Worldcon Roundtable Featuring Emma England, Michael Lee, Helen Montgomery, Steven H Silver, and Pablo Vazquez

Editors’ Note: This roundtable discussion was convened to offer an insider’s view of convention running and Worldcon culture from experienced con runners and volunteers. This discussion was in part a response to the Daily Dot article by Gavia Baker–Whitelaw, with the goal of creating a constructive dialogue regarding the differences between Worldcon culture and other types of SF/F conventions. This discussion was conducted via email.

Uncanny Magazine: Welcome to Uncanny’s first roundtable discussion! Please introduce yourselves and share a little bit about your convention background and connection to Worldcon.

Michael Lee: I’ve been involved with running and attending conventions and fan clubs since high school, first getting involved with Doctor Who fandom and then also attending general science fiction conventions such as Minicon in Minnesota.

When Minicon made some radical changes that weren’t very well accepted by a large majority of people in the local community, I immediately got involved with the then–new convention CONvergence. I served in a variety of roles there over sixteen years, including six years on the board of directors.

Because of that local history, Worldcon was a very remote thing for most of my time as an active fan. My thoughts were a bit tied to the sour taste that I had after Minicon’s collapse and the rather odd status of the Minneapolis in ‘73 tradition in Minnesota. Some elements of the Worldcon community did themselves no favors online as well, so I didn’t feel like that would be my thing for a long time, and I prioritized other conventions.

Eventually, through my outreach for CONvergence, I met enough people who were involved with Worldcon that I realized that the people who spent the most time on the internet being difficult weren’t representative of the group as a whole. Because of my involvement with CONvergence, I knew that the best place to begin with a convention was to help volunteer, so when I started to go to Worldcon, I signed up to help in tasks right away. I had always intellectually appreciated the Hugo Awards, but attending the ceremony got me emotionally involved as well. So I continued to volunteer as I had time, and I got involved with the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid.

Emma England: I’ve been a fan for nearly thirty years and going to conventions for twenty, almost always related to TV. Although I set up the SF club at my university, I had only volunteered as a gopher/steward at a couple of events and I hadn’t been involved with con organizing until Loncon 3. However, I have organized lots of academic conferences, and that is how I got involved with Loncon 3, my first Worldcon! I jumped straight in the deep end, as an Area Head for the Academic Track. (A special issue of the Science Fiction Foundation’s journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction will come out next year with selected articles from the event.)

Somehow I then persuaded the Program Division Heads to let me run a full program aimed at the kind of fans not usually associated with Worldcon—Tumblr users, fanfiction readers, so–called “media fans.” This “transformative fandom” track was controversial and often sensitive, but the sessions were packed, and the panels themselves got positive reviews, even from the harshest critics of Loncon 3.

For Loncon 3 I ended up with a hodge podge of other roles, including running the Program admin team and creating and setting up the Fan Space—an area in the Fan Village which became a safer space for many of the “transformative” fans. The extra roles meant I ended up with the title Program Manager and a funky Loncon 3 Hero medal. A tacky bit of plastic shouldn’t mean much, but somehow feeling so supported and appreciated made all the difference and increased the feeling of community that much more. Now I can’t envisage a time I could be without Worldcon, so much so I am now the Promotions Director for the Dublin in 2019 campaign. 

I love Worldcon’s place in the history of fandom, and I wish more media fans (like myself) would realize the significance of Worldcon. Going through old souvenir books and program guides is a treasure trove of our shared history. Likewise I wish some of the thankfully ever–reducing number of “literature only” fans would welcome media fans more by acknowledging films, TV, and cosplay/costuming have been part of Worldcon since the early years.

Helen Montgomery: I started attending conventions right after college and began working on my regional convention, Capricon, in 2000.  For Capricon, I’ve done marketing, publications, newsletter, signage, programming, and chaired twice, plus I’m on my second elected term to the Board of Directors and serve as the Board President.

I briefly attended Chicon 2000, but couldn’t go to the whole convention (grad school!). In summer of 2004, my former partner took over as bid chair for the Chicago in 2008 Worldcon bid, and I got pulled along in the wake. It very quickly became something I enjoyed—getting to bid meant visiting new cities, attending different conventions (and cheerfully stealing ideas to take home to Capricon), and especially meeting people. I have friends all over the world now I would have never met had it not been for Worldcon.

I’ve done advertising sales for Japan and CascadiaCon (NASFiC), been Publications Department Head for Denvention, Chairman’s Advisor for Renovation, Chairman’s Flying Monkee (Vice Chair) for Chicon 7, Convention Center Liaison for LoneStarCon 3, Chair’s Advisor for Detcon1 (NASFiC) and most recently, the Event Division Head for Loncon 3.

