Twin Cities Geek: One Year in

Twin Cities Geek logo with the words "YEAR ONE" written over it

January 10th, 2016 was the one year anniversary of launching the Twin Cities Geek online magazine, so I wanted to talk about the project a little bit, since it mostly lives inside my head. I know a few folks have noticed what I’ve been up to, and I’ve certainly mentioned or alluded to it here and there, but I’ve never actually laid it all out. So this will be long, because again, I’m occasionally a verbose mofo.

But first, let me nerd out about some data.

Since its launch and as I write this, just over 300 articles have been posted on Twin Cities Geek. 229 unique events have been submitted to the Twin Cities Geek free community calendar. The forums are still fairly inactive with just shy of 30 topics, but I haven’t yet had the time to invest in seeding them properly. Presently—and keeping in mind this site is only one year old—TwinCitiesGeek.com gets around 3,500 unique visitors (the majority of whom are located in Minnesota) and 13,000 hits per month. Most of the site’s traffic is via social networks, which is what one would expect for a community-driven project like this. However, as more articles, events, and forum topics are posted, the site’s SEO only strengthens and there’s been a gradual increase in organic search traffic as one might expect.

WHY I CREATED TWIN CITIES GEEK

There isn’t any one reason behind TwinCitiesGeek.com; there are instead a small pile of reasons that culminated in the project.

Moss from IT Crowd says, "Are you ready for this jelly?"

CONTROL OVER OUR OWN NARRATIVE

Geek (fandom) subculture has enjoyed a vibrant existence in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota for many, many decades. However, more often than not, when Minnesota geek events are covered by mainstream—or even non-mainstream—local media, the tone is less than flattering and/or completely misses the point of why we do what we do, or what makes our community unique, relevant, and valuable. This phenomenon was particularly hard to ignore after I spent a couple years running the Twin Cities Geeks Facebook discussion group; any and all media coverage of our community eventually makes its way there, and the group’s discontent over the coverage was a fairly common thread over time.

So I thought, if we don’t like the landscape, we certainly have the tools to change it. There’s nothing stopping us from creating our own media outlet to cover our community and interests in ways that make sense to us and respect our subculture and the people in it. Of course, this idea is hardly revolutionary in the geek/fandom world. Before the internet was what it is today, this is space that fanzines occupied. But zines never really were on the same playing field as more mainstream independent media, and they have been pretty irrelevant (outside of nostalgia) for at least a decade. Small geek media blogs, occasionally called webzines, have sprung up in force to occupy the space that fanzines once didand there are several that originate in the Twin Cities, MN area. However, these outlets more often than not fail to be relevant outside of the personal networks of the people running them (and in that way are not really unlike the majority of zines, but I digress.)

Scene from Ghostbusters where Egon says, "print is dead"

Looking at the bigger picture, I was confident I could leverage my internet marketing, community building, and branding skills to make Twin Cities Geek something different. The tools are in my—in our—hands to be as relevant and accessible as any other mainstream independent media; the internet really is a great equalizer when it comes to exposure if those tools are leveraged with a bit of strategy and patience. With SEO, we can ensure that people googling events and aspects of our subculture find us right on the first page of their search results. With brand building such as engagement on social networks, outreach, and community partnerships, we can become a household name for Minnesota geeks and a go-to source for information within the subculture—one people can refer their friends to, making us also a de facto gateway into Minnesota geekdom and fandom. These are the ways we can and will control our own narrative.

So, that is one significant general goal towards which TwinCitiesGeek.com is well underway. I’m aware that Twin Cities Geek is still small potatoes, but it is only one year old, and the growth it has experienced in that year has been quite significant. It will easily meet these goals in under five years if it continues on its current trend, and believe me that in internet marketing terms, that’s not nothing. 

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Traditionally, large geek/fan communities organize around events and event planning—SFF, gaming, comic, and anime conventions, primarily. The reasons for this are pretty self-evident, right? Conventions are large social spaces, often annually available, to meet and exist in one place as a community. It only makes sense that conventions should serve as nexuses and bases of operations of our subculture. However, this structure also facilitates a sort of tribalism ubiquitous to geek subculture, which has two significant negative effects.

First, this tribalism means that each tribe (convention community) has its own individual information distribution network, the result of which is that news travels quickly within the tribe, but often does not leave the tribe in any significant way. This makes it difficult for the tribe to learn and grow in the context of the larger culture, which in convention running terms, means they have trouble attracting new volunteers, presenters, and organizers. It’s a story you’ll see again and again in convention communities if you look for it. Unless a given tribe deliberately engages in community outreach—and many don’t, or they try and fail for a myriad of reasons—this all leads to the community becoming both insular and homogeneous, further exacerbating my next observation.

Second, I’ve witnessed members of different tribes (affiliated with different conventions, or even factions within the same convention community) be downright crappy to one and other, as if they do not feel the need to treat those outside of their own tribe with the same patience, understanding, and respect as those within. I’ve also witnessed individuals and groups othered by a given tribe as a result of or in addition to gatekeeping. These interactions very often enter the general awareness of local geek subculture via either word-of-mouth or because they cause friction in public or semi-public spaces, which actually ends up creating a significant barrier to becoming involved with geek culture or expanding one’s involvement within the subculture. Besides being put off by perceived drama, one must be cognizant of all the different tribes and the dirty laundry between their members in order to avoid being caught in it oneself. It may be difficult to see from the inside, but for a newer person, this status quo can feel very overwhelming and ultimately just not worth it.

Dean from Supernatural looks overwhelmed

All of this leads to new tribes forming all the time, either from the ashes of other tribes, in avoidance of other tribes, or, due to the insular distribution of information inherent to this system, ignorant of the other tribes all together. These new tribes more often than not come together in the eternal quest to build a better mousetrap—they start their own convention or event. Right now there over 20 annual geek culture-affiliated conventions and events in Minnesota. (Seriously. We have a spreadsheet to track them.)

So, what are the downsides to this system? I can think of a few things:

  • Lack of shared local knowledge (the same mistakes are repeated over and over again in different spaces; problematic individuals expelled from one tribe are welcomed into another where they repeat poor behavior, etc).
  • Not everyone has equal access to resources commonly associated with geek culture.
  • Marginalized individuals tend to remain marginalized.
  • Many people experience more strife and stress than is necessary.
  • People launching new projects have an exceedingly difficult time getting the word out, given how big the audience actually is.

Enter Twin Cities Geek. I’m not attempting to build a mousetrap at all. Instead, I’m inviting all the mice to dinner, and all the trap builders too. The approach is inclusive by design. In fact, it is codified into the contributor intro packet:

For the purposes of Twin Cities Geek, geekdom shall be defined as a passionate and enthusiastic interest in a subject matter. A person could be a sci-fi geek, video game geek, or book geek just as much as a person could be an animal geek, car geek, sports geek, or more. Plainly, anyone who says they are a geek will be considered a geek.

If this sort of thing sounds familiar to you, it might be because Twin Cities Geek occupies a similar space to Geek Partnership Society. But it is significantly different, and here’s how: where Geek Partnership Society’s focus is becoming the connective tissue between the various local tribes, offering logistics help and organizing club meetings, Twin Cities Geek is an attempt to create a totally new space to be a geek without tribes at all; to organize and inform the large local geek community without orchestrating of any kind of regular event planning; to create rallying point as inclusive as possible to anyone who identifies as “geek”. Everyone who participates in its virtual spaces begins and ends on equal footing, with the same expectations and access to information and resources as everyone else. It’s very much an in-progress, developing experiment in that regard, and I think however it plays out will have long-lasting significance.

UNIVERSAL COMMUNITY RESOURCES

Creating community resources that everyone has equal access to, regardless of their affiliation with convention communities or clubs, is a key part of what I was just talking about insofar as a new approach to organizing local geek culture.

A significant part of Twin Cities Geek is the free community calendar. The calendar is user-generated. Anybody may submit events to it, and as long as those events are not spam or X-rated, they get posted on the calendar. It’s a one stop shop for finding stuff to do in the Twin Cities area if you are geeky. This is, in part, an execution of the idea that everyone has equal access to information with regard to what resources are available to them as a geek in Minnesota.

