September 4, 2013

Thoughts on Conventions

This isn’t going to be some kind of deep, incisive analysis about The Identity Crisis of WorldCon and Its Huge Significance or whatever. I feel like there are plenty of those posts, and I’m reluctant to make any sort of calls on that.

However, one thing I’ve noticed is that for a lot of people, and for a lot of conventions, things tend to end on a note of slight negativity, or anticlimax. I noted this myself when I made a tweet saying that I was feeling “the post-convention paranoia that everyone there thought you were a total asshole”, and quite a few people responded saying they feel the same, so I knew it might not be my own personal anxiety kicking in or whatever.

This started me thinking, and I slowly started wondering if maybe conventions aren’t unfortunately geared to leave people with a bad taste in their mouths.

Think about it – let’s take the usual 3 day structure of a Con: for the first 2 days, in the AM you have panels, and in the PM you have sponsored parties (I presume), where one company or association pays a fee to book a hotel suite for them to set up shop in. This doesn’t come lose to addressing BarCon, where everyone just drinks like crazy at the hotel bar, in each other’s rooms, or – rarely – across the city.

Then, on the third day, you have panels in the AM again, sure, but in the PM you have your Big Awards Ceremony/Gala/Banquet, which is supposed to be the articulation of What is Best, and thus, to a certain extent, an articulation of What is Not Best. (I know this isn’t completely true or fair – awards are flawed, etc, etc – but on the most superficial, surface level, that’s what an award ceremony is, and no matter how much the attendees of the event justify or qualify what’s happening, at least a few will be left wondering, “Why that person?”)

So. You have a set group of people, trapped in a confined space together over 72 hours. They’re up every night drinking. Each day, they’re more and more tired. Each day, they know more and more about one another – victories, failures, prejudices, virtues, etc. And then on the last day, when everyone’s the most exhausted, and probably a few are starting to get sick of one another, you have an event that could feel highly divisive in a number of ways. Everyone’s got an opinion, and everyone likes talking.

That’s rough. That’s basically a recipe for eroding common human decency, maybe a little, maybe a lot.

What’s the answer to this? I like thinking about this stuff, but I wonder (whilst not being entirely convinced) if shorter cons are actually better. The shorter a con, the more likely it is everyone will make an effort to show up, which means there’s less, “I’m going to stay here 4 days to make sure I see EVERYONE,” and exhaust yourself. Maybe a 2 day con is a good structure – the meet n greet one night, the awards ceremony the next.

The urge on convention planning is to do the kitchen sink approach, where you throw in everything anyone could ever want and people can build their own convention – but sometimes I wonder if limitation is a good thing, and perhaps trying to accommodate every taste leads to a negative impact on a large proportion of attendees. There’s an, “I didn’t do it all” feeling that comes from having too many choices – no matter what you choose, you feel like you missed something. And if you do try and do it all, there’s no recharge moment, and you wind up getting sick of it.

The real heart of most conventions – most public-oriented ones, where the common denominator is taste/interest, and not profession/education – is the chance to meet people. Meet old friends, new ones, industry contacts, whatever – people just want space and time to talk. There are a lot of ways to make this more conducive and energetic, but that’s the heart of it.

Now, here’s what’s hard: you have two kinds of conventions that excel at this – small, limited, intimate ones, and big, huge, cultural event conventions, where stores and businesses that aren’t even affiliated with the con put on their own show. I suppose it comes down to personal choice, but more and more, I think I might prefer the former.


I did want to talk about one thing, demographics-wise:

WorldCon is old.

That’s not entirely fair, though – everything is old.

The age discussion is not new to WorldCon, or to Science Fiction. The age gap – as Boomers leave an industry and a very different generation takes their place – is on everyone’s mind, or it should be. Conventions are unusually symptomatic of the change, so it’s more highly visible there: they’re big expenditures that often count more as luxuries than professional investments. As boomers are the only ones running around with any dough these days, they show up disproportionately, and programming is disproportionately geared toward them. Many professional conventions – law, healthcare, etc – have an average attendance age of about 50.

The problem is, when the economy starts spreading money to the younger crowd, or when the Boomers retire or physically can’t attend, then certain industries and institutions and conventions – like WorldCon – are left in a hot seat. Your primary demographic is quite literally gone, and your younger one is alienated, because the programming and events there legitimately were not for them.

This is a problem that extends to a lot more than WorldCon. But it’s still a problem WorldCon will have to think about in the very, very near future.