Steven H Silver: I began attending conventions in 1986 but didn’t become involved in running conventions until 1995, when I moved to Chicago. I became active in Windycon and in 1998 was asked to run programming for Chicon 2000. Following Chicon, I founded Midwest Construction, a con–runners convention, and chaired the first one in 2002, as well as chairing Windycon in 2002 and 2003. In 2005, I vice–chaired the Nebula Awards, and also co–chaired them in 2009. I was one of the Flying Monkees (vice–chairs) of Chicon 7 in 2012. I’ve served on the ISFiC Board since 1998 and in 2004 founded ISFiC Press, for which I served as editor and publisher until 2012.

I’ve been the Science Fiction Writers of America’s (SFWA) Event Coordinator since 2008, helping to run the Nebula Awards, their New York Reception, and managing their presence at Worldcon. In addition to programming at regional and Worldcon levels, I’ve sold advertising at both levels, and done publications and guest liaison work at the local level. I’ll be chairing the Nebulas again in 2015 and 2016, chairing Windycon in 2015, and running programming for MidAmeriCon II in 2016. In 2009, I published a Con–Running issue of my Hugo–nominated fanzine, Argentus.

Pablo Vasquez: I’ve been a fan of SF/F since my early youth, growing up on Spanish–dubbed classic Doctor Who and anime in post–invasion tropical Panama. I have no doubt I attended a convention or two in high school, but didn’t care as much about associating with fellow fen until about my post–high vacation year, where I began diving all in with general interest cons, anime cons, Dragon Con, and then steampunk conventions, where I started to get heavily involved in volunteering, conrunning, performing, and other forms of fanac. Steampunk was my main expression of fandom, having chaired AetherFest (which I founded) three years running with my co–chair, ClockworkCon one year, and becoming a noted performer traveling all over the country performing and speaking on a wide variety of topics pertinent to the fandom.

However, all things changed when I reached out to a con I had never heard of until someone half–mentioned it to me in conversation and I looked it up and decided to volunteer. That convention was LoneStarCon 3, the Worldcon in San Antonio, and I was hooked, even though I had attended nearly twenty different conventions before that had nothing to do with traditional fandom. I put together a successful steampunk dance, volunteered with exhibits, marketing, and programming, and helped however else I could! Afterwards I went on to help put together the Afro–Futurist Programming at Detcon1, the NASFiC in Detroit, and worked hard as a member of the Diversity Committee to create an awesomely welcoming atmosphere, and I hope it worked. Then, at LonCon 3 and despite my reckless graveyard injuries, I was the Dances Area Head and things seem to have gone pretty all right there! Perhaps the meds and cider have clouded my memory.

Otherwise, I’m the Editor–Primer–Inter–Pares of Lake Geneva, a fanzine I throw together every now and then with roommates and local friends and other fans from all over the place. Basically, fandom and Worldcon have always ranked up there as some of the best things to happen to me, and I’m constantly very happy and honored to be included in the community!

Uncanny: All of you are here because you’ve volunteered for Worldcons along with many other types of conventions. When you talk to people who have never been to a Worldcon, what do you tell them sets Worldcon apart from other cons as a special and unique experience?

Michael Lee: There are three things: The Hugo Awards are unique; while it would be theoretically possible to create an alternative “better” award, no other SF award is as recognizable to fans and non–fans alike.  And I didn’t really grok (intentional Heinlein reference) the awards until after going to a Worldcon.

The Hugo Awards also tie into the World Science Fiction Convention as a convention with history. Ideally, Worldcon should celebrate the best of the past, present, and future of science fiction and its fandom. A convention with 75 years of history has its own appeal that other conventions can’t duplicate. That history can make it challenging at times, and there are unpleasant parts of that history, but that is the price of having any sort of history.

Also, Worldcon moves around every year. San Diego Comic–Con (SDCC) is always in San Diego. Dragon Con is always in Atlanta. Your LocalCon will always be your local con. Worldcon moves around and can reinvent itself every year—the Chicago Worldcon had the trip to the Adler Planetarium, and the London Worldcon had a full symphony orchestra. Each location has its own distinctive opportunities, and since the committee changes every year, each Worldcon is unique in a way a convention that travels every year can be.

Steven H Silver: One of the things to remember about conventions is that “Bigger isn’t always better.” Most Worldcons clock in with around 5,000 members, much smaller than many anime conventions, Dragon Con, or Comic Con. However, that 5,000 member number makes it much more manageable. I can guarantee I’ll see people I know nearly the entire time rather than being lost in a sea of anonymity. I can also get into any of the panels, presentations, events, and so on that I want to attend without having to spend half my time waiting in line in the hopes of getting in.

