The Future of Conventions

So, this article about how Cosplay is Killing Cons went up, and then JV Friedman Tweeted this amazing rebuttal, which generally sums up my feelings on the topic. I commented on the rebuttal on FB, and was asked to repost it as shareable. So, with some tweaks and extra thoughts added, here’s the reposting.

I’d like to jump in and add my two cents about the future of Cons.

As it stands, right now, I prefer the concept of Con As Social Space over Con As Access Space. 

Cons began as a way to get access to things that fans – separated from one another in different cities without the aid of the internet, and separated from the writers/actors/creators they admire – wanted access to. Fans created Cons for ourselves so that we could exchange VHS fanvids and get into one room together to screen a special-access episode or film, or to get access to stores or shops that sell fannish things, or to sell/exchange Zines, or to exchange fanfic, or show off our awesome Cosplay skills, or to have a chance to meet celebrities face-to-face and get photos with them, get autographs, get a chance to chat with them and ask questions.

And dude, that’s awesome.

I began going to Toronto FanExpo 17 years ago, before it was called FanExpo. I remember Voice Acting workshops with Roland Parliment (which led to some auditions and show pitching, on my part). I remember buying $300 of manga because it was the only place I could get it. I remember buying volume #1 of X/1999 on Friday, reading it Friday night in the hotel room, and going back to the same dealer to buy the whole run on Saturday. I remember the thrill of searching Artist’s Alley and finding things I’d never, in a million years, have found elsewhere.

Back then, there was no Etsy. There was no Zazzle. There was no Red Bubble. There was one anime shop in Toronto, and some comic stores stocked Akira, Sailor Moon and Dragonball, but little else. Chapters did not have a comics/graphic novels/manga section. There was no place to buy bubble-gum pink wigs and yellow contacts except around Halloween.

There was, and later LJ, but I still subscribed to paper Zines and Yahoo Newsletters. Youtube wasn’t a thing, so vids were posted on community boards, and passed around via VHS or later, DVDs. Very few shows had box sets, so you had to tape it every week. Going to a Con and finding the full season of a show on VHS or DVD Was a jackpot, because where I lived, there was no HMV, no Sam the Record Man, no Sunrise Records. And even then, the selection of television shows was slim.

They only way to hear filk was to go to filk meetups at cons, and download the tracks if the filkers had them up online. There was no iTunes, and no ability to self-publish albums. If the band/filker had a CD, the only way to buy it was generally from them directly.

And the only way to talk to stars was to go to Cons. Or write them a letter that generally garnered a very lovely generic letter from their publicist and a signed glossy in return. Very nice, but not the same.

This is not me “Good Old Days”-ing.

This is me explaining how and why Conventions –the  Conventions as Access – was important. It was vital. It was community building.

But. Then there was the internet.

Anything I could possibly want to buy – licenced, or fan made – I can now do so online. I love Etsy, and Red Bubble, because I love being able to support fanartists from all over the world. I love being able to find or commission the perfect prop for my cosplays, or the right wig. (And I still spend most of my time in Artists’ Alley IRL, too. Man, Fanartists, watch out for me. I always collect business cards and then shove the artists’ online portfolios at my publishers when they ask me about cover designs).

Anything I could possibly want to read – licenced or fan made – I can read online, or buy via Chapters, Amazon, or the comics or manga’s own app and store. I can buy fancomics online, now, and read them. I can buy digital fanzines. I can get newsletters. I can read reviews an hour after the show aired on a blog, or listen to podcasts. I don’t need paper anything anymore. (The environment and my overburdened bookshelf are grateful).

Because of Twitter, and FB, and Tumblr, I no longer need to write fan letters via snail mail to get access to the stars I like. I tweet to him thanking him for playing a day-saving hero with a cane because #RepresentationMatters, and Burn Gorman graciously replies. (Sure, there’s bad stuff too, like people bullying Steven Moffat off Twitter, and being rude to Mark Gatiss – but most of it is good.) Neil Gaiman and Gail Simone answer Tumblr Asks, and all the filmed Q&As and panels end up online.

I can watch fanvids on Youtube, and Vimeo, and see celebrity’s vines, vlogs, and blogs.

I can buy sheet music and digital albums from my favourite filkers.

I can watch Masquerade videos and have access to thousands of Cosplay photo albums.

I no longer need to pay megabucks to get tickets to get into cons and then pay more bucks to get autographs/photos/good seats or access to the mic in the Q&A in order to meet writers/actors/artists/talents. Because of the internet, I don’t need to subscribe to paper newsletters to get episode critiques and reviews. Because of the internet, I don’t need access to Cons for fanvid screening panels and filk workshops, and special viewings of unaired pilots.

In short: everything that attracted fans to conventions – access to creators and artists, and access to each other’s thoughts, opinions, and fanworks – is now obsolete.

So what does that leave? What can Cons do that the internet can’t?

Why are Conventions important? Why bother with them? Why keep them alive if the internet has taken over?

Well, I can’t hug my fandom friends through the internet. I can see photos and vids of their cosplays, but I can’t touch them, marvel at the work in person, pose for photos with them, etc. I can talk to my favourite stars on Twitter, but at a Con dance, I can buy them a beer and have a chat in the bar. I can revel being in a safe space, a place filled with my tribe and my people. I can make new friends. I can chat. 

