I promised in my last post on Worldcon that I would have a bit more to say about how the convention can be made more appealing using modern communication technology. This is that post. However, before I get started on the tech stuff I’d like to put the discussion into its historical context.
In the very early days of Worldcon it was an event that covered most of fandom, because fandom was very small. Indeed, I understand that it wasn’t until 1960 that it was deemed necessary to limit voting in the Hugo Awards to WSFS members. I’m not sure why supporting memberships and progress reports were invented, but it seems entirely reasonable that a supporting membership should have been for the benefit of people who wanted to be part of WSFS and Worldcon, but who could not afford to attend the convention every year. Remember that travel was much more expensive in those days. Equally we can see progress reports as an obvious application of 20th Century fan communication technology to the problem of transmitting information and maintaining community. Conventions needed their own fanzines, so they were invented. As fandom grew, techniques were put in place to help hold it together.
Unfortunately, as time has passed, various parts of fandom have ossified. The folks who call themselves “Core Fandom” believe that true fandom is composed of people who still read and write paper fanzines; and the people who attend Worldcon most years believe that they are the real science fiction fandom, and that everyone else is “not part of our community”. In parallel science fiction has gradually taken over mainstream culture to such an extent that the number of people who call themselves fans is truly vast, and fandom is a genuinely global phenomenon. To some extent this doesn’t matter. If Corflu only attracts 200 people that’s not a problem, and the attendees are probably happier that way. But something that calls itself the World Science Fiction Convention, and is the home of the Hugo Awards, cannot be allowed to become the preserve of a small group of old, rich white (and predominantly male American) fans. Worldcon and the Hugos are too important to vanish into a geriatric ghetto. Fortunately Worldcon can revitalize itself by engaging with the wider fannish world.
Back in the 20th Century, if you could not attend Worldcon then you could at least buy a supporting membership and get the progress reports and souvenir book. You could also vote in the Hugos. That way you still felt part of the process. But obviously you could not be there. 21st Century communications technology is beginning to blow away the tyranny of distance and make events accessible in ways never before imagined, except in science fiction. Some of the technology is still quite new, but we are science fiction fandom: we are overflowing with tech nerds and early adopters. If we can’t make this work, no one can.
The starting point has to be the actual experience of the convention. Back in the 20th Century, people wrote con reports for their fanzines. I have done a few myself. Nowadays we are all citizen journalists, and we can all report live from the convention. People have been blogging conventions for several years, but I expect Montreal to be the first Worldcon that is widely tweeted. Twitter brings an immediacy and ease to reporting that blogging doesn’t have. It is dead easy to be sat in a panel with your phone and tweet. People who can’t attend the con will pick people to follow (Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow are all prolific twitterers), or they may use one of the many services and search engines available to follow anyone using the #worldcon tag. The atmosphere of the convention (and its 24/7 lifestyle) will be available online for all to see.
If I were in charge at Montreal what I’d be doing is getting hold of Apple, Google or a local mobile phone company and asking for a loan of a few iPhones or G1 phones for the duration of the convention so that key people can tweet the con. Neil Gaiman already has a phone from Google so they’d be a good target. Hopefully other guests would agree to tweet too, and actually the con chairs would be good tweeters. Once the con gets going, aside from chairing the morning staff meeting and some official functions, the con chairs should have very little to do except wander round and see how things are going. (Well, that’s what Kevin tells me anyway, and he’s been there.)
There are other forms of instant reporting available as well. The live reporting of the Hugos that I did last year was great fun and I’d love to do that on a regular basis, preferably without having to worry about whether I’ll have connectivity on the day, or about being thrown out by an angry Hugo Administrator. The technology has improved quite a bit since last year, including the ability to import Twitter feeds. As it appears that I get to go to the pre-ceremony reception, I should be able to report live from there as well as from the ceremony. The same technology can be used to report on other events. Indeed, if it were down to me I’d have used it to announce the nominees. It would have turned a fairly low profile press release into a major online media event.
Con reports will still happen, of course, but the simple blog or fanzine article no longer cuts the mustard. Armed with a cheap personal video recorder such as a Flip, and with YouTube as our friend, we are all TV crews looking for a story. Last year my Worldcon video diary comprised an interview with John Picacio about his art show exhibit, and a number of behind-the-scenes interviews with costumers. It made my day when someone from Australia wrote and thanked me, saying that it was almost like being there.