Worldcon also offers a sense of community. The most visible piece of information on my badge at a Worldcon isn’t the name of the convention or the dates I’m allowed to be there, but it is my name. I can see other people’s names and know who they are, which is very beneficial in trying to strike up a conversation. I also know that all of those people have paid for the chance to attend, whether it is a first timer, or someone like David Kyle, who has been to practically every Worldcon since 1939, or Robert Silverberg. Also, at Worldcon, when the panelists, who include big names like Lois McMaster Bujold or Neil Gaiman as well as regular fans, are not on their panels, they are mixing with all the other members rather than scurrying through service hallways to get to their next appearance or interview. I doubt I would ever be able to just fall into a conversation with George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois in a hotel lobby about estate planning for authors at one of the enormous conventions.

The other thing that sets Worldcon apart is the fact that all of those 5,000 members are potential volunteers. Many of them won’t volunteer, especially as Worldcons are marketing themselves more towards fans whose experience is in the buy–a–ticket conventions, but they have the chance. As Pablo has pointed out, he attended Worldcon when it was in San Antonio after attending and being involved in many other conventions, and his eyes were opened to a whole new type of fandom, into which he plunged headlong.

In 2000, I was in charge of programming for Worldcon (and will be co–chairing that division for the 2016 Worldcon in Kansas City). One of my mantras was that at any time, I wanted people to have to choose between panel A, panel B, demonstration C, Reading D, Kaffeeklatsch E, or having lunch. And I wanted everyone to be hungry at the end. Those choices, of course, would only represent things of interest to the individual at the time, not all of the events scheduled which were beyond their interests or the standing exhibits that they could see any time. Running Worldcons also allows me to schedule events that I could never do at a regional convention, like having NASA engineers discussing spaceship design with the artists who portray it on the covers of books and the authors who describe space travel within their texts.

One of my friends attended her first Worldcon in Chicago in 2012. She quickly became such an integral part of the community, attending LoneStarCon 3 in 2013 and Loncon 3 in 2014, that is difficult for people to realize that she has only been attending the “Science Fiction Family Reunion” for three years.

Emma England: I’ve only been to one Worldcon, and judging by conversations I’ve had with longtime attendees, they are all very different both for the attendees and staff. It is hard to pinpoint and explain the differences from other cons. It is large but not as large as SDCC or Dragon Con. It has its own traditions and history, but so do all cons. There are the parties and socializing, but all cons have some kind of events—the UK based convention organizer Starfury even has its own tradition of line dances so that the shy or rhythmically challenged can join in at the discos easily.

Friends I persuaded to come to Loncon as their first convention or Worldcon enjoyed the access to authors and the high level of debate in the panels as well as the interaction with other book fans and learning about new books they would never otherwise read.

This is not why I think Worldcon is special. Worldcon makes me feel a part of something. It makes me feel like I have a community I belong to. To give my husband as a specific example of how this works: He had never been to a con as he isn’t a fan but he decided to come because of my involvement. He ended up as one of the two builders of the TARDIS in the children’s program and loved it. He had his space and his role and people to chat with. He also loved the panels he went to, and he came out feeling a sense of community. Worldcon has so much going on that there is a space for everyone to be actively involved, so if you are prepared to put just a little in you can come out as part of something greater. It isn’t perfect, but that is also good, it means we have something to strive for as a community.

Helen Montgomery: I have sat behind a lot of bid tables over the years, and had to explain Worldcon to so many people!

First, I absolutely agree with Michael that the Hugo Awards are one of the main things that sets Worldcon apart. I can’t really add anything to what he said except “Ditto.”

Second, I would always emphasize community. I have often heard Worldcon described as the annual Fannish Family Reunion. (As with all families, there are some members we don’t like so much, some who are a bit odd, which we do have to acknowledge. That said, it’s our reunion.) I see people at Worldcon every year I don’t see at any other time during the year. I may not talk to them at all in between, but as soon as we see each other, we’re chattering away like we saw each other the day before. The size of Worldcon also makes it a manageable reunion. It also means that someone like George R. R. Martin isn’t there as “OMG GRRM!” He’s there as our Uncle George. Just part of the family (okay, maybe one of the cooler relatives…)!

The size of Worldcon also means that we can have parties, unlike something the size of a Dragon Con or SDCC, and the parties to me are a big part of the community. We eat, drink, and dance together, hang out and geek out about our favorite things. Sometimes we even get to hang out with Uncle George. It’s pretty awesome. I went to Dragon Con once and was totally overwhelmed by the size, the sense of not being a part of it, and not having parties to go to in the evenings to be social was just not fun for me.

The other important piece to the community was brought up by Steven and Emma, and I absolutely agree with them—the fact that Worldcon is run entirely by volunteers is phenomenal. The fact that anyone who is attending the convention can volunteer and be part of the process is a huge part of how we are a community.

