This is going to be long, for which my apologies, but I think it is a debate that needs to be had. I’ve been involved in running fan conventions for a couple of decades now, most specifically Worldcon. Kevin has been doing it for longer. So I do have some idea what I’m talking about. And I’m starting to think that the model we have is broken, and needs to be abandoned, or at least radically overhauled. There are lots of reasons for this.
I note also that I have been working on this post for some time, and would have run it on Tuesday had the whole “the Hugos are corrupt and misogynist” thing not blown up. It is, of course, even more relevant now.
Exhibit 1: Access to Funding
I had a very interesting conversation with Mihaela on the way to the airport in Zagreb. Like the Finns, Croatian fandom is able to raise money from government grants. They don’t get as much, but then Finland is an older and richer country. What they do get is important to them. Much of that money comes, ultimately, from the EU, and therein lies the problem, because the EU is starting to introduce stricter standards for deciding what organizations to fund.
There’s no question of anti-SF bias here. The EU has no problem funding science fiction conventions. But they are starting to ask that any arts body that they donate money to is properly incorporated and has at least one full time member of staff. It can, of course, be a non-profit organization, but it does have to show the ability to get the job done. A bunch of mates doing something in their spare time as a hobby doesn’t cut the mustard. And you know, this is public money they are handing out here, they do have a right to be cautious.
Of course this is directly contrary to traditional fannish ethics. We’ll reimburse expenditure, and some conventions will comp program participants, possibly after the event and only if they have enough money. But no one, absolutely no one, gets paid. If a Worldcon were to talk about employing fans as staff I can guarantee a flame war to end all flame wars.
I have no idea whether this affects Finland, and if so how. Hopefully someone will tell me. In the UK the chances of getting money for a fan-run event have always been ridiculously small anyway, and the US doesn’t do government subsidy of the arts much at all, for anyone. As a result, we Anglos can put our heads in the sand and carry on as before. But I’d like you to consider something else.
The main reason why so many of the people involved in running Worldcon come from relatively privileged backgrounds is that it takes one heck of a lot of time, effort and money. Volunteering is not cheap, and many people can’t afford to do it.
The thing I liked most about Madeline Ashby’s contribution to the Worldcon debate was where she pointed out that people her age (early 30s), even in a prosperous country like Canada, have no hope of owning a home, or being able to afford a family. They also, of course, have no hope of job security, and if they have any sense they’ll be worried sick about pensions too.
It was all so much easier when I was Madeline’s age. The job for life thing looked like it was going away, but we all figured that we’d have our own homes, we’d have families, and we’d retire on a good pension. Giving something back to the community seemed like only the right thing to do. These days, younger people have way too much to worry about. And that’s just the middle class white people. I suspect the situation is far worse for people of color, for disabled people, and so on.
I have a great deal of sympathy with them, because when I took the decision to transition I was giving up much of my privilege. I lost my home, I lost my job, and the company running my private pension scheme told me I had forfeited all of the money I had paid in. (I got it back eventually, but I haven’t been able to afford pension savings since.)
Pro tip: if you want young people, and people from minority groups to get involved in con-running, try to remove the economic barriers that prevent them from volunteering.
Exhibit 2: A Membership, Not A Ticket
That brings us to another scared cow of fannish traditions: the idea that a convention is a community, not a show, and that you get out of it what you put in. As with not getting paid, I have a great deal of sympathy with that in theory, but aside from really small events like Corflu and SMOFcon I don’t think that it ever worked in practice. Even at something like BristolCon (membership between 250 and 300) I’d be prepared to bet that more than half of the attendees want nothing more than to buy a ticket and be entertained. At something like Worldcon the proportion of ticket buyers will be much higher.
I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can still have a community of people that is more heavily involved in the event than most of the attendees. But people have been talking about Worldcon being “exclusionary” of late, and I can’t think of anything we do that is more exclusionary than telling people that they will only get out what they are prepared to put in.
Besides, for an event like Worldcon the general public ought to be a cash cow. They’ll give you money to come in, and they are much easier to look after than the average convention-going fan. Talk to the Finns about the difference between running a 10,000 person Finncon, which is open to the public for free, and a 4,000 person Worldcon. They know that the latter would have been harder in many ways.
It may be that we can get away from this idea without giving up on fan-run conventions. Certainly the Finns seem to manage. So do the French. And Liburnicon tries to do the same thing. But old-time British and American fans are so wedded to the “membership, not a ticket” idea that it is going to be a really hard sell, if not impossible.
