Is WSFS Fit for Purpose?

Those of us who have been involved with Worldcon for many years are used to the constant drama that surrounds the convention. There is always some sort of meltdown that is going on. But recently it seems to me that the meltdowns are threatening the very future of the convention. Afterall, lockdown has shown us that things can be done differently. New international conventions such as FIYAHCon and FutureCon can and have been started. There is no need to stick with the old ways if they are no longer providing what fandom wants. Worldcon is no longer the only game in town, and the way that it is run seems to be what is holding it back.

The reasons for this are many and various, but the most obvious one is that Worldcon is strongly resistant to change. The maxim of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has a lot of value. But what if it is broke? “If it is broke it can’t be fixed, so we have to keep on the way things are,” is a lot less attractive.

Worldcon was founded primarily by Americans, and it derived many of its organising principles from US political theory. Chief amongst those was the idea that too much government is bad. The USA was born in revolution against an autocratic monarchy, at a time when such things were the fashion in other countries too. No one wanted a new King, so procedures were put in place to ensure that no one could declare himself one. And that even an elected government was seriously restricted in what it could do. Those principles have been tested to the limit in the past year, and will probably be tested again before President Biden’s first term is over. But do the same considerations apply to fandom?

Fans have always been rightly suspicious of anyone who looks like they want to make a commercial empire out of our hobby. Thankfully that’s a ridiculously difficult proposition, so very few people have tried it, and most of those who have came badly unstuck. Nevertheless, the threat of “WSFS Inc” is still enough to stir many older fans into action to defend fandom from would be autocrats.

The problem is that WSFS suffers from what we in the Diversity & Inclusion business called “Status Quo Bias”. When the existing system happens to favour one particular segment of a population over others, that system will be seen as grossly unfair. There will be pressure for change. And if change is impossible within the system, the aggrieved parties will look to leave that system for an alternative, or to destroy it.

The accepted wisdom is that if you want to change WSFS then you have to do so through the Business Meeting. But the way that works, with the time commitment and necessity of understanding Parliamentary Procedure, is itself a form of Status Quo Bias. Kevin can help people who want to create a new Hugo Award category, but I suspect that no amount of help will be enough for people who want to recraft the entire governance process of the Society.

Furthermore, mollifying upset fans is not the only reason why this should be done. We live in an increasingly corporate world. WSFS is not a corporate animal, and other corporations simply don’t know how to deal with it. Relatively simple things such as selling advertising in the souvenir book, or soliciting sponsorship, become much more complicated than they need to be because WSFS itself has no corporate existence, and external organisations have to deal with a different company each year. Being proudly unincorporated is all very well, but it makes it hard to do business.

As a side note, the vast majority of the genuine inquiries that come into the WSFS websites are questions from people who assume that of course WSFS is an organisation with full time staff, from whom it is possible to buy Worldcon memberships, and with whom it is possible to strike a business deal. Many of them are gobsmacked when they learn the truth.

Worldcon having a corporate existence would also make it easier for the convention to move around the world. There are numerous convention centres out there that are keen for business. We tend to get one or two inquiries a year from people in other counties who would like us to hold our convention in their facilities. But we can’t, because WSFS does not have a core team that runs the event from year to year. Instead it is required to wait for individual countries to grow a fandom capable of doing the job for itself.

Needless to say, this results in continual reinvention of the wheel.

However, the main reasons that I am concerned for the future of Worldcon is that I fear the system no longer serves the interests of the people who want to run the event. That’s partly because the event has become too big, in this viciously commercial world, to be run by a bunch of willing amateurs. You are not just risking a loss of reputation from foolish decisions that upset fandom. Things can go belly-up in much more serious ways.

The 2018 Worldcon is still mired in a lawsuit brought against it by an unhappy member. I can’t talk about that as I’m a director of that convention’s parent organisation, but you can read about the latest developments here and there is plenty of talk on File 770. This year’s Worldcon is lawyering up because one of its main hotels has declared bankruptcy, creating all sorts of problems for the event.

Quite frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to run a Worldcon these days. At the last SMOFcon there was a CoNZealand retrospective panel in which both of the co-chairs of that event admitted to having to take time out for mental health reasons after the event. I’m pretty sure that Bill Lawhorn will need something similar this year. There’s a long-running Worldcon community joke that friends don’t let friends run Worldcon. That’s not funny anymore.

I don’t pretend that I have any easy answers to this. But I am looking with some envy at how SFWA has turned the Nebula Conference into a slick, professional event that has made exactly the sort of adjustments that fandom has been asking for from Worldcon. Of course SFWA is a US-based organisation, so it doesn’t have to cope with the international dimension, but seeing how well they have coped with everything else I’m pretty sure that they could.

The sad thing is that even if I had a bunch of ideas for fixing things, I don’t think I’d have any chance of implementing them, because WSFS is so resistant to change.