Hackers sure love their cons. And their mini-cons within cons. So much so, that the term “con” became impossibly over-used in the very early 21st century. The lockpicking gathering at DEFCON and elsewhere wasn’t the “Lockpick Village” yet, it was LP-CON. Getting your hair clipped by the badasses in a corner at the 303 party? That’s “Mohawk Con” you’ve just attended. Joining a bunch of folk together for sashimi and nigiri and maki? “When and where is SushiCon?” you would ask GM1. (Or SmooshiCon, heh, if you were in D.C. in early February)
OK, so, truth be told… some of these events were not “cons” in any real sense. They didn’t charge for admission, they didn’t have badges, and –perhaps most of all– they didn’t run concurrent to an entire other con’s duration.
This may be one of the biggest questions and concerns that arise every time someone advances the idea for something “new” at DEFCON or any of the other important hacker events around the country and around the world. Is this new idea something that will add to the overall energy and vibrance of the event? Or will it dilute the energy and ultimately pull people in other directions as opposed to bringing them together?
Many times, the strongest and most passionate voices on topics such as this speak out when the “new idea” pertains to people who don’t feel central to the hacker world. Groups who either perceive themselves to be not a good fit for DEFCON / ShmooCon / HOPE / etc and their friends/family/parents will sometimes suggest a side event in order to bolster inclusion or otherwise “ease” people’s access to this scene. Instead of being met with support in all instances, however, there are many times when criticism and perhaps even outright derision have ensued.
While I find myself having difficulty nailing down the right words to express all of my views on this topic, I feel it’s an important area of discussion. A number of us have diligently been kicking this topic around on Twitter, but being limited to 140 characters and spread across a number of time zones hasn’t led to the deepest and most meaningful dialog. So I’m just going to lay down my beliefs here for a bit and then let others chime in…
Side Event vs Side Track vs Off-Site vs Brief Gathering
Perhaps the most substantial way in which people planning a new event can disagree (both with each other and also with the existing community) can bear on the duration and location of their NewIdea-Con. Best tip from me? If you can’t deeply justify a reason for pulling people and energy away from the main con, err on the side of “nearby” and “brief”
Many things that have been dubbed with the suffix “-Con” are little more than meetups, frankly. Two great examples are QueerCon & DEAF CON. QueerCon has historically been a party that takes place one evening, and it was at the DEFCON hotel as frequently as it has been offsite. DEAF CON, the Deaf and HoH hacker meetup, takes place chiefly in the chillout area on one or two afternoons for an hour or so. Similar events (without the name “con” attached) are the Military Veterans’ Meetup and the Podcasters’ Meetup.
In all of these cases, there has been utterly no avenue to criticize the organizers for “pulling folk away from the main conference” substantially. And yet, while the “meetup” segments themselves are just an hour or two, in many ways these side events reward the participants for the whole main con itself. They do so by enriching those people’s overall con experience (as in, these participants spend 90% or more of their time at the main event, not a side event) and helping them make new connections while still attending and experiencing much of the rest of the main con.
Happenings and gatherings that have attracted greater criticism, however, tend to be ones which are of longer duration or appear to be exclusive in some manner. Two examples here are DEFCON Kids (now sometimes known as ROOTZ) and various Wives / Significant Others tracks.
DEFCON Kids was proposed as a means to offer greater options for inclusion of teens and even younger folk at DEFCON who might not otherwise be allowed to wander around by their parents. Almost immediately, however, the DC Forums lit up with a cacophony of protest and howls of criticism by old-timers, even while others spoke up defending the idea.
“There are already plenty of things for kids to do at DEFCON!” said those of us who organize events suitable for all-ages.
“But I don’t want my kids seeing drunks puking and waving dicks around!” replied concerned parents.
“If we start to make DEFCON sanitized for the kids, then pretty soon I won’t be able to smoke and curse even!” responded the most bacchanal among us.
“Look, this is happening. Get on board with it because we’re trying it out!” said DT, preventing further roadblocks.
Heh, ok… so virtually none of the conversation went like that, really. I’m over-generalizing a LOT and using much hyperbole. But to hear people recount the arguments made by others you’d think that some of the above sentiments were truly being expressed.
I can only speak for my personal experience, so here it is…
I run the Lockpick Village with the rest of the TOOOL staff at events like DEFCON. We, too, were sometimes the subject of concern that “we occupy a lot of space and take up loads of people’s time” etc etc. We have generally countered the strongest criticism by pointing out that there aren’t hard time requirements for participation in our area and that folk can wander in and out virtually whenever without missing out on anything here or at the rest of the main con. Also, we repeatedly resist offers of greater space and chances to extend our operating hours, in order to encourage people to NOT sit with us the whole weekend.
Now, when DEFCON Kids was created, Nico and her staff (side note – i adore Nico and think she’s great. Her daughter, CyFi, kicks ass and their motivation for all this was good and came with the best of intentions) they approached us and said, “Can you send one of your people our way and give a lockpicking talk in our side track room?”