Another significant part of Twin Cities Geek are the heretofore underutilized forums. The first reason the forums exist is a sort of virtual doomsday prepping; they are an option for threaded, open community discussion if Facebook for some reason becomes inviable or unavailable. The second reason is that there should be an option for conversation and community that exists wholly in our own space rather than on any social media network, because requiring a person to use social media to participate is inherently exclusive, and the project is all about inclusion. (That’s why I do giveaways on the forums instead of on social media sites. So everyone can participate.)

Lastly, and obviously, the news stories being generated by the site’s contributors are a community resource in that they help spread equal access to information that the community might want to have, in addition to just being entertaining and providing jumping off points for fannish conversations.

BOOSTING VOICES

It was immediately evident to me that Twin Cities Geek should be as representative as possible of the MN geek community with regard to content and voice. This necessitates an eye towards diversity, because our local geek community is very diverse—though you wouldn’t necessarily know that if the social tribes you spend your bandwidth on tend to be the more insular and homogeneous sort. But, really, yes, we Minnesota geeks (and geeks in general) are a pretty darn diverse crowd when you look at the bigger picture.

I’d like to quote SFF author Mary Robinette Kowal:

Of course, she’s talking about fiction writing, but I think it applies for this project as well. If our community is already diverse—which it is—then the voices represented in this project MUST also be diverse in order to be relevant to as much as that community as possible. Furthermore, providing the perspectives of people with differing experiences furthers the goal of providing everyone in the local subculture equal access to information.

Garnet from Steven Universe gives thumbs up

So I’m always trying to attract more people who can provide voices that we are under representing, or who might not have an easy time being heard in traditional geek spaces due to systemic barriers or what have you. I’ve done outreach to try to maintain the presence of those voices in the project, and will continue to do so. The language on Twin Cities Geek‘s become a contributor page is also carefully crafted to make it clear that we enthusiastically invite the participation of individuals with different identities and experiences:

The greater geek community in Minnesota is a very diverse one, and it is the mission of Twin Cities Geek to represent as many of the voices within it as possible, both at the writer and editorial levels.

We strive for gender parity and welcome male, female, and non-binary contributers. We welcome geeks of color, and geeks from all cultural backgrounds. We welcome geeky LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) contributors. We welcome perspectives from geeks with disabilities, deaf geeks, and geeks in neurodiverse and mental health communities. Geeks young and old are welcome, as well as students. If you are a geek and you want to write for us, then we want you involved.

It’s important to be deliberate about including those voices, because all voices are important—but also these voices generally just don’t get as much exposure as other voices. If Twin Cities Geek can be a boost to help them be heard, seen, and recognized by a community of which they are already part, then all the better. I think that’s a pretty easy and reasonable goal, so it’s been one from the beginning.

SO MANY THANK YOUS

It’s probably evident at this point that I’ve put a lot of thought into Twin Cities Geek: what its goals are, what it is, what it can be, and how to get there. But I don’t want to gloss over the fact that it is a collaborative effort. Like so many things in geek culture, its existence is a gestalt. There are several people who have put in a lot of time to help make this project happen—contributors and editors past and present. I try to make it worth their while even though it’s a volunteer gig, and the last thing I want to do is make it seem like I’m doing all the work. I may be drawing the map, but they’re doing most of the driving, and that’s a lot of labor and a lot of talent. So here is a thank you to everybody who has worked on Twin Cities Geek up to this point:

Aaron Coker, Adam Haverkamp, Alex Barnes, Alexandra Howes, Amber Carter, Anissa Gooch, Ansley Grams, Bri Lopez Donovan, Briana Lawrence, Chris Meyer, Christopher Jones, Daren Johnson, Duck Washington, gabriel gryffyn, Garrick Dietze, George Richard, Hertzey Hertz, Jeff King, Jeffrey McNair, Jen Riehm, Jessa Markert, Jessica Banks, Jessica Walsh, Joe Weinberg, Jonathan Kiehne, Jonathan Palmer, Joseph Opsahl, Justini Yogini, K. L. Tremaine, Katie Pierson, Katy Kelley, Kelly Starsmore, Kyle Dekker, Laura Cradick, Lydia Karch, Madeleine Vasaly, Mariah Kaercher, Mark McPherson, Marty Farley, Matilda Ruth, Matthew Seaton, Melissa Prusi, Miss Shannan Paul, Nick Glover, Philip Coler, Riley Jay Davis, Rob Callahan, Sally Foster, Satish Jayaraj, Sean Patrick Casey, Tim Uren, Timothy Iverson, T. A. Wardrope, Windy Bowlsby, Z. M. Thomas, Zachary Svoboda

Thank you all for helping make this thing a thing!

Shirley from Community saying Thank You!

And a special thank you to Twin Cities Geek senior editor Madeleine Vasaly, whose editing, judgement, and team management skills have really helped keep this thing going when I wasn’t available for whatever reason. Seriously you guys—she’s basically amazing.

Click here to view current Twin Cities Geek staff.

GOALS FOR YEAR TWO

The next year for Twin Cities Geek will be all about growing our audience, much of which will be done by expanding coverage of locally-focused stories relevant to the Minnesota geek community. (In internet marketing terms: I’ll be putting much more of a focus on content marketing.) I also have already begun a new keyword map, and plan to write some landing pages to help boost the site’s organic traffic, which is just another form of outreach—but the site’s bounce rate is really low, so I think doing this will indeed help expand the community. I’d like to have regular users to the site grow at least 25% by Twin Cities Geek‘s second anniversary, and I think that’s possible.

It’s likely I’ll begin experimenting with having more of a presence at events such as local conventions, possibly doing fan tables or something. We will see how much help I can get with that, because it will definitely be a factor in how much actually happens; I’m only one person, after all.

I’d also like to try to get the forum going properly. I have a couple ideas for how to do that, but I’d love to hear some more if anyone has any.

Man, that was super long. Just a peek into the sandbox that exists inside my head. I was trying to keep it short, too. Oh well. Anyway, if you’re reading this because you’re part of the Twin Cities Geek community, thanks for your participation, and do feel free to spread the word about the project, even if it’s just inviting your friends to like the Facebook page.

Hal and CONvergence 2015: A Summary

I’ve been putting off writing about what happened to me at CONvergence 2015 for a myriad of reasons. I know a lot of people have heard rumors about it with varying degrees of accuracy. But I made the choice to keep a lid on it. It was a calculated choice, and it was my choice to make.

In the heat of the blowback and amidst all the rumors, I remained publicly silent because I felt the reaction (and any resulting press) to what had happened would damage the organization and the community in ways negating a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the last several years. I also felt it would be detrimental to any efforts towards an amicable resolution and the salvaging of productive and positive working relationships within CONvergence’s Convention Committee. Lastly, I did not want to paint a virtual target on the back of the individual ultimately responsible for how I was treated—I’m aware that my social network is not insignificant, and the possibility of something I said catalyzing the harassment of someone else, regardless of what he might have done, was not an option.

If you happen to know the identity of this person, do not let me catch you giving him grief. This all is passed now. I’m moving on; you should too.

However, it is very important for me to talk about it if I want to put it behind me, and the ticking over of a new year is forcing my hand. So I’m going to share enough for me to do that, but not more—basically for the reasons listed above. Since the beginning of this whole affair, I have been forthright about sharing transcripts with anyone in the community who asks, so if you feel it’s important to you to see these transcripts, just let me know and I will send them to you. While there is plenty I’d like to protect, I ultimately don’t have anything to hide.

This is going to be long, because there’s background information to give the whole thing context, and because I’m verbose when writing about personal things. So if you randomly clicked over here and aren’t particularly invested…

Gif from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

“RUN AWAY!!”

How to start? Okay. First, an overview of what I actually do and have done for CONvergence. This is not comprehensive, because that would be a lot longer. But it should give you good idea of the relevant things.

