The Elephant At NerdCon: Nerdfighteria
In 2016, Uplift launched Elephant at the Con, a campaign dedicated to shining a light on convention safety issues by collecting attendee stories and quantitative data on harassment, identity, and other con safety issues. This is the fourth in a series of posts sharing the data we’ve collected. See the others in our Medium collection. Want Uplift to run a similar survey at another con, have additional thoughts on NerdCon, or questions about this project? Tweet or Email us!
In celebration of ten years of Vlogbrothers and the Nerdfighteria community, Nerdfighters from all over the world gathered in Boston, MA for a weekend celebrating the wonderful community John and Hank Green have created. Thanks to the hard work of staff, volunteers, and members of the community, it was a memorable weekend, but unfortunately not everyone felt safe and included.
Uplift attended the conference, presenting a workshop on being a leader in online communities, handing out convention safety cards, demonstrating our Chrome extension that blocks harassing content from social media, and collecting data for our project Elephant At The Con:
Here is what we collected:
In addition to quantitive data, we collected anonymous comments and stories from NerdCon attendees.
Overall experiences were positive
“I felt super safe all weekend and the people I interacted with looked and felt safe too. Security, con staff, volunteers, attendees, were all 100% respectful.”
“I felt comfortable the entire weekend. One of the only places I’ve ever felt I could unapologetically be myself.”
“I was so happy to see that people felt comfortable wearing pronoun badges (even if their pronouns aligned with how they presented), asked about touch, and otherwise created a safe environment.”
“I noticed a sort of impromptu NerdFighter MBTA buddy system spring up among those of us taking the T to outlying areas along the Red and Orange Lines. The sense of community and group safety was really inspiring.”
Of course, for many crowded events like NerdCon are not an ideal environment.
“I know it got to be much at times for those with anxiety. A quiet room (like we had at Nerdcon: Stories) would have been beneficial. My sister ended up going to a coffee shop for awhile because it just became too much.”
“The only times that I felt uncomfortable were due to my personal social anxieties. Crowded spaces and occasional lack of personal space.”
Consent means asking permission before touching someone, even if you think that level of touch.
“Several strangers tried to touch our baby or handed him gifts without our consent. This makes me uncomfortable and we’ll have to take it into consideration when deciding whether to bring him along to future cons.”
“At the concert a guy who was much larger than me wrapped his arm around me as part of the vibe of the concert. I’m not generally into strangers touching me and my body language combined with the fact that I didn’t wrap my arm around his shoulder definitely conveyed that I was uncomfortable but it still happened.”
“I saw one person lose their temper in a threatening way, but it passed very quickly.”
“[One attendee who has ignored consent in the past at similar cons] was there and my friends were unhappy about it.”
“The only thing that made me feel remotely unsafe was the presence of one or two men who seemed disinterested in the con and more interested in the young people there. But no one approached me, harassed me, touched me, or did anything except look a little suspicious.”
“I saw several older men speaking with younger girls in a way that made me uncomfortable. This included an individual who was once very prominent in our community speaking closely and exchanging telephone numbers with several young women.”
“Just outside the convention center from dinner a man catcalled either me or one of the other women around me. I feel pretty confident it wasn’t a Nerdfighter, so I felt safer once I entered the convention hall itself, but I felt less safe overall.”
All Gender Restrooms
NerdCon offered one all gender restroom for attendees.
“The signs for the gender inclusive bathrooms were torn down by someone. They were later replaced in addition to two extra signs, but the message that those of us who identify outside the binary or as trans were not welcome by an active portion of the attendees was clear.”
We reached out to NerdCon staff for a comment on the above statement and they clarified that the signs were not torn down, this was mistakenly stated in the Q&A for a panel. In response to the concerns of another attendee (as detailed below), a second restroom was converted into an all-gender restroom, which may have to the confusion. This does not negate the experience of feeling unwelcome of the first commenter, however.
“The fact that the only gender neutral restroom initially was one with open urinals was stressful as a trans person who doesn’t particularly pass. This issue was quickly addressed though and the response definitely made me feel safer. The gender neutral restrooms beyond that initial issue were safe and comfortable and I appreciate the availability of these facilities and the responsiveness of the staff.”
NerdCon had a lot of inclusive offerings available: gender-neutral restrooms, a hotline to call to report an incident, and ASL interpretation for mainstage events; however these policies and offerings were not clearly communicated to everyone.
“To get the number to call about sexual harassment you had to go to the Uplift booth and I think that should have been in the program so everyone had it right from the beginning.”
“It was difficult to get in touch with the ASL interpreters if you needed one.”
“There wasn’t indication in the [convention materials] that there was an all gender restroom.”
Creating Inclusive Spaces for People with Disabilities
Several attendees had service animals who were mistreated by attendees. As a reminder, you should never pet a service dog while they are working unless given explicit permission by the owner.
“Some people with support animals had difficulties with other people treating the working animals right.”
“Attendees were not following the rules on how to treating service dogs and their partners respectfully (i.e. petting the dogs while they were working and without seeking permission, stepping on the dogs).”
As panels filled up, despite the best efforts of volunteers, reserved seating signs for people with disabilities were taken down or ignored by attendees.
“People took reserved signs off of seats set aside for those with disabilities, and pet guide dogs while they working.”
“I heard from some attendees who are disabled that others were throwing away the reserved seating signs and taking their spots.”
“ASL services were not paid for but volunteered which was not acceptable for a paid event like NerdCon.”
“NerdCon clearly was putting in an effort towards accessibility, but there are ways it could have been better.”
Our most reported incident was the Harry and The Potter’s concert Saturday night.
“All the Harry and The Potters fans were confused that there wasn’t a dance floor and the excitement turned into a poorly-communicated group decision to flood the space between the row reserved for disabled folks and the stage.”
“The crowd came up to the stage for Harry and the Potters, blocking the ADA section, nearly trampling some of the service dogs. The people affected were very upset in the moment, concerned for their dogs, and feeling like their enjoyment of the concert was less valued than the able-bodied. They had to speak up and advocate for themselves (first to volunteers and then to staff), in order to solve it.”
“2 service dogs were almost trampled (one was my sister’s) when the mob rushed forward for Harry and the Potters.”
“We got it all figured out, but it could have been planned better so that they never felt like they were being excluded from the show.”
Our data and the stories highlight that most people had a wonderful weekend at NerdCon: Nerdfighteria. Thanks to the staff, volunteers, and the community as a whole, many enjoyed making new friends and connecting with olds ones and felt empowered to be unapologetically themselves which is rare outside of Nerdfighteria.
Elephant At The Con is fundamentally a project about empowering the community to share experiences so conventions can be safer in the future. Based on our findings, our recommendations to NerdCon (and similar conventions) are:
- Communicate inclusive policies more widely —pre-convention emails, programs, and even badges (if the budget allows) should contain information on hotlines, gender-inclusive restrooms, and services offered for people with disabilities.
- All Gender bathrooms — Make them visible, accessible, and private from the beginning. (Though it was wonderful that staff reacted in the moment to the information.)
- Ensure volunteers are empowered to safeguard reserved seating for panels.
- Make a plan for accessibility at crowded events like concerts, especially in case of mobs. (Though it was great that staff reacted in the moment and cleared the area.)
- Include underrepresented groups that have safety concerns for conventions in the conversation early on in the planning.
We understand that convention organizers have a lot to balance in order to run such great events; their job is far from easy. However, until conventions are safe for people of all identities, we have work to do. Convention organizers cannot do it alone, all members of the community can contribute by respecting others, practicing consent, and expecting that of other con attendees you interact with.