Worldcon 2019 – Insights on Fandom and Technology

When Archive of Our Own won a Hugo award at Worldcon (Dublin 2019) this year, we were thrilled. It was a big win for all fan fiction authors and AO3 volunteers to be recognized for their efforts. Each fan fiction author was asked to stand up – it was an honor. This was a very important moment, reported well in this article amongst others. Attending this year’s edition was a thrill for me as an academic, AO3 author and convention-runner.

Worldcon is well-known for its Hugo Award ceremony and one of the oldest S/F conventions. It has a long history. The first cosplayers at a convention were science fiction fans Forrest J Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas at the first World Science Fiction Convention (1939). Worldcon by now has become a home for avid fans, creatives, authors, critics, agents, scholars and many others. Planning the event can be difficult, since there are so many panels each half hour, but it’s very exciting. What I appreciate about this convention is that I always walk away inspired. Concerts, signings, readings, or boardgames are often healthy breaks in this five day event.

This year, I mostly attended panels on fandom and technology and would love to share a few insights on fandom, AI and the future. I travelled with SF/F and YA author Roderick Leeuwenhart, who did a Dutch podcast about the event. His experience was totally different, since he was mostly getting information on the publishing industry. In other words, everyone has a fully different Worldcon experience, since many panels take place simultaneously, but I hope these notes are helpful to you.

Worldcon foyer
Worldcon foyer

In many ways, this was a very exceptional Worldcon. As you might have read I was an active panelist at Loncon before. After Loncon, I was invited to help with the code of conduct and setting up a listener team for Dublin. Being part of this committee was an interesting process the past years to make the convention more inclusive. Even if there are failures, I know that the volunteers of Worldcon try their best. The most epic failure in terms of inclusivity this year was perhaps when the Hugo Award party was not organized well, and some of the authors could not attend their own party. This was especially disheartening for the marginalized authors who were excluded to attend last-minute in front of the door. This is not what Worldcon stands for – we want to do better as a community – but organizational mistakes make a very bad impression.

Since I booked my membership (circumstances…..) I was not a speaker on panels, but I did not mind. This gave me a lot of freedom to enjoy the con and diverse panels like

  • Retro Hugos Discussion
  • Problematic Fandom
  • Franchise Characters
  • Fandom and the LGBTQI Community
  • Ethics of a Secret Power

Being Inclusive and Progressive in Fandom

Problematic Fandom was one of my favorite panels. Pointing out that something is problematic to other fans, from Joss Whedon’s work to Harry Potter, can be hard. The panelists focused on having a kind dialogue with other fans. Listening is important when someone addresses something you love is problematic, and making space instead of having a kneejerk reaction. This dialogue is a learning process and requires emotional distance. One of their big tips was:

‘Call in, don’t call out’

They also emphasized that as a fan, you need to take time to grieve about the stories and people that you lost if you need to cut them out. I agree wholeheartedly- this is all about affect (and narrative closure) which I write about often. Fandom can and does involve mourning when a text ends, or when we have to purposely end our relationship with it. Another key point was also that fans shouldn’t hurt creators when they write a problematic thing, but also try to educate them. The Adventure Zone was mentioned as an example, because they listened to their community and consulted them when creating, for instance, a transgender character for the podcast. Click on the tweet for the livetweets:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Inclusivity and doing better was a key point in many panels. Whether it’s the LGBTQI+ panel, panels focusing on non-Western authors, there was much reflection on how fandom could progress. And how we could write and create better stories to include more people. I was also in a few panels that praised older fiction as being particularly representative. Tortall was praised by authors like Gail Carriger and Marieke Nijkamp, for instance, as being an early YA series that stands out. The main character is a female knight.

LGBTQI+ Panel

Technology and AI

Science, technology and the future were also important domains at Worldcon 2019, where there were discussions on climate change, new technologies, and automation. I mostly attended panels on livestreaming, new business models (e.g. crowdfunding on Patreon) and AI.

The panels on AI that I attended focused heavily on ethics and regulation. The first panel dovetailed on Kurzweil’s ideas of the singularity, a post-human concept in which the next stage of human evolution involves datafying ourselves. Datafication and AI have become a market that is not a public domain, or governed by states. The technology is mostly self-regulated by companies, and like with any emerging tech, there is unclarity about which local/global entities should regulate it. This trend of AI-as-market will persist. Pointing to businesses like Musk’s Neuralink, a neural interface that connects man/machine, the panelists mentioned:

‘The singularity will be privatized.’

In the academic track, I also attended a few talks about AI and the platform economy. The most interesting talk framed it as a historical trend, and already pointed to a project in cybernetic governing, Cybersyn in Chili (1971-1973) as an early practice of datafying the economy. The vision was to have a computer-managed economy, the likes of which we see now with Amazon, Uber and other companies, where the algorithm is essentially your boss. I’ll definitely incorporate this one in my teaching!

Crowdfunding and live-streaming discussions drew a lot of attendees as well. Creatives are very interested in these platforms, because they can potentially draw a wide audience bottom-up. But what was also emphasized by panelists was how hard it was to make a good living out of these tools. Most use them on the side. Especially Patreon can be very time-consuming and ‘you have to be careful that it doesn’t become a job’. Patreon was in the news negatively as well – first it asked those who donate for an extra admin fee, and high-level users like Amanda Palmer intervened. Then the platform raised the fee of new Patreon accounts. However, panelists still supported this crowdfunding tool since the fees they ask are still modest by comparison.

Platforms can create a ;lucrative niche market, as we have seen the past years. Patreon by now has become a home to support weird, alternative games. Alternative music, LGBTQI+ comics, and many other genres flourish there, whereas traditional publishing might have excluded them. Thanks to platforms, in other words, indie is booming. But creatives don’t always get back what they put in, and this is something to be weary off.

What’s next?

That’s just a few insights, for more you can check my Twitter account. Many attendees live-tweeted during Worldcon, and you can check out tags like #worldcon2019 and #dublin2019.

I really love Worldcon and hope to join when it’s in Europe again. It’s great to meet fans from all over the world, and enjoy different events with them. The mix of attendees, the emphasis on sharing knowledge and experiences, and the amazing meetings with other fans and academics really make this worthwhile to me. We don’t have conventions like this on a local level in The Netherlands, which makes Worldcon extra special.

Like George R.R. Martin said in his panel:

‘Worldcon is like a family.’

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