(not) welcome to fandom

I went to Worldcon a few weeks ago now, which was fun and I’ve already bought my membership for next year. (Also Arisia and Intercon. 2012 is filling up.) While at Worldcon I sat in on a panel with the topic “Fandom on the Internet: Threat or Menace?”“Fandom Online: Is the Argument Over? What Was (Is?) the Argument About?”, listed panelists Chris Garcia, Claire Brialey, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and John Scalzi, Mr. Garcia moderating. (I think Ms. Brialey couldn’t make it for some reason, or was otherwise deeply quiet, because I don’t remember anything she said.) In topic it looked to be a bit of a damn kids panel, but I knew at least Teresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi were heavily involved in fannish things on the Internet and usually entertaining, so I showed up to hear them talk. I forget the particulars of the panel, which was unsurprisingly on the whole positive towards fannish activity on the Internet. What I remember is being apparently the only person in the room under thirty, and spending the last half of the panel with my hand raised to contribute and not being called on.

Now, even at the time I assumed that it wasn’t out of malice that I was being ignored. I don’t believe that the moderator or the panelists didn’t want to hear from people under thirty, or me in particular. And in fact I talked to Mr. Garcia after the panel and asked him point-blank about it, and he said he hadn’t seen my hand raised, and was in fact generally a mensch about it. So there, mystery solved. But being ignored exactly characterizes my experience to date of SF fan conventions (two Boskones, a Westercon, and a Worldcon), and that’s something I want to talk about.

Because being ignored really has been my overpowering impression of SF fan conventions. I show up, and I’ve got the con badge and a geeky T-shirt and I look the part, I have all the outward signs that say “one of us.” I also know all the shibboleths, quotes and references both popular and obscure, literary and fannish. This convention is, theoretically, where all the people from my home planet ended up. All the people who look like me and speak like me and have the same cultural history as me are theoretically here. And I show up and discover that they all have lives of their own, and families and friends of their own, jobs and hobbies of their own, and they have no need or desire to meet me. I am entirely peripheral to their world. (I imagine this is often the experience of real expats returning to the countries of their birth.) Mostly they don’t even notice me, nor are they likely to talk to me, and when I talk to them the interactions are short, usually awkward, barely more than “Can you hold the elevator?” “Sure.” I do not have conversations. I can attend the whole convention and not say five words to anyone. I can stand in the middle of a major throughfare looking lost and disoriented and the waves of people part quietly around me, as though I were nothing more than an inconvenient rock below the tideline. Nobody notices me. Nobody appears to care that I am there.

In the years since my first fan convention I have gotten much better at initiating conversation, so at least at Worldcon I did talk to people. Most of the conversations I had I initiated — not all, but the majority. Most of the people I conversed with were coming to their first Worldcon, or had been to only a couple. Like me, they were unattached, they were peripheral, they were looking to meet people.[0] The unattached people were uniformly younger, had few to no other people they knew at the convention, and had often heard about it from the paper or the Internet rather than friends. We weren’t really part of fandom as such. We were all outsiders.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so isolated. People talk about fandom a lot as “the place all the people from my home planet ended up.” While I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone talk of being immediately and completely welcomed, as though a long-lost cousin or the Fabled Child of Prophecy, I also haven’t heard anyone talk of being nearly as put off by their first encounters with fandom as I have been. I read Jo Walton’s novel Among Others, which draws heavily on her growing-up experience of fandom, and while her character Mori’s experience of her book group is a lot like my experience of MITSFS, it’s entirely unlike my experience of fandom and conventions. Mori talks about being taken seriously by the other members of the book group at age fifteen. At age twenty-five, that’s my experience of interacting with older fen about half the time. The other half of the time the conversation starts with “I’m a member of (some regional SF club), and at age 45 I’m the youngest person there,” as though that were something to be proud of, and goes downhill from there. Small wonder there’s no one in the club younger than he is. Sadly Jo Walton’s book ends before we hear Mori’s first-hand experience of her first science fiction convention. Even the relayed experience of her boyfriend Wim (“five days talking about nothing but books!”) is strikingly different from mine: if I didn’t work at it, I’d hardly talk at all.

