Pre-Worldcon Report

Wait, what? A Worldcon report already? It hasn’t even started yet. Well no, but social media has been full of outrage already, so I wanted to look at the issues raised.

I should start by saying that I don’t want anything here to be taken as criticism of CoNZealand. What they have had to do is unprecedented, and that they have produced a convention at all is remarkable. Hopefully, however, the pain that they, and indeed the rest of the world, has had to endure because of the pandemic will leave us with a huge amount of valuable new information about how to run an online convention.

One of the issues that people have been complaining about is that this year, yet again, some Hugo finalists were left off programming, or asked to be on programme items that they knew nothing about. How do we keep making the same mistake year after year?

The first thing I want to note is that CoNZealand has somewhat less programming that a normal Worldcon. That means it is harder to give everyone the programme slots that they want. Lots of people probably think that with an online convention you can have as much programming as you want, but I suspect that it isn’t as easy as it seems. I’m hoping that after CoNZealand we’ll have a good idea of how much it costs to run an online event that can cope with a Worldcon-sized audience, what the timelines are, and so on.

Something else that is worth noting is that, having been made aware of the issue, CoNZealand has done something bold and innovative. They have given free attending passes to all Hugo finalists, and allowed them to buy full Attending Memberships for the price of a Supporting Membership. You might think that every Worldcon should do this, but in the past it would have been fairly pointless. A free membership is of no use if you can’t afford the cost of travel and accommodation, which is much higher.

This provides an interesting challenge for future Worldcons, assuming that in-person events are possible. Should they continue this new “tradition”? If so, does that commit them to providing at least some programming online? I’d like to see them do that.

The main issue, however, is the perennial question of why the same mistakes happen year after year. Is there no continuity? Do people not learn from what went before? There are, of course, some people who work on Worldcon in some capacity every year. Not all of them continue to work in the same area though. Also, working on Worldcon every year is much easier when the convention simply moves around North America. Doing that when it moves around the world is much harder.

Another issue is that, while the people working at lower levels may be the same year-on-year, the senior management team is largely new each time. Those are the positions that the local people want. What they don’t want is to have a bunch of foreigners come in and tell them what to do.

What it comes down to, is that the competitive nature of the site selection process often results in the bid being won by a group of people who are then determined to show they world what they can do. They want to put on their sort of convention, not do things the same way that the Americans do them. And that leads to a lot of reinventing the wheel.

There are other factors that prevent us having as much continuity as we would like, and I will come back to them later, but we have arrived at the other major issue that people have been complaining about: Site Selection.

The main focus of the controversy is the existence of a bid from Saudi Arabia, a country which more than half of regular Worldcon attendees ought to be very nervous of visiting. The issue is compounded by the existence of a bid for China for 2023, the folding of the Nice bid (who have lost their venue) and the fact that everyone who is not an American is suddenly very frightened about traveling to that country too.

It is rather ironic that, after years of fandom yelling about how Worldcon needs to visit other countries around the world, they are now yelling, “but not those countries”. That, however, is in large part a result of how the world has become so much less safe since 9/11. When I was much younger we would probably have approached the Saudi and Chinese bids with an attitude of, “yeah, let’s go there, and help the local fans do something that will annoy their oppressive governments.” No one is taking that line now.

There is a fair amount of privilege on display by those complaining, because for many people Worldcon has been hard to attend for years. There are people like myself and Peter Watts who are banned from travel to the USA. There are people who have Muslim-sounding names who are terrified of going through immigration to Western countries (including the UK). A number of African fans who wanted to attend the Irish Worldcon were unable to get visas. And of course the majority of fans around the world simply cannot afford to attend Worldcon at all, sometimes even if it is in their country.

Mostly, however, the outrage results from people not understanding how WSFS works. They assume that because the Saudi and Chinese bids exist, that someone in WSFS has approved those bids as suitable venues.

There is a job called Site Selection Administrator. This year it is held by my long-time friend from Melbourne, Alan Stewart. Should he have disallowed the Saudi bid? There are reasons why he can do so, but those reasons are based purely in factual issues such as does the bid have a contract with a venue. They do not include judgements such as, “does the country have a good record on civil rights?”

