Chicon 8 – The 80th Worldcon

I was, of course, unable to attend this year’s Worldcon in person. I am still barred from entering the USA, and that is likely to continue unless I have a big enough lottery win to buy my way in. I did have a virtual attending membership, and was planning to make good use of that. However, as it turned out, I saw very little of the convention.

Part of that was down to Airmeet, the chosen virtual conference platform of Chicon 8. It seems a little ropey in places. In particular it seems very poor at dealing with background noise. I found that a major issue with both the streamed and virtual panels that I tried to watch. Sadly the program participants didn’t always help. If you are going to be on panel you really should log in from a desktop computer with a good internet connection and A/V set-up. I appreciate that in some countries good internet isn’t easy to get hold of, but we still had plenty of people apparently joining from the USA who had their faces pressed up against their phones in a location with loads of background noise. I’m told that one person was on a road trip during the con and tried to join a panel by phone from a gas station.

We also had panelists complaining that they didn’t know how to use the technology. I appreciate that with something as large at Worldcon it is difficult to make sure that all panelists are up to speed. We have to rely on professional behavior by panelists, and we are not getting it.

Similar issues affect streamed panels. One I tried to watch had the panelists making no attempt to use the microphones. As long as the in-person audience could hear they, they didn’t care.

When you get issues like this at a virtual convention, the temptation to do something else instead is very strong. I had books I could be reading, TV I could be watching, and so on. Consequently I saw very little program.

We still haven’t solved the problem of how to do a virtual dealers’ room. We know how to do a virtual art show, but Chicon did not do it.

Airmeet did provide a social space with tables that people could stop by at to chat. The Glasgow bid seemed to make good use of theirs. But it seemed like only a small fraction of the people logged in to Airmeet were using the lounge.

Some kaffeklatsches were also run through Airmeet. I ended up having a long chat to Lyda Morehouse at one. It was just the two of us. Other people had booked up to be there, but didn’t turn up. That may have been down to Airmeet which was supposed to be sending out links and does not seem to have done so.

I did get up in the middle of the night to watch the Hugo ceremony, mainly because Kevin wasn’t going to be able to update the official Hugo Awards website immediately after the ceremony. We have given up doing the text-based coverage because the streaming is generally very good, and that means that none of us is online at the ceremony.

The event seemed to go off fairly well, albeit with a couple of unfortunate mix-ups. Not reading out Marguerite Kenner’s name was a genuine mistake for which Charlie Jane and Annalee have, I believe, apologised. The thing with Strange Horizons was a mess. As I understand it, Charlie Jane and Annalee spoke to Strange Horizons beforehand and were given permission to not read all of the names. However, this doesn’t seem to have been communicated to everyone whose name was listed. Nor does it excuse the audience laughing.

As to the reading of finalists, I spotted several clues that suggested what was written on the envelopes was not the same as what was being displayed on the screens. That’s down to the ceremony director to get right.

People won Hugos. Yay! Not everyone I wanted to win did, but I’m broadly very happy with the results.

That brings us to the Business Meeting. There were a lot of new motions about the Hugos. Most of them seemed very poorly conceived, and got thrown out. The Games Hugo one got through, as did the one abolishing the 25% rule. Both go on to Chengdu for ratification. For those not up with the discourse, the 25% rule means that No Award applies to any category that, in the final ballot, is voted on by less than 25% of the total number of voters. With the Hugos becoming more popular, and having greater diversity of categories, that doesn’t work. I doubt that I’ll ever vote in the Games category as I don’t play video games, but I don’t want my non-participation to put the category at risk.

The E Pluribus Hugo anti-slate system was made permanent. I still don’t like it, and there is some suggestion that it unreasonably favours the celebrity outsider finalist in fan categories. When you get someone like that (hi Seanan) the fan category in question suddenly gets a lot of extra votes from people who don’t know anyone else in the category and only vote for the celebrity in question, which makes everyone else look like they are slate-voting. More on this shortly, but as far as EPH goes I fear we are stuck with it, at least until all memory of the Puppy War has faded.

Meanwhile, back with Seanan. One of the Hugo-related motions that got slung out was a hardline one that tried to ban anyone who made money from the field from the fan categories. That really doesn’t work. It would have eliminated the concept of the semiprozine. It would also have banned me from the fan categories because I own a publishing company, even though it barely makes a profit and I don’t take a salary.

