Written by Michelle Lehr
As I write this introduction, DashCon 2014—the first-ever Tumblr convention—is less than twenty-four hours behind us, yet it’s already gaining notoriety as one of the biggest convention disasters to date. Some of the event’s more positive descriptions contain words such as “mismanagement,” “inexperience,” and “best of a bad situation,” while harsher critics have—metaphorically speaking—opened-fire with full, flaming rounds from their finest weapon: the internet.
Now, let me start off with this: every single staff member and volunteer with whom I interacted this weekend? An absolute delight. I did not have one negative experience with any of the convention staffers; they were helpful and almost criminally nice. They all clearly cared about the convention and gave it their all, even when the spit started hitting the fan.
That being said, let’s get this party started.
We arrived at the con around 9am in high(ly caffeinated) spirits. Upon entering the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, my first thought was, “Wow. Fancy.” My second thought was, “Too fancy. Way too fancy. Abort mission. Abort mission!” Seriously, this was not your typical convention hotel. Our room’s bathroom had a television in the mirror. There were crystal chandeliers. The lobby area featured a stylized fireplace, relaxing fountains, and a snazzy bar cordoned off by a metal-beaded partition. Not what I was expecting from a first-year con.
After getting settled in our room, my friends and I headed for con registration, which opened at 10am. There was no line when we arrived, and we’d paid the $65 weekend pre-reg, so it took us less than ten minutes to get everything taken care of. While we were getting our badges, I caught my first whiff of con-snafu: the group at the next station had registered several people with the same credit card, but the staffer could only find one badge for them in the computer. Thanks to the miracle of smart phones and email receipts, the group managed to show proof of the badges they’d paid for, and the staff member issued the proper number of badges, but he remained unable to account for them in the computer.
Oh well. A first-year con always has a few kinks to work out.
Having registered and admired the badges—high-quality plastic and printing, especially for a first-year con—we found ourselves at a bit of a loss. The con’s opening ceremonies weren’t scheduled until 1pm, and there weren’t any panels or events until then. We spent a few minutes wandering around, complimenting cosplays and nerdy t-shirts, but there really weren’t a lot of people with whom to interact. My companions decided to search for food, and I headed back up to our room to peruse the schedule.
Fast-forward through a few hours of fighting to get the schedule on my phone—we were never offered a hard copy, and the con didn’t even seem to have one, so it was a necessary battle—to the opening ceremonies. The convention heads, or “business-owners,” introduced themselves from a table at the front, along with the security head and one of the musical guests. They did a brief Q&A, talked up Time Crash and Welcome to Night Vale, and bonded with the audience over shared fandoms and Tumblr experiences. They all seemed enthusiastic and friendly, if slightly susceptible to meandering off-topic.
After the opening ceremonies, my group decided to hit up the dealers’ room before it got too crowded. The badge-checkers handled the influx from opening ceremonies efficiently; we were queued up for maybe thirty seconds at most, and then we were in. It was a nice set-up: combination artists’ alley/dealers’ room, kind of on the small-medium side, but an appropriate size for a first-year con. Although it was already 2pm, some of the dealers hadn’t arrived or finished setting up yet [ED: according to a friend, vendors only had four hours to set up before the hall opened, which is ridiculously rushed], but there was still a great deal of variety. Fandom representation was pretty decent: the Superwholocks maintained a definite presence in both artists’ alley and vendor sales, but other fandoms weren’t overwhelmed. High-quality prints were everywhere. Crafts also had a decent foothold: handmade jewelry, apparel, accessories, and even cosmetics and dishware were available. One booth sold out of flower-crowns before Friday hours were over, and Cara McGee’s fandom-tea table was packed throughout the weekend. Creativity was present in spades.
As we meandered, I kept an eye on my watch. Prior to the con, DashCon had chosen one hundred Tumblr-users in a random lottery for admittance to a meet-and-greet with Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor, and Cecil Baldwin of Welcome to Night Vale. To my inexpressible delight, my URL was one of the winners. At 4pm, I lined up for the ID check; the event didn’t take place until 5pm, so most of us spent the hour chatting and exchanging WTNV-related experiences.
Around 5pm, DashCon co-owner Meg Eli ushered the three guests to their two-chaired table—oops—and addressed the audience while someone procured an additional seat. She assured everyone that there would be plenty of time for each person to chat, get autographs, and take photos—my brain hooked onto that one for a moment: sixty minutes divided by one hundred people, hmm—and then had us start lining up by rows.
The front of the line felt a little rushed; most people didn’t start lingering or taking personal photos until about halfway through. DashCon probably should have cut down the number of lottery winners or extended the timeslot; however, I won’t lie to you here, the experience was fracking amazing. Cecil Baldwin, Jeffrey Cranor, and Joseph Fink are the flipping nicest people in the history of life; they gave each person their full attention and made it transparently obvious that they cared about each and every fan who approached their table. Anyone who might have assumed otherwise after the Saturday Incident? I promise you, it’s a false inference. These people legitimately care about their fans, and I respect the heck out of them for it.
As I suspected, the meet-and-greet ran late; the con didn’t schedule any buffer-time, so it cut around fifteen minutes from the next panel’s timeslot. This caused some minor traffic as incoming panel-attendees tried to grab a quick moment with the exiting guests. I decided to stay for the panel—it seemed awkward to make my escape at that point—and got to take in “Strong Female Characters and Where to Find Them.” The panelists were enthusiastic and did a great job engaging the audience; their panel was kind of general and loosely organized, but they kept everyone’s attention and stayed on-topic, and I enjoyed their overall passion for the subject.