Maybe such a condition should exist. We could write such a rule into the WSFS Constitution. But how would it work in practice? Prospective bids, I am sure, would claim that their countries did have a good record to civil rights, especially compared to the USA which has hosted the majority of Worldcons in the past. What is the Site Selection Administrator to do then?

A good example of this sort of issue in practice is the administration of the Hugo Awards. In the past fandom has yelled at Hugo Administrators too. In particular, a lot of people said that it was wrong to allow the Puppies onto the final ballot. Hugo Administrators said that was down to the voters, and if they didn’t like the finalists they could always vote No Award, which they duly did. Worldcon might have got much less of a pasting in social media and the press if the Hugo Administrators had disqualified the Puppies, but then again they might have gone running to the media complaining about “cancel culture” and “no-platforming”. We can’t know.

This, however, is not the first time that people yelled at Hugo Administrators that they should have disqualified someone. Ten years earlier there was also massive outrage about a Hugo finalist. That was me. Lots of fans said that Emerald City, because it was distributed electronically rather than on paper, was not a proper fanzine. The Hugo Administrators refused to listen to them and allowed me to be on the ballot. And in 2004 Emerald City won Best Fanzine. Years later some people were still complaining that a “mistake” had been made and that my Hugo should be retrospectively taken away.

Now you may say that that’s a trivial example and of course they should have let me on the ballot. That’s what any sensible person would have done. And yet I was blacklisted from programming at the 2004 Worldcon, because the head of programming deemed that I was not a worthy Hugo finalist. If you put people in positions of power, they may abuse that ability.

The simple fact is that Hugo Administrators are afraid to disqualify anyone from the ballot, because they feel that if they did then they would be the focus of a fannish flame war with people claiming that they had acted unfairly. It is much easier for people to say, “let the voters decide”. That way you are off the hook.

I think that the same thing would happen with Site Selection. Sure, we could introduce rules about whether a country is a suitable place to be allowed to host a Worldcon. But Site Selection Administrators would be terrified of using that power. They would much rather say, “let the voters decide”, which is what happens now anyway.

Now there is a procedural issue here to do with what happens if None of the Above wins Site Selection. I will come back to that later, but first I want to address why people don’t seem to understand the “let the voters decide” argument when it is applied to Site Selection.

These days people understand the role of being a Hugo voter. They pay for the right, but it isn’t much if you just buy a Supporting Membership and you get the Voter Packet in return. But many of them don’t see being a Hugo voter as being synonymous with being a WSFS member. When it comes to Site Selection, they also don’t see themselves as WSFS members. Sometimes they don’t even understand that the “Voting Fee” that they are being asked to pay will in fact give them Hugo voting rights at whichever convention wins – something that they might have been planning to buy anyway.

Worse still, in addition to not seeing themselves as part of WSFS, that WSFS is not “Us”, they also seem convinced that WSFS is “Them”. That is, large numbers of fans seem convinced that there must be some secretive Board of Directors of WSFS who could, if they wanted, fix all the problems than fandom is exercised about. That “They” seemingly refuse to Do Something is the cause of much fannish ire on social media. But how are They supposed to Do Something if they don’t exist?

So why do Worldcons not explain all of this properly? Why don’t they just institute an annual membership fee for WSFS and have done with it? At this point we have to cue the ominous music, because I am about to mention the Great Fannish Shibboleth.

They don’t do that because they are terrified of it leading to WSFS Inc.

Way back in the early days of fandom, before even old timers like Kevin and myself got involved, there was a huge debate as to whether WSFS should incorporate, have a Board of Directors and so on. This idea was hugely controversial. That was partly because in those days fandom was very much influenced by American Libertarianism, but also the few non-American fans didn’t want the Americans telling them what to do all the time. Remember what I said earlier about non-American Worldcons wanting to do things their own way? Yeah, that.

A corporation was actually formed in 1956 and started to take action, but in 1958, Anna Moffatt, the first woman to chair a Worldcon, presided over a Business Meeting that effectively dissolved it. There were numerous attempts to resurrect the idea over the decades, all of which came to nothing. If you are interested in this history, it is available here.