PRE-2012

CREATED CONVERGENCE YOUTUBE CHANNELS

Prior to 2012 I was a member of the CONvergence Video/CVG-TV department, as I had a background in video production and of all the organization’s departments, that one was—and still is—the one most desperately in need of skilled volunteers. I was relatively rank-and-file at this point, but eventually was identified as someone who actually does things (anyone with experience in volunteer organizations understands this) and promoted. At this time, the whole department revolved around the production and mastering of DVDs, and I did that for a couple years. In 2011, I requested sales numbers of DVDs from the Merchandise department and discovered they were abysmal. It turned out we were spending several hundred hours and hundreds of dollars per year to produce DVDs that only about 15 people were actually buying. Well, that was just about the poorest use of resources I could imagine. So I put forth the proposal that the video department start seeing itself not as producing a product, but as a public relations & communications service, and part of that should be releasing video content for free online. I created the convention’s YouTube channels. I also managed them until my time was eaten up by other tasks for the convention . . .

2012-2013

DEALT WITH CONVERGENCE’S FACEBOOK

Quite a lot of people are aware of this because being a group admin is a very public role, and generally this is probably the context in which a lot of people in the CONvergence community actually know me. Here’s the short version: the CONvergence Facebook group was a fan-run group that the organization had no control over prior to 2012, but much of the public assumed was official. The group had no posted rules, and was chaos, with lots of spam and lots of people being really crappy to each other darn near constantly. It was a huge PR and branding problem for the convention and pretty toxic for the community. After the organization got control of the group, thanks to Sarah Morningstar, and I was not too much later (for reasons I won’t get into) de facto put in charge, I began to roll out what was essentially a three year plan to transform it to an environment that would be an asset to the community. I’m not going to list it all out in detail here, but I’m happy to talk about it whenever.

2013-2014

DESIGNED, DEVELOPED, AND WROTE CONVERGENCE WEBSITE

Yes, that’s right. After what happened at CONvergence 2015, I’m done being humble about this, and a lot of people already know anyway. Those with long memories know CONvergence had struggled with its website for years. The organization even paid several thousand dollars to try to get a functioning website, to no avail. So, there was once again a team put together to deal with “the website problem”; that team (of which I was a part) met one time in late 2013 to plan out the new website’s navigation. After that initial meeting, Charlie Horne built out the planned navigation in WordPress, and not much else happened. With Spring and CONvergence 2014 looming, I just sat down and did it myself. Designing the new site took two days. Writing all the content for the website took two and a half months. With the exceptions of the privacy policy and the convention policies page, which were provided by the Board of Directors, and the Guest of Honor bios, which are an annual collaborative effort within the Guests department, I wrote it all. Some pages were re-writes from existing content that was confusing or had an inappropriate voice, and many pages I created completely from scratch (doing research where necessary) because that information simply did not exist in any written form yet, including the Accessibility page, the CONvergence Lore page, the Costuming page, and lots more.

MANAGING CONVERGENCE’S SOCIAL MEDIA

Remember the three year plan I mentioned? Well, it took three years. Fortunately I had a great team of moderators to help keep it rolling. Additionally, I established the standard operating process of scheduled tweets/posts on the CONvergence Facebook page and @CONvergenceCon during the convention, and the creation of additional social media properties: CONvergence Connections, @CONvergenceLive, @CVG_Reminders. Pulled in a co-head, the amazing Meredith McDonald, to help manage the Social Media department so I could focus more on the website. Thank goodness for Meredith.

2014-2015

CONVERGENCE WEBSITE MANAGEMENT

With the help of long-time CONvergence Webteam admin Charlie Horne, who primarily does the very necessary grunt work of keeping dates and forms updated, copying things into the archive, and other housekeeping, I took up managing the CONvergence website. Nearly all of the updates to the CONvergence website, including edits to pages, creation of new pages, and news updates, were written by me. In the professional world, this job is called a “content manager”—a person who ensures an organization’s website is updated uniformly throughout, so that there is no conflicting or outdated information anywhere; a person who makes sure all content is up to the same standard in terms of accessibility, organization, style, and voice; a person who is strategic about what information goes where and why, in terms both of usability and SEO. Doing this job requires quite a lot of institutional knowledge and it is a specialized skill. Without a content manager, you end up with, well, CONvergence’s confusing, pre-2013 mishmash of a website.

FOCUS ON ACCESSIBILTIY & INCLUSION

While researching to write the Accessibility page for the CONvergence website, I learned all the ways in which we needed to do better. I endeavored to make the CONvergence website accessible, to use inclusive language throughout CONvergence’s web presence (both on the website and social media), and even worked in calls for disability awareness and gender inclusiveness here and there, just as a normal matter of business. But real systemic change was needed, not just one person and not just words. I’m a methodical weirdo, so I developed a three-part plan to execute over roughly two years:

  1. Research convention accessibility, for which I created a Facebook group (Fans For Accessible Conventions) to bring accessibility advocates in the global con running community together, and for which I visited with accessibility departments at other conventions. I spent much of 2014 doing this.
  2. Work directly with a few CONvergence departments to help them improve their accessibility for CONvergence 2015. I reached out to a couple department heads. This was proof of concept for a formalized process I intended to propose.
  3. Bring all this information to the convention committee in order to facilitate the creation of an Accessibility & Inclusion department.

I want to be clear here: nobody asked me to do this. I don’t think any of CONvergence’s leadership was even aware that I was executing this plan, and that was intentional. Sometimes change is top-down, and sometimes it’s bottom-up. Given CONvergence’s history with accessibility and my own history operating within the structure of the CONvergence organization, it seemed to me that the latter would be more effective in this case.

CREATED PASS AROUND GAME

Yeah, that was me too. I’d heard there were no plans for a pass around game for CONvergence 2015, so I proposed one.

2015 TO TODAY

HELPING WITH GUESTS OF HONOR

In the months leading up to CONvergence 2015, I expressed some concerns about inclusion/representation to the Guests department. Those concerns were recognized as a needed area for improvement. As such, and because I do a lot of networking in certain professional spheres, I was invited to join the CONvergence Guest Search Committee and help develop the Guest of Honor roster for CONvergence 2016 and 2017. I also helped develop and edit the Guest of Honor bios this year, also the result of a concern I’d previously brought up with the Guests department.

CART CAPTIONING PROPOSAL

As part of my efforts to catalyze better accessibility at CONvergence, I worked with Sarah Donovan to put together a 7-page proposal for CART for CONvergence’s closed-circuit TV feed and Mainstage, and we got the go ahead to try to make that happen for CONvergence 2016.

ACCESSIBILITY & INCLUSION DEPARTMENT PROPOSAL

Part three of my plan came to fruition shortly after CONvergence 2015 when I wrote a 10-page proposal for the formation of an Accessibility & Inclusion department and sent it to the entire CONvergence Convention Committee. In the following months, the department was established. I helped it along by providing the resumes of a couple qualified members of the convention committee who I felt would make good co-heads for the new department, and they were appointed. In the following months, I’ve been working with them to help develop the structure and procedures of the new department. We are doing what we can to make CONvergence 2016 more accessible and inclusive, and I think that will be evident at the convention. We are hoping to test some things out during the current convention cycle, and present a very strong front by CONvergence 2017. (We also need more volunteers to make some of these accessibility initiatives happen—watch the CONvergence website for a volunteer call in the coming weeks.)

WEBSITE . . . AGAIN

Still doing the content manager thing for the CONvergence website. It’s very time consuming; writing and editing takes time. I recognize that we need more content managers and copywriters in the department, and have begun to try to recruit people. The CONvergence Webteam needs process and standards documentation badly in order to train the new people. That’s next on my to-do list, and it’s a project I’m not really looking forward to. Then I will start training a team of replacements, so the whole project doesn’t hinge on me doing it. This has always sort of been the plan, similar to what I’ve done with the Social Media department; any process that succeeds or fails on the shoulders of one person is already a failure. Hopefully it’s evident by now that I make multi-year plans. It’s just how you facilitate lasting change in world where process tends to calcify; more jarring attempts so often crash and burn. Slow and steady is how you do it.

There are people within the CONvergence organization who have noticed my activities over the years, but I’m not usually very vocal about it. It’s just shit I have done because I care, and I happen to have the know-how. I’m not in it for the glory and honestly generally prefer to stick in the background as much as possible. But I think that’s part of why things went down as they did; some folks, including some members of the CONvergence Board of Directors, were more or less unaware of just how much my efforts have been a force within the organization, and other folks were very, very aware.

