics and stuff, but the technical program was my responsibility. Just wanted to make sure Leah gets the credit she deserves.