Kevin, who arrived in fandom at the tail end of all this, tells me that he thinks official WSFS policy is that the Society should incorporate, but not yet. If ever the issue is raised, old time fans who were around in the 70’s are liable to yell “to the barricades” and head to the Business Meeting.

I wrote a lot more about what WSFS can and can’t do, and why, last year.

So WSFS is, in effect, an anarchist cooperative. That is “anarchist” in the literal sense of having no leaders. The only way that important decisions get taken is by putting them to the membership. Like other anarchist societies, WSFS is vulnerable to being unduly influenced by those who have the time, willingness and resources to participate in its governance. This is very different from a representative democracy, in which ordinary citizens elect representatives to do the governing on their behalf.

However, times change. What worked in the 1950s and 1960s may not be applicable decades later. It seems to me that a lot of the issues that fans are currently complaining about might be fixable if WSFS had some sort of central control.

A lot of the problems that we have with Worldcon these days is that everything has to be done from scratch by the current Worldcon committee. You need a large group of local fans prepared to do the work, and once they have done it they probably won’t have the energy to do so again for around 10 years. This severely restricts the number of places that can host a Worldcon.

If we had some sort of central control then we might (and I say “might” because I know it isn’t easy) be able to make a large part of Worldcon something that we can drop in anywhere in the world. That would probably involve a substantial amount of online programming. It would also mean that things like the Hugos and other WSFS functions would all be handled centrally, that Hugo finalists would automatically get a free Supporting Membership, and so on.

In particular it would mean that the online Hugo voting process could be centralised and not reinvented from scratch each year as seems to happen at the moment.

Part of that would probably mean having paid staff. Probably not full-time, at least to begin with, but there would be some sort of compensation for people prepared to devote part of their time to doing the same job on Worldcon year after year. Obviously WSFS would need money to pay for that, but a substantial amount of online programming that was accessible to Supporting Members could significantly increase revenue. Having staff who owe their allegiance to WSFS rather than to an individual Worldcon would do a lot to help knowledge retention and discourage reinventing the wheel.

The fact that WSFS members could have access to online programming would also help with the issue of people being unable to travel to Worldcon for a variety of reasons, including visa, personal safety and expense. That would mean that there would be less of an issue about where Worldcon was held.

In addition, if a WSFS Board did exist, then it could be responsible for deciding whether a bid was suitable. Joint corporate responsibility is much safer than asking a single, named individual to make such a decision. In practice they would have to do a lot more scrutiny because they would need to know that the drop-in aspects of Worldcon would work. There could still be competition for Site Selection, but the process of getting on the ballot could be more rigorous.

Hopefully such a system would also drastically reduce the cost of bidding, because for years now this has been a major problem. Running a Worldcon is hard enough, without exhausting and beggaring your fan base on bidding before you can even get started.

There could be a commitment to moving around the world. I think it would be a good thing to have Worldcon in an Arab country, though obviously Saudi Arabia is not a good choice right now. I’d like to see Worldcon in Brazil, though perhaps not while Bolsonaro is in charge, and India, though perhaps not while Modi is in charge.

For me, however, the main benefit of having some sort of central organisation is that fandom would have much more of a sense of ownership of WSFS. They would understand that they were WSFS members, and they would see WSFS as “Us” rather than “Them”.

On the other hand, implementing this would not be easy. The arguments against WSFS Inc still have a lot of validity. We can see good and bad examples out in the world. SFWA, I think, has done an excellent job in becoming more democratic and responsive to the requirements of its members. It is also getting good at running an annual conference, though admittedly it only has to do it in within North America. World Fantasy, on the other hand, is a glaring example of how things can go very wrong when the organisation is controlled by a small number of people who tend to be very conservative and can’t easily be held to account.

Let’s return now to that question of what happens if none of the bids for a particular year is acceptable to fandom. Right now the decision would be left up to the Business Meeting. This strikes me as a recipe for disaster, because a small group of fans could potentially overrule the desires of a much larger group. But, if we had a core Worldcon that we could drop in anywhere, then in a year where no site is acceptable we could just run that as a purely virtual con, and not have to skip a year or choose an unsuitable site.

