NerdCon: Stories

NerdCon doesn’t care about medium; it cares about communication.

Storytelling fans were everywhere in the Minneapolis Convention Center this weekend for the inaugural NerdCon: Stories. Even the most unexpected sort.

During a panel, Welcome to Night Vale actress Kate Jones recounted a story about running into a curious person at the convention center who wondered what was happening down the hall. Jones explained NerdCon, and that she was there because of Night Vale. The woman she’d met became visibly excited. When Jones introduced herself, the woman replied: “Hello, I’m the mayor of Minneapolis.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges aside, fans gathered for the two-day event, the brainchild of Hank Green, whose other convention, VidCon, has helped define a genre and an industry. Despite a broader topic like stories and the fact that NerdCon is not a carbon copy of what makes VidCon a success, Green’s convention shows marks of lightning striking twice on his particular brand of community building.

If Green’s VidCon is high school, then NerdCon is freshman year of college.

The two conventions have a different focus, with VidCon exploring digital video and the celebrities and trends of that genre. It skews younger, with packs of teens vying for moments with their favorite celebrities, and businesses vying for the eyeballs and loyalty of those young consumers. VidCon may cater to the storytelling of digital video, but NerdCon goes broad. The recurring topic of the weekend was “Why are stories important,” and talks were tackled by authors, podcast producers, musicians, and video creators alike. NerdCon doesn’t care about medium; it cares about communication.

If Green’s VidCon is high school, then NerdCon is freshman year of college.

NerdCon is small—it had less than 3,000 attendees, allowing for the kind of openness and collaboration that VidCon had to forsake as it grew into an 18,000-person behemoth. VidCon stars can’t walk the floor unattended for fear of becoming a safety hazard, but at NerdCon, celebrity guests had to cross the lobby to use the bathroom, and aside from a few waved hellos and requests for photos, no one blinked. They popped into the back of lecture halls to catch their fellow panelists speaking when they had free time, and no one caused a scene. Even the con’s arguably biggest draw, author John Green, walked around sans stampede. A fan did stop to tell him something, and Green chatted until his phone rang and he said goodbye.

NerdCon fans still lined up for sanctioned autograph sessions, but the attention was firmly placed on the programming tracks, which frequently filled up to capacity. Two tracks were housed in lecture hall–style mini theaters, pitched so high Hank Green joked that he was afraid everyone would come tumbling down on him during one session. Instead of frantic photos or shouted “I love you”s by attendees mid-panel, fans mostly pulled out notepads and pens to take notes on the fold-out desktops. If they did shout, it was to offer factual information. Q&A sessions were questions about craft, inspiration, and process, not hairstyles or favorite foods.

None of this suggests NerdCon is “better” than VidCon, only that it’s possibly the emotional next step for a community—a graduation. It’s the translation of teenage obsessions into a collegiate and post-collegiate career. But it also suffered somewhat from the lack of specificity, at least for attendees who weren’t sure of what they were agreeing to attend.

“It’s such a broad reason for having a conference,” said 25-year-old attendee Tasia Weatherly. “It’s such a huge topic, so it’s kind of hard to figure out a concise ‘this is what this is.’”

Weatherly traveled from California for the event, mostly because she’s such a fan of Hank Green’s work and trusts him. It was a sentiment echoed by Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, who don’t do many conventions.

“I am not much of a convention person,” said Fink. “I am really here because I trust Hank Green. It’s been so much smoother than any convention I’ve been to.”

One of the con’s biggest strengths was that presenters were equally present onstage as well as off, even if that could bring challenges for some.

“I wish I had more time to actually go to see other stuff,” said Cecil Baldwin, the main voice actor for Welcome to Night Vale, who spoke and performed several times throughout the weekend.

To help avoid guests and panelists alike from having to choose among too much, NerdCon nights closed with singular programming in the main hall, a variety show of sorts using the special guests. Author Mara Wilson, a former child actress, read from her LiveJournal entries at age 16, complete with phrases like “I just want to go off to a Buddhist monastery somewhere, shave my head, and die a virgin,” while Dave Nadelberg explained that his counterculture teenage self decided that an obsession with bagpipe music was cool, and writing poetry about it even cooler. His reading of a poem about a fictional performer, Mr. Pips, had the sign language interpreter barely able to keep it together, and then completely losing it, as he had to sign phrases like “squeeze it and you’ll see” and “I like your bag, Mr. Pips.” On the closing night, the New York Neo Futurists performed Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, an ever-changing interactive series of short plays they attempt to complete in a 60-minute span.

NerdCon felt like a loopy late-night storytelling circle with friends.

Other moments included a “what’s in my mouth” guessing game complete with spit-buckets and a mock-debate on the preferred method of putting on your socks and shoes (sock-sock-shoe-shoe vs. sock-shoe-sock-shoe). During a round of SuperFight, a card game where players describe their fictional superhero (or villain) and contend for who would win in a hypothetical fight, Desiree Burch pulled the character of 9-foot-tall Batman, inside a mechanical “two horses in a man suit.” In the time it took players to boggle the logistics of that kind of apparatus (is Batman just inside one of the horse? or somehow in both?) a fan drew live art and sent it up to the stage. Later, more art poured in for a dragon covered in eyeballs, seated on a chariot pulled by two kindergarten classes.

During the same game, author M.T. Anderson pulled a doozy: the Illuminati made of guacamole that explodes if it stops moving. In a room full of writers, this was too good to pass up. Instantly dubbed the “Guacanati,” hashtags flew and a chant and hand symbols flew up into the air. It kept popping up over the course of the weekend, with Twitter handles and spontaneous chants, all while fans online scrambled to figure out just exactly what jokes they were missing out on by skipping NerdCon. Instead of feeling like a con, NerdCon felt like a loopy late-night storytelling circle with friends—perfect, hilarious, and sometimes nonsensical in the morning.

“I think stories and each other are the most important things that we have,” said Hank Green during the weekend’s first session. As entertainment and the media chases the next big thing, wondering if YouNow or Snapchat or something yet-to-be-named will produce the ultimate hit, NerdCon dared to slow down and think big-picture about what it means to make those things—and what it takes to do it.

“It’s really easy to get bogged down in the work sometimes,” said Weatherly. “So having that inspiration and being around people who go through the same struggles and to be reminded that it is OK to struggle, but this is important. Your voice matters, and other voices matter.”

Correction 2:51pm, Oct. 12: An early version of this article misspelled Tasia Weatherly’s name.

Photo by Rae Votta | Remix by Max Fleishman

Rae Votta

Rae Votta

A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.