Skittish Creatives Desperate for Respect

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Day One of the Nerd Convention opened just as dark and cold as yesterday, but I didn’t actually see yesterday morning what with the jet lag and various other travel-induced deliriums, so a violently brisk Boston morning was certainly news to me. Oh sure, the first three minutes of the approximately eight-minute walk were almost pleasant, but it didn’t take long for my trek from the Park Plaza to the Westin Copley to become a stoic and grim affair. Like a good spoiled suburbanite, however, I was soon rescued from Oblivion by the life-giving ambrosia that is cardboard-coffee, and settled in well enough once I followed the other nerds up to the Westin’s third floor.

The tone was set right away: a criminally chirpy emcee welcomed everyone with a jolt of enthusiasm right out of high school student government, but that was tempered soon enough by the day’s keynote speaker. A grizzled veteran of the early ’90s web biz, he regaled us with horror story after horror story, gradually creeping toward the obvious thesis of “Web Designers Ain’t Got No Props, Yo.” Which is true these days, more or less—now that giddy, venture-capitalistic investors aren’t throwing money around like they were a decade ago. It was a twelve-step keynote speech of Doom and Danger, leavened by a single slide with the word “Trust,” accompanied by the Elvis Costello album cover of the same name, and somewhere, Bret Easton Ellis shuddered with adolescent embarrassment.

The somnambulant masses were then treated to what was surely the sweetest punch of shame ever thrown at such a gathering, when the second speaker used her friendliest Midwestern charm to genially berate us all for ignoring the coagulating standards of web accessibility. “Deaf and blind people want to pay for internet porn too,” she shrieked, fiercely gripping the podium, “so all of you better make damn sure your .jpg images carry the proper alt tags!” That was definitely a cause I could get behind. Hell yes, madam, whatever you say. Equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all. This is still America, right?

Precisely, and I ruminated on that very concept all the way through the next lecture—about “innovative web standards”—but for the life of me I cannot remember a single thing about the speaker or his chosen topic. That mattered little, though, once the free lunch was rolled out, and we were all encouraged to flock to marked tables labeled with certain interests, so as to “facilitate discussion” in a presumably Athenian-Academy kinda way. It did, sort of—I naturally chose the “blogging and social publishing” table, and was deep in a discussion with a Florida grandma and MIT administrator about the endless vagaries of Drupal, Joomla, and other fiendish Content Management Systems, when the same chirpy emcee strode into our midst with two aging beauty queens on his arm, yapping away about the NFL and how terribly the Packers had failed this weekend.

“Excuse me,” said Mrs. MIT, “but do you have anything to say at all on the chosen topic?” The emcee smirked and her and, without missing a beat, shot back “I do indeed—I could tell you all about my favorite Steelers blog, but you’re not that into football, are you?” His arm candy tittered in vapid acknowledgment, and I took that as my cue to leave. I wasn’t away long, though—the home office in Ventura was running just fine without me, thanks very much—and so came back to the table to find all antagonistic parties had gone in favor of a social publishing guru, who held court among several Twittering acolytes.

“It’s all in my new book,” I heard him say, and he looked up as I approached, dodging the nimble Westin wait staff. “Here man,” he smiled, tossing me a flimsy paperback, “have a copy. I’ve got, like, eighteen of them to give away. Vanity presses are weird like that, you know?”

“Oh, tell me about it, dude,” I gushed, thankful for the opportunity to spew forth about my own recent forays into the world of Self-Publishing. Turned out that this guy’s lecture was next up, so I slipped in to absorb some reheated wisdom about Moveable Type, Facebook, Digg, Delicious, and all that other wide-net-casting awesomeness that the kids these days are so into. It was a nice change of pace from the insistent doom and gloom until the guy asked about how our companies were doing in the current Bush Recession. We exploded into myriad tales of woe—going on and on about personnel cuts and mountainous expenditures and ditches of debt—but he just stretched into a knowing smile.

“Relax, you lightweights,” he said. “This is nothing like 2001. I mean, it was so bad back then that I had to quit everything and work for UPS! As a driver!” He backed it all up with a quote about “being unique and interesting” from Morphine’s Mark Sandman, and we “mm-hmmed” in sympathy, but the session timed out at that point, and everyone herded back into the main conference hall for a double-bill of Style Sheets and User Interfaces. It was a bleak, marathon session, presided over by a designer-turned-programmer with a background in stand-up comedy.

“This is some awfully dull shit,” he said, grudgingly admitting that CSS might not be everyone’s cup of tea. “Seriously, folks—most of you will probably be bored to fucking tears, okay? I dare you to stay awake!”

“I’ll take that bet,” I hollered from the left-hand corner. “I’m not afraid of your piddly style sheets!” He gave me a sidelong glance, but kept his cool. “I’ll take guff now and again from random peanut galleries,” he sneered, “but there is some shit I will not eat. I know your kind, dude—I’ll bet you’re an inline CSS user!”

The audience gasped in fright, and I hung my head in shame. “You got me,” I said. “What can I say—it was a low-budget job and we were desperate for the work.”

“Never mind that,” he replied, waving away my worries. “It takes a big man to admit when he has fucked up, and your strength will not go unrewarded.” I then got several personal insights about the labyrinthine secrets of Photoshop, much to the envious ire of my fellow conventioneers.

Two hours later, we slouched out of the main hall famished—but the conference was feeding us dinner, and no one was about to pass that one up. My two drink tickets were gone within minutes, however, and I soon found myself slightly drunk and standing around the bar with Social Publishing Guy, two nursing home IT people from Maine, and a giggling marketing girl from North Carolina. They all ranted and raved about how awesome the next conference would be—at SXSW in Austin—and considering those variables, I had no choice but to agree. Austin would be a great place to talk shop and then go party.

After throwing in a few choice, relevant anecdotes about the dangerous social hazards of my past life in Isla Vista, though, it was time to brave the elements and trudge back to the hotel. There would be plenty of time on Day Two for more technologically enhanced, hyperbolic enthusiasm.