Lost in NYC: A dev blogger at BlogHer 2012

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I had a whirlwind month, going from Portland, OR to New York City and hitting many conferences and meetups at each. I’m writing about NYC and BlogHer first while it’s still fresh in my mind. PDX, OSCon and World Domination Summit are soon to come.

What is BlogHer?

BlogHer is the largest conference for bloggers in the world, and the vast majority of the attendees are women, although recently token men have been spotted. BlogHer was founded by three women in 2005, and with each year it grows larger and larger.

When I visited BlogHer, it felt otherworldly. I was adrift in a sea of women who write online for fun or profit. They all use blogging software yet few of them know HTML or CSS. Surrounding us were businesses and interests thrusting bags of swag and free cocktails at us, hoping we would put a good word in to our readership.

I imagine this is how a politician feels being courted by lobbyists.

BlogHer Demographics

More than half of the participants weren’t white. Looking across the room, you could literally see that it was true. It was a good feeling, especially after attending so many development conferences where the overwhelming majority of faces are white and male. However, that says a lot about who builds the Internet and who writes the Internet.

Attendees ran blogs focused mostly on family, thrift, or food, (aka mommy bloggers, coupon clippers, and foodies) with a smattering of other topics. My blog is one of those “other topics.” The common ice breaker, “What do you blog about?” was hard to answer without risking boring my companion, so often I’d say something like, “I write about crafting sites with HTML and CSS, and I used to make comics for a living.”

My Panel

BlogHer 2012 Slide
One of the slides showing all three panelists' artwork.

I headed a panel called “Telling Stories with Pictures: Incorporating Graphics, Cartoons, and Iconography.” You can find a live-blogged transcript at the BlogHer site. My co-panelists were Shalini (said like “colony”) Miskelly and Jessie Oleson. Shalini runs a blog where she uses stick figure cartoons to illustrate points and Jessie runs a blog (turned book!) about baking where she uses illustrations to stand out from the crowd.

BlogHer Panelistas
Thanks to @cadmium_red for taking this picture of the three of us.

This was probably the best panel I’ve done yet. The BlogHer organizers did a great job of choosing my co-panelists. We nailed down what we wanted to cover ahead of time, and I tossed together some slides using our illustrations, a new slide for each topic. We didn’t have the attendance of some of the other panels at the conference where attendees had to sit in the aisles, but we were up against some class acts. In fact, I was disappointed when I realized all the panels I was circling on my schedule were opposite mine! But we had a full room, and those who attended brought excellent questions and were quick to laugh at our jokes.

A cartoon of all three panelists
JC Little did this cartoon of us on her iPad while we talked. She was doing all kinds of neat cartoons of panelists at BlogHer.

I heard from three people that it was the best panel they’d seen at the conference, and one person even said it beat out the panels she’d seen at SXSW and Geek Girl Con. High praise indeed!

Other Speakers

President Barack Obama opened for us over Skype (watch Barack’s address on BlogHer) and basically recapped all the things he’s done for women during his term: Fair Pay Act, free birth control (so wish we had this when I was single and struggling to start my career), repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We stomped and cheered. For about two hours afterward I was still giddy. BlogHer tried to get Mitt Romney to come, but he declined.

Martha Stewart and Katy Couric also gave keynotes. Both were inspiring, and I especially enjoyed hearing Martha’s description of cobbling together and ruling her empire. And then she gave us all subscriptions to all her publications on the iPad. A show of hands revealed that half the audience had iPads. (Since I do not, I gave my subscription to a friend who did.)

Martha Stewart's new line of home office equipment
Martha Stewart is also launching a new line of home office supplies (sadly, not in colors I use!)

The Tech Scene

I met very few tech bloggers, designers or developers, but I did meet one web designer from Brazil, Ludmilla or @juicysantos. On Saturday night we went out for drinks at the Warwick, a hotel I stayed at as a child. I had a great time meeting her, talking shop, and learning how small businesses survive in Brazil.