Pablo Vasquez: Worldcon, unlike many other conventions, has an actual fan–oriented community environment that includes the pros as well in that mix. Most other conventions require some sort of upfront payment to even smile at your favorite pro/celeb, but Worldcon has never built that artificial barrier ever. There’s a rich history of tight–knit community, for better or worse, and that’s something that appeals to a lot of folks I talk to, wanting to be a part of something like that. Also, our party scene is quite excellent, and I always make sure to mention that to folks. I come from subcultures and fandoms where partying is not only expected, it’s important, so it’s good to see that Worldcon loves its parties, albeit they are unbelievably tame compared to most every other convention party circuit out there outside of Traditional Fandom. The programming is also definitely top notch, and being a fully volunteer–run event also helps. Oh, and the Hugos, because fancy awards are always cool.

I do have to point out, however, that telling anyone about Worldcon outside of traditional fandom is like explaining an apple to a fish. Most people don’t know about Worldcon, don’t care about Worldcon, or have serious misconceptions about Worldcon and still consider themselves to be hardcore fans. Hell, I’ve had responses ranging from “There’s a convention surrounding the Hugos?” to “I thought that died out in the 80s or something.” Of course, by the time I explain it all to them, they love it, but that initial hurdle is pretty difficult.

Uncanny: Worldcon clearly has a long history with much to offer to its community, so how does Worldcon go about building, maintaining, and growing that community? How does it address concerns of its community members, and what are some of the hurdles in reaching out to potential new members outside of Traditional Fandom, as Pablo has alluded to?

Michael Lee: One of the biggest challenges of Worldcon is that there really is no one person or group truly in charge of Worldcon as an institution. Each Worldcon is very independent, and it can be a difficult community to navigate without existing connections. The bidding process targets people already invested in Worldcons, so instead of marketing to people why Worldcon itself is special, it targets people to vote for a particular site to people already likely to go to Worldcon. And Worldcon is cheapest when you support bids and plan to attend years in advance. 

For Worldcon to improve, you need people to step up and get involved in various different ways. Helen has done some of that with the Science Fiction Outreach Project, and Pablo’s involvement with the Detroit NASFIC’s diversity committee this year was also an example for future Worldcons. I’m personally excited to see Helsinki bid for the Worldcon because I think it’s good to see Worldcon go to places where it hasn’t been before and because it has active fan communities all around the world.

Helen Montgomery: I think that one hurdle is that it can be discouraging at times to reach out to new groups or places and be met with a distinct lack of interest. A bid or convention needs to consider how they are reaching out, who are they sending to, what their promotional materials are (i.e. will they appeal to this group), what their message is (here’s why you would like this), and so on.

Marketing has seemingly always been a great weakness for Worldcon committees. It feels like it can become the black hole of doom for whoever agrees to be in charge! There are very few fans with real–world marketing experience, and this can be problematic. What Michael said previously about the lack of one group in charge and independence of each group contributes to some of the difficulty in marketing can be true as well.

I’m not sure I would agree with what Michael said about Worldcon’s lack of one group or person being in charge of Worldcon as an institution being one of its biggest challenges, having sat behind a bid table for about six years. Perhaps I’m different, or our bid was different, but we were constantly educating people about what Worldcon is, how best to get involved, how the voting process works, how the Hugos work, etc. People wander by a bid table even if they don’t know what it’s about, and it’s an opportunity to try and bring them into the fold.

The cost of Worldcon and the bidding cycle is definitely something that bids need to do a better job at explaining to people. The best way I found to get people willing to invest in the bidding cycle was to emphasize the Hugos.

I agree that conventions need to really think about how best to encourage diversity in attendees, panelists, and staff/volunteers. The FANtastic Detroit Fund that Detcon1 had was another way to reach out, particularly to locals, and help those who wouldn’t normally be able to afford to attend. As a white woman, I do sometimes worry about how best to do this without it seeming…patronizing? Not quite the right word. I don’t want people to feel they are only valued because they aren’t white/male/straight/etc., when they reality is that they are valued because they are us—fans of SF/F as a genre.

BTW, with regards to gender, I’m not a fan of absolute panel parity (parity on every item)—but I think parity overall on a program is a great thing to aim for when you’re putting together a program.

Emma England: There are several hurdles as I see it:

  • No fixed abode reduces identity and branding as well as permanent volunteers.
  • No fixed name reduces identity (a huge number of people who came to Loncon wouldn’t be able to tell you it was actually a Worldcon or what a Worldcon is).
  • No permanent, paid staff to do the fundamental donkey work.
  • Conflicting ideas among Worldcon attendees about what it should be and who for, resulting in changing identities each year.
  • No “little Black book” of Worldcon organizing, so a checklist for what WSFS meetings need to be scheduled, what staff members are needed (and their job descriptions) doesn’t automatically exist making planning the event harder. Anything that makes it harder to plan than necessary takes time away from innovation.

