Can we be friends (or at least acquaintances at a conference)?

I was whining to my friend Ashley the other day about something that’s been on my mind and she told me to blog about it (which I somehow forgot is generally what I do when something’s on my mind).  It seemed like a good enough idea, so here we go:

If you are at the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference in Omaha this weekend and want to talk to me, do it.  It doesn’t have to be about atheism – it could be about the weather or football (though I’m not generally a fan of small talk, but you get the idea).

Why do I feel the need to say this?  Because the last year has been very interesting for me.  At first, when more attention was getting paid to me and my various projects there was just a bunch of tee heeing all around between me and my friends.  As I have been asked to speak more and more and as blog traffic goes up (apparently it’s at about 20,000 unique hits per month according to Katie, which boggles me) those close to me keep telling me I’m becoming ‘famous’ and that I should, at the least, acknowledge it.  Greta Christina tells me this regularly.

‘Famous’ – I really hate that word, honestly.  It makes me feel pretentious, even if I’m not the one saying it (and when I do write/say it, it just leaves me with a very sour taste in my mouth).  I don’t think I’m famous, not even close – which creates some cognitive dissonance when people I trust, like Greta or Jen, tell me I am.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m flattered to be asked to speak and I doubt there’s a whole lot of people who dislike recognition for doing work they’re passionate about.  I like all these things, but coming to grips with the idea that I’m becoming more known is really weird.

Recently, going back to the American Atheists and American Humanist Association conferences in April, I’ve had people say things to me at events like “I’ve been trying to get the nerve up to speak to you.”  This is no good.  I mean, I’m touched that some people think so highly of me, but I really don’t know how to react when somebody says something like that (other than to blush and say thank you).  It’s very surreal.  Nine months ago I was a college student.  Even today I pay rent on a tiny room, go to work, and go home and write/chill, pretty much just like everybody else.  I am aware of the growing recognition, but I don’t feel any different – I feel like any other atheist in the movement, same as I did in college, and I like that.

We all have different roles in this movement: one role I’ve fallen into is that of a speaker. Other people do behind- the- scenes organizing, or grassroots activism, or donate money, or work in their everyday lives to do visibility and education. All of which matters every bit as much as what I’m doing, if not more. It’s weird to me to get special praise or recognition for my role, that other people playing other equally important roles aren’t getting. I don’t want being on stage to separate me from the people in the audience or behind the scenes, many of which are doing just as much work as I, if not more. We’re all equally badass.

I know…what a ‘problem’ to gripe about, right?  Oh gawd, I’m soooooooooo popular!  Whatever will I do?  I realize that this is a ‘problem’ that most people would love to have, and I do feel kind of lame lamenting it at all.  I’m not saying I dislike the utility of more people listening to what I have to say (or even the adulation), I just dislike feeling disconnected from those around me, which is the point I’ve been hiking to throughout this post (while trying to avoid sounding stuck on myself…easier said than done): I like meeting people.  I like hearing peoples’ stories.  I would likely love to hear your story.  I want to know why you became an activist and what has worked for you.  I want to know your favorite color.  I want to be a part of the lives of other like-minded human beings, just like all of us.  Sadly, it’s much more difficult to forge a genuine connection with anybody if they are watching what they say or trying to impress in some way.  It’s so odd to me that someone would feel that way about meeting me, but it’s happened enough times now that I can’t help but give it thought.

If you find yourself in Omaha this weekend and want to speak to me, do it.  Pretty please, do it.  I don’t bite.  In fact, those who know me will vouch: I will probably be more nervous than you (I’m very shy meeting new people).  When we meet, be prepared to tell me something unique about yourself so I can get to know you as a part of this movement for which we’re both working.

We’re all in this together.  I want to know who I get to be teammates with.  If you want to chat with me then I want to chat with you.  Track me down and say hi – no nerves.

I wonder if it’s even possible for someone to address a situation like this without sounding like a pretentious ass.  I hope so.  I wrote this because I’d rather take a chance at being viewed as a pretentious ass than possibly missing out on meeting anybody who might be too shy to say hello.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • John Eberhard

    Both famous……and infamous!

  • http://donaldmorton.wordpress.com Donald Morton

    Are you going to be at Skepticon? I wouldn’t mind saying hi. One problem with meeting speakers that I noticed at FreeOk, though, is they typically are either quite busy organizing things or talking to other people.

  • JT Eberhard

    Donald,

    I will be. Yes, we can get busy. At worst, you may have to wait your turn – but, at least in my case, I’m willing to hang out however long (and have demonstrated this in the past). I just wanted people not to avoid saying hi out of intimidation or feeling like I’d be annoyed, which has happened enough for me to worry about it. If somebody wants to say hi to me or even have a chat, I’m flattered.