The Expo Hall was also a source of many tech demos, and I managed to find a number of exciting things such as…

Samsung TV with motion capture apparatus mounted on top
This television from Samsung can recognize motion via a sensor on top. You can play games and change channels just by waving your hands. Truly I felt like I was watching the future as an old woman played Angry Birds without a controller.
A bath tub that plays music
A bath tub that massages you by amping up the bass. No, seriously. I wish they had live demos.
Neato, a Roomba-like robot
Neato, a Roomba-esque floor-cleaning robot. This little robot looks a little clunky, but it seemed effective. It uses a laser to scan the room and chart a course. The variety that cleans up pet hair looked very interesting, but alas, their giveaway ended that weekend, and I was too late to enter. Could definitely use one, ha!
Samsung mobile devices
Even more Samsung goodies. I came back to this area a lot. I really like Samsung products.
I won! Woohoo!
I came back to the Samsung booth so often I eventually won a Samsung Galaxy S III! It's my dream phone! But I promptly had to sell it online because it doesn't work with Virgin Mobile's pay-as-you-go plan. I'll just use the proceeds to buy their iPhone 4S. It's a pity that the carrier limits the model in this country. In Russia, I'm told, you buy your phone and your chip separately.
Caffeine and Honey Drops
It wouldn't be a geek fest without caffeinated candy, now would it? I was free to help myself, and I did so with gusto.

I enjoyed many of the tech demos and kiosks, although I wished the booth suits had more technical knowledge. (How does that Samsung motion sensor work? What platform is it? Dude didn’t know, but was sure my kids would love it! (I have no kids and will never have kids. End comment nesting.))

Marketing to Women

Although I was excited about the connectivity Samsung was showcasing and interested in what Verizon and Logitech had to show for themselves, I was disappointed to see so much “shrink it and pink it” going on. What’s more, I was surprised how well some of it seemed to work–at least at gathering a crowd.

Logitech booth with women getting manicures
The Logitech booth was giving away manicures...
Fancy patterned Logitech keyboards
...which somehow related to their pretty new line of keyboards and mice?

Almost all of the charities appealed to mothers with phrases like “the power of motherhood.” As a child-free woman, I felt left out.

At least there were events for singles and LGBTQ women, but I was reminded of this comic by Erika Moen (whom I just met in Portland):

A comic by Erika Moen wherein she questions if we should identify ourselves by who we sleep with.

Are we, as people, solely identified by our genitals, who we use them with, and how many offspring we’ve had? Does it eclipse all other interests and accomplishments?

I’ve been to many conferences where white men were the majority, but never have I been made to feel more like a walking uterus than in the Expo Hall at BlogHer. I don’t blame the conference so much as the companies sending representatives and advertising firms designing booths. The BlogHer organizers did a great job promoting diversity on many different levels, from reaching out to niche bloggers to organizing swanky mixer events. But if you were to judge the conference solely on the contents of the Expo Hall, you’d be hard pressed to imagine it wasn’t the mommy blogger’s version of Dragon Con.

In Conclusion

Even if I was somewhat bewildered about how to interact with so many women, freshly loosed from their domestic and professional obligations and given a heavy dose of free alcohol, food, swag and glowsticks, I was able to find my groove and meet many wonderful people. I got to room with an old fan of my comics, have Harley Davidson and pedicab adventures with one particularly tenacious mommy blogger, discuss political action in line next to both a liberal and a conservative political organizer on two separate occasions, watch a fashion show of all different shapes and sizes (which led to a lost phone adventure which further proved the Inherent Decency of Humanity). I did a lot of things and met many kinds of people I never would have before, and that’s what made this a great experience.

Rachel Nabors poses next to Twilight Sparkle
Me posing with the most awesome geek ever, Twilight Sparkle, at the Hasbro party. Is there a better picture to leave on?

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