Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sci-fi convention 2.0

Wil Wheaton (left) meets Tim O'Reilly at the 2...Image via Wikipedia

There's a pretty decent argument to be made that the Internet is killing the midsize and smaller science fiction conventions of the world. Unless the convention is local--and sometimes not even then--why haul out to spend a weekend with 500 or so fans and maybe one sci-fi/fantasy author or artist when you can stalk 500 geek stars from the comfort of your RSS reader? The only cons worth going to now are those that have a critical mass of stars and attractions: Comic-Con, PAX, DragonCon, Origins, GenCon. Right?


Yes, the Internet has made one of the primary reasons to attend cons disappear--once upon a time, the only way to connect to fellow fans and creators was in person at cons, but now you've got more geek friends in you World of Warcraft guild than you ever met at Mid-South or APolloCon. Except that chatting online and actually hanging out with people are still two very different experiences. And despite our reputations as introverted, girl-fearing basement trolls, geeks are social creatures, too, and crave real-life human contact. Mostly.

The problem with fandom in the Internet age is that most conventions refuse to adapt to Web 2.0. They work against the Internet, rather than with it. For example, I can conjure up a list of dream convention Guests of Honor--something I've done before-- strictly from my Twitter follow list. Social media makes reaching these people easier, not just because I can ping them in Twitter easier than I can penetrate their spam filters, but because by following them, I know how to approach them--what their interests are, what their preferences in terms of con attendance are, and a sense of their availability. Plus, I can appeal to their vanity by namedropping any of the recent projects they've pimped on Twitter. That's so much better than a blind e-mail.

And that's just one social media tool, making no mention of Facebook, Pownce, MySpace, or any other buzzword-compliant online community.

If I were to get any decent number of the people I tweet-stalk to attend my convention, they'd all Twitter and/or blog about it whilst attending, instantly creating a digital megaphone of free publicity for my con, which parlays into the next year's attendance and a desire for other guests either to officially attend or just hang out of their own accord. (This is especially true of the non-television and film folks, who tend to make more use of conventions as chances to promote their work.)

Since I know the Profilactic guys (name-dropping!), I could probably arrange for a credential-neutral signup system that let participants in any online community connect. More to the point, I'd invite the Profilactic team, along with geek-centric Web 2.0 people like Jake McKee (he's got serious Lego street cred). If PenguinCon can combine sci-fi and Linux, why can't my local ConGlomeration combine sci-fi and Web 2.0? Why not let the artists and the engineers comingle, to everyone's entertainment and benefit?

Cost is the general answer, of course. The Convention Committee pays for airfare, room, and a meal per diem to guests, and in the case of those that require it, an appearance fee and/or accomodations for the guest's family. Thus, most cons can only afford two or three guests, so attaining critical mass of several really cool guests means many of the celebs must pay to bring themselves, which means the con needs to be big enough for it to be worth their while to attend as a promotional expense, which is a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

Except I seem to recall that physical attendance is no longer a barrier to participation in the Web 2.0 age. Yes, I know this contradicts the "actually hang out with people" angle of my earlier statement, but what if you could do big-screen multiparty video-conferencing at our Convention 2.0, with panel sessions involving a mix of live and online attendees, Jedi Council-style? Maybe I can't afford to bring Charles Stross to the states, but if I can get him on a panel discussing space opera sci-fi with, say, John Scalzi physically in the room, that's worth signing up for, right? Or maybe having Internet-friends (with each other, not with me) Warren Ellis and Wil Wheaton discuss music and comics and blogging, with only Wil in the room? Who wouldn't want to get in on that? And if we made the conference virtually accessible, so you could buy a cheap online pass to the virtual sessions, wouldn't folks buy a few of those. We could also archive the recorded panels for free distiribution after the con is over, pimping out the coolness as a viral advert for next year's party.

This is just me spitballing, of course. The video conference expense and tech resources may end up costing as much as a couple of guests, but if those resources got us ten big-name panelists instead of two, and those panelists had an online presence that pimped us to the masses for free, isn't that a net gain? Besides, I'd love to finally meet the guys from SFSignal, or put a voice to Rich Lovatt after conversing with him on and off for a while now.

But most of all, as a guy who loves to read literature about the future, it would be nice if my fandom finally starting embrcing the futuristic tech of the present. If sci-fi conventions want a future, they're going to have to.
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  1. Interesting ideas.

    And I sound English and manly. :)

  2. Glad you like the idea! We had a satellite convention in Austin for a couple of years, called Linucon. But not one in Kentucky. Let me know if there's any way I can help.

    -Matt Arnold
    Conchair, Penguicon 7.0

  3. Few, few, very few authors will make enough attending a con to offset promotional expense. Just those whose autographs make a book significantly more valuable. And those writers often won't recoup expenses.

    But most will go to a con in an instant if the publisher is paying for the "promotional benefit." I've seen it done a number of times, even attended Worldcons on the publisher's quarter.

    It's worth asking the publisher, if a given author has a book coming out around the time of the con. All they can do is say "no." Whether or not they send the author, the publisher is likely to send promo copies of the book. And provide other Neat Stuff.

    All such things are even more likely to happen near the end of the year, when some publishers suddenly learn that they need to spend some money on expenses soon for tax reasons.

    I don't believe there are all that many SFWA members are deeply involved with twitter. Some you just have to look up and email 'em, or contact by landline. (A lot of 'em had to be dragged kicking and biting into the word processing age, cursing the weird machines and dot-matrix printers as things that would never catch on. The letters in the SFWA Forum were grand entertainment.)
    --Mike On the Way to the Web