Emily S. Whitten: The DashCon Disaster Mystery
Or, more coherently: on Sunday, my Twitterfeed suddenly started filling up with references to what, in honor of Holmes and Watson, we’ll call “The DashCon Disaster Mystery.” The first mention I encountered was from the Baker Street Babes, an all-female Sherlockian fan group well known and respected in Sherlock Holmes fandom. After reading about their experience participating as guests at the con, I started looking around to try to determine what the hell had led to what has emerged as a huge debacle from a con-planning perspective. And the more I read, the more I couldn’t believe what I was reading. In disaster terms, this con was like a plummeting airplane that exploded into a nuclear mushroom cloud of flames and failure. But to back up a little – you might be wondering what DashCon even is, and that’s fair, as, despite having co-founded a successful fan convention, helped to run several, and attended and reported on many, I’d never heard of it before it imploded.
So: to the Google! The internet is amazing, and sometimes I don’t mean that in a good way. A quick Google search for “DashCon” today pulled up “about 678,000 results in 0.22 seconds,” and I’m sure that number is growing. Even if your mom won’t ever know or care about what happened at DashCon, the internet, I assure you, does, and what’s more, it will never forget. Witness the fact that DashCon has already made it to Know Your Meme,, with one of my favorite bits of the whole disaster, the “ball pit,” as its highlight. (Apparently, when things started going wrong at the con, the organizers began offering “an extra hour in the ball pit,” a small children’s pool filled with colored balls in an otherwise fairly empty industrial-looking room, as an appeasement. Really the only thing I have to say to that is: LOL.)
Anyway. There has been a lot of good coverage already regarding what DashCon was supposed to be, but in brief: the plan was to host a gathering of Tumblr users (not sponsored or officially affiliated with Tumblr), focusing primarily on the sorts of users who post repeatedly about various Tumblr-popular fandoms, including Sherlock, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, etc.The con planned to have panels on these fandom subjects, and also aimed to address mental health issues posted about frequently on Tumblr, e.g. depression and anxiety. It also appears to have planned a number of panels focusing on gender roles, shipping (favored pairings of fictional characters), BDSM, and other romance or sexuality and sexual identity-related topics.
Planning for DashCon started in 2013 as planning for “Tumbl-con USA” (though Tumblr later made them change the name), with an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $5,000. The campaign raised over $4,000, although reportedly perks for pledging have still not been sent out. Moving right along, what appears to be a fairly large and decentralized group of con-runners started planning in a grass-roots fashion that was hilariously disorganized, according to the following accounts from someone who was actually involved in planning, outlined here and here. There appears to have been no strong leadership or guidance, and committees sound like they were formed haphazardly and given contradictory directions at various times. I can’t disagree with the poster’s evaluation that it was “a clusterfuck.” There really is no other word for what she recounts. Also, apparently a number of the people attempting to run this con were teenagers, and it appears that a fair number of the ones who weren’t were college-age.
Eventually the effort coalesced a bit more and there were two “co-owners,” at least one of whom is going to school to learn how to run conventions. Things moved along and the co-owners advertised the con with predictions of 3-7,000 attendees. Pretty ambitious for a new con right off the ground that wasn’t offering any major media stars, but hey – there are a lot of passionate people on Tumblr. You never know, right? Tickets were available for a slightly steep $65, or $80 at the door, with additional ticket purchases needing to be made for some popular panels. (New York Comic Con, with an attendance of 133,000 in 2013, sold its four-day pass this year at $95, and Awesome Con D.C., which had over 30,000 in attendance this year, is offering its 3-day pass for 2015 at $75, to give you some perspective. Both cons host numerous big-name comics, media, and genre fiction guests).
And lo, this past weekend, the time of the con arrived. Immediately things began to go wrong. There were complaints about the hotel and the con (like no WIFI, a really lame game room with literally one console, and under-eighteens being let into the over-eighteen panels). There was much lower attendance than predicted (1,000- 1,500 attendees in actual attendance). And then this happened. Although the post referenced in the video is now deleted, there was originally a post that went up on DashCon’s site, asking attendees, who had already paid to attend, to raise another $17,000-20,000 immediately or the hotel would not allow the con to continue (the number appears to have been originally $17K, and then they raised it to $20K after getting $17K). This was followed with an in-person plea to all attendees, as shown in the video. The DashCon site post stated that, “We suspect the demand for more money is due to the fact that upper management doesn’t like the people at the con.” No, seriously. Also, apparently DashCon thought it was a good idea to ask successful or famous genre creators for help, via Twitter. And then the con-runners and attendees actually managed to raise the money right there, encouraging donations and celebrating with a Hunger Games three-finger salute and various fandom-related victory songs, followed by “We Are the Champions.” The play-by-play of this part of the whole debacle is pretty hilarious, while also being pretty saaaaad.