Ideally I would like to see Worldcon committees take an active part in all this. Traditionally the convention newsletter is only for the people attending the convention, but recently Worldcons have started posting them online as they are published. There is no reason why they can’t do more. There are plenty of fans who enjoy reporting on conventions – why not recruit a few of them and at least publish links to their work on the main Worldcon web site? (As I recall, Noreascon 4 did some of this back in 2004.)
But that should only be the start. And at-con involvement should only be the end point. Current Worldcon web sites are very 20th Century and Web 1.0. If they have any interactivity that tends to be done in a separate LiveJournal community (and you know I think LiveJournal may become another of those fannish ghettos that will eventually become outmoded but the people who love it will stay and claim to be the “real” science fiction fandom). There is no need to be so hidebound. For the 2009 World Fantasy convention I built the web site in WordPress. Members can actually ask questions and leave comments. I gather that some old time fans were utterly horrified by this, but so far it is working fine.
Equally there are some conventions that run entirely online. The Australians have been doing this for some time, because their country is huge and far from anywhere. Last weekend there was an event called FlyCon. It was an entirely online convention, run using a hodge-podge of available technology including LiveJournal and IRC chats. I spent a little time in it, and it appeared to be drawing a fair amount of interest. There were panels, there were author chats, and there was even a “dealers’ room” on LiveJournal where people could go and post ads for their products. The convention ran 24/7 with people checking in from all around the world. I went and kicked some Brazilians and encouraged them to check in. I hope they had a good time.
Furthermore, Flycon was not the only virtual convention that happened last weekend. There were two of them. The other one was a comic convention that took place in Facebook – again a case of using available technology. That also apparently went very well. Both cons had “masquerades” that involved people posting pictures of themselves in costume.
One of the issues with such events appears to be the choice of technology. Flycon in particular used a wide range of different web sites and technologies, and I understand that there was a fair amount of frustration with people not being able to find things easily, or with the technology not working for them. I’ve attended a professionally run virtual conference, and those have issues too, but with a bit of effort I think such things can get a lot better. If I were running a virtual con the first thing I would do is make sure that it had its own web site, and that everything was accessible through that. I’d use IRC chat software for the con suite (I can’t understand why Flycon didn’t have one), but CoverItLive (the technology I used for the Hugo coverage) for panels. I’d want to run proper art shows and dealers’ rooms with the ability to buy things. There is a lot you could do with existing technology if you know what you are doing.
And then there is Second Life. Many authors have already done readings there. For all I know there may have been conventions there. The only reason that I haven’t got involved in it (other than that I can’t afford yet another time sink) is because none of my laptops have the necessary high-powered graphics cards required by the Second Life software.
Why should a Worldcon be interested in online conventions? It is all to do with the need to engage with people who can’t attend the convention. Remember, supporting memberships are for people who want to be part of the Worldcon experience but can’t afford to go to the actual convention. The 20th Century solution was the fanzine-like progress report. The 21st Century solution is the online mini-convention. Instead of (or as well as) pumping out static progress reports, or writing blog posts and waiting for comments, why not have key staff online once every few months to answer questions? Why not have the Guests of Honor do chat spots? The Aussiecon 4 folks are moving toward this with their regular blog news reports, but there is so much more that could be done.
And key to all of this is making the supporting membership worth something. For historical reasons the supporting membership fee has become tied in with the site selection process. Consequently Worldcons no longer see it as a means of expanding the community. Indeed, the need to send out souvenir books to supporting members after the convention is often seen as a chore that Worldcons have to be nagged into completing. Instead they see supporting memberships as a means of getting free money out of people who vote for a site but then can’t afford to attend because their chosen bid doesn’t win. It is a scam, and it gives Worldcon a very bad name, especially as it is the only way that people who can’t afford to attend the convention can get to vote in the Hugos.
I still think that the price of supporting memberships needs to come down so that they more accurately reflect the cost of what those members receive. However, if we can provide some online events prior to or during the convention that are available only to members then the supporting membership might start to look more worth the money. If nothing else I think Worldcons should do simple things like contests to win GoH-signed books that are only open to members. (Yes, I know this is a particular problem in Montreal, but most places don’t have Quebec’s weird laws.) The key is to see supporting members as people who are actually worth providing services for, rather than merely an irritation or a source of free money.
Of course all of this requires work. But guess what? Most of it doesn’t need to be done at the convention, or even by someone who is planning to attend the convention. Just like the audience, your online production staff can be anywhere in the world. That means you have a much bigger pool of potential staff to recruit from. The world is becoming an ever smaller place, and the tools to make Worldcon truly world-wide are out there. All we have to do is use them.