AT CONVERGENCE 2015

CONvergence 2015 started out pretty normal for me, and pretty well. The Transvestite Soup party room, which I help with, was extremely popular. Most of the panels I’d organized were well-attended and great discussions. The CONvergence social media, which I actively help manage during the convention, was reasonably quiet—that’s a very good sign during the event; it means nothing is going wrong. I’d got a couple emails about at-con CONvergence website updates, and replied to them. From my perspective, it was a fairly unremarkable, but good convention weekend.

Here’s a photo Peter Verrant took of me on Friday Afternoon.

Hal dressed as Catalina from Space Cases on Friday at CONvergence 2015

Hal at CONvergence 2015

At approximately 1:00am on the Friday evening of CONvergence 2015, I received the following email:

Hal –

Due, in part, to the overwhelming needs of social media and in part due to recent web requests and the method and timing in which they are handled without any escalation discussion (with your director) or discussion with web co-heads, I am re-tasking web team work to alleviate any bottleneck and requesting your presence singularly in social media. To ensure and support this structural change your web access and web email subscriptions have been removed.

It is my sincerest hope that this change will help to alleviate your anxiety level as well as provide the best possible experience for our members and staff.

I appreciate your assistance while we make this change.

Regards,
[Removed]

Shock.

This was literally—and I do mean literally—the first I’d heard that there was supposedly a problem with me specifically. Charlie and I in tandem had raised concerns with this individual about his management of our department, which were never answered. And then this.

Anger.

No discussion with co-heads? Lie. And the reference to my mental health? Are you kidding me?

Hurt.

For this to happen, other CONvergence directors—people with whom I’ve collaborated on this convention for half a decade—had to sign off on it. Ouch.

I felt awful. Really awful. I spent the rest of the convention in my hotel room, mostly just trying to sleep and waiting for the convention to be over, waking up every few hours or so to check on the CONvergence social media accounts, which I was still managing. After the fact, friends said they were impressed I continued to do my social media job for the convention through all of this. But part of my job is a direct interface with the members, and I didn’t think their convention should be affected by what was happening to me, so I tried to be business-as-usual.

I did cry a lot.

I posted about what had happened on a private Facebook group I share with some friends, some of whom are on the CONvergence Convention Committee, and most of whom were attending the convention. News spread pretty fast. Then people started sending me these photos:

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AFTERMATH

After the convention, the Board of Directors sort of doubled down on the decision to fire me in an email sent to the entire convention committee. They didn’t call it that. They said I’d been “asked to refocus my efforts.” But, don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining, guys. I got fired, and it was done in darn near the more inappropriate way possible. I also received a couple non-apologies from board members. This was a total train wreck.

Again to that private Facebook group, I posted transcripts of emails demonstrating that the claims made against me were unfounded and that the situation was handled inappropriately. Others with access to the Facebook group began talking about experiences they’d had but been silent about. We discovered there was a systemic problem within the organization that was going to lead to the committee hemorrhaging volunteers if left unchecked.

Time passed. Silence from the CONvergence Board of Directors.

Before long, I reached out to ask for a meeting with the president of the CONvergence organization, and he agreed. We were each to bring a witness, and our meeting was audio recorded. We decided, given the rumor mill, that doing this was in both of our best interests.

To prepare for the meeting, I asked folks to write their negative experiences with the current CONvergence leadership so I could print them all and present the bigger picture both about the individual who fired me and about the health of the organization to the president. I also printed up email transcripts and chat transcripts that demonstrated both the truth of my own conduct, and the inappropriateness of my firing. Additionally, I printed up a webcomic, and drew a little illustration about project goals to help communicate some points and offer support around the concepts I suspected the organization’s leadership might be grappling with. So I had this whole folder of . . . stuff.

10417591_10106417463049540_2988783637562370555_n

CONvergence’s president said most of the information I provided him was news to the Board of Directors, and later in the year when the Board released their meeting notes, I understood why. The individual who fired me had been telling them his version of the story, which to be honest, I’m not really even sure how to feel about. He said he thought I felt threatened by his authority, and some other stuff. Who knows what else he said I did, or whether he believed it? I’m not inside his head, so I can only guess, and I prefer not to tread that path. Of course, he never talked to me about any of this before firing me.

The president said he’d take all my documentation back to the CONvergence Board of Directors for me. The next I heard from the Board of Directors was an email that they sent to the convention committee to say that the person who fired me had been removed from his position.

I think they thought doing this would put the matter to bed, but that was not the case at all. The problem was not this individual; the problem was that CONvergence had turned into an organization where this kind of thing can happen at all, and now everybody knew it. The ball was already rolling. Over the next two months, three things happned.

First, a group of CONvergence Committee members (of which I was not a part) presented a list of suggestions for addressing the organization’s systemic problems to the entire committee. This was met with a mixed reaction, as quite a few people on the Committee were not aware of what happened to me, nor that there were systemic problems at all. The CONvergence Convention Committee is very large, and some parts of it are rather insular departments that simply haven’t experienced the problems that others have. However and to their credit, the Board of Directors were extremely receptive to the ideas; I think they’d been aware of some of the problems themselves, but just didn’t know how to address them. So that was good.

Second, I was asked to return to my role managing the CONvergence website. I did.

Third, after concerned parties contacted them on my behalf, the CONvergence Board of Directors asked me to a meeting. There I explained the ways in which their actions (both firing me and the subsequent emails concerning my firing that they sent to the CONvergence Convention Committee) damaged the relationships I’d spent years building within the community, and thus impeded my ability to perform my roles as a communication facilitator since all communication exists within the context of trust relationships. Therefore, I requested that they send another email clarifying the situation.

On August 31, 2015, the CONvergence Board of Directors sent the following email to the Convention Committee:

To the CONvergence Convention Committee

On July, 8, 2015, the CONvergence Board of Directors sent ConCom an email containing inaccuracies that need to be corrected.

The email stated that Hal Bichel was asked to focus her efforts on Social Media. However, this wording did not acknowledge that in effect, emotionally, and in reality, Hal Bichel was fired from CONvergence Webteam, one of the two ConCom positions she held at the time. The email also did not acknowledge that the method and timing for her removal was handled poorly, which it was.

To that end, we’d like to clarify that Hal was fired from the Webteam co-head position at approximately 1 a.m. on Friday night\Saturday morning of the convention. Subsequent to that, at the concerns of the convention committee regarding what transpired, the Board of Directors reviewed the situation and determined that an egregious error was made.

As it was determined that Hal’s firing was erroneous, we felt it was appropriate to ask Hal to return to co-heading Web Team. That invitation was issued and Hal did elect to return.

We regret that the July 8 email contained inaccuracies that may have caused confusion about the situation, and we apologize to all concerned. We will strive to, at all levels of the organization, ensure that such errors do not happen in the future.

It is important to us to assert that CONvergence volunteers are not treated this way and we want to make sure they are never treated this way again.

The Convergence Events Board of Directors

SO NOW WHAT?

FOR CONVERGENCE

The silver lining of this situation for CONvergence is not hard to see—Convention Committee members were calling me “Mockingjay” for a while. What happened to me, and how I chose to respond, mobilized committee members with a vigor that’s been missing from the CONvergence con running community for a very long time. It made a lot of people wake up and realize just how much they give a shit about CONvergence, and that nobody else was going to fix its problems for them. We all need to step up to fix the problems. The convention, after all, is our gestalt. Without us, it is nothing at all. When we actually show up, it can be amazing.

FOR ME

Personally, this whole thing knocked the wind out of me. It was suggested that I should just walk away from CONvergence after this, but I feel like that would be expecting the organization to be something it isn’t. What it is, is a volunteer organization made up of people. Every person, including the Board of Directors, is doing this in their spare time, for free, running on limited bandwidth themselves. And people sometimes make mistakes. In this situation, the appropriate response is not admonishment, but compassion. My friends and collaborators made some mistakes and those mistakes hurt me very deeply. I understand why they made those mistakes, though, and that’s why I did my best to help them understand the situation better. It was emotionally challenging to do so, don’t get me wrong. But I believe it was the right thing to do.

