(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.)