There are several ways we could encourage people outside the Worldcon community to participate:

  • For local bids create a sense of community ownership in the bid, as Dublin is doing by working with local fans to get them excited about it because it’s something that could come to their home town.
  • For those without much con or fan experience, focus on the variety of things on offer. Don’t rely on the Hugos as the selling point, most media fans haven’t heard of the Hugos or if they have they don’t care about them—the media industry don’t care about them, why should they?
  • Tailor advertising, such as leaflets, conventions, one–on–one chats at con tables to your audience.
  • Provide programming and events that people want to go to and make sure it happens every year. There is no point having a great comics program one year if the comics audience turn up the following year and have nothing to enjoy.
  • Free or reduced tickets for Young Adults, People of Color, and other special interest groups who might not come are good but costs of travel and subsistence are still prohibitive for many. Larger scale fan–funds are needed, perhaps officially organized through a separate committee with a rolling annual fundraising program of some kind.
  • Encouraging inter–con involvement and outreach between different kinds of events.
  • Support volunteers and staff who show promise but come from outside traditional fandom, so that they feel enthusiastic about continuing with staffing events and getting more heavily involved.
  • Pay attention to trends in how diversity is discussed in broader/younger fandoms which may be more aware of current social justice issues. For example, by providing gender–neutral toilets, welcoming LGBTQ groups to run parties or have exhibit stands, etc. (this is helpful for explaining asexual/pansexual/demisexual/aromantic et al).

Ultimately, however, we also need to accept that not all conventions are for all fans, nor should they be. We all like different things. The trick is to not fail to reach out to new members needlessly.

Helen Montgomery: True Story: At all of the Science Fiction Outreach Project events (going to give away free books at a Comic Con), there have inevitably been people who say, “I don’t read.” That is unbelievably depressing to me on So. Many. Levels. There has to be some acceptance that there will be people who simply aren’t interested in leaving their playground to come over to ours, even for a brief visit. And that’s okay—they’re happy in their playground and that’s cool.

I definitely agree with Emma on the identify/branding issue, but I’m not sure I agree about the permanent volunteers though. Not having a permanent paid staff can be a hurdle, although I think it’s also a strength in some ways. No one gets burned out on it and if someone is doing the job and they suck, no worries about needing an HR department to figure out how to legally fire them.

Regarding conflicting ideas about who and what Worldcon is for being a hurdle, I wonder if it’s actually more the opposite?  A large number of attendees do have similar ideas about what it should be and who for, and who struggle with the idea of it changing.

Emma England: True, lots of people don’t want it to change, but looking at the program books (many thanks to the ever–wonderful Vincent Docherty), reading Sam Moskowitz,  etc., and speaking with various people, it does seem like there has been a permanent flux and constant “In my day” attitude. Some years it changes more than others. This is coming from me as someone who has just joined the community though, so I’m basing my interpretation on research rather than experience.

Helen Montgomery: I think a lot of Worldcon organizing is handled through the people who do volunteer year after year, but agreed that having it written down somewhere (that isn’t the WSFS Constitution, which is a beast to read all the way through!) like a “little black book” is a great idea. All bids should be working to create a sense of community ownership for bids, and I believe that most do. The question is: How successful are they at selling it to the local fan groups?

Michael Lee: Helen, the “I don’t read” comment is definitely depressing. One of the challenges is that pretty much every not–for–profit con–running organization lists encouraging literacy as one of its goals, so trying to reach the people who love science fiction but aren’t yet readers should be part of that. This isn’t something that I would expect a single solution to, and you won’t necessarily improve someone’s desire to read by one singular encounter on an exhibit floor.

Helen Montgomery: On the plus side, when you’re giving away the books for free, people are a bit more willing to take a risk on something new. For people who are new to reading the genre, we often encourage them to get an anthology so they can be introduced to multiple authors.

Emma England: When people say they don’t read, that is often shorthand for “I don’t read books,” or even “I don’t read books other than paranormal romance/YA/female–centric urban fantasy,” (among whom I largely count myself these days). Of my fanfiction reading friends, most of them don’t read fiction unless it is fanfiction (many of these are academics who read plenty of non–fiction). I don’t think that’s depressing. Worldcon might not be the place for all of these people—but it is good to try.

Michael Lee: Speaking purely for myself and idealistically, and even with all of our continuing challenges with diversity, is that my involvement with fandom is one place where I have learned more about the value of diversity than any number of corporate–led–diversity events. And one part of that is even as we have our differences, the shared foundation of love of the genre can be a potential to bring us together.

I also believe that Worldcon has even more of an opportunity to showcase that diversity than any single local or regional convention over the years—especially when it lives up to its international potential. It’s not easy, as everyone comes with their own unique backgrounds, but the potential is hopefully there.

Helen Montgomery: Absolutely. I was, in fact, just talking with someone about this yesterday, and he noted that fandom tends to be much more open and accepting of individuals (at least publicly) who are more marginalized in the real world, such as people who identify as transgender.

Emma England: Regarding diversity, I think the responses to Worldcon from many people from the fanfic/media/Tumblr communities etc., (especially in comparison with 9Worlds—which had flaws in other ways) show that Worldcon has a lot of work to do. That isn’t to say it doesn’t compare favorably with many non–fannish communities, just that we must never be complacent.