Now, you can say that I was foolish to expect to fall right in, and that of course any large group of strangers is going to be a lot of work to break into. You may well be right. I have had the experience I was hoping for, of being welcomed, once before in my life, when I came to MIT as a freshman. I’m right now watching a new crop of freshmen have that experience all over again, of finding out that there are people like them and they can meet them and hang out with them and talk about the things they care about with them. So I know it’s not a completely impossible thing to hope for, though it may be very rare. The key difference that I see is that, at MIT (and in Mori’s book group), the people there are looking to meet other people and draw them into the activities they care about. MIT student groups know that it’s absolutely vital to get new membership; that yearly influx of even one or two new people is the thing keeping the club relevant, and if that influx stops for too long the club will die. So the clubs go out of their way to recruit new members, they put a lot of time and energy into it, and they get results. Recruitment pays back to the organization both by adding new members, who bring excitement and manpower and replace older members who’ve fallen away, and by reconnecting older members, because running recruitment events for an organization you really care about and identify with is fun. And it’s more than just individual recruitment events, it’s a whole culture of openness towards and recruitment of new members. Just one person bringing you to an event isn’t enough, the people at the event need to be willing to welcome you. Ideally everyone in the organization is clear on the value of new members and will go out of their way to welcome them, which is pretty close to where we are in the MIT organizations I’m a part of. The MIT organizations are always looking to make new friends. And I don’t see that in fandom.

I watched a guy at Worldcon (not me), probably in his forties, who was obviously not part of fandom but interested, come up to an open filk circle which had just sung a fairly martial song (based on Harry Turtledove’s WORLDWAR books) asking if they could sing something more peace-loving — asking to be included — and instead of saying, “here, sit down, have a NESFA hymnal, find something and we’ll sing something you want to sing,” they rebuffed him. They missed an opportunity. And they missed it for me too and anybody else watching, because seeing that I would hardly have felt welcome to go up to the group and try to participate myself. I would say that missed opportunities like that were the rule rather than the exception in my observation at Worldcon. And even though I had brought him to the event and was trying to welcome him (into a group of which I still do not feel a part!), I couldn’t cover for other people who weren’t so welcoming, at what was ostensibly an open event.

Much has of course already been made of the problem of “the graying of fandom”, and this will no doubt be read in that tradition by those that know it. I want to cast that phrase on a purely personal level, though, make it concrete for you: when you say “the graying of fandom” what you mean is “all my friends are getting old and grey”. I submit that if you show up to a big event like a Worldcon where new people reasonably abound and you aren’t looking to make new friends — if you don’t in fact make new friends younger than you with some frequency — then you have only yourself to blame that all of your friends are getting old! I can’t be your friend if you don’t want me.

I said at the beginning that I had bought my membership to next year’s Worldcon. Before Worldcon I was very near to dropping organized SF fandom. I’d heard about the Worldcon this year, of course Scalzi mentioned it, I was even a supporting member of last year’s and a Hugo nominator. I was going to be in Nevada two weekends prior for DEF CON, and Tricky Pixie, who I’ve wanted to see for ages live, was playing, but it was still too much hassle and expense, and I’d been turned off conventions by my previous experience of them. Dropping into a giant convention where I didn’t know anybody and nobody would talk to me sounded like a dismal time. I wasn’t going to go until a friend said they were going and basically recruited me. And I did have a pretty good time. It was useful to have at least one friend there. It was a hell of a lot of work to talk to people on my part, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk, but I did meet some cool new people, and had some good conversations, and it was worth enough for me to come back for another year. I’m part of fandom more out of bloody-mindedness than anything else.

I do want to thank the people who have reached out to me: Teresa Nielsen Hayden, at Boskone a couple years ago, for inviting me to the TOR party after I awkwardly introduced myself, I’m sorry I couldn’t go; Greg and Astrid Bear, again at Boskone, for saying hi and asking if I was having a good time; Ariel, at Westercon 60, for among other things introducing me to the music of Alexander James Adams; everybody I met at Worldcon (hi! sorry to meet again under such circumstances); and probably other people I’m forgetting. The bad news is that there aren’t many. This essay exists to say “more like them, please!”

