Let's Stop Conning Ourselves

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Title: Let's Stop Conning Ourselves
Creator: Patience Wieland for "Strange Horizons"
Date(s): May 11, 2009
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External Links: Strange Horizons Articles: Let's Stop Conning Ourselves, by Patience Wieland, Archived version
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Let's Stop Conning Ourselves (subtitle: "Are failures like JumpCon and FedConUSA a testament to science fiction fandom's limitations?") is an essay/article by Patience Wieland.

It was written for "Strange Horizons" in 2009.

It addressed fandom and a recent rash of failed and fraudulent fan conventions.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

In our stratified little communities, news of these failures often brings up memories of another. Remember, we ask each other, when that British TV show's official fan club disappeared, without fulfilling their magazine subscriptions? Didn't the same happen with that literary press, who published all those magazines? How about that fanzine agent who stopped sending orders? What about that famous anthology that never got published? Or the con where there were more guests than con-goers?

Sooner or later, a little rain must fall — it's the First Law of Weddings, and makes for great stories at the dead dog party. But perhaps it's time for fandom to stop reminiscing about war scars, and start asking — as a community — "How do we prevent this?"

It also isn't enough to blithely recommend the superiority of smaller, literary conventions over media conventions — or fan-run conventions over those created "for profit." Many literary conventions simply don't have the programming track to attract media fans, and vice-versa; nothing wrong with that. However, since many fans enjoy both literary and media fiction, it seems ridiculous not to pool our resources in protecting one another.

Meanwhile — if we assume that being a fan automatically implies honesty, let's remember that Shane Senter, the genius behind JumpCon, was a fan who likened himself to the "Emperor" of Star Wars. Steve Brazeal, the head of FedConUSA, was a well-known Star Trek fan, who claimed to be negotiating with Paramount Television. (Brazeal stated he would get Enterprise back on the air by giving Paramount fan money, including, his group claimed, $3 million from a private space enthusiast.)

In fact, business failures and fraud issues may be compounded by fandom's open-door policy. By its very nature, fandom tends to operate in a grey area, outside traditional boundaries of "professional" and "amateur." A published novelist writes a short story that appears in a literary fanzine; actors and crew members form a casual jam band that tours at conventions; a television actor appears free at some events, for $10,000 at others. Meanwhile, those who run fanzines, websites, and fan businesses usually do so while holding down a professional role in their "real" life. Happily, fandom offers a more fluid identity and safe space, where a tax law attorney can moonlight as a short story writer or cartoonist. It also means that a person with relatively little experience can decide to put on an event — and why not? Haven't some great events risen up from nowhere? There had to be a first DragonCon, right?

Yet, at the center of each failure, there is generally one person with delusions of grandeur. One of fandom's favorite jokes is that of the "SMOF" — the Secret Master of Fandom — who has read the Necronomicon and other tantalizing, yet secret data on running a successful event or enterprise. When someone literally brags of having SMOF-like power — ("If you give me your money, I'll give you unlimited access to your favorite author, make you as rich as J. K. Rowling, or get your favorite TV show back on the air!") — that's a warning sign.

But in the first flush of passion, neofans — who don't know "SMOF" from s'mores — have nothing to judge these statements by. After all, haven't they just joined the new and colorful world of fandom, a blissful paradise where no one is teased for tilting at windmills, where fan and pros alike can discuss dark matter and the vagaries of Vorlon sexuality?

Yet, because fandom is a safe space for many people who are considered "strange" by mainstream society, it's possible to second-guess our own common sense, and let fan businesses get away with actions we'd never accept from the so-called "mundanes" we patronize in daily life. Fans' reaction to JumpCon reminds one of Michael Suileabhain-Wilson's "Five Geek Social Fallacies," particularly #1 and #2 — "Ostracizers Are Evil" and "Friends Accept Me As I Am." Up until the end, Senter and JumpCon were defended by other fans, who insisted that they were looking forward to the convention, and that skeptics like Avelman were jealous and unfair.

At the same time, staff members responded rudely and unprofessionally to questions by prospective attendees on the JumpCon forum. Instead of using their full names, staff members went by the handles "Emperor" (Senter), "ComptessaofContempt," and "AltoTrek" on the website and its forum. Isn't that pushing Geek Fallacy #2 a bit far — and would you want to buy a used car from a man who only told you his name was "Cthulhu"?

