21st Century Worldcons

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.

70 thoughts on “21st Century Worldcons

  1. I have been traveling all day today which is why I did not reply sooner.

    Karen Babcock @44:

    If a Worldcon committee were to decide it wanted to try something like “online membership” or “virtual attending membership”, would they have to get approval from WSFS to add a new category?

    It’s an interesting question. My reading of the WSFS Constitution, particular 1.5.7 (“Other memberships and fees shall be at the discretion of the Worldcon Committee.”) suggests that a Worldcon could add a less-expensive membership category that included WSFS membership rights. After all, Worldcons already traditionally have extra classes such as children and single-day admissions, and there is plenty of precedent that says whether to give those classes membership rights is a decision of the individual committee. On the other hand, most of those other classes I mention cost more than a supporting membership, and furthermore, very few people in those classes ever use the WSFS rights if they have them. (It’s different each year.) Therefore, it’s been almost a non-issue.

    I seem to recall arguments that say that while it may not explicitly say so in the WSFS Constitution, there’s an implicit assumption that a Worldcon won’t give WSFS rights to anyone who pays less money than a supporting member. I’m sure there would be a very loud protest should a Worldcon do so on their own authority.

    To me, the interesting thing would be for a Worldcon bid to announce before their year is selected that they intend to offer less-expensive “online memberships” that include voting rights and publications (but not attending rights), as long as the online-only member votes and receives his/her publications exclusively electronically. Then it would be a campaign issue in the election, and nobody could reasonably say that they didn’t know what that Worldcon intended to do. Furthermore, if there really is a WSFS restriction on it that I’m not seeing, such an issue would bring it to the front before that Worldcon was seated.

    While I am (no modesty) well versed in WSFS rules, and know the constitution better than most people, I also know that there are multiple ways of interpreting many rules, and it’s not always obvious which is the right way. There are broad rules of thumb, such as “if two interpretations are possible and one leads to an obvious absurdity, prefer the other one” but this is a case where I can see genuine differences of opinion.

    What would almost certainly help would be decoupling the cost of the Advance Supporting Membership (“voting fee”) from the initial cost of a Worldcon Attending Membership. The existing interaction of the two has been dragging the Supporting Membership cost higher than it really needs to be, not because Worldcon bids really want to overcharge people for Supporting Memberships, but because they don’t want to be forced to sell Attending Memberships at less than their assumed cost per attending member. That would require a constitutional amendment.

    (Note that as this year’s Chair, I’m merely speculating on things I think highly unlikely to be introduced this year. Indeed, I’ll be very surprised if anything significant gets introduced this year on account of people don’t want the ratification vote to be in Australia where so few of the regulars will be present. Therefore, I’m a bit more free with my speculations than I might ordinarily be when sitting in the Hot Seat.)

  2. Petrea:

    Sorry, missed your question yesterday. Yes, I understand we have had complaints about the web site, but not to me personally.

  3. Karen Babcock has already posted here, and a note of this discussion has been posted on the Aussiecon 4 committee email list. So, yes, we are taking note, and notes.

    “Neil in Chicago” – not sure what sort of soliciting you are thinking of here. I assume suggestions, and we are always open to good ideas.

    The problem with implementation of any of them is always “cost, people and time”. But given those restraints I don’t see why we can’t put our toes in the water and try out a few things. As Cheryl points out, some of these things we try won’t work, but we do have to try or else we will never know.

    Perry Middlemiss
    C-Char Aussiecon 4

  4. Perry:

    Thanks for dropping by. I do understand the problem – you guys are short enough on money and people as it is. On the other hand, this is something that people outside Australia can help with, Australians have more experience of running virtual cons than anyone else I know, and the goodwill you’ll get from allowing those folks who can’t afford the trip to participate more in the event should be enormous.

    It occurs to me that my next post should be all about actual techniques and how we make this happen.

  5. 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.