By the way, please don’t fall for the tired, old “lit-fan-membership / media-fan-ticket” dichotomy. People who are media fans can work just as hard on fan conventions as anyone else. And people who read books are often very keen on gate shows. What do you think literary festivals are?
Exhibit 3: Fans Are Inflexible
The thing that really got me thinking down these lines was this post by Andrea Philips, who sees the problems of Worldcon being all down to it being a fan-run event. Her basic thesis is that fans, being fans, are too selfish, insular and stupid to ever be able to appeal to anyone beyond their own narrow interests. Was I insulted? You bet I was.
Still, apparently all fan-run events have a duty to think outside of the box and reach out to people who are not like them. So BristolCon has a duty to stop being an event devoted mainly to books and art, and should actively start doing more programming on media, on computer games and so on. And WisCon should stop selfishly focusing on feminist issues and broaden their appeal, perhaps by having John Ringo and René Walling as their next Guests of Honor.
Or maybe not.
Then again, one of the points about Worldcon is that it is designed to be a big tent event. That is, you get in a whole load of different fan groups and get each of them to contribute their particular expertise and interest to the event. It isn’t always easy to cover everything every year, because you are reliant to some extent on the local fandoms, but that is the design objective. That’s why there is so much programming.
Then again, there are ways in which Ms. Philips is absolutely right, because fan run events are slow to change. They are slow because they run on consensus, not on command and control. And Worldcon is slower than anything else because it does try to involve everyone, and it has a whole lot of democratic systems in place to try to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing.
Unfortunately democracy is not what people want from something that, these days, is regarded as a commercial service. When someone complains online that they want Worldcon to do X they mean that they want to see it done next year, or they will find some other con that does do X. They most emphatically do not want to be told: “well, that’s a good point, but we have limited resources and other people wanting other things; shall we sit down and talk about it for a year or two and try to reach a compromise?”
Of course there is no guarantee that a professionally run Worldcon would be any faster to change. Just look at IBM, or Microsoft, or Nokia, or any other large organization that has fallen behind the bleeding edge of popular expectations. But at least a professionally run event would either say yes or no. It would not drag things out, and expect the people asking for change to help achieve it.
Exhibit 4: Rising Expectations
Back in the dark ages of the 20th Century, amateur-run events used to get something of a free ride when it came to expected standards. Everyone knew that the people in charge were doing what they did in their spare time, and a certain amount of roughness around the edges was not only acceptable, it was expected, and rather charming. That no longer applies.
These days, if you run an event — any event — people expect it to be run professionally. If it isn’t, they will let you know. No amount of complaining that you are all volunteers will save you. I know that’s not fair, I know you were only doing your best, but cultural attitudes change, and we have to change with them.
Sometimes, of course, the complaints are unreasonable. For example, at ConJosé we had someone turn up at a gripe session to tell us that it was absolutely unacceptable that he could not get into every Kaffeklatsch he wanted. If a given event was full, it was our duty to find more time slots and more rooms, and schedule that author for as many Kaffeklatsches as the members required, so that everyone got their fair turn.
Thankfully, back in 2002, we didn’t have social media. Otherwise we would never have heard the end of how full of FAIL we were for not giving this poor fellow what he wanted.
These days one of the first appointments any Worldcon needs to make is a social media expert to handle the inevitable shit storms that will blow up. They also, of course, need an expert web designer (and you would have thought that would be easy, given how many techies there are in fandom, but many convention websites are still dreadful). And they need someone good enough with tech to handle live streaming of events without them crashing all of the time. They need people skilled at negotiating with publishers to get the Hugo Voter Packet put together. The number of experts that you need to run a successful Worldcon is increasing all of the time.
What Worldcon desperately needs is continuity. Some of that it gets from having a small and dedicated group of people who work on it every year. But they burn out from all that time, effort and cost, and are getting older and more out of touch with the skills required. Meanwhile the management changes every year. Worse, most attempts to provide continuity are fiercely resisted by traditionalists because they see it as a first step towards Worldcon having full-time, paid staff; something which, as I noted above, is anathema to them.
If Worldcon were the only game in town it wouldn’t matter, but the events that it gets compared to: most notably Dragon*Con and the San Diego Comic Con, are professionally run and do have some full time staff (though they also rely a lot on volunteers). If we don’t match up to their level of performance, we will be judged as inferior, no matter how unfair we think that is.
