Something happened at Webstock on Friday afternoon. We are devastated by it, and the hurt and anger it’s caused. It is the antithesis of everything we have ever wanted to do with, and for Webstock. It is the antithesis of every preceding talk on the stage this year, and of the spirit of the event as a whole.
Running an event, bringing people together is a privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. We know we have a responsibility and a duty of care to each and every single person at Webstock, and in that we failed. Webstock is a very personal venture – an extension of our values and really, of us as people. This failure feels deeply personal and we can’t begin to adequately express how sorry we are, as organisers and as human beings. We will carry this failing for a very, very long time.
This post outlines what happened; what we did and what we commit to doing in the future.
To begin his presentation, our last speaker of the day, Stefan Sagmeister recalled that last time he was in New Zealand he told a story about a manatee giving itself a blow job. This was inappropriate and a violation of our Code of Conduct. This was compounded by the repetition of the term for the act, with the intent of having the sign language interpreter on stage, Jenn, sign it. Stefan then continued with his talk.
This was completely disrespectful to Jenn in particular, and she left the auditorium shortly afterwards.
Jenn, we are so sorry. We are so sorry that this happened. It should not happen at Webstock and it should not happen anywhere, in any situation. It is an honour to have you at Webstock and we respect and value you, your team and your work immensely.
We would also like to unequivocally state that the behaviour of Stefan in this incident was wholly unacceptable. We are committed to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again in any environment over which we have any level of input or control.
What happened next
In terms of our response to it, immediately after the incident, we:
- spoke to one of Jenn’s colleagues
- sought out Jenn and expressed our apologies
- apologised via Twitter while Stefan was speaking
- apologised immediately on stage after he had finished his talk
- spoke to Stefan as soon as he stepped off stage to make him aware of the gravity of the situation.
We did not ask Stefan to stop speaking. We will debate whether that decision was the correct one for a long time to come.
The following day we communicated further with Jenn and Stefan. Stefan apologised publicly via this series of tweets:
And via instagram:
The public response
There has been an understandable and completely valid sense of anger and disgust in response to this incident, along with criticism of us and our handling of the situation. Please know your criticisms have been heard. We are disgusted and angered too, and much of that is directed inward.
We acknowledge and thank those in the audience who called out the unacceptable behaviour. We are all learning as we navigate this life, and by letting someone know that we’re not ok with a given situation, we as human beings signal that we care enough about each other to address issues that impact care, respect and cooperation in the future. To see so many people care is a sign that people believe in something better. It is a sign of optimism, and optimism is essential for progress and for more just, respectful, and safe environments. Compassion and empathy are essential for this too and we acknowledge and are thankful for the empathy and compassion displayed by so many people. We also want to specifically acknowledge and give thanks to Nat Dudley for this, and to Etainia for this. Thank you both so much for your wisdom and perspective from which we have learned so much.
The code of conduct
We acknowledge the criticism of our Code of Conduct. Our intention in the Code of Conduct was to highlight and encourage positive behaviours, rather than the negative. We acknowledge this approach may have been flawed. In light of the feedback we’ve received, we will be reviewing it, and seeking the advice of those we feel to be experts in this area to help us make our Code of Conduct better and stronger.
We acknowledge the criticism of our vetting and will be reviewing and refining each and every part of this process. We will make sure our speakers are better briefed in future. While we send copious communications, we know that these may not always be read in full, so we will make sure we include a detailed briefing session for any and all future events.
The experience is everything
The experience of those attending Webstock is something we sweat over. It means everything to us. We don’t get everything right – we know that. But please, never let it be said we don’t care, or we don’t try. We do. We pore over small details to try to act responsibly and to help people feel included and valued; catering for all dietary requirements, childcare, scholarships, minimising waste and the use of recyclable/repurposable conference materials, and a speaker line up that reflects some of the diversity of our industry and our world are paramount to us. And yet, we failed on something so fundamental. Making the space safe. This is something we are really struggling with, and for which we are so deeply, truly sorry.
This experience has highlighted many things. Including the impact our words can have. Stefan’s words had impact. All our words have impact. Whether spoken or written, in a book, in a blog, in a tweet, our words matter. We can think of little else right now: how something one person may think is innocuous and/or funny, can humiliate, hurt and harass one or many others. It has highlighted to us that we must not end up replicating the very behaviour that we are trying to change. If we’re talking about how important Codes of Conduct are, followed by an abusive comment directed at the speaker – or anyone for that matter – perhaps we are then violating the very standard of behaviour we’re seeking from others. Surely, if we want respect, we must seek to give it too. That is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t criticise or provide strongly worded feedback about behaviour that was unacceptable and intolerable. But the words we use matter. Our language is a reflection of ourselves and our values. Abuse is not the way to solve Code of Conduct violations.
It is an immense privilege to have the platform of a stage to share one’s words. It is an immense privilege to give others a platform to do so. And, as said earlier, with great privilege comes great responsibility. We know this. We have a responsibility to create spaces that are truly safe and inclusive, and we wear that responsibility more fully than ever before.
We have learned that we must rid ourselves of any complacency. We must act with greater care. We must care more, and be more compassionate, and we must hold ourselves accountable when we have failed. And when we know better we must share this knowledge with others so they can be better too. Such learning is essential for us to have a more positive impact, and a better future. Because surely, that is what we’re working towards.
This has been a very painful lesson. A serious mistake was made, many heartfelt apologies have been given, a great deal of self-reflection has been had, and will continue for a long time to come. We hope we can regain Jenn’s trust in us. And others’ trust we’ve lost too. We hope that real change in many people’s attitudes has come from this.
It is our hope that out of this, rather than tear down, we can instead lift up. We all win when we help each other do and be better.
In the words of our friend Nat Dudley, anger is easy; compassion in the face of it is so much more of a worthy challenge. We apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly again, and hope that from this we can move forward together, armed with a renewed and steadfast commitment to care, empathy and safety, and a greater understanding of the importance of our words, our actions and the consequences of them.