Pablo Vasquez: When people tell me they don’t read, the comment that usually gets them to prod on for recommendations is “Bad books and textbooks happen to good people.” Most folks, when it comes to reading and especially the last few generations, have been forced to connect reading solely with standardized testing, institutionalized schooling, and guided dissection of the works. There is little to no encouragement of independent critical thinking, getting lost in the text for sheer enjoyment, and so on, creating this feeling of not wanting to read in their free time because of the associations it carries.

Sure, we should definitely work to change that, but it’s very difficult to work against something drilled into them since day one of schooling and while that is true, outreach efforts like Helen’s are an amazing way to get people to jump in. Who doesn’t like free things? Also, SF/F expresses itself in so many varied ways outside of literature, so perhaps set up a TV playing some SF/F movie/show with a Handy List of Recommended Viewing for people to pick up? What about the music fans who could benefit from such a list geared towards new discoveries in the SF/F musical field?

Emma England: I love this! In the TV program at Loncon, there were three sessions each showcasing three shows. The trailer for each show was screened and a fan gave a presentation with Q&A about the show to encourage people to watch it. Each session was packed (approximately 200 people) and received great feedback. I totally agree with Pablo and think we could do more with this as an idea/format/selling point.

Regarding independent critical thinking and reading, I don’t think this is the problem—if there even is a problem. One of the fun things about the fandoms I mainly hang out in is that they are extremely critical. Type “queerbaiting” into Google and most results will be from Supernatural fans (Gavia Baker Whitelaw, who wrote the Daily Dot article that prompted this conversation, has written on this a fair bit). One of the main actors in Sleepy Hollow, Orlando Jones, gives lectures on fandom at Fan Studies conferences and universities. This kind of thought process has been going on since genre TV started, especially post–Star Trek. And then look at other forms of media and something like Gamergate or the Bechdel Test or “fridging.”

If people are reading less SF/F (and I’m not sure they are—just the forms of it change), it could be because there are more things to eat time than ever before. It takes longer to read a book than watch a movie. Plus, reading is solitary, other forms of SF/F aren’t.

Perhaps we could have crossover media sessions? If you like this show, try this book/game/comic/play/band etc. Or how about for something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) sessions we have with people positively suggesting how to go about entering the comics universe? Or fans of the TV shows like Arrow trying to persuade the comics fans to watch the show? Or having them on the same panel together?

Steven H Silver: There is no one–size fits all convention and no convention should expect to make everyone happy. Even within the confines of Worldcon, different attendees have different ideas about what the Platonic Worldcon looks like. In order to continue, I think Worldcons first need to continue to cater to the traditional membership, which forms the backbone of the volunteers and the attendees, and only after it has created the convention that is expected by those attendees should it look at ways to expand for potential new members.

One of the issues I’ve seen recently, with regard to both the Hugos and the Worldcon, is an attitude I perceive from people who haven’t attended (or have only started to attend) which seems to be that they love the history of the Hugos and the Worldcon, but they appear to have no interest in learning about that history and exhibit the feeling that any traditions that they don’t know about should be jettisoned as a stumbling block to admission of new attendees. While I have no problem jettisoning things that don’t work, or revising things that can be done better, I want to know why things should be removed. “We’ve always done them that way” is not an adequate argument for doing something, but it also isn’t an adequate argument for getting rid of something. For those who have been attending Worldcon for years (or decades) it comes across as somebody walking into your house for the first time and trying to rearrange the furniture.

While Emma says that not having a “Little Black Book” hinders innovation, I don’t believe that is true. Having that sort of checklist means that people will only innovate in areas that aren’t covered within that checklist and the checklist items would grow stale. The first time I worked a Worldcon, it was only the second Worldcon I attended, so I had only a few preconceived ideas about what should be done. I sought advice from some people who had attended numerous Worldcon, and I tried a variety of things, some of which had never been tried before, many of which worked, and a few of which failed. I’ll be running programming again in 2016, and I’ll continue to try to innovate, and while I certainly hope some of my innovations will work, I fully expect some to fail, otherwise I won’t be trying enough new and different things.

Emma England: If we do one before the other, won’t we continue to hit problems with hierarchies? For Dublin we’ve already started outreach among gaming and comic fans as well as more traditional fans. Finding volunteers early on and seeking information about what would appeal to a variety of potential attendees as soon as possible enables a convention to be built up around diverse interests. I worry appealing to the traditional fans first will leave less room for inclusivity.

As one of the newbies, I’d love to know how many people really think this. I have no interest in the Hugos for example, but would never try and expunge them, while I think other traditions are awesome. Despite being a veggie, I was overjoyed to see the pork pie race, having never seen it before. On the whole, my impression is that newbies feel chuffed to be part of a long–running event and want to be included and made to feel welcome. Could it be that some people who have been going a long time don’t like it that people have different views and even reasons for attending and feel threatened? The truth is, like most things, probably somewhere in between. It comes back to that patience, love, and community mantra Michael was talking about.