Of course, despite money being secured, legitimate guests who had been invited to the con with promises of costs being covered and/or compensation became very uncomfortable with the whole shebang (as referenced in the Baker Street Babes post above), and ultimately the folks who were probably the biggest draw of the con, Welcome to Night Vale, had to withdraw from their planned appearances due to non-payment of the funds promised. They weren’t the only ones who got stiffed – the BSB did as well despite having fulfilled their promised obligations, and as of now have still not been reimbursed despite being told they would be; as did Noelle Stevenson, author of webcomic Nimona. And that’s where things stand now, except that the convention’s official explanation for the impromptu fundraising insanity is here and sounds completely insane.
Listen: here’s the thing about founding a convention and convention-running: it’s freakin’ hard. It can also be fun, and depending on what kind of con you’re running, even profitable; but it’s not like baking a box-mix cake.
When done right, it’s more like researching all the other cakes that have been made or are being made by observing how they came out of the oven, tasting them, and trying to talk to a variety of sometimes really helpful but sometimes eccentric or secretive or exclusionary or proprietary bakers about the ingredients they used on the icings and layers of their cakes and how much the ingredients cost and where they came from, and how long and at what temperature the cakes were baked and all those other little details of making a cake from scratch. And at the same time trying to obtain or even create your own ingredients on a strict budget and through a series of negotiations with ingredient suppliers, and find a small fleet of master bakers to help oversee the various layers and icings and decorations (and inevitably ending up with more bakers-in-training, like yourself, than experienced chefs, which of course means more oversight and direction is necessary). And at the same time trying to start making the actual cake because the prep work for a really good cake can sure take awhile. And then eventually mixing the ingredients together in different bowls simultaneously, paying attention to every part of the process at once, and carefully layering them together. And then when it’s finally time to bake the cake, keeping a closer eye on every angle of the cake to ensure it doesn’t burn or even go up in flames. And then decorating the cake and presenting it artistically to the hungry customers. And then, after all the cake has been eaten, cleaning up all the dishes and washing of the countertops and ensuring every dish is in its proper place before turning off the light.
That’s what founding and running a convention is like. It takes a lot of research, and a lot of preparation, and a lot of dedication, hard work, and coordination. And I’ve been a part of all that, in both good times and not-so-good. So I get it, you guys. I really, really do.
So when I say, “DashCon -seriously, what the hell??” I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of mockery (amusing though it may be) or being malicious. I am genuinely asking: how could this con have possibly screwed up so epically? It doesn’t seem possible for it to have happened without gross mismanagement. I mean, yes, some of the issues, like a disappointing game room or under-attendance compared to what was expected, are not completely disastrous and could possibly happen despite good effort being put in to planning. But as someone who has helped to found and run cons and has negotiated hotel contracts, I can tell you at least this much: a hotel or convention center that has a contract with a con suddenly asking for $17-20,000 that the con didn’t expect to have to pay at that time is complete bull. Either the conditions of payment were in the contract and the con-runners didn’t read or understand those conditions when they signed, which is appalling negligence on their part; or there is something dishonest going on. And given this post, well, at the very least the con-runners claimed to have a handle on their agreement and contract with the hotel as of eleven months ago.
Whatever actually happened, I hope that at the very least, the guests who attended the con and the people who gave money on Friday night in what really amounts to extortion (give us your money or we take away your con) are reimbursed as much as possible; and that everyone who was involved in planning this or who is considering organizing a con takes away a valuable lesson in how not to do things. Because DashCon promising a fun con when they must have realized at some point beforehand that they could not deliver and then serving up a mediocre weekend funded by last-minute extortion is like a baker promising a hungry room full of diners forty cakes while knowing that Lex Luthor stole them all when no one was looking. And that’s terrible.
But so as not to end on such a grim note, I shall leave you with the best thing to come out of DashCon.
And until next time, Servo Lectio!