My Thoughts on Nerdcon:Stories

I attended Nerdcon:Stories as a featured guest this last weekend, and let me tell you why I think it was one of the best conventions I’ve been to in a while.

1. It was shockingly well-run, especially for a first-time convention. From my point of view as a guest, everything went off almost without a hitch, and when I did have a hitch (my family’s badges went missing), it was resolved in roughly a minute and a half, without any sort of fuss. The backstage areas were tightly and professionally run, Nerdcon staff were on top of things to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, and the guests were provided places, during convention hours and outside of them, to relax and hang out with each other. It ran more smoothly than nearly any other convention I’ve been to, much less a first-time convention, in which it was understood this was the “shake-out” cruise, as it were, to see where the problems were for next time.

I suspect that one reason it ran so smoothly was that while it was a first-time convention, the people running it were not first-timers; it was Hank Green and his crew from VidCon. VidCon’s been around for five years now and the 2015 iteration of it had 20,000 attendees, so Nerdcon’s 3,000 (or so) attendees probably were not a huge challenge to manage relative to that. I expect Hank’s team grafted some of their best practices at VidCon onto Nerdcon, and tweaked from there as the show went along.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, a first-time convention is a first-time convention. There are things you don’t know that can go wrong simply because they’ve never happened before. You’re flying blind, basically. The Nerdcon staff handled it all very very well. As someone who’s been in the chain of command for running a convention, I was impressed.

2. It wasn’t too big. 3,000 is a healthy size for a convention — ask most science fiction conventions if they’d like to have 3,000 attendees — but what I mean by “big” here is that Nerdcon didn’t try to do every single possible thing the first time out of the gate. The convention had “main stage” track of events, three auditoriums to run panels out of, and a signing room. By and large the “main stage” programming didn’t cut into the panels and signings, and vice versa. There was enough to do, but it didn’t feel overwhelming, or that some guests (and fans) had been flung off into some far province of the convention. Also, from the guest point of view, it also meant that everything you participated in was well-attended, which is a nice thing, too, for various reasons.

3. The featured guest list was well-curated, diverse and multidisciplinary. The emphasis for the convention was on storytelling (as evidenced by the convention’s full title, “Nerdcon:Stories”), but the convention took a small “c” catholic approach to what “storytelling” was, which meant that among the featured guests there were writers and pod-and-vid-casters and musicians and performers and playwrights and others, and all sorts of combinations of the above. The convention also made the point to reflect the diversity of creativity in terms of who creates as well, very easily giving lie to the idea that it’s somehow difficult to find enough amazingly talented people from diverse backgrounds to fill a convention’s featured guest roster.

In short, Nerdcon’s guest list wasn’t just “the usual suspects,” however you imagine that phrase to function. This was great for the convention, but it was also good for the guests, including me. I can guarantee you that a very large chunk of the Nerdcon audience had no idea who I was before the convention. Now they know me, if nothing else, as “the guy who got killed on stage during the puppet show.”

4. None of the featured guests were jerks. The guest list was also well-curated in that everyone involved, as far as I can see, was really into the idea that we were all storytellers, and that we were happy to cross the streams to engage and perform with each other, not just on panels but in other events as well. None of the featured guests — again, as far as I could tell — fell into hierarchical panic mode, trying to figure out who was the most famous or talented person in the room, and if someone did, they were probably defeated in the attempt by the fact that since so many of the guests were from different creative fields than they, any stab at a ranking would fail.

Which is good! Screw hierarchy! Better — and more fun for everyone, guests and attendees alike — if everyone on the stage just plain trusted their colleagues up there with them to be interesting and smart and talented. It seemed to work. This is was a refreshingly ego-free (or at the very least, ego-reduced) convention. I liked it. And I liked what came out of it: A chance to get up on a stage with other really talented, very smart people and put on a show for a willing audience. Which leads to the next point:

5. The convention placed an emphasis on keeping the crowd entertained. Small fan-run conventions are often more about the fans running (and attending) the conventions than the people invited as guests; large, comic-con-sized conventions are often more about being a marketplace of toys and art and autographs. This isn’t a complaint in either case — I enjoy cons large and small for the reasons mentioned above — but as a guest and in a very real sense a performer, I liked that Nerdcon was about putting on a storytelling show for an audience that had come to see that very thing.