    Um, we did. Concurrently with sending the email releases and before I ever posted the releases on the press page, I posted to Twitter, the LJ group, Facebook, and the blog.
    I have been pretty active in putting useful information on the Twitter and the LJ. And links to all of them are on the webpage as well.


    online events prior to or during the convention that are available only to members

    Can you give examples other than chats?

    Also, you left out how very useful Google Alerts are: that’s a tool all 21st century should use, or at least one very like it. You can know when someone is asking a question in some random part of the web, or looking for a rideshare, and go there and answer their question or point them at resources, or in our case the LJ group (which I do all the time, ask people to post there with questions, there or our forums).

  6. Val:

    Go back and look at how I reported on the Hugo ceremony at Denver. What you did was nothing like that.

    Other examples? Well, you really want it to be interactive, so so chat is a major element of anything you do. But another possibility is the video diary. I’m hoping to shoot some footage of the Montreal site when I’m there in April. And as I mentioned a Worldcon could run competitions from the web site that are only open to members. It is really a question of thinking of ideas. There are doubtless many people out there who are just as imaginative as me, if not more so.

  7. For those taking notes on what other people have experimented with, I just remembered another example: Con News has been trying out live Twittering and chat, and it also highlights fan videos from recent conventions.

  8. Kevin @ 51: I have been traveling all day today which is why I did not reply sooner.

    It’s okay, Kevin. You are allowed to have a life away from answering WSFS questions. Really :-).

    Thanks for the info and the analysis!

  9. Re Cheryl’s re to Perry:

    It occurs to me that my next post should be all about actual techniques and how we make this happen.

    A post talking about that would be cool and also invaluable. Would be interesting to hear how different fandoms may be using these tools as well–anime or media fandom vs sf fandom, etc.

    Lots of interesting ideas here!

  10. I will reiterate, lest it get lost in the flow…

    A lot of what I see happening at non-SF events of all sorts is that the users are evolving how things work. By being given access- yes, a lack of restrictions- and encouragement, new forms are evolving and somehow rather than crazed anarchy, there is greater investment by the (paying) masses.

  11. The future is already here. I was unable to physically make GAFilk in January, but I “attended” via Skype and the good graces of my girlfriend.

    I don’t know how well the song I sang came out at the 2×10 concert but that was strictly ad-hoc and at least partly a joke.

  12. Hi Cheryl — here via Sherwood. I like some of these ideas, especially as I’m still struggling with the question of trying to make it to Worldcon this year. Even though travel is relatively cheaper, food and lodging really aren’t. That’s one of the reasons I loved being part of Flycon. Yes, there were some problems with the technology (I would have loved it if my panels had been in the IRC with the understanding that the panelists would have a chance to talk to each other before opening up discussion to the audience at large), but generally, I think it went really well — especially for a first attempt. And I got to work with people like Maureen Speller Kincaid, who I hardly ever get to see IRL.

    Mostly, though, I think that you’re right that there needs to be something done to increase the ability of people who don’t have the budgets for regular attendance at big cons to participate.

  13. I agree wholeheartedly that Twitter is going to be a major presence at this year’s Worldcon.

    I’m also wondering what sorts of Facebook events will happen.

  14. I think the old-guard fans see cons primarily as a place to socialise, and thus have difficulty imagining how to translate that to internet channels. However, as a non-old-guard fan (have attended WorldCon once, when it came to my continent), I can say that the thing that attracted _me_ was the panels.

    I’d love WorldCon to become more like TED (http://www.ted.com/talks), with every panel recorded and put online for anyone to access. TED has had a huge increase in interest since they stopped “hiding” their attractions (their talks) behind a barrier (the huge fee to attend). Now people are clamouring to pay the huge fee, because they _know_ how good the talks are, and they want to see them live. It’s like paying to go to a concert, even though you can download the music for free.

    Broadcasting after the event would be considerably cheaper than trying to get live webcasts – rather than paying for bandwidth, all you need onsite is a decent microphone or videocam connected to a laptop in each room (ok, it may be a bit much to cover all streams of programming straight away… maybe start with just the main track). Then you need some volunteers with video/audio editing software — who can be anywhere in the world — to clean up the raw files. For a distribution, use YouTube (set up a WorldCon channel) for video, maybe iTunes (set up a WorldCon podcast) for audio.

