Fans, many on their smartphones, await the first screening of the SXSW Film conference at the Paramount Theater in Austin.

Fans, many on their smartphones, await the first screening of the SXSW Film conference at the Paramount Theater in Austin.

Julia Robinson/Special Contributor

AUSTIN - It's easy to mock SXSW Interactive, the ever-expanding tech spin-off of SX's comparatively old-fashioned film and music tentacles. Interactive brings out a particularly aggressive strain of street marketing; it's become an orgy of hipster/geek commerce that seems to run on cash, guile and energy drinks.

But Interactive, which kicked off Friday along with SXSW film, isn't just bells and whistles. In the parlance of the times, it also provides content. Case in point: a troubling and intriguing panel discussion Friday afternoon on the insidious rise in online harassment, sexual and otherwise.

The subject has grown in prominence the past several months. Last summer brought the Gamergate controversy, an organized campaign of online misogynist bile directed at women in the video game industry. More recently, retired Major League pitcher Curt Schilling identified and called out the twerps who harassed his young daughter Gabby on Twitter (and gained some new fans, including me, in the process).

Yes, social network platforms represent a communications revolution. They can also provide a shadowy refuge for vicious and anonymous cowards.

The worst Tweets aimed at Gabby Schilling are truly vile and difficult to read, but no more so then the Tweets directed at Anita Sarkeesian that were shown during Friday's panel. Sarkeesian runs Feminist Frequency, a Web series that critically explores the representations of women in pop culture narratives. Some of her online attackers threatened her with rape and murder.

As the panelists pointed out, such threats are illegal: in person, on the phone or online. But major social media companies including Facebook and Twitter (which was launched once upon a time at SXSW Interactive) have been slow to police their platforms and put the heat on offenders.

I credit SXSW Interactive for addressing some of the darker corners of the Internet culture it so aggressively promotes. Yes, social network platforms represent a communications revolution. They can also provide a shadowy refuge for vicious and anonymous cowards. All panaceas, it seems, come with a price.

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