That said, my relationship with CONvergence has definitely changed. Before CONvergence 2015, I would prioritize work for CONvergence before work for my other big project, Twin Cities Geek. Now I do it the other way around. Also, my ability to trust the CONvergence Board of Directors has been tarnished, and that saddens me quite a bit. Before CONvergence 2015, I’d never really considered that I’d want to stop working on CONvergence. Now I’m starting to form an exit strategy. But don’t worry—like everything else I plan, it’s probably going to be a slow burn.

This experience has also made me pensive about how I regard myself and how others see me, which is a dichotomy worthy of its own blog post, if I’m honest. Before, I guess I didn’t really care much how others saw me, or at least assumed they saw me how I see myself. Now, I’m not so sure.

Uncle Ben’s Wisdom isn’t just for Superheroes

Toby McGuire in Spider-Man 2 holding up spider suit

“With great power comes great responsibility”

Since I was a girl, my favorite superhero has always been Spider-Man. I think the reason for this lies in how his story is less escapist fantasy and more of a direct allegory for the struggle we all experience navigating our own sense of morality while juggling the (often conflicting) expectations thrust upon us, which can feel like more of a superhuman feat than we’re allowed to acknowledge. So Peter Parker may be a doofus at times—he’s a teenager, after all—but he and his situation are very relatable and compelling.

Before I get into this, let me first say that I’m well aware the famous Spider-Man line about power and responsibility did not originate with Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. But that was retconned three decades ago, and I think it makes the narrative and the characters stronger and more profound coming from Uncle Ben, which is probably why the retcon became so widely accepted. I also know that Voltaire said something similar.

Now that that’s over with, I want to discuss Uncle Ben’s famous advice to Peter:

With great power comes great responsibility.

–Ben Parker

This advice has a lasting and life-altering effect on Peter, as it is undoubtedly applicable to the wielding of super-human powers. It is a, if not the, central theme of Spider-Man. More often than not I see this quote paired exclusively with discussions around superhero-like abilities or access to unlimited resources. But relegating the correlation of power and responsibility to the realm of fantasy or of the one percent is a cognitive dissonance that I just can’t abide. So I’d like to talk about that a little.

The thing is, when Uncle Ben says these iconic words, he has no idea Peter has super powers; he thinks he is just giving advice to a teenager struggling to figure out what kind of person to be. Ben would probably have shared the same wisdom with you or with me or any other person in any walk of life. Super powers have, in fact, nothing at all to do with his advice. He is instead speaking to the great power we all have inherently to affect the world and the people around us, and how it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to use that power in a moral and ethical way. Certainly, the idea of using super-human powers responsibly is a direct allegory to this idea, but it’s far and away not the main point.

Uncle Ben tells Peter, "Don't try to be something else. Don't try to be less. Great things are going to happen to you in your life, peter. Great things. And with that will come great responsibility. Do you understand?" in Ultimate Spider-Man #4

Ultimate Spider-Man #4 (2000)

With great power comes great responsibility. This is not about how others wield power. It is about us. It is about you. It is about me. It is about how we all wield our own great power.

Do you think of yourself as someone with great power? You should.

  • You have the power to act.
  • You have the power of skills.
  • You have the power to influence.
  • You have the power to choose.

THE POWER OF ACTION

You have the power to take action that affects the world and the people around you.

Often we resign ourselves to complacency without even realizing it. We may be aware of unpleasant situations in the world or the hardships of people around us, but it is our actions, not our awareness, that actually affects these situations. If 80% of success is showing up, 100% of having an effect is taking action. That action could be as simple as stepping in when you witness someone being wronged, reaching out to a charity or nonprofit to offer your skills, or just lending any kind of assistance to someone you know is having a difficult time. These are the actions of a hero to those whose lives you affect. You wield great power in your action.

With great power comes great responsibility.

THE POWER OF SKILLS

You have the power to use your skills—whatever they may be—to affect the world and the people around you.

Any given person, yourself included, possesses skills that not everyone has. These skills could be anything: writing, creating art, performing, costuming, sewing, cooking, organizing, planning, accounting, designing, building, teaching, researching, empathy, patience, diligence, or you-name-it. The great power of these skills is truly mighty to anyone who lacks them. This really cannot be understated. And the great power of any one of these skills can be employed to improve the world and the lives of people around you in any number of ways—from lending support to a charity or nonprofit to simply assisting a person or people who need it, to being an instigator of such efforts. You wield great power in your skills.

Nova Corps members talk about Spider-Man's mantra in Annihilation: Nova #3

Annihilation: Nova #3 (2006)

With great power comes great responsibility.

THE POWER OF INFLUENCE

You have the power to influence others into affecting the world and the people around them.

Friends, family, and your community care about what you think and say. If you show them that doing something is important to you and why, often they will do what they can to support you in your efforts or join you outright. You can wield this great power as a force multiplier for any given cause or initiative, quickly and easily turning the efforts of one person into the efforts of many. You wield great power in your influence.

With great power comes great responsibility.

THE POWER OF CHOICE

You have the power to make choices that affect the world and the people around you.

You have the choice to reject complacency and act. You have the choice to utilize your skills. You have the choice to influence your peers. Your choices can be the difference between improving the world and the lives of people around you or . . . not. That pendulum swings both ways; your choices can also result in hurting people and making situations worse. You wield great power in the choices you make.

Close-up on Peter Parker's eyes, with captions explaining" with great power comes great responsibility" from Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (1987)

WE ARE ALL PETER PARKER

Peter Parker reminds himself every day that great power demands great responsibility. I try to do that, too, in everything I do and every interaction I have. I know—like Spider-Man—that it’s not always possible to help everyone or improve every situation. Like Spider-Man, we must balance the responsible use of our great power with other factors of life, including what is expected of us and our own self-care. Sometimes he fails or makes the wrong choice and pays for it, and sometimes I do too, and so will you. It’s okay.

This balance is a constant struggle for Peter and a central theme to most good Spider-Man stories. But that is what is compelling about him as a character; if we do our best to be responsible with the wielding of our own great power, it’s a constant struggle for us, too. Ultimately, though, it’s a struggle that is worth it. Ben Parker knew that and we can’t say he didn’t tell us.

Spider-Man is being interviewed by a reporter, and says, "Because a guy a whole lot smarter than any of us, once told me that with great power comes a great deal of responsibility. And that's not just for people with powers, like me. I think it goes for everybody, So, i'm just -- going to live my life that way and everything else is noise." in Ultimate Spider-Man #21

Ultimate Spider-Man #21 (2002)

How to use Twitter to get more from a Convention Appearance

Raise your Profile at sci-fi and comic conventions with Twitter header image

Twitter can be an incredibly powerful tool for anyone who is appearing, exhibiting, or presenting at a sci-fi, gaming, genre, literary, or comic convention. Using Twitter, I was able to help comic book artist Christopher Jones double, and in some cases triple, booth traffic and art sales at most of his convention appearances. I get a lot of random questions about this, so I thought I’d go over the basics of how it’s done.

I’m going to write this, hopefully, so a Twitter novice can get some useful guidance from it.

First, and most importantly…

FIND AND USE THE CONVENTION’S HASHTAG

One of the most useful things about Twitter is hashtags, which on Twitter are a platform-wide aggregate for tweets around a given topic. All of the tweets with the same hashtag can be displayed on one convenient feed for anyone who cares to look at it, and people certainly do look at hashtag feeds. Hashtags allow users who share the same interests to easily find each other’s tweets. It also lets people who are attending an event find tweets by other people who are attending the same event. This is huge.

By using a convention’s hashtag in your tweets about your convention appearance, tweets about presentations or panels you’re doing, or tweets showing off the wares you have for sale, you are advertising your presence to everyone else on twitter who is going to be at the convention. And almost always, this little awareness campaign will result in more booth traffic, better panel attendance, and more people being aware of who you are when you get to a con—the benefits of which are sort of self-evident.

So, how do you find out a convention’s hashtag? Some conventions have an official hashtag, and it can generally be discovered by looking at the official twitter account for the con. For example, New York Comic Con’s official hashtag is #NYCC, and it’s present in most of the convention’s tweets, making it easy to find.