Helen Montgomery: I find it incredibly frustrating that people bash Worldcon online simply because it isn’t their cup of tea (or they think it won’t be and therefore have never even gone!). If I go to a restaurant and think “Eh, it was okay, but the service was kind of crappy, don’t think I’ll go back,” I’m not going to start a massive online campaign to shut it down and have the chefs blackballed from ever cooking again. Other people will like that restaurant, and have great service—same thing with cons.

I’ve been to Dragon Con. Totally not my cup of tea and won’t go back, but I am making an informed decision, not just basing it off stuff I hear online, and I’m not going around saying it’s awful. I say there are some cool things, but it isn’t for me. For whatever reason though, right now it seems to have become fashionable to say Worldcon is this awful thing.

I think both Steve and Emma are right about “the little black book” point.  There are some things though that I think would be helpful—stuff that is required by WSFS to happen, that there should be a fannish inquisition at Worldcon; that sort of thing would be good. But only things like that which are very specific.

Steven H Silver: We’ve spoken about setting expectations, and Emma talked about appealing to media convention attendees. I’d like to take a few moments to look at those two areas together. While Hollywood used to send props, trailers, and stars to Worldcon, the economics have changed over the years, as has the technology; and they can now reach a much larger audience with a viral video. Continuing to appear at SDCC is different because, despite its name, for Hollywood, it is essentially a trade show and has the mainstream media supporting it to add to the buzz.

However, when Hollywood reaches out to Worldcon (or vice versa), there is a culture conflict. Worldcons do not pay appearance fees and Worldcon attendees do not expect to have to pay for autographs. People coming from Hollywood expect appearance fees and the ability to sell their autographs (best case scenario for the con is that they request a guarantee of income against sales). Having worked on a con that runs on the Worldcon model, I’ve found that even if the con agrees to the actor’s terms, the majority of the attendees aren’t willing to change their expectations of the con, and everybody winds up dissatisfied. The actors don’t sell their merchandise (even if they receive their guarantee from the convention), the convention loses money, and the fans are disappointed that the actor doesn’t interact the way other guests do.

Conventions do need to reach out and grow and change, and some recent conventions have demonstrated ways to do it. Detcon1 ran a very successful outreach program to fans who typically do not attend WSFS events; other conventions have made a concerted effort to expand the con in anime or costuming. One of the important things to remember with fan/volunteer run conventions is that in order to be successful in any area, people who care about that area must be active. I’ve worked on a convention where someone quit because the convention wasn’t as active in social outreach as that person wanted it to be. However, that person wasn’t willing to do the work, and expected it to be done by others.

In theory, Worldcons draw enough of a membership that there will always be people who care to take on the jobs that cover areas important to them. In fact, however, Worldcons, and fandom in general, are not always as good at recruiting and retention as they could be, and people who demonstrate ability are often over–booked with their responsibilities, with the result that we often burn out good people faster than we should.

Michael Lee: I think the relationship between celebrities and conventions is more complicated than that, and I think the media landscape over the last decade has changed this some.

First of all, there are more options than just actors that are connected to media SF—writers and behind–the–camera people (and not just directors) are usually far more accessible as both participants and guests of honor than actors. And you can get some exciting cross–format communication, for example a highlight of my con–running life at CONvergence this year was seeing Steven Brust and Emma Bull excited to meet genre television writer Amy Berg from Leverage, Eureka, and others.

But certainly to do this correctly, it’s not just adding a few people, certainly not without proper expectations set to all involved, and isn’t something you can just jump into and be successful (and my experience with CONvergence backs this up) that you can be media–friendly without being celebrity–heavy. And today’s landscape is transmedia anyways, where different entertainment forms feed off of each other. I think Loncon managed that balance very well this year.

That conventions need to reach out, grow, and change, is something I strongly agree with. The most effective way to make change in a volunteer culture is to get involved and help the events you want to attend, and recognize that the event is going to be a collaboration between all of the people working on it, with a wide variety of not–always–agreeing views. 

Emma England: Media fans like different sort of conventions, just like book fans; some like to go to a range of different events, and some actively avoid the conventions where actors are present. I don’t think many people seriously expect actors to come to Worldcon, nor do most even want it. Fans want a space to get together and be geeky in an articulate way without the razzmatazz or bustle of SDCC or Dragon Con, and I’m convinced Worldcon can be that. In a genre/mode where output is in an increasingly transmedia format, we need to be tapping into this to remain current.

Uncanny: If you had the power to implement one specific improvement to Worldcon, what would it be?

Emma England: Given the discussion we’ve had so far, I don’t really feel comfortable suggesting one. The thing I might like to change for one year might not be the same for another. If forced, however, I would like to see a new voting system developed (cheaper voting for example, or free voting for Young Adults). I’m not sure the current system welcomes new blood. It might even discourage it.

