Fandom Needs to Change to Insure Its Future Survival

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This year, I’ll be able to attend a Worldcon in person (as opposed to in Support).  I’ve been attending and/or supporting Worldcons since 1977 (not every year, such is life), but nevertheless, it’s a long history.

Since about 2006 I’ve been putting my oar in and pontificating about various aspects of the con itself, not to mention the WSFS organization behind it.  After reading some commentary on the state of bids, the increasingly international nature of Worldcon (in desire if not in reality) and thoughts on the bidding and other processes that surround this convention, I’ve decided to put all of my thoughts together into one basket and make some recommendations in the hopes that it will at least get people thinking a bit more outside of the box.

But first:  my deep down personal view is that one of two things should happen for ME:  either I become so wildly successful in the publishing world that expense is not an issue (meaning I can easily afford to travel internationally, live and eat internationally, am earning enough that my wife doesn’t have to work so she can come with – and I can afford whatever alternative activities she decides to engage in while I’m at the con – AND we come up with some acceptable solution for Bo the Wonder Dog who does not like it at all when I am away) OR Worldcon decides to hold itself somewhere within a two hour drive of my domicile year after year so long as I remain on this mortal coil.

I recognize the selfishness of this desire and am equally positive that there are many Worldcon attendees who share the sentiment to one degree or another, just as I am sure that the latter solution will never happen.  But I wanted to get it out of the way, if only to point out that there is no ideal solution for Worldcon placement:  someone is always going to find themselves unable to attend no matter where it is held.

That being said, I do believe that there are several ways that the scheduling and placement of the convention can be modified that may lead to less fannish suffering.  Some of my suggestions may run afoul of current WSFS rules and regulations, but those are subject to change via participation of the constituency.  Impossible now does not have to be impossible in the future.

One of my main thoughts is that we don’t have to speak specifically of the physical Worldcon itself but should instead turn our attention to the experience of Worldcon.  Which is what, precisely?

Worldcon is the in-gathering of traditional fandom.  It’s physically being in the presence of other people like yourself who share common interests, have a common background.  It’s also the ability to go somewhere other than your personal space where, for a number of days, you can concern yourself with nothing but fandom.  You can immerse yourself in a culture that is not the mundane world.  So much so that I and others have expressed surprise at what is happening in the “real world” after we emerge from the convention.

Worldcon is also the panoply – the costume contest, the room parties, the conversation knots, the Hugo and other awards.  It’s sitting together in a darkened hall to read a list and remember those who have gone before us.  It’s hearing guitars and singing wafting up from the lobby; seeing fans who wear a recognizable “uniform” and understanding what the clothes, or the ribbons or buttons mean.  It’s walking from one event to another, nodding at and saying hello to people you’ve nodded at and said hello to for years, in cities all across the world.  It’s knowing that you are with your people.

Is it possible that the above experience can be offered to fans who aren’t physically at the convention itself?  I believe so. But I’m not talking about satellite feeds and big screens, nor VR, even though that technology offers potential solutions in future..

Every year, multiple countries schedule a “national convention”.  Aussiecon, Eastercon, New Zealand, Canada.  I believe Poland has one, as does Germany, China, etc.  Frequently, these “natcons” are the organizations that host a Worldcon when one arrives in their country.

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we were able to organize and coordinate these national conventions in such a way that they all occurred on the same weekend of the year.  And suppose that the Worldcon placement process changed in such a manner that bidding took place on a country basis.  One rule would prevent a country from bidding less than five years after a successful run.  Another rule could break the world up into regions that only allowed countries in a given region to bid in a given year.

There are several ways that we’d benefit from a system like that.

First, the US would have to put together their own “natcon” (as would any sufficiently fanned country that didn’t have one).  Instead of having a NASFiC only in the years that Worldcon was out of the US, it would in effect have one every year (except when the US won the bid for Worldcon itself, at which point the US Natcon would become Worldcon.).

Second, it would go a long way towards leveling the bidding environment.  International cons have gotten strong support of late, but there is still a latent under current of “Worldcon is really a US thing”.  Placing every country with a Natcon on an equal footing would immediately expand the fan base.