I especially liked the “Main Stage” chunks of the convention, which featured a number of fast moving bits (rapid fire Q&A, three-song-concerts, mock debates, etc) that gave the convention an almost vaudeville feel, as in, “bored with this bit? Wait a few minutes.” That combined with the performers’ general willingness to dive in and just plain entertain meant that even if something flopped (and very little seemed to do that) it wasn’t because those of us up on stage didn’t make an effort.

(On the flip side, it helped that Nerdcon was also a very forgiving audience — they wanted to be entertained, and seemed delighted that we were willing to oblige. Thanks, folks!)

6. It didn’t go on too long. The convention was two days and done: Friday and Saturday and that was all she wrote. Enough time for everyone to have fun, not so long that one got that “hangover” feeling on the last day of the convention (“why are we all even still here?”). This is not to say two days is somehow the optimal length for a convention, merely that it seemed to be the optimal length for this one.

Having praised Nerdcon:Stories highly, let me now note I’m not saying that every convention should be like Nerdcon; they shouldn’t. Nerdcon feels to me like a very specific species of a larger genus of “convention.” It’s not a small science fiction convention or a comic-con-sized media convention, and it’s not like a book fair or trade show. It’s a specific, tuned event: a cross-disciplinary, performance-based convention. In a very real sense there’s not much out there that’s like it — the closest thing I can actually think of to it is the JoCo Cruise, in point of fact, although there are a whole lot of differences there as well.

I think that a lot of what Nerdcon has done could be applicable to other cons (for example, how they ran their signing room, which featured a sitting area for people waiting for autographs, which was brilliant and makes me wonder why it was the first time I’ve seen that outside of a bookstore event, where people were already sitting before the signing), but I don’t know that the gestalt of Nerdcon is transferable. It may be its own thing.

Or, it may be the start of another type of thing: of cross-disciplinary, diverse, performance-centered conventions like Nerdcon. Which I certainly wouldn’t mind — if they were done as well as Nerdcon managed this time.

All of which is to say: Nerdcon:Stories was a blast. I’m glad I was part of it, and glad I got to meet really excellent people, on its stage and off of it. I want to come back and do it again.

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The great flying Scalzi at @nerdconstories .

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36 Comments on “My Thoughts on Nerdcon:Stories”

  1. Also, those of you curious about this:

    What happened was I was about 30 seconds late to a panel, sat down, and then was told by Hank Green to come back in with a more dramatic entrance. So I did. It went over well. Also, yes, I can actually do somersaults. I just… didn’t this time.

  2. I was there and I’ll also rave about it — my first-ever convention, and I don’t think I could’ve chosen a better one.

  3. I can’t wait for videos!

    Also I love the way that so many of my fangirl streams somehow collided in this convention (the only odd bit being why they hadn’t collided before!).

    If only I were independently wealthy and weren’t so busy at work conventions and could go to these kinds of conventions. (Ignoring the fact that I totally shut down when I meet authors that I love and can’t communicate and stuff. Former US presidents, Nobel prize winners, no problem, novelists ack!)

  4. Thank you sir, for your review. I was hoping you’d do this.

    I honestly hadn’t heard about it at all. Then Thursday through Sunday my twitter feed was full of how awesome it was.

    Sounds like it’s definitely something that I’ll put high on my list to do next year. Even more so if you (Mr. Scalzi) are guesting again. It has the added benefit that I have lots of family and friends in Minnesota, so the trip can be double-purposed.

    Thanks! Something to put on the want-do-do-really-a-lot list.

  5. From this attendee’s point of view, it wasn’t bad. I suspect that if I was 1) under 30, 2) new to conventions, and 3) a massive Green fan, I would have been over the moon. I think 95% of the folks that went were at least two of those things, and many of them were all three. Being someone that was going to conventions before most people had ever heard of the internet, it was a little odd. Not bad, it had a lot of things going for it. I enjoyed the cross-pollination of fandoms. But odd.

  6. Wendy, I’m surprised you thought the attendees were so young. I was fully expecting that I’d feel like the oldest person there, but I was pleasantly surprised to see such a range of ages. I sat next to children with their parents, high schoolers, and grandmothers who knitted scarves through panels. It was refreshingly diverse!

