Conventions Go Virtual

Virtual WorldconRegular readers will know that I have long been an advocate of getting more people involved in conventions, in particular Worldcon. It seems crazy to me that we should get a few thousand people attending the event each year, only to then up and hold it in a completely different part of the world the following year and provide no easy means for them to take part. Most people simply can’t afford to go to Worldcon wherever it is in the world, and that seriously restricts people’s loyalty to the event.

When I have brought this up before, it has often been met with sad shaking of the heads, or outright mockery. The technology isn’t up to it, people would say. There’s no way Worldcons could afford it. People wouldn’t want to be on panels if they knew they would go online. All of these criticisms have a germ of truth to them. But none of them are the showstoppers that people think they are, if only someone had the will to carry things through.

Now, of course, our hands have been forced. The current global health crisis means that we have no choice but to make the 2020 Worldcon virtual. Inevitably some fans are grumbling about it, but there are no reasonable alternatives. What’s more, we are not alone. All sorts of other events are going virtual as well. Lots of companies are shifting to working from home. Schools and universities are moving to teaching online. And what we re seeing as a result is the sort of massive leap forward in technology, and technology use, that your normally only get in wartime. Right now we have to make this work, so we are doing so.

The most obvious benefit of this is that people now understand that the technology works. People who had previously scoffed at online meetings are now happily using Zoom on a daily basis. What we are finding is that most of the problems are not technical any more, but human. People need time to learn to use the new tools, and they need to lean to communicate effectively in an online environment.

For example, last weekend I gave a talk to an LGBT+ youth group in Somerset. The talk itself went fine, but it was very useful to have someone managing the tech for me as I talked. Also there was little in the way of Q&A. No one asked questions during the talk, and after it they did so in an orderly fashion. If I there had been 200 people in the audience with many of them wanting to ask questions, and a few determined to put forward, “more of a comment than a question” I would definitely have needed help.

Zoom, however, does have features that help with this. The person hosting the meeting can mute everyone’s microphone. There’s a feature where you can “raise a hand” if you want to speak. Anyone asking a “question” that goes on for more than a few sentences could easily be cut off. I’m sure that there are tricks that we will learn for successfully moderating the Q&A after a talk, but we are clever monkeys so I’m sure they can be learned.

Moderating a panel with Zoom is a different matter. It is certainly harder to see who is wanting to speak. Moderators might need to learn new tricks, and have to be prepared to be a bit more ruthless, in such an environment. The good thing is that we are not the only the only people having to learn these lessons right now. We can watch what other people are doing and pick up on what works.

Any new technology does, of course, come with potential downsides. I’ve been seeing stories of school kids sabotaging their lessons by sharing the URL online and encouraging trolls to interrupt the lesson. There are security features on Zoom that should allow you to prevent this, but you have to learn to use them.

A more serious issue is provided by Zoom itself. Like every other company in the online market it has gone down the route of providing its services cheaply and selling data to make up for the lack of income. Various scare stories have surfaced about the software, and Zoom has been forced into humiliating climbdowns on at least two occasions. IT journalists have started writing about how to keep yourself safe on Zoom.

From a privacy point of view, it seems to me that Zoom is currently no more nefarious than Facebook. If you already spend a lot of time on social media, using Zoom won’t make things any worse. Where it has major issues is firstly confidentiality of sensitive business information; and secondly in the way it can be used by unscrupulous employers to monitor the behaviour of their staff. Neither of these things appear to be much of an issue for an online convention.

Many people’s concerns about online events come from unfortunate experiences of the way some things have been put online in the past. The Hugo Award ceremony is available online in two ways. The current Worldcon generally puts it out over a streaming video service such as YouTube. The comment feed on such things is usually unmoderated and an utter cesspit. The text-based coverage that Kevin and I have done, with help from Mur Lafferty and Susan de Guardiola, is a much more pleasant environment. It is ruthlessly moderated. I know because I do it. People do come on and try to trash-talk everything. It doesn’t take them long to realise that the only person who ever sees their nonsense is me.

Cost is another major issue. You need to pay for all that bandwidth. A meeting attended by 5 people is cheap. A talk watched by 1000 people is not. Right now Worldcon committees have very little idea how to budget for such things, and therefore how much they should charge for access. I don’t envy CoNZealand for the learning experience they are going through. The good news is that if they are only doing virtual then they don’t need to worry about providing cameras in every programme room, which you would do if you wanted to make the whole of an in-person Worldcon also available online.

We have no way of knowing how many people would sign up to attend a virtual Worldcon. However, I suspect that it may well be a lot more than people expect. Over the weekend I got to talk to friends in Finland and the Caribbean. In both cases the people I spoke to were really excited about the possibility of being able to attend Worldcon regularly without having to pay a fortune in travel and accommodation.

There are aspects of Worldcon that do not transfer well to an online environment. I’m not sure, for example, how an online masquerade would work. How would you do workmanship judging? Would entrants have to find a space large enough to film their performance? I’m sure people are thinking about this, but I don’t have any solutions right now.

Then again there is the WSFS Business Meeting. Controlling that is hard enough face-to-face. How would you manage if you had 1000 people attending online, all of them wanting to speak? How would you do voting? Could the Puppies arrange to crash the meeting? Again these are things that probably can be solved, given thought and time, but they might mean that we have to fundamentally change the system of governance of WSFS. The BM is a “town hall meeting”. It cannot work in that form with thousands of attendees.

There’s a lot to do, then. And CoNZealand has to do it in a very short time. I’m sure that they will be keeping a close eye on what other people are doing. This year’s Nebula Conference will be online, and will be a good opportunity to find out what works and what doesn’t. I’m hoping to attend, though I am concerned about time zones, an issue that will be much worse when the con is in New Zealand. There’s more information as to what to expect, and a link to the registration page, here.

In the meantime I would like to offer my deepest sympathy to the CoNZealand committee. I have had senior roles on Worldcon committees before. I know how much work goes into putting on the event, and how unreasonable some fans can be. I would not want to be in their shoes for anything right now, but I am happy to offer what help I’m able from the other side of the planet.

We can get through this. And when we have we may find that we have built something that will allow Worldcon to become truly international. If that happens, the pain will probably have been worth it.