Some conventions may not have a very strong social media presence or an official hashtag. But just because they don’t have an official hashtag doesn’t mean there isn’t a hashtag that people are using. Some hashtags, instead of being officially endorsed by a convention, sort of come into being organically by attendees deciding to use them. When this happens, there will often be two or three hashtags at play—generally different variations on the event’s name. To find them, you’ll just have to do some guessing with Twitter’s search function. Take a look at the feeds for the different hashtag variations and use the one with the most activity on it. If multiple hashtags have a lot of activity, try to use more than one.

To use a hashtag, simply add it to any tweet you’re writing about the convention, panels you’ll be on at the convention, what you’ll have for sale at the convention, etc. Here’s an example:

Other things to notice about that tweet:

  • It includes a photo. Tweets with photos get more attention.
  • It includes the location of the booth. This way people who see the tweet can find you.
  • Even though it shows off something for sale, it’s not overly “salsey”. This is a desirable sweet spot.
  • It actually has two hashtags for the convention, because I discovered a significant amount of activity on the non-official one. This happens sometimes too!
  • It has retweets and likes. So, basically, this is the sort of thing you’ll want to emulate.

Simply tweeting on a convention’s hashtag will get you more exposure. So the bare minimum thing you can and should do to raise your profile at a con is to just add the event’s hashtag to the tweets you’re already doing. But there is still more you can do on twitter to really maximize your convention appearance.

INTERACT WITH PEOPLE WHO WILL BE THERE

Once you’ve found the convention’s hashtags, you’ll be able to very easily find a lot more people who are attending the convention by looking at the hashtag’s feed. Interacting with these people is a way of making them aware of your presence and boosting your signal. So it’s worthwhile to reply to, like, and retweet other people who are also using the convention’s hashtags.

Generally, you won’t want to interact with every single person. It’s okay and actually preferable to be choosy and only reply to, retweet, and like the tweets that seem interesting to you and relevant to what you’re about; these are likely the people who are going to be most interested in what you’ll be doing/selling at the convention anyway. Also, you’ll often find other professionals who are going to be exhibiting at a convention tweeting on the con’s hashtag, and they will tend to be very enthusiastic about interacting on twitter regarding the convention. Often if you follow and retweet their tweets, they’ll follow you back and retweet your tweets, which is just another way to get your signal boosted (and make friends, too!)

That leads nicely into something else you might want to consider doing.

CROSS-PROMOTE WITH OTHER EXHIBITORS

There are a couple ways you can broach cross-promotion with other exhibitors or presenters.

For instance, if you develop a rapport with another exhibitor via replying to each other on the convention’s hashtag feed, it only makes sense to capitalize on it in a mutually beneficial way. To that end, know that it’s okay to direct message someone who has around the same amount of followers as you do and suggest that you two retweet a few of each other’s tweets every day leading up to and for the duration of the convention. More often than not, I think you’ll find they’re happy to make such an arrangement. (Note: I would caution against doing this with someone who has a lot more followers than you; they may feel you’re trying to take advantage of them.)

Another thing you can do, if you have a smartphone, is take photos of the booths around you at the beginning of the convention and plug them with tweets. Like this:

If you meet another presenter early in the convention, you can also take a photo of them or with them, and tweet information about their panel or presentation.

This can be an amazing icebreaker to establish a rapport with your neighbors and fellow professionals at a convention, and sometimes they’ll return the favor by doing the same for you, or retweeting your tweets. Everybody wins! Which actually brings me to…

NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK

Yup. Networking. That ever-looming, annoyingly amorphous key to the kingdom. I’m going there.

The reason I’m going there is networking is literally one of the things Twitter is built for, and it damn sure is used for that when it comes to conventions. In fact, much conversation falling into “networking” territory that might have happened at a convention even ten years ago now happens largely on Twitter between conventions. It makes sense if you think about it, given the way in which conventions have evolved—who actually has time to shoot the shit at these crazy, crowded things, especially if they’re a sought after individual in a given industry?

That you’re attending the same convention can be a way to initiate a conversation with someone you haven’t met before, and Twitter is an ideal platform on which to do that. You can reach out to someone on Twitter before hand, and you can follow up after an event in a much more casual, natural, low-pressure way than sending an email. Twitter is also a great way to continue a conversation you started with someone at a convention. Often you’ll spot industry folks having conversations on twitter, not unlike one would in a chat room—it definitely can have that in-the-moment quality of conversation. So, yeah. Networking. Use Twitter for that.

I suggest adding your twitter handle to your business cards.

business card of comic book artist Christopher Jones, showing his twitter handle

Christopher Jones’s business card

This is getting awfully long, isn’t it? Well, I’m not done yet. I have a couple more tips.

UTILIZE SCHEDULED TWEETS

Scheduling tweets is a fantastic trick for conventions, which I was sort of on the fence about giving away. But, you’ve read this far, so why not?

There are services that let you pre-schedule tweets to go out at specific times on your account. (I like Hootsuite, which is free.) The magic of this is that your twitter account can be automated to tweet on the convention’s hashtag about your signings, your panels, and the things you have for sale without you actually having to be constantly tweeting during the convention. You can just set it and forget it.

Screen capture showing scheduled tweets in HootSuite

Tweets scheduled for the hours before NYCC doors open.

Suddenly all this just got a lot more practical, right?

I like to schedule a lot of tweets for the two hours or so before doors open in the morning, because that’s when people are either in transit or standing in line. And what do people do when they are in transit or standing in line? Why, they look at social media on their phones, that’s what. And if they’re going to an event, it’s pretty likely they’ll check out the hashtag feed for that event. I also will schedule reminder tweets about panels and signings once in the morning, and once either an hour of a half-hour before the panel/signing begins, depending on the size of the convention. Then just a smattering of photos and other things throughout the day, is a good idea too.

RUN A RETWEET CONTEST

A pretty effective way to get exposure and followers at an event is to run a retweet contest on the event’s hashtag. Basically, pick something cool that you think people will want (free art is a no-brainer if you’re an artist; copy of your book if you’re an author, etc.) and give it away, using retweets as entries and stipulate that they must follow you to win. Something like this:

Look at all those retweets. That’s over 50 followers who were at the event, and who were much more likely to see all his subsequent tweets as a result of this retweet contest. Pretty slick, right?

A WORD OF CAUTION

There are a few things you should avoid doing during conventions (and just generally) on Twitter. So here’s a quick and dirty list of don’t.

  • Don’t repeat the same tweet or image multiple times in one day. That will just annoy people.
  • Don’t tweet at people you don’t know asking for retweets of your promotional tweets.
  • Don’t forget to balance your tweeting. Too many sales pitches turn people off. You need to have a mix of “just for fun” tweets and salsey tweets. And even then, best to not let your salsey tweets get too salsey.
  • Basically, if something would annoy you on twitter, don’t do it yourself.

IN PRACTICE

Doing all of this does take time. Reading the hashtag feed, interacting with people, writing good tweets, scheduling the tweets, and anything else you’re doing on Twitter is something you should literally make time to do as just another matter of business.

For a smaller convention, I’d say you should give yourself about a half hour per day of reading, interacting, and tweeting on the hashtag for at least the week leading up to the con. For a larger convention, double or even quadruple that—it just depends on how active the hashtag is. It’s also probably a good idea to spread out that time between mornings and the evenings. Additionally, budget about two hours per day of scheduled tweets for writing and scheduling tweets. (This can be done well in advance, so really just whenever you have time.)

Think of this time, like anything else, as an investment. When you utilize twitter to get the most out of your convention in the way I’ve outlined, your booth traffic will increase. Your panel & signing attendance will increase. You will sell more merchandise. More people arriving at the convention will already know who you are.

I have “how to” conversations with folks about using Twitter to raise your profile at conventions all the time, so hopefully this break-down of information was helpful to you.  If it was, feel free to follow @tlhInganHom (me) on twitter!

On the Sense and Senselessness of Personal Blogging

a cat who looks annoyed

How I feel about blogging.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about priorities and boundaries. I try (with varying success) to stay very cognizant of both because I know my overall well being will be like dish soap on a Slip ‘N Slide if I don’t. In particular, I have to remind myself that it is, in fact, a good thing to prioritize my basic needs over the commitments I feel to others. When my basic needs are being met, I am much better equipped to meet those commitments and maintain them. A hard drive disk will perform poorly if it’s not regularly defragmented; a person’s mind can also only function so long without routine maintenance before it crashes.