Michael Lee: I think Emma hits on a key challenge, and the one thing that I’d like to change and encourage ties directly to that. Meeting Emma was one of my highlights of Loncon, and one of the reasons why I think Loncon 3 was successful was that it was able to bring on people like her as well as have people involved with pre–existing Worldcon experience work on the convention. 

It is difficult, because a high level of participation in Worldcon is expensive in time, money, and travel. It certainly isn’t an easily fixable problem, given the assumption that Worldcon is a very complex all–volunteer event with a rich set of history and traditions that travels to geographically diverse locations. I’d love to see more ways to financially encourage promising and diverse young con–runners in a way consistent with the all–volunteer ethic.

Steven H Silver: Actually, I have had it in my power to implement specific improvements for Worldcon in the past, as has Helen, as has anyone who has taken a major role in running a Worldcon. In 2000, I ran 75 minute long panels. In 2012, I made sure that Worldcon published their own version of the Sunday Funnies. And, in fact, that’s one of the great things about Worldcon. Anyone who participates and is willing to work can introduce, or try to introduce, changes they think would make it stronger. If the rest of the community agrees, they’ll be continued in subsequent years. I’m sure I’ll be trying new things when I co–chair programming in Kansas City in 2016.

Helen Montgomery: So the obvious answer is that a benevolent benefactor pops up and finances all Worldcons going forward. Since that’s unlikely…

I think that my one change would actually happen prior to the Worldcon itself—I think that bidding is broken. It’s ridiculously expensive for people to do, which as noted by Emma and Michael, makes it really hard for younger, newer people to get involved. It also is a long process that contributes to something someone mentioned up thread—burnout. You’re exhausted by the time you win the bid and now you’ve got two years to actually prepare for the convention.

(That said, I don’t want to change the all–volunteer aspect. I think it makes Worldcon a special and unique creation and I think it can also make it easier in some ways for new people to get involved.)

I don’t, however, have a good answer for the bidding problem. So I guess my answer is that a benevolent wiser–than–I being appears and gives me a solution.

Uncanny: Thank you Emma, Michael, Helen, Steven, and Pablo, for participating! If you have any final thoughts, please feel free to share them.

Steven H Silver: Worldcon will continue; it may continue to age, but the fact that it has been going strong for 75 years does seem to indicate that it will continue to attract a younger generation, even if it doesn’t appeal to the widest range of that younger generation. (Honestly, the same can be said for the older generation; Worldcon is a niche convention and always has been). It will also continue to change as people who participate in Worldcon come up with new ideas, or borrow ideas from other conventions. If the only measure of a convention’s success is its size, then Worldcon will never be a success when compared to SDCC, NYCC, Anime conventions, or Dragon Con, but if you come to Worldcon with an open mind, you may just find that it offers the right blend of science fiction, fandom, and community. And if it is right for you, then step right up and volunteer to keep it going and growing for the next generation.

Michael Lee: Worldcon is the kind of institution that always has its ups and downs, and it is a large distributed organization that is by its nature very slow to change.

I’m sure that other events will continue to overshadow Worldcon from a commercial perspective—there are places to reach more readers, more viewers, and more fans. But Worldcon has people lining up to host and run it for at least the next decade, and it interacts with fans around the world in a way unlike any other convention in my experience. Safe to say that we’ll see another round of articles bemoaning the greying of fandom after next year’s Worldcon, and probably every year for the foreseeable future. That’s much better than the alternative when no one cares.

Helen Montgomery: Worldcon is a unique creation that will never be all things to all people. It can’t—it’s run by volunteers (who will make it what they want it to be). There isn’t an overarching organization, money is always an issue, and it moves about. I think there are things that Worldcon can do to be “better,” which is of course a subjective thing, but I’m thinking particularly about inclusivity and welcoming newcomers. I do think there is a lot that Worldcon does “right.” In order to do these things that will make it “better” though, we need people to volunteer to help—if it’s your passion, then you are the right person for the job.

Also, if what you want to do doesn’t fit in with Worldcon (or at least with that year’s group running it), then please go and start your own con or meetup group or blog—find your people! If you like it, odds are pretty good that others will, too.

Thanks to the editors for the opportunity to participate!

(Editors’ Note: By mutual agreement, the participants donated their fee for taking part in this roundtable discussion equally to both the Carl Brandon Society’s “Con or Bust” fund and the Science Fiction Outreach Project.)

One Response to “Worldcon Roundtable Featuring Emma England, Michael Lee, Helen Montgomery, Steven H Silver, and Pablo Vazquez”

  1. paulmorriss

    I found this really interesting. I’ve only been to a local con and Loncon3, and this article gave me a good perspective on what makes Worldcon what it is, for better and worse. I like the article format too, like a transcript of a real panel.

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