What makes !!Con feminist?

Back in December 2019, when we were organizing the first !!Con West and trying to line up sponsorships, I was exchanging a lot of email with folks at tech companies who we hoped would sponsor the conference.1 During one of those conversations, the developer relations person I was talking to made an offhand comment that struck a chord with me: “I’m so glad I can send you emails with multiple exclamation points and not feel like a weirdo like I sometimes do.”

I tweeted about that, then forgot about it for a while. But during the ramp-up to this year’s !!Con, I was reminded of that conversation by a tweet from Amanda Visconti in March. “I am so here for @bangbangcon’s feminist commitment to joy, wonder, and exclamation points in techwork”, she wrote.

You know, in eight years of working on !!Con, I’m not sure if we’ve ever explicitly articulated the idea that puting an emphasis on joy, excitement, and exclamation points is feminist. But it is!

There’s this well-known phenomenon of women having to carefully manage how we use exclamation points. I’m sure there’s, y’know, actual scholarship on this, from people who actually study this kind of thing, but all you have to do is search Twitter for something like “men exclamation points email” to find hundreds of anecdotes. There are women who are frustrated about having to add exclamation points, and women who are frustrated about having to remove them. The point is, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we use exclamation points, we’ll be seen as unprofessional, flighty, inexperienced, and not to be taken seriously. If we don’t use them, we’ll be seen as nagging, abrasive, and cold.

Since there’s no way to win the game, the only thing you can do is to try to come up with a way to subvert it, to undermine its power. So at !!Con, that’s what we do. You must use at least one exclamation point in the title of your !!Con talk. It is mandatory. There is no more dilemma, because there is no more choice. You might think that this leads to a miserable experience of Enforced Chipperness, but since participation in !!Con itself is opt-in

I talked about this a bit in a podcast interview with Phil Guo back in 2016:

We had talks this year that made people laugh, that made people cry, that made people scream, “Holy shit!” — and this doesn’t necessarily happen at the average conference. In fact, we’ve had people react to the videos of !!Con that are available on the Web, saying, “This audience sounds way too happy. They’re laughing way too much. Are they drunk?” You know? “Is this…? How can this be? How could people be expressing this much enthusiasm at a programming conference?”

And I think that one thing that makes !!Con special is that we try to create an environment in which it is safe to be as enthusiastic as you want to be. There’s no need to, you know, act cool and jaded at !!Con. And that’s good, because the kinds of things that you will see are absolutely stunning. We had a talk this year from Sina Bahram, who’s a blind hacker, and he showed us how he interacted with JAWS, his screen reader, at…I don’t remember how fast it was, but it was — uh, it was way faster than the average person can hear. He was listening to his screen reader, coding this way. He was listening to music while he was doing this. And it was an absolutely stunning demonstration of, you know, what he’s capable of, and what the technology is capable of. I said a second ago that there were talks that made people scream, “Holy shit!” — I was the person screaming, “Holy shit” while this was going on, because it was so absolutely stunning. And that’s, I think, typical for !!Con.