    JT

  • Jeremy

    Don’t feel like a douche for blogging about that JT. Remember that like anyone famous, you have a larger audience, and can reach out to more people than say…myself, who is resigned to debating on Facebook and with close proximity acquaintances.

    Your fame is a tool man. Use it. Be you, regardless of how far you go and what you accomplish. Keep that down to earth grace that makes you appealing, it will offset the results of your celebrity. Perhaps most important, when you feel disconnected from us lowly peons ;-), share your feelings on the matter. That will keep you grounded. Keep fighting the good fight buddy.

  • John-Henry Beck

    It’s a nice view up on the pedestal though, isn’t it?

    Besides, JT, it is all your fault. You know, all that work to organize Skepticon, the speaking, all the great writing. Maybe we put you up on that pedestal because down amongst the rest of us you make us look bad.

    Anyway, I can’t help you with Omaha, or with meeting new people. But I know plenty of people that would be glad to hang out with you and treat you like just another interesting guy. Or like a juke box…that’s actually a good possibility too.

  • Michaelyn

    You mean…I should *gulp* talk to you in Omaha? :P

    Not pretentious at all. Very humble, actually. You do a lot of great work, and many (including myself) admire you for it. I’m glad we’re friends :)

  • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com The Nerd

    I’m not famous, but I did have someone approach me at Skepticon and say “it’s really you! The Nerd! Can I get my picture taken with you?” and I’m like “they love me, they really love me”. And you know what? I’ll take unearned awe over “hey dipshit!” and a smack on the head any day.

  • http://www.atheismresource.com Adam Brown

    Say hi? Hell no I won’t just say hi… I’ll kiss you right on your mouth! Yep, I’m going to tongue you in front of everyone. What? This comment is public? Oh crap.

    I feel your pain JT. I have people email me all the time like I am some guru because of http://www.atheismresource.com. I tell them what you said… I’m just another atheist. One with a great website, some marketing skills, and a desire to help. Just embrace it and use it to inspire people. If someone comes up and speaks to you and is shy because they think you are famous, USE IT. Use that moment to inspire them to do me, be more, and love every minute of it. MSU grad JT may be fun to hang out with, but JT Eberhard or the SSA, the great speaker and “future of skepticism” can inspire change.

    Don’t shy away from it. Be you… and make other people want to be you too.

  • http://mid-west-atheist.blogspot.com/ Volizden

    Jt who? I knew this Jt kid once in college…

    Dude, fame is exactly what its meant to be, a tool to get people to notice what your working on. Don’t let it bug you. Besides you always have asshats like me in the background who can pull you off to the side if you really think you getting a big head, Believe me I think we would tell you.

    Oh and everyone else, JT is a real down to earth guy who is more than approachable, he loves chatting, moonlit walks on the beach, a good wine and some cheese, oh wait um…. Anyway, don’t worry that he can conjure up a statement or two from the far reaches of his mind that makes you go, “How the fuck did he know that” HE’s is intelligent but easy to talk too as well.

  • http://mid-west-atheist.blogspot.com/ Volizden

    Oh I wish I had proof read that before submitting…

    BTW Adam Did you mean:
    “Use that moment to inspire them to do me…”
    Or
    to do MORE…

    To do me that was AWESOME!!!!!

  • Karthik

    But there’ll be tons of people in queue now to just say a ‘hi’ because you are famous :( I’ll just be another insignificant ‘hi’.

  • Insophisticatta

    Listen my friend,
    I generally do not interject my opinion, however on this subject I feel compelled. Just as there is such a thing as pretentiousness there is such a thing as being overtly modest. I am in, what I expect is the not so uncommon position of having experienced firsthand the fruits of your efforts. I have been a dedicated athiest for the majority of my life and I recently attended “Rapture Day” at Wichita State University. My participation in atheist activities is nothing unusual except this paticular day my wife and her faith were present. For all of the passionate rational I extended her, no matter how articulate, she was unreachable. When she left that day she left and athiest and I know from our converstations since that the majority of that fact is attributable to you. I am now able to raise my children as free thinkers on a united front. Words do not express what this means to me. Rest assured, the next time I have the privledge of attendance at an event in which you’re present I will most certainly take the time to say hello.

  • Steven Groesbeck

    I had not read your post or most of them before attending the Omaha conference. I got to see first hand how shy you are and why you are seen as famous. I think you explained yourself well and didn’t come off as pretentious. Don’t get me wrong. I knew before I talked to you that you were one of the bigger fish in the Atheist pond. I could rattle on and on about what I learned about you, but I can sum it up simply by saying you made me feel welcome. Some speakers you feel are talking to you when they are on the podium, but off, they become distant. You were powerful in your talk and equally as strong being a good person before and after. I look forward to seeing you are other events.

    Thank you for your being you.


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