When I went out on stage to introduce NerdCon: Stories to the world I said a true thing that I was a little afraid to admit…I didn’t yet know what it was going to be.
Like, I knew who we’d invited to do stuff on stage, I knew what the panels were, and what performances there would be, but I think a conference is just like any other platform: You don’t try to force people to use it the way you want them to, you create it and then you leave people alone to make of it what they will.
And so I really didn’t know what NerdCon: Stories (or the broader idea of NerdCon as a collection of celebrations of various enthusiasms) would be. And so I watched through cracks in doors, and from back stage, and inside audiences, and on my own panels and I basically just spied on the conference and here’s what I’ve figured out.
It was special for some of the reasons I anticipated, and for some other reasons that were a complete surprise to me.
- It was a chance to treat some nerds like the stars they are. VidCon featured guests, for the most part, already know they’re a big deal. But authors and podcasters and game creators…these people have huge impacts but for the most part they live pretty underground lives. I wanted to put them on stage and treat them like Brad Pitt…treat them like the massively influential nerds they are. This worked…it worked really well and I loved it.
- The diversity of kinds of creators built a vibe that was way more cool than I was expecting. Mostly authors hang out with authors at conferences. Radio producers all know each other. New York theater people are caught up in New York theater stuff and musicians are always aware of other musicians. But put all of those people into a bowl and shake it and I had no idea what cool things would pop out. Everyone was just so happy to get to hang out and perform with cool people who did things they didn’t really understand. I’ve heard people complain that the conference’s focus was too non-specific, but I think that broad cast (while certainly not letting us dive deep on talent in any particular vertical) let us dive maybe even deeper on the actual topics being discussed.
- The focus on fun was a kind of accident, but I can see now that I clearly did it on purpose. Like, I didn’t sit down and say, “The vibe of this conference should be irreverent and peculiar,” but I did ask a bunch of New York Times Best-Selling Authors if they’d like to play “What’s In My Mouth?” on stage. Both special guests and attendees caught on to this before I did, and almost immediately the reality that you silly and serious can go back to back seemed very natural.
- The attendees were just fantastic. So many great questions, so much respect, so much interest, so much enthusiasm. Everyone was there to have a FRIKKIN GOOD TIME and it was obvious. Some of the panels hit touchy, important, difficult topics, and everyone handled themselves so fantastically. I don’t know if it’s just Minneapolis people or if it was that the conference was a lot smaller than others I’ve been to or if it was just a crowd of people who clearly were up for whatever (having bought a ticket to a weird mysterious event) but they were all such cool people.
I’ve come out of this event energized and amazed. I honestly can’t believe we got so many fascinating awesome people to come to this thing. This is also the first conference I’ve ever done that didn’t sell out, so that’s something to consider. Maybe I really just made a conference for me and other people aren’t ever going to be super interested in it. And though it didn’t make any money, it didn’t lose a ton either, so I think we are absolutely going to do it again next year.
After all, VidCon lost a similar amount in year one.
And now I have a better idea of what I think NerdCon might be and want to immediately start planning on focused on science and possibly one focused on the core of Nerdfighteria. The thing that I thought when I decided NerdCon might be a thing has not changed…and that is that people love stuff, and that feeling of enjoying and celebrating something you really love with other people who really love it is so frikkin’ good.
I don’t think there are enough opportunities to do that, so I want to make that happen. So, look out for more NerdCons in the future.
NerdCon was so wonderful, and I feel so grateful that I got a chance to go. I’ve been working on putting together a post about it, which has been surprisingly hard because I can’t figure out how to do it justice – it was just this intangibly amazing and excitingly weird bubble in space and time, where I learned a lot and shared a lot and met awesome people and ended up thinking thoughts about creation and passion and community and narrative that literally changed my life.
A couple of impressions that stood out for me, while I brew the larger post (which will be mostly aimed at people who follow The Ling Space, the educational YouTube channel about linguistics that I’m part of, and which will therefore probably be less personal than this…):
– People Not Forgetting To Be Awesome. When I was waiting around for a signing, I saw John Green. He passed about two feet away from me, and there was this moment where the attendees who happened to be nearby just kind of looked at each other and wordlessly agreed: let’s not bother him because he probably has a thousand things to do and if it was me I would appreciate not being hounded by fans, however well-meaning they were. There was something about this moment that was reassuring and invigorating; it felt like more than just respecting the Code of Conduct, it felt like respecting each other, and it made me really happy. That mood of people making efforts moment-to-moment to be decent to each other really defined the mood of NerdCon: Stories for me.
– Unexpected Peers. So while waiting for the Welcome to Night Vale signing, I ended up in line next to a tenth-grader named Emily. When you haven’t been a teenager for a while, it can be really easy to make them two-dimensional in your head. The same goes for celebrities, too, or older people, or anyone who is different from you in some way you might deem fundamental. But NerdCon was a small place; it was a village, population 3000, and it was unexpectedly easy to just talk with the other villagers. I found myself having simple, candid conversations with creators I really admire, like Lev Grossman and Desiree Burch. Emily and I hung out for an hour and a half, talking about books and theatre and education and creativity, and although our life experience gave us different perspectives on things, there was nothing two-dimensional to it. I kind of wish we’d exchanged contact info, and I also wish that it didn’t seem kind of weird to make friends across generations. But mostly, I’m glad that NerdCon gave me the feeling that it was cool and accessible and enriching to just stop and talk with other humans about human stuff. The whole con, guests and attendees, felt like a community of peers.
– Guacanati. Stuff is born at conventions. Sometimes that stuff is a profoundly silly meme about Illuminati made out of guacamole. Sometimes that stuff is a new project, like my friend’s Book Talky Blog or the short story I started writing on the plane ride home. You put people together and shake it up and ideas just happen. I got this feeling a lot more here than I did at VidCon, and I think that the nebulous focus of NerdCon: Stories is partly responsible for that. It was an atmosphere in which anything might happen. In some ways, VidCon was for me a business trip. Moti and I were there to learn how to make better videos, to meet interesting people who we could share ideas with, and to promote our channel (and this is probably true to some extent to everyone who was in the Creator track). I loved VidCon, and I got out of it everything I went in for and more: it was an amazing opportunity for professional development, and I feel our videos really improved since then (thank you, everyone who gave us advice on sound quality!). NerdCon, though, was by its very nature a much more personal experience for me, so although I wholly intend to return to both VidCon and NerdCon next year, I’ll let you guess which one I’m more excited about on a personal level.