But then, things started getting…weird.
The time: 9pm. The room: Schaumburg A. The panel: Welcome to Night Vale Listening Party.
We had barely gotten underway on our first episode—the panelist was a no-show, so a few of the DashCon staff went out of their way to procure speakers and an mp3 device containing the podcast—when the door opened at the back of the room. Three staffers appeared and announced that, due to a financial issue, they’d have to move us into the ballroom. It sounded like they were just moving the panel, maybe due to an issue with room reservations, which isn’t unheard of. In the hallway, however, my friend and I realized that all the panels were being herded into the ballroom; something big was going on. We joined the crowd toward the back, just in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat.
The scene: Attendees milling in groups, wildly speculating. Staff members spread out among them, expressions confused. A convention head, approaching the podium. Silence falls. An announcement is made.
According to the speaker, the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel had come down with a case of “buyer’s remorse.” They were unhappy with the “type of clientele” the con had brought in, and “within the contract,” they were entitled to demand the money still owed them by DashCon, which totaled a now-infamous $17,000. If the convention couldn’t comply, the hotel would start kicking people out and shut down the con.
This announcement caused a brief uproar, which the staffers in the audience quickly reined in, much to their credit. To the credit of the attendees, they allowed themselves to be calmed pretty quickly, which was an achievement, given the high emotions and huge group.
The DashCon spokesperson told us that they had set up a PayPal link for emergency donations, and that they would also accept cash at the front of the room. The bottom line: if we wanted the con to open on Saturday, we had to raise this money tonight. We were advised against acting in anger, and asked instead to “keep calm and carry on,” and to donate anything we could, even if it was only a dollar or five. Attendees quickly rallied to the cause, and within twenty minutes, we had reports of $9,500 in cash, with PayPal tallies incoming.
(The cash donations, as has been noted, were not recorded in any manner. We simply started to fill up bags.)
Speakers continued to approach the podium at intervals, reporting totals, boosting morale, and keeping the crowd riled up. Tumblr’s unique community made it fairly easy to band everyone together; popular memes and fandom references permeated the atmosphere. Specific examples included:
- “Down with Strex! Down with Strex!” (WTNV)
- “I came out to have a good time, and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now!” (meme)
- “What team?” “WILDCATS!” (High School Musical)
- “What do we say to death?” “NOT TODAY!” (Game of Thrones)
- An impromptu chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (Les Miserables)
- A follow-up impromptu chorus of “Carry On, My Wayward Son” (Supernatural)
And of course, the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games trilogy, which was quickly adopted as a signal for silence when an announcement was forthcoming. Throughout the experience, upper-level staff were visible on-stage, some crying, some accepting donations, some directing additional staffers. Now and then, someone stepped to the microphone to urge us on. “We are so close,” someone told us. Emotions were running high.
As a fandom-person, I can say this with utmost confidence: fandom-people, generally speaking, are an intensely emotional group. We dedicate incredible amounts of time, energy, and passion to the things we love, whether they be films, comics, books, television shows, anime, podcasts, theatre productions, bands, or any number of other media. When we care about something and feel it’s been threatened, we can go from zero to frenzy in a fraction of a second. This was the atmosphere in the ballroom on Friday night. Anyone who’s ever experienced a mob mentality? We were at that point. The convention was threatened, the crowd was riled up, and we had a time limit that prevented us from considering the situation thoroughly. I won’t lie to you; I donated a few bucks. So did my friend. The emotional high was infectious, and the convention organizers appeared both frantic at the situation and touched by the response.
One of the DashCon co-owners, Cain Hopkins, approached the microphone and addressed us through tears. We were so close, he told us. He was followed by Jesse Duvall, the person who had been speaking most frequently throughout the night. “Cain was in tears because of you, because of how perfect and beautiful and generous you all are,” he said. His voice caught, and he paused before speaking again. “This is the greatest hour I’ve ever seen of people coming together for something they care about.” He told us that a contract lawyer was coming in—an eruption of fresh cheers—and that, to clarify, “If you’ve bought your room, you still have your room. You can still stay here for the three days you paid. Not sure if you’d want to…”
And then, the announcement of the night: “We made it, guys!” Applause exploded; people were in a full frenzy. “This couldn’t be possible without all of you, thank you.”
Meg Eli stepped up to the microphone, crying, and voiced her own thanks. She’d talked with many of us, she said, with many of the panelists and volunteers, and she was overwhelmed by this response. Someone started playing “We Are the Champions” through the speakers, and the audience began to sing along. Jesse returned to the microphone and delivered the most concrete expression of victory he had: “Whoever’s running eleven ‘o clock panels, get thee hence!” The crowd dispersed, buzzing with chatter.
I made an attempt to catch some of the organizers before they could vamoose. Jesse Duvall, the announcer, crouched at the edge of the stage, talking with three or four attendees. It turned out that he was a vendor, not one of the convention organizers, which surprised me. He told us that he’d gotten his information from Cain, and that he’d stepped up because the crowd needed someone to speak. According to Jesse, Cain told him that if we’d gone over on donations, the extra money would be donated to a “charity of Tumblr’s choice,” which seemed reasonable. (At this point, there was no mention of refunding donations.) I thanked Jesse for both his time and his public speaking—he did a great job for such an impromptu decision, and his motivation came from genuine passion, regardless of the situation’s overall fishiness—and took my leave.
Still buzzing on adrenaline (and possibly from a solid 35 hours without sleep), I dropped off my contact information and a Q&A-with-the-organizers request at the staff room, then headed to my hotel room to fire off a backup email to con admins, repeating my request. And then it was bedtime.