Stories, Memes, and Fans: A Review of NerdCon: Stories 2015

I'll begin with a story.

Last year, in September 2014, I went to Portland, Oregon for XOXO, a conference and festival designed for people who make a living with the internet, either because they make the internet go in some way, or they use the tools and social structures the internet enables.  Silicon Valley folks, musicians, and... me.  (It was a lot more diverse than that sentence implies, but it's safe to say I was more the exception than the rule.)

It was only after I got to Portland and started focusing on the speaker's list for the conference portion that I realized that the speaker Hank Green was the Hank Green, that guy who's one-half of the Vlogbrothers, a founder of VidCon, and -- this is the important part -- somebody who my daughter, Miss Mary Mack, by now a teenager, is a huuuuuuuge fan of.  (She is an avid Nerdfighter, as some of Vlogbrothers' fans call themselves.)  In other words, if it had been my daughter there in Portland, and not me, the entire conference would have been leading up to Green's talk instead of his talk being an "oh!" moment, as it was for me.  (His talk, by the way, is really good.  I recommend it.)

Having said that, my daughter took the news that I saw Hank Green in stride.  Had I met Green in person, as Nick Disabato did, it's possible that her reaction would have been more along the lines of the author's teenaged nephew, who, after hearing that Disabato had casually chatted with Green in the food truck lines for a half hour, yelled at him in anger, "Hank Green was wasted on you!"

All of that -- hearing Green speak, my daughter's Nerdfighteria, the fact that I get myself to conferences I'm not entirely sure I'm the target market for -- helps to explain why I found myself in a large convention center ballroom in Minneapolis a couple weeks watching a squid answer questions.

 Rapid-fire question and answer with famous people and a squid at NerdCon: Stories

Rapid-fire question and answer with famous people and a squid at NerdCon: Stories

We were in Minneapolis for NerdCon: Stories, the first NerdCon from Green and the folks who put on VidCon in Anaheim every year.  VidCon is a huge affair, bringing nearly 20,000 fans to a convention center across the street from Disneyland to meet and maybe learn from the biggest names in online video, names that I, for the most part, would not recognize at all, but would be stunned to find out would have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans on YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, etc. etc.

In related news: I'm old.

But in late March, John Moe of the great radio program and podcast Wits noted that he was going to be participating in this thing called NerdCon: Stories, a conference which billed itself as a celebration of story-telling featuring authors, podcasters, musicians, and others.  The conference was being run by Hank Green's VidCon folks.  The conference would be held in Minneapolis, where I have many friends.  In other words, not only did this sound interesting, it also sounded like it had a much better chance than most first-year conferences of being well-attended, and even if it wasn't, we could visit friends.  It was actually doable... so we went ahead and did it.

I guess I should explain the squid.  The squid was -- and I hope I'm not revealing any secrets here -- a guy in a giant squid costume.  To be more specific, The Giant Squidstravaganza is the brainchild of Paul and Joe DeGeorge, who are also the folks behind Harry and the Potters (more on them anon).  The squid has a podcast -- the Cephalopodcastof course -- and why wouldn't he be answering rapid-fire questions about himself with the likes of Rainbow Rowell, the aforementioned John Moe, Mara Wilson, and Joseph Fink (Welcome to Night Vale)?  It could have gone over very poorly, but it (both the squid in particular and the panel in general) was, like much of the conference, very, very funny.

In looking back at the conference agenda, I realize just how dry it all sounds, how... conference-like.  Panels, mainstage things, breaks for meals.  "We will learn about the importance of stories and how to produce stories, and the technical components of making a living sharing stories..." [/boring teacher voice].  But in execution, the weekend was was way more of a festival or what a "con" might entail.  Of course, I've never attended a "con" before.

In related news: not only am I old, I don't play RPG games, rarely read fantasy or sci-fi, don't watch much TV, and am generally, it would appear after reading this, a stick-in-the-mud.

But do I enjoy watching authors and podcasters get into arguments that devolve into (exaggerated fisticuffs) over whether someone would rather fight against 100 duck-sized horses or one giant horse-sized duck.  Thank you, John Scalzi and Kevin B. Free (again, from Welcome to Night Vale among other things) for taking the absurdity of that particular debate to its logical conclusion -- headlocks.

 A spirited debate at NerdCon: Stories 2015

A spirited debate at NerdCon: Stories 2015

NerdCon: Stories was probably the funniest conference I've ever been to, and that includes not only the occasional day-job conferences (very dry) but also XOXO, Kindiefest, and even MaxFunCon, which is from a podcast network that features comedians.  I laughed a lot.  Not only that, the absurd nature of some of the discussions led to some amusing in-conference viral memes, like how an answer in a mainstage game of Superfight about the Illuminati, but made of guacamole, led to the creation of The Guacanati (and, of course, the accompanying Twitter account) and its own hand sign (two hands forming a triangular tortilla chip shape). 

