Virtual Conventions and Other Trends

This is an exceptional moment in history, where different industries are taking drastic measurements to slow down the spread of COVID. The cultural industry in particular is struggling. Festivals, fan conventions, exhibitions are getting cancelled worldwide, making it harder for consumers and audiences to connect.

Thankfully, some industries are innovating. As discussed in my previous blog entry, higher education is shifting to remote, and lectures all over the world are making use of new tools. A similar trend is visible in the creative industries, where virtual events are also emerging.  Fandom continues, but in a new, remote way, by making use of the latest technologies. Different conventions are hosting virtual programs, such as Emerald City Comic Con, Comic-Festival Fumetto (Luzern) and Wannacon. Steadily, virtual events are catering to fans, or replacing exhibitions that were long in the making with remote equivalents. Check out the online exhibition of Harry Potter: History of Magic by British Library, for instance.

How can we sustain the economies and ecosystems around fandom? That’s a big question, and I want to share some thoughts by reflecting on virtual convention that I attended, Stay Home Comic Con.

Stay Home Comic Con

Conventions are a source of income for many fan artists. After the cancellation of Dutch Comic Con, artist Gladys P Nut decided to organize a virtual replacement of the official convention during the last weekend of March. She approached artists and dealers to join her initiative. On the official web site, she writes: ‘I started this initiative, because I love this community and I think it’s important to support each other and don’t let anything, not even a virus, get us down!’  This online Comic Con aims to provide a platform for these “fantrepeneurs” to promote and monetize their activities, but more broadly speaking, it was also about connectivity. The goal is to create one online experience and home for fans. In that sense, such a virtual convention should allow for a degree of connectivity that is similar to an offline convention.

Stay Home Comic Con had several main events, shared as a stage program. This included a virtual cosplay contest, live-drawing sessions and virtual tours. Visitors could also attend a virtual dealer room and artist alley with “tables” that linked to different shops, channels and live sessions.

A few contestants of the virtual cosplay contest

Different Platforms, Channels and Experiences

What stood out to me was the omni-channel approach of this convention. Event organizers and artists could choose which medium to link to, and created different live sessions on Twitch, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Many had commissions, live-drawing sessions, and tours. Stay Home Comic Con moderated different parts of the program through their official Twitch account, and showcased the different sessions.

The content and scope of the convention was diverse. I attended virtual tours of shops on Facebook, Q&A’s of artists on Instagram, and a live podcast session by Audio Geeks that was hosted on Discord and Twitch. What stood out to me was that fans went out of their way to curate interesting experiences on different platforms, and share a common experience of Stay Home Comic Con (#SHCC). This hyperconnectivity on different platforms was replacing the regular activities and promotions at Dutch Comic Con, that otherwise would have partly been analogue/offline. I was impressed by the creativity of artists, and the ways in which they used these new tools. Many admitted that they were new to live-streaming, and not quite familiar with the tools, but together with the audience they enthusiastically experimented and tried different things.

 

Virtual Tour Magical Gifts shop on Facebook

The anticipation before the convention resembled the buzz before a regular edition of Dutch Comic Con. Artists posted different flavor texts on their channels, such as Instagram, and invited everyone happily to join their sessions.

#shcc became quite a phenomenon in Dutch pop-culture fandom. Many fans took this as an opportunity, and went beyond the stage program to organize additional streams, events, podcasts and scheduling of their own. This sometimes made it hard to find out what was happening, since many events were not promoted on the official site clearly, but were promoted through unique posts and hashtags. But this serendipity also stood out to me. Whenever I was browsing Instagram, Twitter or other platforms, I found out about more things that I wanted to attend and do. Similar to an actual convention, I suppose?

 

A Digital, Affective Economy

Stay Home Comic Con constructed a new type of affective space around the convention formula. The fan convention, in other words, was remediated. This online experience was different from an offline convention, if only because the role of our bodies, interactions and spaces fundamentally shifted. I experienced this event as a rich, diverse and intimate tour where visitors could see artists and vendors work. This peak into their lives meant a lot to me, and was very different from the “front stage” that we usually see at a fan convention. You are probably familiar with the market place that a dealer room or artist alley can be, with tables full of merchandise and artists deploying sales tactics that are sometimes cringe-worthy.

Offering this virtual stage reframed fan practices, products and spaces:

  • From tables to streams
  • From finished art to art production
  • From panels to intimate Q&A’s with artists
  • From edited podcasts to live podcasts
  • From shopping to touring

This reframing of fan activities fascinates me. Media platforms, and intermediality, obviously have a key role. New interfaces generate new practices. Depending on the platform, the fan activities also took a different shape. Though the emphasis moved from selling to promoting, business was still at the forefront of the convention. But it also became a nice, intimate way to connect with artists. In this sense, the meet and greet aspect of a convention was not lost at all, but amplified through platforms like Instagram Stories.

Support and Donations

Empathy for artists and freelancers is so important today, and that is also my take-away from this con. They struggle. In their streams, fans pointed out their hardships, emphasizing that even a small ko-fi donation or Patreon donation would help. Their art really is their business, and as freelancers who live towards these events, they face difficulties now. Support your local artists in this difficult time if you can. Promote them, retweet them, share their work. Send them a ko-fi, buy some cards or buttons that can easily be shipped for cheap. Send a care package if you can. I am sure they appreciate gifts, donations, and engagement now more than ever. This is also why such virtual events are important, but they are only successful if we get together as fans and take matters into our own hands.

Stay Home Comic Con is a great example of what fans can do when they rethink traditions. I have no doubt that we will see more initiatives emerge as these times continue. At the same time, we also shouldn’t force ourselves when we may have other priorities, such as care-giving. Stay safe and be kind.

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