My reply was, “Well, instead of me pulling one of my staff members, having someone lumbering all the way down there with a ton of gear, etc… why don’t the kids come to OUR area, the Lockpick Village, and we’ll have a very specific talk set up for them, etc?” In my view, offering a limited and watered-down version of our topic to a limited group of kids in a small, side room was not likely as rewarding (to either them or to my people) than it would be to just have them all mingle with the rest of us in the Lockpicking area itself. Indeed, TOOOL loves family participation.
Ultimately, of course, DEFCON Kids (a.k.a. DEFCON ROOTZ) has become established and they staunchly wanted to have all their learning and work take place in their own room. TOOOL does send someone (often me, actually) to their track and give a brief talk. We try to just be so engaging and interesting that we manage to get some of the kids and their families to leave their limited area and join us in the Lockpick Village later.
But can you see from this story why some of the “established” events and organizers and participants feel that new ideas have as much potential siphon off energy from the main con as they might bring new energy to it?
Wives and Significant Others
So now yet again we have an issue coming to the surface in the way it tends to pop up from time to time. For just about as long as I have ever been coming to cons in a substantial way (since around 2000) there have been folk offering up suggestions for a “girlfriends” event, or a “lost souls lunch”, or some other type of support/camaraderie network for people whose significant others are hackers, but who don’t feel like hackers themselves.
The main problems with these kinds of plans often fall into the following (admittedly broad) categories, which I’ll express with quotes (hypothetical and paraphrasing, these are not anyone’s specific words)…
“If you don’t want to be at the con, then why are you there? If our community isn’t interesting enough for you, then just don’t attend.”
“Instead of having a side event which might pull your husband/boyfriend aside, why not just join us at the main event to keep the energy up there?”
“I am NOT here with a boyfriend/husband/etc. I am a technically-capable and competent woman and if your event takes place I really don’t feel like being asked all the time if i’m here for the ‘wives group’ or anything like that!”
Again, these are almost caricatures of the real words that are offered, but the themes are valid in many ways. And it’s these themes I’d hope for us to explore, perhaps in the comments below (because that’s always a good idea)… i’ve got some spam filtering and moderation enabled, but i’ll do my best to see the discussion isn’t limited if it happens here. I’ll be hiking Diamond Head today, but should have GSM coverage.
If the potential organizers of this new event are serious about improving things for the community and making things good for as many people as possible, let me offer the following suggestions…
1. Brief is better – at least in the first year, try to gear whatever you are creating as a “meetup” and not a side track or long-duration activity. The closer it is the the main conference, the better. Off-site events smack of “we aren’t interested in your community and don’t want to really ‘be here’ but we’ll make due in order to ‘be around you’ while you ‘do your geeky things’ at this con”
2. Technical and not Social – want hackers to take your new side event seriously? gear and frame it as “outsiders who want to learn more and become more interested in geeky topics” and not “easing our outsider experience by bringing more ‘mainstream’ topics into the hacker con” … in the past, this suggestion has been met with the reply, “I don’t want to learn anything new, and I don’t care about this geeky stuff. I’m just here to make sure my man behaves.” If that’s your feeling, we have little to discuss.
3. Remove Gender and Identity from the Theme – oh dear GOD please if you take away nothing else from this post, take this away. It is almost always a fucking disaster anytime anyone attempts to create something “for the women” or, even worse, “for girlfriends”… it is patronizing, it is exclusionary (in name if not actually in theme), and it creates no end of goddamn headaches for the wonderful and talented women who are 100% part of the hacker world. Whether you think it’s fair or right or anything of the sort, the moment that you have a “Wives” or “Ladies” or “Hack my Vagina” event at a con, then a whole litany of people (many of them ignorant or socially backward or just plain foolish) will start to see every female at the main con as “probably here for that side event for girls.”
Is this unfair? Is it a shame that your new event can get undermined by idiocy and ignorance that isn’t even your own doing? Yes. yes, it is. And that doesn’t make it any less true or real.
And this isn’t even getting into the fact that many significant others and “noob” family members of hackers aren’t female, or married, or easily tagged by so many of the labels that these new events often have. PLEASE stay away from ANY language that applies to a specific family structure or life arrangement (assuming people to be married, hetero, with kids, etc) or any language that is specific to one sex or gender (since our community is astonishingly terrific about making all sexes and genders and identities — which are all different things, if you are not aware — feel welcome) as this opens you up instantly and needlessly to criticism of many kinds. There are many women and men who attend together with their significant others, both of whom are hackers. There are guys who are there with techy and hacker women, frankly, when they themselves aren’t 100% in the scene. And, being hackers, there are plenty of people who just don’t easily fit into any category or group or role and limiting language will lead to more division, not inclusion.
I think that making the hacker world more accessible and open to new people is a good thing. Historically, ours has been the community where outsiders can always find a home, can find companionship, can find support, and can even sometimes find the family that they never had elsewhere.
Taking steps to help our biological and social families become more tied to our hacker and technical families does not stem from bad intention. As long as you name yourself and gear yourself and frame yourself as inclusive and you stay away from anything that could lead to criticisms of (a) siphoning off energy from the main event or (b) being just for “women” or “wives” then there’s going to be much we can discuss and I hope many drinks can be shared… with lots of new people who want to be a bigger part of our world.