If you had to pick a convention to put online, WisCon would probably be one of the last you would think of. Or rather it would be if you had attended a few. That’s because it is an event that is as much about community as anything else. The people who go to WisCon tend to go every year, and to book up for next year immediately the current year’s convention has finished. Despite the convention’s intersectional feminist leanings, it can be a bit insular at times, simply because it is so focused on the people who are regulars.
Nevertheless, this year’s WisCon was online, and that gave me the opportunity to attend for the first time in over a decade. Other than the people in charge being younger and more ethnically diverse, not a lot has changed.
As I understand it, the reason for the virtual convention was that WisCon had a bunch of obligations to their hotel that, presumably for political reasons, the hotel was unable to release them from. WisCon has a superb relationship with its venue, and I don’t for a moment thing that the Concourse would want to stiff them. But equally if there is no possibility of invoking Force Majure terms in a contract then you can’t just let a big event off from paying. Faced with the possibility of no money in the bank, WisCon needed to put on some sort of show that members would pay for.
At this point you have two choices. You can charge a lot for the event, and use the money to create a hopefully polished show, or you can charge very little and run the event on a shoestring. WisCon, being WisCon, inevitably chose to do the latter, because no way would they want to be seen to be ripping off members. You could get a membership for $10. But if you were really starved for cash you could get in for free. Those who could paid more.
The end result was interesting. It was the biggest WisCon ever, with over 1000 members. Membership is usually capped at somewhat less than that because the Concourse doesn’t have room for more people, and the convention doesn’t want to move. It also had much less of the excellent WisCon programming than usual, because everything was being done on a shoestring, in a hurry, with unfamiliar tech, by too few people. Judging by the feedback session, most people seem to have enjoyed it anyway.
A key part of the experience was Discord, the online chat room package that was used for member interaction. I’d not been familiar with it before this year, mainly because it grew out of gaming communities and I don’t have the time to play games. However, a trans community group in Bristol has been encouraging me to start using it, and WisCon was an ideal baptism of fire. Since then a Discord group has been set up for Finnish fandom, and this year’s Worldcon has announced that they too will be using it.
If you are planning to attend Worldcon I recommend that you find a Discord group (a “server” in their parlance) that you are interested in and get up to steam. I didn’t find it hard, but I have 35+ years of experience in IT so I ought to be able to pick it up quickly. Other people have a lot more trouble.
With 1000 people on it, a Discord sever can seem overwhelming. The number of channels (think of them as separate rooms where conversations are taking place) can proliferate massively, and in popular channels where most members are hanging out the comments can go past way more quickly than you can follow. Autistic members in particular seemed to feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of conversations. With potentially 3 to 5 times as many members for Worldcon, this issue is going to be much worse.
There are things you can do. Individual channels can be muted and hidden, for example. Notifications should definitely be turned off. In much the same way that you might, for example, never attend any urban fantasy programming at Worldcon, or never go into the boardgames room, there will be plenty of Discord channels that you will have no interest in. But if you can see them all you may find that they are too in your face, in which case it helps a lot if you can’t see them.
Social space is more of a problem. Typically a Discord server will have a “lounge” where everyone can hang out. That’s fine if there are never more than 20 of you online at any one time. With 2000 online it will be unmanageable. What seemed to work well at WisCon is their opening event, The Gathering, at which a large number of other rooms opened up, each with a theme of some sort, and people could choose where to hang out. I spent most of my time in the Glasgow in 2024 bid party, but there were plenty of other social spaces where you could go.
In the feedback session there was a lot of talk about potential alternatives to Discord. One of the reasons for that is that everything that is said on Discord is archived on the company’s servers, and is not guaranteed secure. That sort of thing worries WisCon members, some of whom are very nervous of social media having been caught in too many firestorms. The whole thing about how one ill-judged comment that you made 10 years ago can be dug up and used to target you is a major failing of how social media (and indeed mainstream journalism – looking at you, The Times) works these days.
A more complex objection to Discord is that it is not possible for users to spin off new (and presumably private, at least from other members) conversations. You can direct message other members of the space, and I found it quite useful, but I think that’s on a one-to-one basis. Anyway, whatever it is you can’t do in Discord, you can do in Slack. I don’t know Slack well enough to describe the issue in detail.
What Discord isn’t good at is backchannel for programme items. Because WisCon had so little programming, popular items were very well attended, and via a Discord channel anyone could “have their say”. Unfortunately, in such an environment, Sturgeon’s Law applies. Not that the majority of comments are actually crap, but a sizeable percentage will simply be squee, and a lot will be ill-informed. When interaction with the panel is done only at the end via a moderator, Mr “More of a Comment than a Question” can be asked to sit down. With Discord he can hold forth throughout the panel. Wiscon tried to field audience questions through Discord, but that must have been hard work for the moderators and their backup staff. For Worldcon I would be tempted to look for a less simple and convenient way to submit panel questions, as a little inconvenience can go a long way towards deterring casual vandalism.
The other major issue with Discord is community safety. WisCon prides itself on being a safe space. Given the cheapness of the membership fees, I was a little worried that the trolls on 4chan would decide to sign up and cause trouble. Thankfully they didn’t. There’s no guarantee that Worldcon will be safe, though. WisCon cites the requirement for a large number of community moderators as the major reason for not doing online events again unless they have to, and certainly they seemed to have difficulty filling the volunteer slots they were advertising. I’m not sure how you solve this problem.
Beyond Discord, WisCon did programming via a conferencing system linked to YouTube. They used a system called Jitsi rather than Zoom. I believe that the reason for this is that Jitsi as a company is more aligned to WisCon’s political stance. However, the quality of panel streaming seemed very poor compared to what I have seen from Zoom. It is also entirely true that the audio-visual quality of a panel is entirely dependent on the quality of the internet connections in each of the panelists’ homes. Live panels are great, but they are also a hostage to fortune. This year’s Eurocon, which has recently taken the decision to go virtual, is asking as many people as possible to record their panel in advance. That seems wise to me.
YouTube, of course, is also a potential issue, as several Worldcons have found in the past. One thing we discovered at WisCon is that if your panel has the word “sex” in the title, it will fall foul of the bots that enforce “community guidelines”. The word “trans” is probably equally problematic. I am tempted to suggest that conventions use the word “Hitler” in place of any word they think YouTube won’t like. That way you’ll never get banned, but of course it will be very triggering for some people so I’m not at all serious about the idea.
I’m not going to say too much about the actual programming as Wiscon discourages public commentary on panels. Again that’s to protect people against having their words taken out of context and used against them. Some programme items may appear on YouTube eventually if all of the participants give permission.
The one item I will mention is the one in which members of the Motherboard talked about the decision to rename their award from Tiptree to Otherwise. I haven’t been entirely happy with that, although I was happy to step back and let those with more of a stake in the issue make the decision. The Tiptree was the only SF award possibly named after a trans person. However, in general, it is a bad idea to name an award after a real person. Also, having listened to the Motherboard talk, I’m actually quite excited for the future of the Award. The name “Otherwise” opens up a lot of possibilities for broadening the scope to look at other forms of othering, which seems to me an good intersectional thing to do.
Overall I think that Virtual WisCon was a success. As someone who enjoys the event but is legally barred from attending in person, I would love to see an online aspect to future conventions. But equally I entirely understand the resource problem.