About ten years ago I blogged regularly and it was, frankly, good for my mental health to write down at least some of the damn near constant compositions between my ears. I think it helped me define and appreciate my own voice, which my admittedly nihilist tendencies more often than not lead me to profoundly disregard. Blogging—and forgive me if this sounds dramatic—reminds me that I’m not nothing. If I do not specifically carve out time and energy to remind myself otherwise, that is how I see myself. And I do recognize the futility in it.

So, here I am, writing a blog post today before tackling the rest of the items on my admittedly optimistic to-do list, when my first inclination is a strong obligation to jump right into the work that needs to get done. But writing as I am now will make me better equipped to do that work. I will complete it faster and it will be better quality if I just do a little maintenance first.

The obvious question, given what I’ve just laid out, is why did I ever stop blogging in the first place?

I’m very much of two minds about blogging. The benefits are clear to me, and I’m not just talking about mental health benefits. I know blogging helps with my website’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and I know that it has benefits for personal and professional networking. I also know blogging can be a tool for helping to facilitate many things, particularly culture shift. However, the format of blogging drives me up a wall; its informal nature feels like publishing a first draft. And I’m definitely not convinced of any inherent value from further diluting the contemporary written record of our culture with yet another verbose, indulgent, ultimately inconsequential voice.

Batgirl on the computer

Batgirl surfs the endless sea of crap that doesn’t matter.

I’ve always been a person who prefers constructive, pointed action to pedantic or reactionary discussion. I tend not to complain. Instead, I quietly look for solutions and do what I can towards implementing those solutions. While occasionally it can be an aid to constructive action, blogging so often just feels like a directionless exercise in wheel spinning to me. So, I stopped.

But now I’m starting again. And I’m probably being overly pensive about it. But that’s usual.

Maybe I’ll be a little less quiet.

Hello, world.

Strategy in Everything: My New Business Cards

Hey, look at that! I got new cards!

Showing front and back of my business card. Front reads "freelance awesome"; back has list of checkboxes & blanks to fill outI’ve been wanting my own cards for a while. Though, I already sort of had cards. I mean, I’ve had my “fixer” cards—they just say “FIXER” on the front and have my email address on the back—as a joke for a couple years years now. And of course I’ve got my cards for when I introduce myself as editor for TwinCitiesGeek.com. But I was missing a card for the thing I do most; generally introducing myself at conventions without the context of an in-joke or the local geek website I run.

I must admit I wavered quite a bit for what to put on them insofar as representing myself. But then I remembered the quirkiness of the market I exist in, and my own advice:

Your brand is your brand.

Don’t try to be a different brand.

Own it.

That is of course marketing jargon for, “be yourself”. Isn’t it funny how you can preach good advice to others until you turn blue, but still sometimes have to remind yourself?

So I did just that, and have adopted the moniker “Freelance Awesome”. It’s my way to say I can do just about anything well, but I definitely don’t fit into any kind of existing mold professionally or personally. And it’s powerful personal branding too, because it’s both confident and memorable. So, hey, why not?

The back of the card was much easier, because I’ve known I’ve wanted to do this for quite a while. It has a bunch of check boxes and blanks to be filled out when I give the card to someone. The point of this is to address two huge challenges with giving out cards at events:

  1. Folks collect so many flyers, literature, and cards, and talk to so many people, it is far from guaranteed they’ll remember who you are or why they were talking to you by the time they finally get home and unpack.
  2. Even if they do remember, it’s still pretty likely they’re going to simply toss out your card.

Now, there are other ways to deal with these challenges than what I’ve done. The most common thing to do is include a photograph or a piece of art on the card. This is a simple way to add context and encourage an emotional connection, making it harder to drop in the trash. It makes a lot of sense for models, performers, cosplayers, or artists to do this.

Another trick I’ve seen used to address these challenges is to add download codes or even a joke to the card, which gives it a tangible value. This could make sense if the download code is to a piece of your work, or if you are a comedian and the joke itself is a piece of your work, because the whole point of the thing is exposing the person to your work, which either is going to sell itself to them on merit or isn’t.

But I don’t fall into any of those categories. I provide services—primarily marketing consulting for creatives, but also content writing, blogging, editing, websites, social media management. So I don’t have any product per se I can lean on for my cards; I’m all about getting others’ stuff seen. However, I do have my personal brand. If you’ve ever talked to me when I’m actually “on”, you know that’s not insignificant. And that’s why the back of my card is what it is.

My strongest asset is, well, me and what I can do. So the little form to fill out on the back of the card is a way to remind a person of that by providing context for a conversation we had.  Also, generally a person is less likely to flippantly toss out something with writing on it.

Of course, if everyone adds a form to the back of their card, that’ll probably change and I’ll have to think of something else to stand out. So I guess I’ll just have to try to give out this whole box of cards before that happens. I’m not really worried either way.

5 Life Lessons I Learned from (and in spite of) my Mother

During my brief tenure working at Victoria’s Secret, one of the concepts they drilled into us was the idea that people usually won’t remember what you say to them, but they will remember how you made them feel. I’ve found this to be something of a universal truth and try to apply it in most walks of my life. It only recently occurred to me that it’s also true when it comes to my relationship with my mother. Coming up on five years after her death and ten years after she last spoke with me, I really don’t remember much of what she specifically said. I sure do remember how she made me feel, though.

Hint: I have absolutely zero warm fuzzies about my childhood.

I try not to dwell too much on the tragedy of the whole thing—as much as one can whose entire life was shaped by the maternal flavor of dysfunction. I know that fixating on the past does absolutely nothing to help me be a happy, well-adjusted person. I also know that ignoring the past is equally unhelpful. So I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of my runtime trying to understand the past, to understand my mother, and to apply that knowledge towards a net positive effect on the world and people around me.

Being a first-hand witness to her perpetual misery and lashing out at the world, including those closest to her, for most of my life did impart some valuable lessons upon me. And, though I am skeptical she was self-aware enough to have intended I learn these things, I do sincerely credit her in part for much the wisdom I now wield.

Highschool Graduation June 2004 - Hal and Mom

My Mother and Me at my High School Graduation (2004)

For better or worse, it’s what she gave me, and it shaped me into the person I am. It seems only fitting that I should share it on Mother’s Day.

1. THINGS WILL NEVER MAKE YOU HAPPY

I think most people have an intellectual understanding of this idea. Heck, I bet my mother did, too. Even so, there’s this insidious cultural programming we’re all swimming in that assures us how much happier we will feel when we acquire this thing or that thing, chalk up one accomplishment or another, or achieve some new, impressive status.

Watching Mom chase different things for years and never, ever be happier for them transcended any intellectual understanding I might have had. Rather than an abstract ideal on how to live, it is an intrinsic fact of reality to me. Things don’t make us happy.

Occasionally someone in my life will tell me that I should get this thing or that thing—a newer car, a house, a social position, or whatever. I don’t know what to do besides sort of shrug them off. The fact is, I am perfectly content getting by with what I need to get by. I really am not just saying that. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t have some goals in my life. I do. It’s just, there isn’t anything that I feel like I need, or that I should have. I don’t look at much at all and feel any desire to possess it. It’s a very freeing way to live and think.

I thank my mother for that.

2. HOLDING GRUDGES LEADS TO LONELINESS

One thing I did after Mom sent me her Dear John (you read that right; I didn’t break up with her. It was the other way around) was reach out to as many others she’d messily cut out of her life as I could. I did this because I was befuddled by her behavior and the things she was accusing me of. I suppose you could say I was just trying to make sense of the whole thing.

The list was very long. It included pretty much everyone in her family, everyone in my father’s family, my father, and former friends I remembered her having in my childhood. What I found was this common thread: most did not even remember or understand the things over which Mom had been so offended, she not only cut them out of her life, but then spent years recounting the ways in which they had done her wrong and were thus awful human beings.

Moreover, I discovered that most whom I had for the majority of my life been told were supposed to be horrible, evil, individuals, were in fact lovely, loving, and loved people. This was a sharp contrast to my mother, whom at this point in her life, did not have any friends I could recall. It was a sort of empirical evidence that was difficult to ignore or even twist logic around.