I also want to be clear that I’m not fishing for affirmation by writing this. I’m already here, see above about bloody-mindedness. I want to hear other people’s first experiences of fandom, young and old, good and bad. Was it really better back in the day? Or am I misreading people’s remarks? What are other young people’s experiences today?

Because this isn’t really about me, personally. Not everybody is so bloody-minded, nor should they need to be. By my read of it, fandom doesn’t intend to be an exclusive club (“No Girls Allowed”, “Keep Out This Means You”). It’s always prided itself on being a place for the quiet shy bookish types, who are exactly the opposite of bloody-minded. It’s easy to lose people. All you have to do is ignore them. If that’s what you want, then keep doing as you’re doing; it’s very effective. Just don’t then complain at me about how all your friends are getting old and grey.

If you don’t want that, then let’s talk. Because the conversation is what fandom is all about, right?

[0]:^ For conversations, the bar was good the first night as a place for us drifters to wash up and find each other, and terrible after as more people arrived at the convention and it got too hosed to be a place where one person could sit with a beer for a bit and wait for people to show up. The parties were also good, the later the better once the crush of people ebbed so you could talk without shouting. The panel tracks and during the day were pretty bad for conversations; people were pretty preoccupied.)

14 thoughts on “(not) welcome to fandom”

  1. WorldCon Fandom

    I had an easier time striking up conversation at WorldCon by hanging around the smoking areas and public ashtrays. Smoking should be encouraged at all fandom events because it lends itself better to sharing, conversation, and (mostly) sun.

    I think I even influenced one hotel guest to attend the Convention. We got to talking over her homemade supply and she wanted to know about WorldCon. She was an interesting older woman from Oregon.

    I hope my message reads as clearly as yours does. You are quite a writer.

  2. First of all, the fact that you say nice things about MITSFS and it being welcoming makes me happy πŸ™‚

    But to address your real point, this is why I haven’t been to any SFF cons. I went to two MacWorlds, when I was working in IT (so it was work-relevant), and I really wasn’t good at meeting people (even as a young, unattached female in a very male crowd) As, now, the parent of a young child, I can’t figure out whether I’d be more welcomed (because she’s adorable and shamelessly sociable) or further ostracized (because there seem to be even more people in SFF who are childfree-by-choice than elsewhere in our age group. I’m curious—did Worldcon have any kids? Do you see more young men than young women?

  3. Smithson: Heh. I’m not a smoker, so that’s not so useful to me, and I’m glad smoking was disallowed in the convention’s public areas — the smoke in the casino areas was bad enough. I can see how it would work for people who are smokers, however. (What’s that line, “It’s not the nicotine I’m addicted to, it’s the company”?) I’m glad you at least were bringing people into the convention! And thanks for the kind words. πŸ™‚

    Kat: There were some younger kids, maybe elementary through teens, there was even a kids’ programming track, but nobody as young as your daughter that I saw. Which is a little surprising, now that you mention it — those kids I saw had to come from somewhere. I guess the adults present were mostly of an age to have families with kids that age than younger. Of the people our age I saw, I didn’t collect any statistics, but it felt like a pretty even split — actually, that goes for the whole convention. It was overall pretty gender-balanced.

  4. no surprise there…

    If 45 is on the young end of the crowd, I suppose it’s no surprise that there were big kids and teens, but no littles. Even in around here, where 1 in 10 first-time moms are over 40, there would be very few toddlers in an over-50 crowd πŸ˜‰

  5. first fandom experience…

    You know, I was thinking about this as I started writing my own blog post about Worldcon (which is actually ending up even angrier than yours! hmm), but now that I think about it? My first large fandom experience was just as alienating, but for different reasons.
    I was fourteen years old, and my friend decided that I was going to Otakon (the largest Anime con in the country, competing with Anime Expo; it's usually around 30,000 people) in costume. I kind of just went along with it, and on con day, she just dropped me off and then left with her friends to go do something else, leaving me with her little cousin. I had no friends, no way to connect to anyone, and wasn't really into anime enough to risk talking to people. I spent most of the con wandering around in a shy, depressed haze, before eventually almost passing out at the end as I forgot to eat all day.
    But I think that's a different problem than the one expressed here (namely, having terrible friends and not knowing how to Do conventions)

  6. You ain't seen a greying audience problem 'til you've been involved in amateur Gilbert&Sullivan theatricals in Montreal. They have more of a rotting audience problem.

