Editor’s note: I have contacted both O’Reilly Media and OsCon for a statement on the topic below and up to this writing I have received no response except that it was forwarded to a different email contact at OsCon. If I do receive a response we will update this piece.
OsCon, a convention for open source software and technology development, marketing, and discussion, was most recently held July 20-24th 2015 in Portland, Oregon. During the event users on social media began to express concern over one of the speakers at the convention. People were questioned why the speaker, Randi Harper, doing a talk on harassment tools may not be the best choice as there are allegations she has participated in online harassment herself. I have not experienced this, nor researched it enough to comment on whether there is anything more to the allegations, but OsCon’s response was quick and widespread.
Rather than address consumer’s concerns the PR Rep for OsCon, Joshua Simmons, and the OsCon Twitter account itself started using one of the autoblocker tools out there, allegedly the GGAutoblocker created by Harper herself. Due to the nature of this blocking tool, which indiscriminately blocks simply based on a core group of 5-6 individual twitter accounts, blocking everyone who follows them, many developers, programmers, designers, and people who had never tweeted at OsCon found themselves blocked by both accounts. This left people who were otherwise unaware of the events, but still customers of O’Reilly Media, wondering why they were suddenly unable to follow the convention account, and asking more questions. This is particularly troubling because most of the people addressing their concerns about the event and its speaker were doing exactly as requested on OsCon’s Contact page.
Keep in mind, people were not blocked for trolling, harassment, or breaking any sort of code of conduct. It was a blanket block that shut out an estimated 10,000+ users simply because of who they follow in Twitter.
So why is this important enough to get space on this webzine? For one, the founder, Tim O’Reilly is a huge name in Silicon valley and featured in countless articles across the spectrum of computer science. The company produces one of the largest lines of software books on the market. If you’ve ever shopped for a book on any computer science topic, chances are you’ve seen quite a few with their name on it. OsCon itself is listed as one of the 10 conferences to attend by TechCrunch, as well as being on quite a few other lists of best of, top 10 and top 50 conferences on multiple websites. That’s not to say OsCon is without its share of criticism from the developer community, but it is still considered a big deal. With over 4,000 attendees this year, it makes for a fairly good size software conference I’d say.
Open source development is modeled on the idea that open, collaborative communication creates a more diverse product and allows developers from a wide variety of spheres, regions, and schools of thought to bring their ideas to the table. The entire premise hinges on the sharing of ideas, open communication, and cooperation. It begs the question, how devoted to open source OsCon must be if they block countless developers, programmers, and designers because someone else asked questions and posed concerns about a speaker.
After the convention was over Joshua unblocked all the users on his Twitter and the OsCon Twitter account, but by then the damage was done. Customers had already expressed refusal to purchase any more products from O’Reilly Media, and developers were questioning whether the company is more concerned about politics than computer science. Is this the future of conventions, promoting an idea of an open and diverse community, whether it be software developers or fandoms, but really only accepting of ideas that fall in line with a specific ideology?