The Inevitable Graying of Worldcon

So I was at Worldcon this weekend to do a few things -- hustle up a new agent, make friends, maybe sell a couple of people on the wonders of Lucy Smokeheart, and in general start connecting with professionals in genre as I expand my career into new directions.

Chuck Wendig has just written a post about The Worldcon Youth Problem. I saw some of that with my own eyes -- while waiting in line for the Hugos to open, a pair of gentlemen in front of me were talking with not-even-thinly-veiled contempt about 'media fandom,' as though it weren't possible to like books and movies and games all at the same time. But they're right -- those people aren't real fans in the sense that they don't belong to the Fandom Culture that is rooted in print zines and written letters. The culture that effectively owns and operates Worldcon. And more to the point: those people (and by that I mean people like me) aren't quite welcome there. Tumblr isn't fandom. Apparently.

This is related to the Fake Geek Girl problem -- a tribe of people who feel they should have authority over who does and doesn't get to be included in their tribe. Suggesting that to be a true fan of SF/F, first you must read the Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov is... let's just say it's a little old-fashioned.

In our Sunday episode of The Cultures, I talked about how Worldcon is an incredibly intimidating event for a newcomer to come into. Speaking here as a game designer, this is a structural problem with Worldcon (and other cons like it) as a fan-run event.

Fan-run cons are a recipe for creating events that increasingly and over time favor the long-timers and become closed social groups. It's not inevitable, but preventing it requires a certain mindful attention. 

Worldcon rewards people with social status for volunteering; the people who volunteer get to Be Somebody in the community. (Thus prioritizing people who have the relative privilege to spend that time on volunteer works and not, say, a second and third job, which is kind of a class issue with fandom and a whole other ball of wax. ...Let's pin that for another time.)

The more time you've put in, the more relative credibility and authority you're likely to have. Which means the more influence you're likely to have on programming. And if you're a fan programming a thing for other fans, prrrrrobably you're going to heavily salt the show with stuff that you're interested in. The stuff that you're comfortable with. The stuff that is like the stuff you're used to, and not so much the stuff that you're not personally into. Over time, there will be a trend for homogeneity. There will be a trend for what worked last time. And since it's all run by committees... a trend to not rock the boat.

These fans who run the show are amazing and dedicated people, and what they do is frankly exceptional. They are in the trenches together being shelled. It's by no means an easy job. (I was rooming with a dear friend from high school who does this stuff herself, and let me tell you, she was working her tail off while I was in the bar.)  As a result, the people who run the show (and shows like it) become very close-knit. This is a perfectly natural and human thing.

Have you ever tried to come into a close-knit group of people for the first time? Where they've all known each other for ten, twenty, even thirty years? They have their own language (smof, concom, fannish) and their own in-jokes and traditions (badge ribbons). No matter if they are the most welcoming group in the world, it's going to be super hard to feel like you really belong there.

If I hadn't gone in knowing Chuck Wendig and a couple of peeps from Twitter -- if I had been twentysomething me, kind of awkward and very shy and mustering up what courage I had to buy a day pass -- I'd have a miserable time. Hell, I did basically that to go to a con in White Plains around fifteen years ago and got so little out of it that I never went back to a con until I started getting speaking invitations. And honestly, the first day or two at Worldcon were really, really hard for me and I really questioned whether going had been a good decision. 

In the case of Worldcon in particular, this is magnified by the fact that very much of Worldcon is devoted to the running of Worldcon. Bid parties, committee meetings, voting. This is all perfectly impenetrable to someone who doesn't already know and doesn't have someone to explain it all to them. The only real entry point to Worldcon is to go with someone who can introduce you around. And that just isn't enough.

Dragon*Con is a commercially run event. They know damn well they have to make it as welcoming as possible to young people, new people, anyone who isn't already included in their social network of friends-of-friends. They have a commercial interest in reaching more than a limited circle of old friends from back in the day.

They know you have to invite people in by baiting the hook with stuff they love already, and not just stuff you love. Once you invite them in, though, you can introduce them to new things and old traditions alike. People come to cons to celebrate things that they love -- but you know what? If you can get them in the door, they can also discover new things to love.

So this is something Worldcon and the very particular fannish culture that runs it needs to do some soul-searching about. Are you OK being a closed social group for people who like the same things that you liked twenty, thirty years ago, or who are good friends with someone who does? Or do want this thing to survive and thrive into another generation, maybe even one that also likes games and comics and movies?

Because you can't have both.


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