I also thought quite a bit about stories and narratives and who tells those narratives and the importance of hearing those narratives from a wide range of perspectives.  Some of the panels were more focused than others, but I viewed the process of picking what panel to see when multiple panels were taking place akin to that of picking classes in college -- pick the professor (i.e., panelist) you want to hear, not the class title you think you want.  So while the topic of the challenges of adapting a work into another medium didn't interest me at all, the fact that John Green (Hank's brother, an author, perhaps you've heard of him?) was speaking on that panel very much did.

But as someone for whom "fandom" is not a particularly pleasant state of being, I felt somewhat at a remove from the guests.  I sympathized with author Patrick Rothfuss, who recounted a story of politely declining to take a selfie with a fan led to a somewhat dismissive public response on Twitter, without the fan knowing that Rothfuss was in the middle of trying to make funeral plans for a recently and suddenly deceased friend of his.  Believe me, as a Kindiefest guest, I get where Rothfuss was coming from -- even on the waaaaaay smaller scale of Kindiefest, I would get exhausted from talking to folks who wanted to talk to me about Kids Music Stuff when I would have been happier just talking about random things like the weather or the awesomeness of the taco truck down the street.  I can only imagine how taxing that must feel for Rothfuss let alone John Green, who didn't do a signing session.

Miss Mary Mack was all about trying to meet Hank Green (his two signing sessions filled up incredibly quickly in advance and she wasn't able to do so), while I sat to get books autographed by John Scalzi (for our hosts) and John Moe (because I really like his stuff), and aside from 10 seconds of chit-chat, that was all I needed.  But both of them are funny people -- I feel like if I spent time interacting with them that wasn't creator-fan but two middle-aged guys talking about something random, that would be more my speed.  It was those opportunities that I wished there'd been more of, because I'm used to those opportunities at the smaller conferences like those I mentioned above.  With well more than 2,000 fans in attendance at NerdCon, that probably wasn't going to happen.

So it was the youngster -- i.e., Miss Mary Mack -- who found herself in the middle of a circle of fans around Harry and the Potters as they finished up a party for the Harry Potter Alliance, singing the band's lovely singalong "The Weapon."  She was the one getting Nerdfighter pins, meeting fellow fans, getting us to go to a Nerdfighter meetup Sunday afternoon after the conference had ended.  I had a lovely time, but I hope for her it meant even more.

OK, some final comments in case there are any NerdCon folks (producers, attendees) who've read this far:

1) I wish there were more structured opportunities for attendees to interact with each other (and, to the extent possible, with the guests as well).  I kept watching the guests have fun interacting on stage and wishing there were similar opportunities for the attendees.  Now those interaction opportunities could be as simple as a game room, or an ongoing open-mike or storytelling session (they had those, but they were limited in time, and because the open-mike session was on the mainstage, it may have scared off some folks who might not have wanted to share their talents in front of hundreds of people).  But I think one of the great things about MaxFunCon is that there's little distinction between guests and attendees.  Obviously its size (less than 200) makes that possible.  XOXO is larger (close to 1,000) but by having a smaller conference and including a festival component that includes gaming and music, it provides more of those attendee interaction opportunities.  I'm not suggesting that there be a ton of public-facing performances for attendees.  I'm struck in reading Fangirl, a YA novel I picked up at NerdCon, written by guest Rainbow Rowell, how the impulse in writing fanfic (another thing I've never had any interest) can be primarily that of community, not of performance (let alone fame).

2) I wish there had been a closing session.  The last session Saturday night was a performance of "Too Might Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" performed by the Neo-Futurists (i.e., the folks behind Welcome to Night Vale), which was really enjoyable, but it was odd that a conference dedicated to the story didn't provide one of the most important things almost all good stories provide: closure.

3) I also had a small sense of confusion over what the conference was trying to be -- a conference, a "con," or a festival -- but its good humor and diverse guest list overcame that confusion.  Maybe rather than giving it a "Stories" focus, they could have called it NerdCon: Hank, or "HankCon," or "HankAndPatrickCon" (because Patrick Rothfuss was a major contributor in the planning of the weekend).  XOXO has always essentially been a weekend of the two Andys who are its founders indulging their own tech and culture whims, and it always seems to work out.  Hopefully they'll figure out what worked and tweak next year's event accordingly.

4) Mary Robinette Kowal should teach courses on how to run a good conference panel.  Her method -- take questions first, before the panel starts -- should be, well, mandatory for any conference that isn't taking questions solely via Twitter.  (OK, I hate to mandate anything.  But I loved that approach.)

If you're interested in other perspectives on the conference, I recommend John Scalzi's and Hank Green's comments.  Having said all this, I haven't said all I want to say, but it's time to wrap this up and press "publish" on this post.  I'd like to think that Hank Green wasn't wasted on me this time around.  I (and Miss Mary Mack) had a blast and look forward attending another NerdCon (Stories or otherwise) in the future.