    Free advice from a non-fan speculating wildly:

    To the extent that many con attendees already know each other and go to cons to meet their friends, you are completely peripheral to their lives.

    The social awesomeness of MIT (or any other school that draws its students from a broad area) has a lot to do with the fact that almost none of those students have pre-existing connections. It's much easier to make friends with the people around you when they don't have any friends to talk to. Once people have had a chance to make a few connections, then they have a choice between hanging out with friends they know they like or making the effort to embrace strangers. Guess which is easier and more gratifying in the short term. Groups that allow cruft/dinosaurs to hang around indefinitely soon get dominated by such people who know each other too much.

    By the time I got to MIT I'd seen this social-awesomeness-by-collective-uprooting mechanism at play a bunch of times already, both at its best (IPhO, where you basically only get to see people for two weeks of your life, and Brébeuf, where the whole student body gets turned over in two or three years) and worst (SkuleNite, an awesome engineering comedy show with an unfortunate dominance of eighth-year undergrads and 25-year alumni) so I can assure you that it isn't Tech magic, it's reproducible: if you want it to be easy to make friends, build an environment where few people have any. Maybe you could set up a special con (or track within an existing con) with a two- or three-year hard limit on attendance; long enough for people to forge bonds and build something awesome together, and to have a few slightly more senior people present to welcome the fresh crop each year and stomp on trolls, but short enough that once people have the beginnings of a network they get out so that they don't make newcomers feel, well, like you felt. Hopefully, by the time you've graduated from this nursery con you have the handful of contacts you need to mount a successful social infiltration of a big established con. Because hey, if you and your little gang of young buddies look like you're having fun without the old folks, maybe they'll get jealous and want to join in.

    Ok, enough pontificating out of me for this week. Good luck in any case. It's hard until you find the right place and time. Then it's glorious.

  7. Yeah, the built-in turnover of a college environment is a huge part of what contributes to the energy there — it forces the recruitment drive — and organizations have miniature boom-and-bust cycles where they develop an old guard, the old guard gets complacent, and the young turks come in and throw them off, possibly helped along by the old guard graduating and moving on in their lives, repeat every four years or so. The organizations largely maintain continuity because the old guard is never strong enough to hold on too tightly, and observers periodically remind the old guard that the organization exists for the undergrads (the young turks) more than it exists for the cruft (the old guard) anyway.

    I expect that in a situation where the old guard can and does hold on more tightly (as in fandom), we're more likely to see them going down with their shipconvention and new conventions calving off rather than taking over and revitalizing the existing organization, as Arisia calved off Boskone (calved off MITSFS). I don't think the old guard holding on so tightly to a sinking ship is a necessary outcome of that readjusted dynamic, though, just a very human one, and if I can I'd like to change it. Continuity and a sense of history are nice and valuable things, I think.

  8. So, I should just totter off to the nursing home and get out of the way?

    That's the message I'm getting from some of these comments–that older fen should just get the heck out of the way so young fen can have exactly the atmosphere they want without making any effort.

    I'd love to know at exactly what age we're no longer allowed to attend the conventions at which we've been seeing our friends for decades.

    What I learned, in the misty depths of ancient times, is that the way to meet people, make frineds, and become part of the group, is to volunteer. When you're working with people, you get to know them, and both age and length of time in fandom become less relevant.

    Jensen, being interested in fanhistory, might like to know that Boskone in 1987 had about 4500 warm bodies, too much crowding and, ahem, "energy" for the Sheraton to handle, and we not only lost that hotel but got blackballed out of everything anywhere near Boston. We wound up in a much smaller facility in Springfield, with some rather strict hotel-imposed restrictions. And Arisia was born.

    You don't mention Readercon, which also calved off from Boskone, slightly earlier, because Boskone was so huge, and just unmanageable for many people.