Conventions still do one thing that the internet does not.

They provide a physical meeting place for Communities.

I can still do all the things I used to do at Cons, but now I don’t go to cons specifically to do Q&As and Photos and Autographs, and all the things the big cons are nickel-and-diming me over. So I don’t do them. I use the con to have meet ups, go for coffee, go out for karaoke, do cosplay photoshoots, talk shop,etc.

I stopped going to the Big Cons as a fan. Because what they want me to pay for, I can do for the price of my monthly internet bill. And the stuff that *I* want to do, the stuff that supports the reason I’m there (to be social) is virtually absent from the programming, or costs extra on top of the ticket.

To survive now, Cons have to evolve and adapt. Cons as Access Space are obsolete. To survive, Cons have to provide something that the Internet can’t, and that’s a Safe, Fun, Social Space.

That’s why “relax-a-cons” like FutureCon are, I think, the wave of the Convention future. There’s light programming, an emphasis on social events and interaction spaces, and the guests have virtually no barriers around their time. At FutureCon-I was a guest, and I had no autograph session, no table, no Q&A session. The local bookstore took care of selling my books at a table in the Dealre’s room, and the Dealer’s Room and Artists’ Alley were conflated into one room so you got to see everything all at once.  Instead of being held apart from the attendees I was just…. there. And when I was out in public space, people were free to come sit beside me, have a chat, get an autograph, get a pic, have a high tea, or dance with me. And I really liked that.

(And sure, some celebrities won’t want to do this. That’s their perogative. And sure, even I am careful about how much “public” time I give, especially given the size of Con it might be. And some fans will be horrible. But overall, the experience has been good for me, and any horribleness I have had at such Cons has been headed off or taken care of by alert and competent security volunteers and ConComms.)

KeyCon in Winnipeg was great too, because as a guest, I actually got time to spend with the other guests as well. Richard Hatch bought me a drink and kissed my cheek! Lar de Souza and I sat in a hall way drinking funny named cocktails while he drew me as a caricature and taught me how to twerk. I got to share some of a new short story by just drunkenly saying “Hey, who wants to hear a thing??” and let people vote yay or nay. I wandered around and sat in on a filking circle, and signed things in the halls, and it was great because I both got to be a guest and enjoy the con myself.

Next weekend I’ll be a GenreCon as a guest, and I’ve got a signing session and a reading, but I declined to have a table because it’s nicer to be able to go to other people’s panels, and to scope out the rest of the Con, and get to share in the artists’ alley and see the dealer’s room. The thing I am literally looking forward to the most is finding that talented bastard Thomas Gofton and singing a duet with him, again.

As a guest, yes, it’s important to have a structured time and place for people to be able to find me. There’s nothing worse than going to a con specifically to see/meet/get a pic with/get an autograph from someone in particular, and just playing Polka-roo with them the whole time. I still like scheduled autograph and reading sessions for just that reason. But I think it’s also important not to overschedule guests so they can enjoy the con, and interact on a less formal level.

Actually, I think it’s important not to overschedule a Con in general, because if you offer too much to do I in the same hour, you spread your audience awful thin. If your con has 100 guests and ten panels going on at the same time, you’re going to have some empty rooms. Especially around mealtimes.

(And I never understand why anything is scheduled against the Guest of Honour’s programming. It’s a bummer for the other guests who might like to go see the Guest of Honour’s Q&A/talk/reading/screening/etc. but it also, I think, sends a bad message to the GoH: “Yeah, you’re important, but not so important that we’re not gonna try to siphon the audience away from you for that hour.”)

And you know, I know people who go to these sorts of Cons and never even go to a guest panel or Q&A. They’re there to hang with their friends all weekend, and shop, and eat, and laugh, and dance, and cosplay, and sing along to musical episode screenings, and filk, and just be in a  good space.  For those people, good guests are a bonus.

And there’s my two cents.

(Only I’m Canadian and we don’t have pennies anymore, so… there’s my nickel.)

TL;DR – For Cons to survive, they have to evolve into the one thing that the internet doesn’t give fandom: a Safe, Fun, Relaxed Social Space with light programming and less nickel-and-diming.

JM FreyThe Future of Conventions


Join the conversation
  • Art Dent - October 9, 2014

    > Cons began as a way to get access to things that fans –
    > separated from one another in different cities without the aid
    > of the internet, and separated from the writers/actors/creators
    >they admire – wanted access to.

    Actually, no.

    SF Conventions started in the 1930s as purely social events. They were gatherings so that fans who only knew each other through letters to the editor at various SF Magazines, personal letters, and Fanzines could meet face to face. It wasn’t until the mid-70s when the financial possibilities for SF cons started to be exploited by the Creation Con people. They are the ones that made Cons into the glorified dealers rooms that events like Comicon and Fan Expo have become. So when people complain about loosing money because people are *gasp!* socializing instead of spending money, I cry crocodile tears for them.

  • JM Frey - October 9, 2014

    Ah! Thank yoi! I learned something today! Then that makes it doubly important that Con spaces return to (or at least consciously make room for) the social.

  • JM Frey - October 9, 2014

    Ah! Thank you! I learned something today! Then that makes it doubly important that Con spaces return to (or at least consciously make room for) the social.

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