This would also provide a useful backup option if circumstances change in the two years between Site Selection and the convention. It used to be that we expected the world to carry on in much the same way for years to come, but right now I would not be surprised to see the UK descend into civil unrest before 2024 and the expected Glasgow Worldcon. Civil unrest in the USA has clearly already started.

Talking of the Business Meeting, I am well aware that changing the WSFS Constitution is a slow and painful process. But there are things that could be done without BM approval. DC and Chicago (because Chicago will win, despite all of the worries about the Saudi bid) could both commit to providing an online element to their programming. They could also commit to working together to create elements of the convention that could be passed on to successor conventions. I know that’s extra work, but if we want Worldcon to have a future it is work that needs to be done. If it doesn’t get done then I’m sure that fans will start organising online international conventions in competition to Worldcon. Or someone with money will step in and create a commercial event.

This, then, is only the start of the discussion. I want to fix the problems with Worldcon, but I believe that fundamental change is necessary, and we’ll never fix anything if the discussion around how to fix things only ever happens on social media for a few weeks a year around when Worldcon happens. (We were talking a lot about the potential problems of the China bid this time last year. Has everyone forgotten?) I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure that there will be things I have missed in this article.

So I’m writing this now, during Worldcon, in the hope that people will start discussing it at the convention (i.e. on Discord). I’m also hoping that other fanzines will take up the baton and offer their own ideas as to how to fix things (not just complain that things are broken and that “They” must fix them). Most importantly, we need discussion as to how such a version of WSFS would be governed, but that’s a job for Kevin, not me.

12 comments

    1. Thanks Mary Anne. The best thing you can do right now is point other people at this so that they can read and think about it too. Unless you are on staff for DC or Chicago.

  1. Once you start talking about a permanent board and a paid staff you lose a lot of the fannish aspect of organizing a Worldcon. Yes, the current structure does lead to some reinventing the wheel, but it also leads to some innovation and original touches that would be absent from a plug ‘n play Worldcon wouldn’t be able to provide.
    Moreover the problems with Worldcon are fairly minor — a bid for Saudi Arabia that attracted just 33 votes while the winner had more than 500, Hugo nominees not getting on the program, and organizational problems that anyone who has attended a ‘professional’ con knows can still happen despite a paid staff. This proposal seems way out of proportion to the problems it solves. And, how would reducing fannish control over Worldcon and WSFS lead to “fandom would have much more of a sense of ownership of WSFS” compared to the current situation where WSFS is everyone attending Worldcon?

    1. Firstly I did not say that there should be a board of directors, I said that the method of governance was open to debate.
      Second, I am not asking for cookie-cutter Worldcons that are identical everywhere. I am asking for a core element of Worldcon that we get right every year, around which local committees can innovate. That should happen voluntarily now, but it doesn’t for reasons I explained above.
      Third, you might think that the problems with Worldcon are fairly minor. I disagree. Large numbers of other people do as well.
      Fourth, I am not necessarily asking for less fannish control over Worldcon (see governance above). What I am asking for is for fans all over the world to be encouraged to feel that they have a stake in Worldcon, because right now the only people who feel that way are mostly ones with the money, time and commitment to attend every year. The Business Meeting is not “fannish control”, it is control by the small number of fans who are able to attend.

  2. I’ve noted for myself the discrepancy that the WSFS constitution mandates a named person to be responsible for the Worldcon operations, but does not require a named person to be responsible for administrating the Hugo awards. Fixing that might be a good first step.

  3. Just as an FYI Chicago and DC are both using branches of the registration software developed by CoNZealand and collaborating on that continued development. I think the hope is that might become something that could be standardized across Worldcons (although with no enforcement of it, it would just take one con deciding they wanted to reinvent the wheel…)

    1. I was disappointed to see that DC and Chicago are using (branches of) the CoNZealand registration software, because (I’m sorry to say) I found the CNZ registration process more confusing and harder to use than online registration for any other convention I can think of.

      I suppose that means that I should start in now on providing bug reports and feature requests and offering to help develop it and such.

      But even so, I wish that DC and Chicago had chosen to standardize based on some previous year’s registration system.

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