Exhibit 5: The War On SMOFs
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a war going on out there. On one extreme we have hardline conservative fans who have been running Worldcon for decades and would rather see it die than see it change, especially if that change involves being “politically correct”. On the other extreme we have social justice campaigners, some of whom have never been to a Worldcon and have no intention of ever going to one, but who are absolutely sure that Worldcon and all of those responsible for it are EVIL incarnate. In the middle are the people who are trying hard to run better conventions; people who are getting shot at from both sides and being forced to pick which camp they will favor. It seems like you can’t even mention the term SMOF any more without one side claiming that you have just been horrible and exclusionary and the other claiming that you are oppressing them.
By the way, please don’t tell me that your little, local convention is doing much better. It isn’t. What it is, is under the radar. Worldcon gets this flak because it is high profile, and has a large membership, but a small con could very easily fall foul of the same sort of issue. It does, after all, only take one idiot to do something offensive, or one person to take offense where none was intended. I should be looking forward to BristolCon. Instead I’m mainly terrified that something will go wrong and we’ll end up in the middle of one of these shit storms. I’m starting to lose sleep over it, and the con is still 6 weeks away.
And don’t assume that the fact that you are doing a whole lot of good things will save you. I am getting rather tired of reading blog posts that provide lists of things that Worldcon should do if it is to evolve, and coming away thinking: “you’ve never been to a Worldcon, have you, we’ve been doing all that for years.”
What I find interesting about the whole thing (and Goddess knows I have to find something interesting, because it is mostly deeply depressing) is that the level of vitriol aimed at Worldcon is far worse than I’ve seen aimed at professional events. Part of that, I think, is because we don’t do social media well. There isn’t some calm and well-mannered person whose job it is to smooth ruffled feathers. What we have instead is a large group of people who have just worked their arses off, who are often socially clueless, and may be quick to anger. We have always had flame wars, of course. It amazes me how people used to keep them going when you had to wait a month for the next fanzine letter column to arrive. Now, though, you can respond instantly on Twitter, and if you say one word of out place you can guarantee that infelicitous phrasing will be re-tweeted by someone on the other side who has 20,000 followers.
However, I also think that there is a real social dynamic at work here. Plenty of people have written about how those of us who live online tend to exist in social bubbles of like-minded folks that we get on with. When a disagreement does blow up in such a group it can seem far more serious, and become more vicious, because the participants know each other well. Just look at how left-wing activists are always tearing each other apart online. We’ve got the same problem.
It is also sadly true that it is much easier, and more satisfying, to win an argument against someone in your in-group than it is against someone from a rival social grouping. There can be a real sense of achievement from bringing down someone known to you who was previously well thought of. Your chances of doing that sort of damage to someone you don’t know, and who comes from a social group that despises you, are far less.
I suspect in time we monkeys will get better at understanding how social media works, and will develop strategies to prevent us from harming each other so badly. Unfortunately by that time we’ll have invented a new mode of communication and the whole cycle will start all over again.
My point is, however, that there is no upside to running fan conventions anymore. There is no satisfaction in a job well done. The only probable outcome is that you will spend the weeks after the convention dealing with angry and disappointed attendees, and avoiding social media because you don’t want to have to read the awful things that are being said about you.
Yes, yes, I know. I have said some pretty rude things about some conventions in the past. I have also tried to give credit where it is due. I very much hope that when I reported on conventions I was doing so from a position of knowledge, and with the intention of helping people do better in the future. That’s not what I see happening now.
Last week while I was tweeting about Worldcon someone I’d never seen before (but who had an avatar of a brown-skinned male) said to me that from what he was hearing he never wanted to go anywhere near Worldcon. All I could say was that from what I was hearing I never wanted to go anywhere near one either. And yet I have been to many of them, and enjoyed them immensely. I wasn’t in San Antonio, but I find it hard to believe that they could have got that much worse that quickly. As I said in a tweet to John Scalzi, I don’t think that any Worldcon I have attended would have been judged a success had it been held to the standards being required of San Antonio.
Which is not to say that Worldcon should not aim to get better. I just don’t think any fan-run event can change fast enough to meet the standards now being set, and I have a sneaking suspicion that no fan-run event will ever meet the standards now required of it by other fans, now that so much of the criticism comes from people outside of the group that runs and attends the events.
It pains me to say this, but if someone were to come to me now and say that they were planning to start a convention, particularly if they were planning on bidding for a Worldcon, I would tell them not to be so bloody stupid, because no good can come of it, especially for them.
Yes, I know that I haven’t suggested much in the way of positive alternatives. I will try to do so in the future, but I think I have gone on quite long enough for now.