Ironically that idea suddenly became very popular after the Hugo ceremony. I still maintain that there is no simple and fair way to exclude professionals and their influence from the fan categories. This year was a good example. Even if you think Small Gods should have been excluded from Fanzine, do you also think that Lee Moyer should have been excluded from Fan Artist? If not, what is the difference, and if so, where does such a rule stop? The folks at The Hugo Book Club have written a longer post about the history of the fan/pro controversy. Like them, I believe the only solution is to rely on the good behavior of celebrities. There will always be one or two who decide to try to get a Hugo that way, but as long as they go away after getting one the categories will survive.

Another major piece of controversy erupting from this year’s Business Meeting involves the separation of WSFS Membership from Attending Membership. This is part of the necessary move to make it clear that people are joining WSFS when they join a Worldcon, and that this has data privacy implications beyond that one convention.

The move is unpopular with two groups within fandom. The “No WSFS Inc” crowd hates it because it gives WSFS more visibility as an organization. And the people whose hobby is running Worldcons also hate it because they want to remove WSFS from Worldcon altogether. I am already seeing people complaining that they are being ripped off because they are forced to join WSFS when they only want to attend Worldcon, and that is absolutely a result of the way the change is being explained to fans by Worldcons. That’s a very hard Paddington Stare for you, Glasgow.

Personally I don’t see why anyone attending Worldcon should have to buy a WSFS membership. I know that’s anathema to the, “it’s a membership, not a ticket” crowd, but that fight has been long since lost. With an event as large as Worldcon, the majority of attendees do see it only as a ticketed event.

There is a downside to this. In some countries (hello Canada) a conference of members is treated very differently for tax purposes than a ticketed entertainment event. We certainly need to bear that in mind and work around it. However, I see no reason why Worldcon attendees should be required to be WSFS members, and indeed Chengdu appears to be following exactly that policy. Here are some benefits of it.

Firstly, only WSFS members should be allowed to vote in the Hugos and in Site Selection. People who don’t care about either can opt out by not joining WSFS. So there should be no more complaining about having to pay for something you don’t want. Also we’d get away from the nonsense about there being 6000 people eligible to vote in the Hugos but only 1500 did and isn’t that terrible!!! We’d get a much better turnout of eligible voters if WSFS membership was optional.

Only WSFS members need have their personal data passed on to subsequent Worldcons. This would allow Worldcons to sell attendance tickets to people without all of the GDPR complications.

I would restrict program participation largely to WSFS members. Worldcons could invite guests as well, but if you want to be part of the show you ought to join the club.

I’d give WSFS members priority in booking into kaffeklatches, workshops and so on. That can easily be controlled through the website pre-con.

Giving members priority for at-con stuff would be harder, because you’d have to police access. But Worldcons have long complained about the need to have a venue big enough for the Hugos and giving priority access to WSFS members could help with that.

Of course the big access issue would be the Business Meeting. Inevitably someone would try to fake WSFS membership to get in and vote, and then crow about how all of the votes taken were invalid. But having to deal with such issues would encourage people to think seriously about doing away with the Town Hall Meeting model for WSFS governance and moving towards something that works better for a big organization in the modern world.

On that subject, Kevin has a post on File 770 talking about possible future systems of governance for WSFS. Naturally SMOFdom is convinced that any change will be a disaster, but they will come around eventually. Remember Cheryl’s Second Law of Fandom:

One data point indicates a dangerous trend that must be resisted; two data points indicate a sacred and holy tradition that must be preserved.

If you want complete run down of what happened at the BM, Kevin has written one.

And the good news is that we’ll have a NASFiC in Winnipeg in 2023, and a Worldcon in Glasgow in 2024, so that’s two conventions I should be able to attend.

Chicon’s COVID tracking service reported 60 cases out of a total of 3574 people on site. That’s not bad. Certainly a lot better than Eastercon.

There were other threats to life at the convention. Two attendees – Patrick Tomlinson and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki – were the target of actual death threats sent to the convention. Tomlinson has long been a target of right wing trolls, while Ekpeki is the first African-resident writer to gain prominence in the Hugos.

While these threats were probably fake, they are something that the convention needs to take seriously. Potentially more annoying from the point of view of wasting resources is the new fashion for sending spoofed emails purportedly from the targets of the trolls. Convention staff receive emails which appear to be from convention members which are abusive, or contain violent threats, but which are actually from trolls trying to discredit the supposed sender of the emails.

The point about this sort of attack is that it is very cheap. Once you know how to spoof an email, you can easily cause a lot of trouble for your target. Worldcon, being very high profile, is liable to be an increasing target of such attacks, but other conventions could easily be targeted and staff need to know that this is a possibility. Given that police forces continually fall for SWATing attacks, especially when the target is a person from a minority group, it would not surprise me to see a convention fall for one of these sometime soon.

At times I am amazed that anyone wants to run cons these days, let alone run a Worldcon.