Third, such a system would tap into an already existing base of experienced con-runners.  Making a Natcon into a Worldcon is largely an issue of scale, but I suspect that in most cases, the existing talent pool would be up for the task.  Additionally, the cross-fertilization that would ensue would increase the con-running talent pool and most likely increase the standard of excellence.

But it doesn’t end with those few things.  Every single one of those Natcons, whether they were hosting Worldcon or not, would be an extension of Worldcon.  Worldcon already distributes the Hugo Award finalists list through several conventions that take place on the appropriate weekend.  The same could be done for the ceremony and other convention highlights (the awards ceremony is already livecast).

The nominating and voting pool would be extended to every single one of those Natcons;  this would result in diminishing the influence of Anglo-centric works, but at the same time it would vastly grow the pool of eligible works (with sufficient rule changes to accommodate that).  It’s quite possible that with such a system in place, the impetus to providing works in translation would be strengthened (either through better technology, the economic incentive of having an international audience or some combination of both).

I envision a system in which a small percentage of the membership fee for each of the Natcons would be earmarked for the awards, for the facilities required and other related expenses – such as an increased number of TAFF and DUFF – like programs.  Underwriting the award presented by the World Science Fiction Society every year in such a manner might generate enough revenue to add some serious marketing to the event.  Or underwrite other aspects of THE Worldcon every year.

An argument against such a system is that if a large number of countries had Natcons simultaneously, and all of them were, in essence, “Worldcon”, the attendance at individual conventions would be negatively impacted.  (If this ever does become a problem, THE Worldcon can become a limited attendance event.  No more than, say, 50,000 Attending memberships.)

That might be true in the beginning, but only for a short while.  I strongly suspect that the allure of an International Week of Science Fiction, offering multiple locations for attendees to visit, would quickly raise the overall number of attendees across the board.  Some fans might have several viable options in a given year.  Some might even be able to attend several.  THE Worldcon (the event hosting the primary event that year) would still draw well because there are always people who want to buy skyboxes at the stadium.

The appeal of such a system is that while many fans still won’t be able to attend THE Worldcon on any given year, they can still attend A Worldcon – and probably at less expense.  (Effectively lowering the cost of attending Worldcon will naturally increase attendance anyway.)

Technologies exist (and will be developed) that can be used to increase the sense of “being there”.  Having a world-wide draw for expenses should result in WSFS relatively quickly acquiring such technologies;  panels could be held on an international basis; streaming television could bring highlights of numerous Natcons to all of the Natcons;  (a suite of channels could be funneled in to each event.)  the Award Ceremony could feature acceptance speeches from winners who are not physically at THE Worldcon.  (Several crowds around the world will get to applaud local favorites.)  There might be innovative ways to allow vendors to “sell” at multiple conventions.  Coffee Klatches and readings could be given an international audience.

Speaking of those expenses:  I’d suggest a proportional draw from membership fees.  There’d have to be some floor.  I’d angle for a percentage that covers whatever the budgetary requirements are tempered by not greatly impacting individual membership fees.  Additional forms of membership (some that have been discussed previously) could be developed that are “taxed” at a higher rate (a publications and final ballot only membership, for example, or an All-Access pass that provides materials from Worldcon and all of the participating Natcons).

On the local side, more can be done as well.  Regional conventions that take place at the same time as Worldcon might be allowed to obtain certain services and benefits by participating.  (Or a series of affiliated events could be scheduled by WSFS in under-served geographic regions.) Their memberships could be sold with or without the extras.  The extras might be access to a broadcast of the costume contest, or some of the panels (opening ceremonies, Awards); the special memberships would allow members to nominate and or vote on the finalists for the Hugo Awards.  A percentage of those fees would go towards supporting Worldcon.

Such a system could potentially give local access to Worldcon, in some meaningful way, to nearly everyone on the planet, while preserving the special nature of certain events, particularly THE Worldcon.  Being able to attend it would be seen as a prestige moment.  Moving up the ladder to working on it, the same.  A larger audience (and the cachet of an international event) might provide additional opportunities for marketing and revenue.

The preceding is a high-level, non-granular presentation.  Obviously there are a lot of hurtles to get over.  Translation services would be a big one.  The technical equipment and crew for recording, broadcasting & etc., is daunting and potentially very expensive.  Handling memberships on such a scale.  Operating WSFS itself.  Putting together the system of eligibility for conventions that might be included.

