A few days ago I wrote some criticism about Worldcon, closed social groups, and how intimidating the experience was. It occurs to me that managing group behaviors and lowering barriers to entry are, how do you say, part of my freaking job. So it behooves me to offer a bunch of potential solutions, right?
And no, none of them is "make Worldcon a for-profit endeavor like Dragon Con." Let's not be silly.
1. A greeter/buddy program. Per comments in the original Worldcon post. This idea is to get experienced and friendly volunteers willing to hang around at the registration desk. When a first-timer shows up, it's the greeter's job to show the ropes, explain lingo, answer questions. Even better: enough volunteers that the greeter can wander off with a new person for a while, make some initial introductions, maybe invite the new fan to lunch, and check on them periodically during the event to make sure they're doing OK. At a small con, you don't even need an explicit program for this so much as people who recognize it's important to do it -- in fact I consciously try to do this thing for people I don't know at a place like ARGfest, where I am that old-timer who knows everybody.
2. A mixer event specifically for newcomers and conrunners. ...and make sure to explicitly invite new fans to this event. This actually solves two problems -- the isolation/barrier to entry problem for a solo first-time congoer, and the problem of how to funnel people into volunteering and in general get more labor to make a con go. Take the people at the very top and the people at the very beginning and have them rub elbows. Make a point for the veterans to mingle with the new people, and not just each other; see this as a (gentle!) recruiting opportunity. Meanwhile, new people make friends on the inside, and start to get a sense of belonging. And conrunners get a sense of what's going through the heads of new people, which can otherwise be tricky if you've been in a community for a long time. Alas, it doesn't help the person with a day pass, and since it would be an evening event it doesn't solve the problem of one or two really lonely and scary days at first.
3. Get out of the hotel rooms at night. This one is probably pie-in-the-sky for reasons of tradition and budget, but I also see it as deadly important if you're serious about lowering social barriers to entry. There's a real disconnect between how hotel rooms are perceived in culture and how they're used at Worldcon (and I assume other SF cons.) Hotel rooms are understood to be private spaces. They are bedrooms. They're places you go for privacy and intimacy. Telling a first-time congoer to go to a hotel room for a social event is intimidating and scary. They do not know whether or not to expect a murdersex painorgy. After-hours social events are much more welcoming in bars, restaurants, lobbies, parks -- spaces understood to be public already.
4. Make a room in the convention for stragglers. ...but definitely not a hotel room, like the consuite, for the reasons detailed above. This would be a room in the con proper for people to go when they're lost and at a loose end and in the mood to meet new people. There should be rules about how to behave -- making sure to say hello and introduce yourself to people coming in, most notably -- so you don't just wind up with closed social groups inside of this room, which would defeat the whole purpose. Its existence should be widely publicized.
5. An icebreaker game. Games are not my solution to everything, but games can be a solution to lots of things, and this is one of them! At registration, give people several of a $THING. (Name tags in the most boring interation, but it can be skinned with pictures, collectible cards, whatever.) The point of the game is to collect as many unique varieties of these cards as possible. (I'm not stopping the post to design the whole game, I know the rules don't quite add up yet, but we could totally make it work.) Offer a reward. Smart players will focus on people who look a little lost and alone, and the interaction required to get someone's tag or card might just result in a more lasting friendship. Or at least acquaintanceship! Added bonus: this has 'sponsorship opportunity' written alllll over it.
6. Bind groups of newcomers together. A variation on idea 1 up there, but introducing first-timers to other first-timers, which has its pros and cons. At the registration desk, make a waiting area for people who would like to be assigned a group. When a critical mass has been achieved, say 8 or 10 people, everyone exchanges contact information, makes plans, and in general vows to stick together. I have some logistical doubts on this one -- registration happens very gradually, from what I saw, and you're not really giving the first-timers an incentive to stick together, but it's easy to implement, at least. It's possible this could be tweaked into something more functional.
7. Communal meals. Eating lunch or dinner by yourself (when you don't want to) is a sad, sad thing. Something like a Worldcon is much too big to say "OK, let's everyone meet at Taco Heaven at 7pm for dinner." Instead, you could say: "Everyone who wants to join a mixed group going out to lunch meet in the lobby in front of the Starbucks at 6:30, and we'll figure it from there." Then the whole group organizes itself into manageable chunks by, say, what they feel like eating, and goes from there. Have a volunteer there to triage and make sure nobody too shy to speak up gets left out.
8. Check on stragglers. Another variation on idea 1 up there. Have a team of volunteers whose function is to wander the halls looking for people who look lost or alone or confused. (As opposed to volunteers walking the halls waiting to be flagged down.) The volunteer should proactively see if anyone needs help -- not just finding where a panel is, but maybe being introduced to someone to hang out with for a while. This relies on there being people around to be introduced to... but it was my experience that the people who had been around for a while knew half the con, so this may not actually be an issue. I think there might be some of this going on already, actually, but it's worth seeing of there is more that could be done.
9. A visual signal. This one might also be hard to implement. Make some sort of visual indicator that someone is interested in meeting other people, and be sure to explain it to newcomers at the registration desk -- and offer one of whatever the signal is. Don't position it as an emergency I-am-lonely emergency flare, because then nobody would want to use it. This can't be a badge ribbon! It has to be much more visible and distinctive than that -- you should be able to spot it from across the room. Deelyboppers? An LED badge? The second half of this, of course, is to make sure people go out of their way to say hello to the people wearing the signal. Fortunately, fandom is absolutely full of gregarious and warm people, so I'm confident that wouldn't be an unsurmountable problem.
10. Give intro-to-the-con information immediately at registration. If you're doing any of this stuff, you have to make sure the people who need to know about this stuff know about it. There were a couple of "So it's your first Worldcon" panel sessions... but honestly the moment to give the information is at the first point of contact, at the registration desk, before people have had too much time to start to feel confused or left out. Best case: have someone explain out loud while handing over the badge. Also include a printed flyer or easy-reference card on bright paper explaining how a first-time congoer can meet people and get the most out of the efforts aimed at them. Even a proposed agenda for first-timers, filled in already with mixers and meetups. And make sure the information isn't buried deep in the registration materials -- let's be honest, most people aren't going to look that carefully at the stuff the desk hands over, so you have to go out of your way to make it hard-to-impossible to overlook.