By Nalini Haynes
I watched The Social Network on the weekend because I’m working my way through everything Aaron Sorkin has ever written. TSN got me thinking (again) about exclusivity and how that impacts upon people’s goals and relationships, including in what is called the ‘science fiction community’.
The Social Network
Mark Zuckerberg wanted to develop a project that would make an impact to increase his chances of success both in his career and in his social life. Three students approached him about performing their scut work: computer programming a Harvard Face Book, a feat of which they were incapable. Their goal was to create an exclusive little social media network to further increase their status.
Zuckerberg took their idea, ditched their constraints and incompetent programming foundation, and started The Facebook. The Facebook was exclusive and it was cool. Then he grew it… and grew it… and grew it until it became a monster worth billions. Facebook is no longer exclusive and it’s no longer cool but we’re stuck with it until something better comes along. Or until we all migrate to Ello.
How does this relate to the science fiction community?
Zuckerberg’s story has multiple parallels within every strata of society but, in this post, I’ll limit my focus.
The SF community has conventions. These conventions are expensive in themselves, costing at least $200 to $300 for 3-day attendance in Australia. The ‘inner circle’ at these conventions also stay in the hotel or a nearby hotel (at a cost of about $180 per person per night). Residing in-house increases social status and the likelihood of inclusion in social groups like room parties. Finances, commitments and other restrictions — like limited disability access — prevent many people from attending at all, let alone staying in the hotel.
Every convention has a ‘maskobolo’ or costume party. When convention organizers complain about low attendance numbers I have suggested advertising this maskobolo to costuming or cosplay groups in order to raise the convention’s profile. The answer? ‘No. We don’t want them to come.’ Why not? They want the convention to be exclusive.
I’ve argued that at least a few tickets should be available on a kind of ‘scholarship’ basis to people who could not otherwise attend; some conventions in America provide these kinds of tickets. However, organizers in Australia have said, ‘We already have that’: fan memberships — one or two free tickets — are awarded to people who have already attended many, many conventions. The idea of building community by inviting people who could not or would not otherwise ever attend is a foreign concept here in Australia.
When organizers complain about too few people to help carry the workload I scratch my head in wonder. ‘Why not give free tickets to people who couldn’t otherwise attend in exchange for helping with the work?’ Although this is common practice at expos like PAX, Supanova and Armageddon, convention organizers insist that all attendees (other than special guests) pay for the privilege of entering this exclusive temple of worship. If you can’t afford it, you miss out.
Overall attendance at conventions is, apparently, declining so I’ve suggested making at least some sessions available online as both a taster and, if it’s pay-per-view, gaining increased financial support for conventions that are limping into twilight. ‘No! If we do that, then people won’t come!’ But you just complained about declining attendance. [headdesk]
Why do organizers want conventions to be exclusive?
It’s about definitions of success achieved by the current model.
Exclusivity is the goal of small conventions. Every convention invites guests, usually at least one fairly prominent author (or actor depending on the convention) from overseas as well as a local guest and a ‘fan guest’ (this varies).
I believe this desire for exclusivity is so fans can bask in the reflected glow of their idols. More attendees means sharing the light, diminishing its lustre, devaluing the experience. More attendees means less personal time with their icons, diminishing fans’ gains. Including attendees whose financial situation, disability or other constraints would prevent them from otherwise attending, diminishes fans’ gains.
Therefore the current model, although restrictive, gives fans and organizers the outcome they want: exclusive access to their idols within the security of a small group, most of whom are friends or, at least, known to attendees.