All of those and far more would all need to be addressed.  I’m not dismissing a lot of hard work out of hand, but the point is, it’s just hard work.  These are not impossible things, nor even improbable.  One version or another of the things I’ve described already exist somewhere on the planet.

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A Different Approach.

Lets drop the international stuff for a bit and concentrate solely in the US/Canada.  (I treat the two as essentially one entity because Worldcon members have been doing so for the past several decades).

One of the comparisons that is regularly made and found wanting is comparing Dragoncon to Worldcon; Dragoncon gets national mainstream press coverage, Worldcon does not.  Dragoncon has a ton more attendees than Worldcon; Dragoncon has a whole city crouching at its feet; Dragoncon has a lot more money to operate with; Dragoncon draws big headliners from the multi-media world; Dragoncon can do more; Dragoncon can sell more; Dragoncon is the kind of convention that reflects non-fannish fandom.

And, in case you didn’t know, Dragoncon is almost, but not quite, a traditional convention, so comparisons are not entirely fair or accurate.  But Dragoncon does illustrate two things very nicely:  first, what can happen to a national SF convention that stays in the same place every year and second, what can happen to an SF convention when you prioritize making a profit over having a large party for your friends from around the world.

Is it possible for Worldcon to take the beneficial accomplishments of Dragoncon and still run a not-for-profit convention that is traditional in every other sense?  I believe so.

WSFS finds one city that is a combination of a centralized location, least expensive on average to travel to and that has facilities that can handle Worldcon and future growth.  Chicago is my off-the-cuff guess.  Chicago has other things going for it;  the city has hosted numerous Worldcons and has a well-embedded fan base of experienced con-runners.  But that’s just an example.  Others may make a case for some other city and the specific one doesn’t matter so long as it matches the criteria.

The first important benefit to be gained from such a move would be the ability to negotiate multi-year contracts with hotels and facilities.  But I wouldn’t go beyond 3 years (renewable) because if properly handled, attendance will grow quickly to Dragoncon/SDCC level numbers and WSFS will want to renegotiate a better deal based on the economic impact the con will have on the city.

Increased attendance will result from a number of factors, not the least of which is being able to count on the convention being the same place, on the same weekend, every year.

Bidding for hosting a Worldcon could remain essentially the same, with the exception that all bids would be for the same location.  Each bid would have the same facilities, the same hotels, the same costs and local resources to draw from.  Bids, instead of differentiating themselves by physical location, would do so through themes, guest selection, special events and economic efficiency.

A more direct comparison between Worldcons would become possible.  Items that receive high approval could go on to become regular features in subsequent years.

Internationally, bidding would continue the way it is currently conducted, except that the chosen location would become the site for the NASFiC.  If Worldcon itself spends more time overseas, the NASFiC would become the default Natcon.

On the national scene, a variation of the satellite conventions scheme could be implemented.  Ideally, WSFS would host up to 6 “regionals” around the country on the same weekend as Worldcon/NASFiC;  pesuming Chicago is the location for the national event, regionals would be held in the Northeast, the Southeast (perhaps central atlantic area as well), a south central, a northwest and a southwest location.  Once defined, these regional satellite conventions could be set up to change location within their region, with different groups submitting competing bids.

A DUFF type system could be implemented to send regional fans to Worldcon from each one; membership in regionals would confer some WSFS membership rights, infrastructure would be developed to allow viewing and participation across events;  more con-runners would gain direct “Worldcon” type event experience.

Additionally, a small percentage of membership fees in the regionals would be earmarked for Worldcon; since regional events are typically less expensive to host than national ones, the “tax burden” would not be that great.

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Admittedly, this is blue-skying Worldcon.  Hurtles have been mentioned before.  One not mentioned previously is fannish inertia.  It’s exactly the same as inertia in the real world:  once it gets moving, it can become a juggernaut that makes seemingly impossible things happen.  But it’s awfully hard to get started.  In the case of making unprecedented changes to Worldcon, the getting started could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.

On the other hand, fans are very creative types.  The skill sets available to fans make the Rand Corporation look like a corner country store.  But before I justify the need to start thinking about things like this, let me back up and explain the reasons why I think such things are becoming increasingly necessary.