    This is not hard, it just needs people comfortable with the technology… which tends to be the younger fans. Who are less likely to be on WorldCon coms. A vicious cycle!

  15. Dave:

    Delighted to hear that filkers are busy doing this stuff too.

    Flycon people:

    Many thanks for dropping in. I think we are pretty much one the same page here, and hopefully Stephanie’s Ning community will provide a place where we can thrash out how to do online cons better.

    I was particularly interested in Helen’s comments about TED, because the reaction I’ve been getting in private has included the assertion that any webcast of events from Worldcon couldn’t possibly be allowed because that would drastically decrease attendance at the convention. It doesn’t seem to matter what you suggest to them, they always come back to you with “you can’t do that, it would be a disaster!”

  16. Helen @66
    Well, you’re right as far as you go, but there are a couple of other factors.
    For better or worse, the people who have been putting on cons for years know what it takes a lot better than people who haven’t. There are Solved Problems, and there are Difficult Problems.
    One of the perennial problems is budgeting volunteer labor (sometimes called “People Points”). Technically, taping big panels for later web availability is a Solved Problem. You’re right. But someone has to be doing setup, button-pushing, and trouble-shooting. Live, real-time, just when all the other needs for live labor are at a maximum. This is not an Easy Problem.
    If you could find volunteers to do this work, who wouldn’t be doing any other volunteer work, so that using them here wouldn’t take them away from anything else, well, how many other things more urgent than recording panels might there be which could more constructively absorb that additional labor?

    I do *not* mean “you’re wrong”. You’re right. I do mean, It’s Not That Simple, Even When You’re Right.
    And let me add, to close, that the world of con runners and workers always needs more people thinking and working. I hope to see you in future conversations.

  17. Back in 1997, we ran a live Nebula Awards chat on IRC. All that required was someone with a keyboard and an internet connection (not quite as easy to arrange then as it is now), but I do recall much fun was had by all. Vonda McIntyre did the reporting for us, and she won the award for best book. Couldn’t have worked it better if we’d tried 🙂

    I’d use IRC chat software for the con suite (I can’t understand why Flycon didn’t have one)

    This unfortunately reflects one of the problems of online cons. Very few of the participants had used IRC before and jsut getting them *to* the designated channel was more difficult than you might expect. There were two java clients set up to drop people directly into the right place but these only work for about 90% of people. And once visitors were there, many of them had trouble just changing their nicks. Having more than one channel and expecting people to move between them was a no-go. The author chat room did double as the lounge between chats though.

    (And if you’re thinking about IRC software, these are also more complicated than you’d think to set up for the first time. I’ve been doing IRC for mumble years and using the same program all that time (with all sorts of automatic scripts & customisations) but when I downloaded and did a clean install, I ended up trying to connect to a server I’d never heard of. Even if you should know what you’re doing, it is very easy to mess up.)

    Which isn’t an argument against running virtual events alongside face-to-face cons. (Speaking as someone who’d be looking at 2-3 thousand dollars to attend most WorldCons.) Just that we need to be aware of the limitations of what we have available. Flash chats won’t work on older computers; video, podcasts & anything streaming are troublesome for dial-up users; browser-based events require refreshing, which can make conversations hard to follow etc. These can be worked around, of course, as long as the organisers take the problems into account.

    As for IRC, once the initial hurdle of getting there is overcome, I do think it’s one of the best formats for running convention events. Amongst other advantages (e.g. available controls for moderation), it CAN be accessed in many different ways, so hardware & connection issues aren’t an issue 🙂

  18. Monissa:

    I have browser-based software that *doesn’t* require refreshing. It is also free and dead easy to use. There is an amazing amount of good software out there. It is just a question of finding it.

    However, I have yet to find a good IRC system, and I do want one. It has to be easily embedded in a WordPress blog. Someone must have written one.

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