There has been a lot of debate around this year’s Business Meeting motions since I wrote about them last week. Kevin tells me that elsewhere it is being said that anyone who is against the “No Cheap Voting” motion must be in favor of free voting. They’ll probably carry on doing that no matter what I say. If you are interested, Seanan McGuire has a lot to say about why some sort of cost to participate is necessary, and she’s right.
There has also been a lot of discussion about the economics of membership, and possible changes to the WSFS Constitution that might allow us to lower the cost of a Supporting Membership. These are good discussions to have, and I hope we can get the cost down further. However, such discussions are irrelevant to the “No Cheap Voting” proposal. It doesn’t talk about what the price should be; it simply seeks to establish, as a matter of principle, that lack of wealth should be a barrier to participation. If it passes, I fully expect people to argue that, regardless of the economics, the price of a Supporting Membership can never be reduced below the roughly $40 that London is charging, because that would make it “cheap”. Then they’d start arguing that $40 is “cheap”, and begin asking bids if they will increase the cost of a Supporting Membership in line with the will of the Business Meeting.
A much more relevant issue is that is the concept of a “sense of community”. People are saying that they want Hugo voters to feel that they belong to the World Science Fiction Society, and that somehow paying a lot of money for the privilege will give them this sense of belonging. I’d like to look at that idea in more detail.
I accept the fact that there are people who think that the only “true” members of WSFS are the people who go to Worldcon every year, and actually help create the event. They have clearly invested far more than just money in the event. Some would like to restrict voting in the Hugos to that group (and indeed participation in the Business Meeting is still restricted to that group). For them, a Supporting Membership is simply a means of allowing people who would otherwise be regulars to keep up their participation in those few years when actually attending is impossible for some reason. It is a valid position to hold, but one I disagree with. Once the convention grew beyond the size that all of the people who attended could reasonably be involved in staging it, I believe that position became untenable.
The problem with the “sense of community” argument is that someone who pays $200 to attend when Worldcon is local to them, but never attends when it isn’t, is somehow deemed “part of the community” for that year and deserving of a vote, whereas someone who pays far less every year but never attends is somehow “not part of the community”. I think that this is thoroughly muddle-headed.
Someone who only ever interacts with Worldcon as a paying member when it is local to them, and who never takes part as other than an audience member, does not generally feel part of WSFS. Many of them don’t even bother to vote in the Hugos. They see Worldcon as a foreign event that costs a stupid amount to attend, but which they go to because of the big names they’ll get to see. Once the con is over, they have no interest in it until next time it is local.
The people who really feel part of Worldcon, and of WSFS, are the people who will go to Worldcon when it is local, and will buy a Supporting Membership in years when it isn’t so that they can carry on being part of the excitement. That’s the sort of community I want to foster. It may well be that someone who lives in, say, Japan or Australia can only afford to attend Worldcon one year in ten when the convention comes to their part of the world. That’s inevitable with an international event.
Colin Harris said yesterday in a comment that there is a feeling amongst Worldcon regulars that the Hugos are becoming dominated by people who are only interested in the Hugos, and have no interest in Worldcon. Presumably that’s because the proportion of voters who have supporting memberships rather than attending memberships is going up. Maybe some of those people genuinely don’t care about Worldcon, but it is my contention that most of them do. Most of them would love to attend regularly, they just can’t afford to. They are amongst that group of people who will attend on that one year in ten when Worldcon is local to them, but will buy Supporting Memberships the rest of the time.
Furthermore, I maintain that if those people are buying Supporting Memberships whenever Worldcon isn’t local, then they are far more likely to volunteer to help stage it when it does come back. And indeed they are more likely to become part of a bid to bring it back. That’s what community building is all about.
So how can we foster this sense of belonging? How can we encourage people to become part of WSFS every year? Well, a cheap Voting Membership is a possible tactic. It has been suggested, but hasn’t been tried. Personally I would prefer to have Worldcon find other things that it can offer to Supporting Members that would encourage more people to think that $40 was a reasonable price, but I appreciate that can be difficult to achieve.
What certainly won’t foster a sense of community, except amongst some of those who are already members, is passing motions that appear to be specifically designed to make that community seem elitist. The question is, what sort of community do you want: one where you dig in, protect what is yours, and don’t let anyone else join; or one that is open and welcoming to as many like-minded people as possible?
If Worldcon is to be a truly international event, and especially in a time when international travel is becoming more difficult rather than less so, I think it is inevitable that people who want to support Worldcon will outnumber those who can actually attend. Let’s welcome those people, find more ways to get them involved, and build a bigger sense of community.