Now, it's also true that fan failures happen to decent people who get in over their head, and are caused by personal problems, or a slowdown in business. That apparently happened to DNA Publications' Warren Lapine, who (according to his post on sff.net) experienced a sudden bereavement in 2005. We usually know when mainstream businesses are troubled; even if we don't read the business section of our local paper, we have friends and neighbors who tell us which grocery or florist has slashed its staff, and is likely to shut down. We can choose to proceed with our patronage, or wait and see. Science fiction and fantasy writers have groups which provide this kind of information—whether it's a message board discussing response times, or a website like Writer Beware warning about vanity presses. But there's no current watering hole to tell us if there's a track record of trouble with other fan businesses, particularly conventions.

It wouldn't just benefit fans, either. After all, with FedConUSA, some of the loudest complaints came not from fans, but from professionals who were booked at the convention — Star Trek actor John Billingsley and Battlestar Galactica actor Aaron Douglas — people who deal with Hollywood's shark-infested water on a regular basis, and still got hurt. In 2004, Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin, as well as many Tolkien fans, were fooled by the leaders of Bit of Earth, whose unbelievable story involved a faked suicide and gender change by its leader. New Zealand-based actors and LOTR crew members were stranded in Los Angeles when Bit of Earth failed to put on a promised convention and provide air tickets.

In fact, while a few bloggers asked, "Are conventions dead?" after these failures, fan articles tended to focus on the cancellation of celebrities, rather than the money stolen from fans, who were struggling to get answers — and refunds. Even fewer stories were written about the last minute Boston "Mini Fan Con" run by staff of the New England Fan Experience, and about guest Mark Godard, the gracious Lost in Space actor — even though this was an example of fandom's ingenuity and warm heart. Godard, who now works as a teacher in Massachusetts, had taken time off his anniversary weekend to meet with fans. Meanwhile, the "Mini Fan Con" committee charged nothing to stranded fans, making it a free event for anyone who wanted to come, and what I hear is that this minor, last-minute convention was the way fandom "used to be." Yes, there was a guest there, but instead of offering expensive autographs, he sat down and told stories. Another visitor brought out a working R2-D2 model he had built from scratch. Above all, people sat down and chatted, making new friends. Once, these opportunities were big news to fans — especially in the days before the Internet united us at the touch of a keyboard button.

Have we become so blasé that we've forgotten what cons and fandom are really about—shaggy dog stories, shared chocolate bars, and new friendships?

Every day, there are new fans stumbling upon events and merchandise—fans who have nothing to compare their past experiences to. Think of the thirteen-year-old kids who got to go to San Diego Comic Con this year, for the first time. With its cramped panels and celebrity appearances, it's a far cry from the warm, comics-centered get-together I attended as a similarly aged "Marvel Zombie." Those teens may think fandom is about consumerism, not friendship — and as consumers, they may be scammed.

They may not realize they are buying bootleg videos, when they could receive the same video as a trade for free; that they should not send large sums of money as cash or through PayPal; that there are websites to help them avoid fraudulent publishers, and that there are many conventions run all over the country, including those run by teams of fans for decades. They may not realize that it is fair and even expected for them to contact fan businesses if they have questions, and that being a fan-run enterprise doesn't entitle anyone to avoid following the law.

Comic Con's new-found clout should teach us one thing. Fandom is now being used as a marketing tool by media behemoths — which is more reason than ever for fans to be educated about scams and questionable business practices. In past decades, fans of fantasy and Star Trek each had their "Welcommittee," which helped nurture thousands of fans as they joined a wider community. Today, fans need a similar resource—an efficient, ethically run watchdog that will help combat fraud against fans, and provide more ample warning of bad business practices.

Already, after FedConUSA and JumpCon's failures, their websites were cherry-picked for damning information, though much of it's likely to appear on archive sites in the next year. There are few records today about events like the "Con of Wrath," a 1982 Houston Star Trek convention whose failure was almost a blueprint for FedConUSA. If we're not careful, eventually people will also forget what happened to Flanvention II, JumpCon, and Slanted Fedora.

Fan Comments

Some are here.

References