  9. Graying fandom and socializing

    You're absolutely right about "graying of fandom" = "my personal social circle is getting older". I've seen references to that debate going back to the 1980s, and yet the demographics of Worldcon (on anecdotal evidence, admittedly) do not seem to have changed substantially since then. It's inevitable that a convention that runs 5 days and requires most of its attendees to travel, sometimes internationally, is going to have a higher average age because of the time and money requirements. This is okay as long as people keep finding it.

    What worries me about your post is that the way you talk about "organized fandom" in general is the implication that the unwelcoming attitude you ran into is not a few isolated instances, but rather a systematic problem you've also encountered at your local conventions. If that's the case, could you write something in more detail about some of the interactions you experienced or observed, and how you think they could have been handled better? I know there are a lot of fans online who do care about getting more people involved, and who are willing to accept some constructive criticism if it helps achieve that goal. And keep in mind that, as I'm sure you've noticed, there is a grain of truth in the socially-awkward geek stereotype– some people, even with the best of intentions, need the large-print-with-pictures explanation of why their behavior is not welcoming. πŸ™‚

    If you do make it to Chicago, please check out Stroll With the Stars. It's basically one big mixer.

    (Hmm, there's a thought, more events explicitly scheduled as mixers. 'Scuse me while I go send a programming idea to some people…)

  10. Re: So, I should just totter off to the nursing home and get out of the way?

    That's the message I'm getting from some of these comments–that older fen should just get the heck out of the way so young fen can have exactly the atmosphere they want without making any effort.

    I'd love to know at exactly what age we're no longer allowed to attend the conventions at which we've been seeing our friends for decades.

    Lis: If I wanted to associate only with young fen, I wouldn't go to Worldcon. These days there are a ton of conventions that skew much younger for me to go to. I go to Worldcon because I want to meet and hang out with you. It's great that you've got decades-long friendships with people at Worldcon — building and partaking of relationships of that depth and character is what I'm looking for when I go to Worldcon. (The panel on Joanna Russ, which was basically a bunch of her friends trading stories about her, was a lot of fun.)

    The problem from my perspective is that you're so involved with seeing the same friends you've seen for decades that I as a random new person can't meet and hang out with you, even when I make the effort to do so. If you want Worldcon to continue to be a place with those kinds of relationships — if you want me to be in your shoes in a couple decades' time — then you need to make an effort to meet people younger than you in addition to spending time with your friends of decades.

    Volunteering is something I've considered, and in fact I'm signed up to help at Arisia, but I've been reluctant to do it my first time at a convention before I know anything about how the convention works or have a sense of whether it's a community I want to invest my time in, and what I'm trading off by volunteering over just attending. And obviously someone coming from outside shouldn't have to volunteer to have a good time at the con. But it is a good way to meet people, and something I'll keep in mind for the future.

  11. Re: Graying fandom and socializing

    Petrea: I don't have terribly specific examples from my local conventions, I'm afraid, though I showed up to Worldcon and thought, "oh yes, this is how I felt at Boskone and Westercon," so yeah, it's something I see as a problem at more than just Worldcon, and not just Boston-area either. (Arisia will be weird for me because it's the convention all my LARPing friends go to, so when I'm there I'll be the one catching up with old friends and struggling to make the time to meet new people. πŸ™‚

    The problem wasn't specific interactions which were bad, but a lack of specific interactions to be good or bad.

    I will check out Stroll with the Stars in Chicago — thanks for the pointer. I saw it on the program at this year's Worldcon, but it was scheduled at 9 AM, and I'm a night owl, so that was really too early for me (and doubly so the nights I had been up until late at parties). More explicit mixers at different times of day would be really excellent. Finding those existing places where people were looking to meet new people was hard for me and there weren't many, so having more would be a boon.

    Some of my issues with Boskone in particular were structural, I think. I was a student, so I always commuted to Boskone to save money, and the subway closes pretty early, meaning parties were out, and I wasn't much of a drinker — in fact, I may have been twenty at my first Boskone — so the bar was out. So basically all of the places I met people at Worldcon weren't available to me at Boskone.

    Panels as they currently exist aren't really a great way to meet people. One of my frustrations with them is how non-interactive they are, which has always struck me as odd coming from a community which claims to value meritocratic conversation so highly. (For me, coming from the Internet generation: "Where's the mouse?")