  7. Same, I expected to be more out of place (middle-aged mom accompanying teen daughter). There definitely were a lot of under-30’s but plenty of over-30’s too.

    John, I did think that things were close to going off the rails on the MainStage more than once, especially the first day, but somehow the realness and suspense made the recovery that much more satisfying.

  8. We (wife & I) had fun overall… the main stage idea was really nice. Also the diversity of guests was great. What surprised us was the number of people from out of town who mentioned this was their first con.

    Also thank you Mr. Scalzi you were quite entertaining, including the dramatic entrance which I got to see live. :-)

    My only critique were the two side auditoriums. They easily filled up, so people ran a good chance of not being able to see the presentation they were hoping to see. But I suspect that is a “first time” sort of thing and is easy to correct.

    My selfish hope is it is held in Minneapolis again.

  9. RE that last picture: I don’t think that’s really the great flying Scalzi. Judging by the plumage, I think it’s a lesser plaided Scalzi. They can be a bit tricky to tell apart, it’s true.

  10. The broad range of guests was really nice for attendees, too. Cons with a tighter focus (just sci-fi or just comics or whatever) can sometimes attract a snobby streak among attendees. You know, the old “You mean you haven’t read/seen ____? *side eye*” Everyone at NerdCon was clueless about at least some of the guests, so the audience was refreshingly ego-less too. I’ve been going to cons of various sizes for about 5 years and I was still shocked by how nice everyone was. This was the first con I’ve been to where I’ve never gotten any sexist microaggressions.

    Did the girl with the Scalzi pumpkin ever find you? She was having people sign it and it seemed a real shame if she didn’t get your signature on it!

  11. Thanks for explaining the somersault — I’m glad you didn’t total yourself, and it must have scored big with the audience.

    My daughter’s ambition is to attend VidCon. She watches every Hank and John Green video.

  12. It was an excellent convention, and the tone perfectly suited the audience’s overall personality. For my own part, I’m one of the people who had never heard of you before seeing you there, but your thoughtful, socially conscious, and really just delightful answers won me over in the first few hours and I bought two books between panels.
    I may have tried to return them after seeing you bard, but what can you do? I guess I’ll muddle through.
    Thank you for being such an enthusiastic and honest contributer.

  13. I’m wondering if a convention has ever bothered to add video production to the mix. I have seen tons of bootleg videos from the audience. What I am talking about is having a video production crew recording and doing post production to create a high quality video of the proceedings. Even if it was just the main stage or the equivalent.
    Maybe saying ” I wonder if” is disingenuous. I want someone to do this so I can watch it without the bootleg feel. Single perspective, no tripod with crappy audio. Please.

  14. I’m so glad I decided to sign up as a volunteer, I really had a great time being a part of the convention and chatting with all the attendees and vendors who came through registration. Everyone was just so excited to be there and so so NICE. The only downside was having to CHOOSE which panels to see.

  15. Some of those still shots appear to show you breaking the laws of newtonian physics. The physics police would like to have a word with you….

  16. I really hope we see video and/or audio released officially — for Friday night’s Munchausen game to be lost to the ages would be a crime and a shame. And I’d love to see or hear the panels I missed.

  17. The Minneapolis / St. Paul area has a very strong fan community, with conventions practically every month, so it comes as no surprise that there are a lot of people with convention experience available.

  18. I’ll agree with Paul up there who said that the side rooms filled up too fast, especially on the second day when everyone had now gotten their badges. In fact, when I showed up for my volunteer shift on Thursday, the very first thing I said when I saw the map and that the panel rooms were so close together was, “How are they going to handle the lines when the panels empty out and fill up again?” Some of the people I was with couldn’t even make it into their second choice panel because it, too, was also in one of the side rooms and filled up while they were waiting for their first choice.

    I think that if you wanted to be entertained, learn a little, and get something signed, NerdCon: Stories was a great show. If you wanted to learn a lot of specifics this was not the show for you. My hubs went to the storytelling and activism panel and didn’t come away with a lot of practical, specific advice he could use in his own everyday experiences, just general advice.

