Geek & Fan Culture Posts

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:

11236160_10152969777542061_1544986526603474721_n

11665433_10153370051341113_446152098381649463_n

11666310_10153319225200255_7997005616396228905_n
10384365_10152881935736697_1558100913694286805_n

11894398_10207412784183014_7914285320449497725_o

11667503_10206998057176543_8167110958454215857_n

11028010_10154041165768642_8177301424552244221_n

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.

%d bloggers like this:
%d bloggers like this: