Solving Problems with a Chair: Not Just for Wrestling Anymore

For 2021’s Toxic BBQ, I reached out to a number of organizers within the hacker community for stories and advice on staging your own event within an event. Sc0tland told me about an incident that stood out as a good pattern for how to deal with disruptive elements at community events. An issue at BSidesDFW 2021 and its aftermath reminded me of this, so I tracked down someone who was there for a first-person account, metlstorm, “theme/art-director/webs/MC” for Kiwicon itself.

metlstorm, organizer of Kiwicon, takes a shot and looks quizzically at the camera

Kiwicon was a hacker conference run 2007-2018 by a small group of friends that got together in the early 2000’s scene in New Zealand. Eleven cons in twelve years were marked by growth of the organizers as individuals and the scene as a whole. Looking back, they had a rocky start with aggressive themes: Kiwicon 1 artwork included Goatse, and the second rendition was “Kiwicon 2girls1cup”. As metlstorm put it, “We tried pretty hard over the years to get it right, and i think one of the overlooked bits of our story is that we are living proof that a bunch of not super socially adept nerds can learn to be reasonable human beings while also not losing any of the lulz or hacker flavour.” In 2018, they hung up their $color hats and handed the reins to a woman who leads their spiritual successor, Kawaiicon.

By the time I talked about the disruptive incident in the Toxic BBQ Zine, it was already in the hazy past of 2016. “One of the speakers was a lesbian...and someone in the audience started advertising a homophobic-slur wireless SSID directed specifically at her,” Metl recalled. While it wasn’t interfering with the talk directly, a friend in the audience sent a screenshot to the speaker’s partner who was standing to the side of the stage. “I saw her face drop, and she showed me and I was real mad.” They had other times where people were interfering with live demos, but nothing like this. How he reacted made all the difference. I’ll let him tell it:

“The speaker, in the middle of her talk with only a couple minutes to run, didn’t know, so I didn’t interrupt. I radioed my fellow con organisers…[normally,] if some shit went down we'd meet backstage and kibbitz on our response, but with this one we didn’t have time beyond me explaining to the radio net what had happened, and that I was going to deal with it.

“I was the one who had to go out there and say the words people were gonna tweet, or record or whatever, and set the tone and engineer the community. I had to bear that, and I knew that my fellow con organisers were on the same wavelength through many years of knowing each other, and that they'd have my back, whatever I did, and that they trusted me to get it right. So I just walked out there, and I went for authentic - which was mad.

“I said that it was entirely unacceptable, and that wasn't how this community – my house – worked, and whoever did it was gonna stand up and walk the fuck out of the auditorium while everyone watched, and that we were all gonna sit here and wait...big school teacher energy. When no one confessed, I leaned into it and got a chair from the side of the stage – a thing I have done in previous times when shit had gone down. People know when I bring a chair out on stage and sit down it’s real talk time.

“I made whomever it was sweat for a solid ten minutes of uncomfortable silence, but I was making a point. Of course no one fessed up, but sitting there knowing 2200 people think you're a piece of shit makes a clear statement about our expectations of the community.”

The auditorium for talks at Kiwicon X

Metl had dealt with hacker con problems over the years. They’d thrown out speakers and attendees alike. And those years of practice lead them to this personal and uncomfortable moment. For an organizer, being on the same wavelength as the rest of the team is the most important place you can be during the event. You can prepare in advance, write a Code of Conduct, role-play responses as a group.  And when trouble comes knocking, trusting in your team and their ability to handle individual incidents is of the utmost importance. The geography and distributed nature of a conference makes it impossible to consult every stakeholder, so empowering each person on your team is the only way. 

It is equally important to communicate outwards that you and your team can be trusted allies when problems arise. Here, a diverse team helps every attendee feel comfortable in finding the person they need when reporting an incident. “It probably helps that we have had a woman involved since day zero,” Metl related. Marginalized and under-represented groups have first hand experience with recognizing escalation, targeting, and generally shitty behavior.  Giving their members the levers of power as organizers will improve safety.

The responsibility of an organizer to be the face of the response to a difficult situation is awesome and terrible in equal parts. Word travels fast, especially in hyper-connected communities like ours. Volunteers that are not organizers should also be told to refer complex issues to the core and experienced crew specifically. Don’t make your weekend volunteers bear the brunt of the incident or become the face of your response. While you may feel pressured to let it all blow over, instead, strike while the iron is hot. Responding in the moment is not meant to be perfect. Focus on the people affected, and how the offenders can make it right to get the rest of the event back on track.

After the fact, fine-tune your message through public releases detailing the events, your response, and lessons learned. The incident is over, the imminent danger is passed, and the long-tail will help your community grow together. Update your CoC as needed.  Be public about why it precipitated, and what you are doing to prevent it from happening in the future. Train with new organizers and pass on these important lessons. With all this, realize that you may get taken advantage of eventually. As Metl put it, “There are no easy days in hacker con org land.” Kiwicon has had at least one antagonist blow something up that looked disingenuous after the fact.  But shitty people are shitty, and your response after you learn contradicting information can help you from being taken advantage of again without closing off avenues for resolution in the moment.

A selection of lanyards and badges for past Kiwicons, hanging vertically

Most importantly, understand your audience. Hackers are stereotyped as anti-social, trollish, and more than a little sweaty. But we can be the most selfless sharers of knowledge and expertise (or burgers and beer) in the right situation, and games are central to how we hone our craft. Understand the line between good-natured shenanigans and immature targeting. And take active steps to discourage unhealthy behavior without stifling creativity. While running Kiwicon, the core team of organizers, “Understood hackers and their lulz, and made sure they were not incompatible with being welcoming and nice.” He relates how they dealt with a toxic game popularized at one DEF CON:

“There's some stupid social engineering types that decided to prove their skillz by putting sticky notes on people. At Kiwicon we made it clear that consent was important and that you didn’t fuck with people or get in their space. One of the things we did was say that if you were going to pull shit like that, then I consented to being the target. If you're not willing to come at me... then sit down little man. So I was always the butt of the jokes, skits, and other comedy, and it just kinda set the vibe that you could have fun, and lulz and do funny shit, but that it wasn’t cool to do it to people who didn’t opt in. One year someone manufactured fake CISSP lapel pins, and there was a challenge to try and pin one on me. It was pretty funny - I figured something was up pretty quick.”

We have all heard about the horror stories of hacker lore from loud-mouths at Derbycon to Captain Crunch’s energy massages. Every conference and get together will have rough spots. But both metlstorm and Sc0tland had trouble recalling specific details after the fact. I could not find stories of deft handling and healthy fostering in the way I could readily find lurid details of something like pool2girl. DEF CON has made strides here, and their Transparency Report has become a model for publicizing responses and taking the conversation to your attendees. The BSidesDFW crew appears to have dealt with their own incident satisfactorily, and time will tell if the community takes it to heart. Talking about incidents in the moment and exploring them in public rather than hiding them away as anomalies is much more conducive to a healthy community. And it models good behavior for the up and coming organizers of tomorrow’s new hotness to build a healthy community from the very start.

Thanks to Kristina D.C. Hoeppner for the Kiwicon X pictures

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