When I think back to my latest memories of my mother, I remember of a very lonely person, who was, in her most honest moments, angry and frustrated by her inability to connect with others on truly meaningful levels. In fact, it seems to me that she almost went looking for reasons to regard others as enemies as some kind of coping mechanism, and clung to grudges as a way to justify the behavior.

My Mother 2004

My Mother at Home (2004)

I have a lot of sympathy for her without excusing her behavior. I also learned from her struggle and the resulting fallouts that grudges mean infinitely more to the person holding them than anyone else, including whomever the grudge is against. I learned that harboring and harping on grudges, over time, will shut out everyone and make a person very lonely.

As a result, I endeavor in my life to not hold grudges. In fact, I work very hard to not be angry at anyone. If someone upsets me to the point that I am actually angry or hurt, I try to address it with them directly and appropriately and try to come to a resolution that absolves or lessens the anger or hurt. Likewise, if I suspect I have angered or hurt someone else, I try to address it directly, and, if not resolve whatever has made them angry, at least let them know that I care about how they feel. Because of this, I have more very real, meaningful friendships and relationships in my adulthood than I could have imagined in my youth. I am not lonely.

I thank my mother for that.

3. REMOVING YOURSELF FROM TOXIC SITUATIONS IS HEALTHY

Sometimes addressing anger or hurt directly and appropriately with someone does not lead to a productive resolution. It has been my experience that, in these situations, the other party is projecting frustration with themself and their own insecurities onto others. This is intensely destructive behavior and placating them to make them feel better in the short term usually just means the behavior will continue.

There was a time when I would placate a person like this for the sake of not wanting to hurt their feelings. This is called enabling. The fact is, it does not help them in the long term, it does not help you in the long term, and it certainly does not help any other people in that person’s life, because that person is likely projecting onto them too.

Plus, here’s the thing about not wanting to hurt their feelings: they are already hurt. They started out hurt before you did anything. The absolute worst anyone, including you, can do to an individual who is projecting their personal frustration and insecurity onto others is pick the scab off a festering infection. And the net effect on that is . . . basically nothing.

The best thing you can do is this:

  • Tell them you think they’re projecting and how their behavior makes you feel.
  • Remove yourself from the situation.
  • Keep the door open only on the condition they get help.

It can be very difficult, because often taking this step signifies some kind of ending. It feels like a failure and a loss, either of an existing relationship or one that might have been. And that’s tough. But it is worth it, because maintaining toxic relationships forces you to ignore your own needs, warps your perceptions of reality, fosters stress, and prevents you from being happy. Rejecting this status quo is about doing what’s best for you, not about holding some kind of grudge, or having any kind of effect on another person.

It was only after I was no longer placating my mother that I could begin to pay attention to my needs, actually trust my own perceptions, treat my anxiety, and learn to be happy. The perspective and strength I gained from losing my relationship with Mom—probably the most intense, influential, and codependent relationship of my life—has helped me take the difficult steps to remove myself from other toxic situations, which really does help keep me healthy.

I thank my mother for that.

4. INTROSPECTION IS KEY TO HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

It is easy to fall into the trap of projecting your frustrations and insecurities with yourself onto others, which can poison all kinds of relationships: family, friendship, workplace, romantic, etc. The only sure way I’ve found to avoid this happening is to maintain an awareness of what makes me tick.

Are you introspective? Let’s see. Think about the last time you felt angry. Why did you feel angry? If your answer is because someone else did something, or because something was a certain way, then you are not being introspective.

Every time I experience any kind of emotion, I try to ask myself why I feel that way—and the answer cannot be, “because [so-and-so] did [a thing]”. Someone else doing something or something being a certain way does not cause my feelings. My feelings are caused by how I react to those things, and I react certain ways to certain things for certain reasons. So do you. So does everyone. Understanding that whole chain of cause and effect is part of knowing oneself. That’s being introspective.

Often you will find that the root reason you are feeling a certain way has little to do with the event that actually triggered the feeling. Can you see where I’m going with this? It’s two-fold. First, self-awareness on this level prevents you from unleashing negative emotions on another person who does not deserve them, which is good for everyone. Second, it allows you to understand and thus clearly communicate the things that make you feel angry, sad, afraid, threatened, frustrated, happy, appreciated, and loved to those who you are close to, which is good for you because it helps ensure your needs are met.

Witnessing years of my mother’s incongruous reactions to things got me thinking critically about introspection at a relatively early age. First, it was to find out whether I was justified in feeling the feelings I did (she would have had me believe I was not). Then, it was to identify and cope with the triggers I’d developed after so many years of living in a very dysfunctional environment. Finally, as I’m approaching 30 years old, I have started to regard this level of practiced introspection as an asset and an advantage. I don’t hesitate to credit it for the vitality of the sustained relationships in my life.

I have to partially thank my mother for that.

5. THERE IS REAL POWER IN POSITIVE THINKING

Hey, don’t roll your eyes at me. I promise I’m not being trite. There is a reason I am thanking my mother in this blog post. There is a reason I am highlighting the positive outcomes of what was, frankly, a profoundly miserable ordeal for which I find myself mourning on more or less a daily basis.

I could focus on all the ways I was hurt, damaged. And I was.
I could focus on how I was held back. And I was.
I could focus on everything I never had and will never have.

But where does that get me?

I was told once as a teenager that I was a very negative person. Given what my life was like, I’m not surprised by that at all in retrospect. But I made a decision at some point that I would find the silver linings in every situation—even my deepest, darkest. I feel like I have. And, do you know what? It feels really good.

It prepares me to deal with other challenges and disappointments in the best possible way. It makes me more confident and more resilient. I almost never feel powerless anymore, just because I shifted my way of thinking. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, you know?

Thanks, Mom.

Baby Hal and Mom 1986

Baby Me and my Mother (1986)

Here Begins the Job Hunt. And I ramble about things.

Well, I finally finished my online portfolio. This is no small feat—in my mind anyway—since what I do feels so varied and so much of it is sort of behind closed doors. The majority of the stuff I write doesn’t exactly have my name signed to it, you know? (I’m working on changing that.) And I do worry that some of the examples being out of context will not be the asset to me that they have been to the brands they were written for. But I think I’ve managed to collate a decent enough representation of what I’ve been up to the last few years, for better or worse.

Now I have to find a company or organization that actually values worthwhile content development, community management, and brand building over cheap tricks and content spinning, and then convince them to hire me.

Hey, did you know there’s a buzzword for that? It’s “content marketing”, which basically means website content that isn’t a total waste of everyone’s time. That is, meaningful, quality content vs. regurgitated garbage or pointless, rambling drivel. Kind of depressing that there has to be a buzzword for that concept to be taken seriously, huh? And that it’s not just the default way webpages are written? (It’s hard not to be a little jaded about it after working in SEO for even just a couple years; there’s lots of pressure to spin content, pump out a lot of BS copy, and do other cheap tricks.) Fortunately, “content marketing” really is the only viable long-term marketing strategy if Google has its way in the end, or if you want to do meaningful brand building.

Okay, so I sort of have opinions about web content.

Or maybe I’ll try to find a front-end dev job and hope for the best. I don’t know, man. I just need employment so I can pay my rent and fix my car. I tried to freelance and I don’t think I have the balls to do it full-time. At least, not at this stage in my life.

And you know what else I’m done with at this stage in my life? Hiding who I am. I’m quick and quirky and eccentric, and I understand that sometimes makes folks uncomfortable (which I do what I can to mitigate.) And maybe it makes them think I’m not “professional” or something along those lines. But, you know what? I am plenty professional. I’m also creative, innovative, diplomatic, honest, and I’ll always, always, always go above and beyond to help out. It’s just in my nature. If something so superficial as the color of my hair or my name being Hal or the hobbies I have somehow overshadows that to someone, then it’s really, really not my loss, and I have to keep telling myself that. Because I genuinely need to not feel ashamed about who I am for 40 hours every week. It’s a line in the sand I’ve drawn. I don’t want to work for anybody who wouldn’t hire me.

Anyway, tomorrow I start sending out my resume. I’m a little nervous about it, if I’m honest.

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