    DEF CON did something interesting. They had talks, scheduled for an hour, and then they had an hour blocked off following with the speaker in a different room for Q&A. So I learned that if I sat in on a talk about something I really cared about, I could go to the Q&A room to meet and interact with other people interested in the same thing, first in a semi-structured fashion as the speaker took questions and then more generally afterwards. Having it in a different room meant you had to take active effort to be a part of the conversation, so you ended up with a much smaller group of more dedicated people than was at the talk, and fewer people up on their personal hobby-horses, as you get in the Q&A sessions at panels especially with big audiences a lot. I wonder if something similar would work for panels.

    At really big conventions like the ones Jensen goes to, the lines to get into events provide people with the space, and force people to take the time, to meet other people interested in the same things as them. Lines always seem like things you don't want, but without them it's easier for people to avoid serendipitous meetings.

    I wonder if it's in part just that people are too busy, and if you dropped 25% or 50% of the panels and events if they'd have more time to socialize and meet new people. (Which I think is closer to what Relaxacons are? But they've always seemed to me to be conventions for people who already have friends in the community.) You don't want people to be bored at your convention, but at least a little bit of boredom forces them to seek out new interactions.

    I don't think it's a problem which can only be solved structurally — if nobody shows up to the mixers, they don't help anything — but structural changes may be a part of it.

  12. Re: socializing

    Stroll With the Stars is always at 9am, because the first year that it was held, the guy organizing it was told that 8:30am would be too early. It's scheduled when it is specifically so it can be over before the panels start. So for people on your kind of daily cycle, we need to have something else.

    A significant cut in the number of program items isn't likely to happen– one of the key ways Worldcon distinguishes itself from Comic-Con and Dragon*Con is by having enough programming that you can make spur-of-the-moment decisions about what to attend and almost never have to stand in line.

    And many people go expecting to have an experience where they go to one program item after another all day and then have unstructured time at the evening parties. That doesn't mean they're specifically looking for non-interactive program items, though; the morning stroll serves the purpose of giving morning people something specific to go to, at which everyone then winds up interacting in a relatively unstructured manner.

    Relaxacons are indeed the cons with deliberately limited programming. Most of them aren't explicitly for con-runners, but they do tend to be populated by the more hardcore, long-time members of the local fandoms because those are the people hearing about them in the first place.

    The degree to which general cons are heavily programmed does vary, though. Boskone is geared toward the extreme must-have-something-to-do-every-moment end of the spectrum. It's not clear from your post whether you've attended Arisia before, but if you haven't, you can look forward to a more relaxed and talkative atmosphere.

    If you want Internet-involved panels, check out the virtual con suite at Corflu. All of Corflu's programming (okay, all one track of it) is broadcast live on Ustream, which also provides a chat room where people watching from home can interact, provide their own running commentary, shout out quiz answers, etc. without being disruptive. There are usually people who are physically present there following the chat room, so a particularly good question or comment can be relayed to the panelists. When programming ends, the stream moves to the physical con suite.

  13. You should try gaming.

    I've only been to one Worldcon myself, at Noreascon4, although I was the game room manager more than a fan of SF.
    In all seriousness, especially at Boskone, if you do enjoy a good conversation, try the game room.
    I can't say I'm personally as much into books as you are but there are others in there that are, and you don't sit and twiddle your thumbs while you're playing, you chat with the other players and once in a while raise a hardy cheer if the dice or cards go your way.
    And not just at Boskone. Arisia and Vericon are also full of SF fans who are gamers.

  14. Re: socializing

    Petréa: It sounds from your comments like people at Worldcon value Having Stuff To Do more than meeting people. That seems… really weird to me. I'm too busy for other people constantly in the rest of my life, why would I go to a convention only to be too busy for other people in one of the places I'm more likely to make interesting serendipitous connections? I don't see what the value is. (Does this come back to, they all already have enough friends?)

    Anonymous: I will. I'm not much of a board gamer, but one of my better experiences at Worldcon was being introduced to Microscope. πŸ™‚

Comments are closed.