    All my fiddly critiques aside, I had a great time, and if what I heard is correct and it’s going to be in Minneapolis again, I’m already eager to confirm a registration.

  19. Thank you for the recap, totally spot on with what I experienced. I was there on Saturday with my two teenagers and had a wonderful time. I especially appreciated the organization around the signings.

  20. DreamHaven Books was there as an exhibitor, and I know we went in not being sure at all what the crowd or sales would be like. It turned out to be a good thing that we brought stacks of the attending writer’s books. Best of all were the many people buying titles they had not heard of before the show. (To be clear, I wasn’t there myself, as the bookstore was open the same hours as the convention, but I heard lots of great stories from Greg and Lisa.)

  21. I was one of the “grandmothers knitting scarves” (I was knitting a sweater actually) at NerdCon and I knew going in to this that I would be one of the oldest people there. Yay! It’s great to be able to meet with people who are different from me and to interact with them. Life doesn’t end after 30 (or 40, or 50) and I think that it’s good for younger people to see that. My daughter and step-daughter had a great time, we all did. We were really impressed with how well-behaved the general crowd was. Next year at NerdCon, and there had better be one here again next year, I intend to bring my grandson, who will be 15 then, this is such a multi-generational event.

  22. I attended as well (4th con in the last 12 months) and I had an absolutely fabulous time. Let me second the commentary about the diversity of the crowd and the consequent energy of smooshing fandoms together and seeing what results. Yes, the side panels filled quickly, but that’s easily remedied by moving those panels to a real hall next year (presumably in conjunction with a slightly larger attendance to pay for it).

    The other suggestion I might have is to have a participation track of some kind. The open mics filled instantly, and the storytelling hour was a huge success as well. Some sort of running stage where people can tell their stories for the entire run of the con might be appropriate.

    What a wonderful, wonderful time. Clearly my favorite convention of the year.

  23. I think you have a double life as some sort of interdimensional secret agent and you entered the room right after a fight with rebels from Planet Nibiru and played it off like some big joke. Come clean, Scalzi!!!!!!

  24. I had no idea quite what to expect but I was so impressed with the guest list, I just had to go (& sell books). Pat Rothfuss had mentioned the basic idea to me about a year ago and I was very enthusiastic about a convention focused on storytelling. I’ve been to over 1000 conventions in my time and this one was unique. And very enjoyable. It was a very “young” convention; many regular SF conventions are getting quite old. But this convention (I think of NerdCon as more of a “conference” than a convention though) had a very high percentage of people well under 40. And as a bookseller for over 40 years, it was truly inspiring to see so many young people so excited by books and stories. I plan to be back next year. (John – I was sorry not to catch you to at least say hello. Your books sold out).

  25. Running a con looks like an awful lot of work. I can understand doing it if you are running it for profit, because then its a job. I don’t understand how there are so many people of people willing to do all this administrative work. I can understand volunteering so you can meet people, but when you volunteer you just have a small task to do and can still have fun. With all the work involved in coordinating activities, dealing with complainers, people issues, etc… I am not sure how the people that run cons find time to have fun.

    Cons are 3-4 day yearly events right? Volunteers who run it probably have to put in what 200-300 hours of work preparing for it in advance? They do this in their free time after work, family, etc…

    Anyone on here run a con (not including people who do this as their job)? What is fun about doing all that work?

  26. Guess,

    I haven’t run science fiction conventions, but I’ve played a similar role in hosting dog shows. Partly, you do it because someone has to do the work. Partly, you do it for the joy of getting this complex thing to actually occur. Partly, you are paying back/forward the people who volunteered before you and will hopefully volunteer in the future.

  27. It really was an exceptional con, and you were hilarious in everything you participated in. My only advice for next year would be to have a few more panels and run them at slightly off-set times from each other to prevent some of the traffic jams we had at this one. That and I’d love to see much more interactive/participatory elements: more open-mic, storytelling workshops, a game room – that sort of stuff.

    P.S. I’m reading through the Old Man’s War series now (in Zoe’s Tale) and plan to do a youtube video from a postcolonial perspective about them. I picked up The Human Division and The End of All Things at Nerdcon, but didn’t manage to make it to your signing. Phooey.

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