Fandom is growing.  It’s growing tremendously.  Unfortunately, the major percentage of that growth is taking place under the auspices of institutions and organizations that are not themselves fannish (or are fannish so long as being so is in service to making a profit).

As fans, we like to say that we’re not in “competition” with events such as SDCC or Dragoncon.  Not only do we dismiss Anime conventions and multi-media cons as doing something that we’re not doing, we discount the experience that attendees and staff gain from these events.  In our minds there is a difference between the conventions that are connected to fan history and largely follow fannish traditions (you buy a membership, not a ticket;  we don’t pay guest to appear;  we’re focused on the literature; those aren’t real conventions) and those that aren’t.  We go to great pains to try and distinguish the bona fides of small ‘f’ fans and large ‘F’ fans.

But here’s the problem:  the non-traditional conventions are offering the vast majority of “fannish experiences” these days.  Traditional conventions have such a small footprint in national awareness that so far as most potential fans are concerned, non-traditional events ARE fandom.

In short, it is non-traditional events that are educating the public about what fandom is and what it’s all about.  Not traditional fandom.

At least in that respect, traditional fandom IS competing with non-traditional fandom.

One expects that there will be cultural drift over time;  old ways of doing things become non-viable;  new things become absorbed and the culture shifts.  But I believe that what we are experiencing is far more than no longer using mimeographs to publish fanzines.  Fanzines are still with us, no matter how much purists might protest that statement.  (And there are still mimeograph supplies available online for anyone adventurous enough to give it a whirl.)

The primary cost that traditional fandom is paying for this is a loss of the idea that we’re a community that does things together, and does them out of a sense of community, not for a profit motive.

What are “new” fans learning?

  1. that there is a hierarchical difference between attendees and creators and between attendees and staff
  2. that it’s okay to work your ass off all weekend for room and board while a corporation benefits from free labor
  3. that you attend only to experience and never to participate
  4. that commercial interest trumps all others
  5. that dollars and popularity are the only real measures of success
  6. that tradition and history are of no consequence

New fans attending non-traditional events frequently exhibit ignorance about Worldcon, fan history, traditions, culture. The marketing footprint of non-traditional events is so large that it swamps traditional events.  These non-traditional conventions typically do not tie themselves in any fashion to traditional fandom, making it virtually impossible for the new fan to obtain any knowledge of the existence of something different.

There’s really nothing wrong with the idea of multi-media conventions or gate shows or gatherings that feature aspects of the science fiction world but aren’t of that world – except for the fact that they suck up potential fans and provide them with an alternative narrative.  The much lamented Graying of Fandom is not really the problem.  The problem is that our outreach for new fans is compromised by these alternatives that are able to offer a flashier, glitzier, higher profile product in the marketplace.

Fandom is dedicated to its non-commercial nature, which is laudable, but we need to stop extending those taboos into the realm of marketing and recruitment.  Fandom needs to recognize that new generations will have different goals and desires – such as wanting to go to the same place every year for their party.  Perhaps more importantly, recognizing that the relationship between convention and attendee has shifted:  fandom used to thrive on a system of waiting for fans to find fandom.  It doesn’t appear that this is an effective strategy anymore.  Fandom has to find ways to go out and recruit, ways to bring fandom to the fan.

The past several years have seen some aspects of this concept being adopted:  Loncon proved that a European convention can draw just as well, if not better, than an NA convention.  Loncon engaged heavily in marketing.  Worldcon is now hitting 10k members (both attending and supporting).  Dragoncon hit over 70k the past few years.  SDCC is approaching 150,000.  Don’t look at that as mere numbers (or “most of those people aren’t fans“), look at it as:  Dragoncon has 7 times the influence, SDCC 15 times the influence.   1% of SDCC’s attendance is 15% of Worldcon’s.

Fandom is strong because of its traditional self-selecting nature.  That only works if people are aware of something they can self-select for.  If fandom is going to survive into the next century (presuming our robot overlords allow such things) we need to recognize that the recruitment landscape has changed dramatically and take the sensible steps necessary to accommodate fandom to those changes.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Hey = stop arguing over detail. This was not about detail. It was about opening up the box, pulling everything out and thinking creatively

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