Conventional Wisdom

‘This is a solved problem.’ It’s one of my notes from PodUK Goes Digital, a one day podcasting online convention that took place on Saturday, 30 May. It’s from the Representation in Audio Fiction panel. Sarah Rhea Werner (Girl in Space)Evan Tess (This Planet Needs a NameLory Martinez (Mija PodcastNathan Blades (The Talent Agency) and Faith McQuinn (Boom: A Serial Podcast) were panelists in a discussion about representation in audio fiction and beyond.

The quote originates from Evan, as part of a discussion talking about the perceived challenges of casting diversely. I say perceived because podcasting is, at the very least, far more diverse than TV for a start. I mean I can point you at podcasts with autistic characters who AREN’T socially awkward geniuses who carry the plot. It could still and always will need to do much more but this cartoon about covers where we are right now:

At Flights of Foundry earlier in the month I talked to a colleague I’ve worled with for years. She was attending the show from Singapore. I was attending it from outside London. The convention had a definitive space, but it wasn’t physical. Travel was still involved, but it was mental and psychological rather than Premium Economy Cattle Truck.

That was what fascinated me, we actually travelled. It felt like a convention, almost exactly like one. The same sense of your time being divided into thin slices. The same feeling of nothing happening and then EVERYTHINGHAPPENINGALLATONCE. The same sudden social exhaustion and the same relief at finding a quiet (Doscord breakout) room to slump for a bit and chat to friends. The only things missing were the weird coloured donuts and over priced coffee. And I can make those at my house! Which I was at because the convention was online! A brave new world awaits! Those AOL adverts DIDN’T LIE TO US ALL!

All of which is a very long-winded cold open to ask this question: why are people so worried about the fate of conventions?

When all of (gestures) this started, there was a whole raft of discussions about how physical conventions would not be possible or preferable for a very long time.

Self care tangent: if you feel your anxiety spiking a bit as we head into this, don’t worry, I’m not going to go into specifics. This is macro scale stuff, promise. Take a stretch and drink some water if you need to before coming back.

In March, effectively every convention for the year was cancelled. We’re starting to see the July and August closures of mid-sized events, with more in Q4 desperately holding their ground inside the Plausibility Zone. But others — everything from the cultural kaiju of ComicCon and GenCon on down, have cancelled their physical events.

Almost all of them have gone online.

A few weeks back I had the honour of being a guest on my buddy Leonard Sultana’s YouTube show. Better know as Englishman in San Diego, he’s an avowed comic-con fan and closely connected to its culture. He’s also a great interviewer and one of the things we talked about was the abundance of online cons. Fellow guest and worthy Twitter follow B. Dave Walters mentioned he’d done multiple ones that week and there was no sign of them slowing down.

And yet people are worried. From what I can tell it’s for four reasons.

The first is everyone is waiting for the scrappy ‘Let’s do the show right here!’ aesthetic to dissolve into the frantic grab for money. Secondly, a lot of people in a lot of industries have physical stock to shift. Creators shift merch and books galore at conventions. Supply companies and STUFF!IN!A!BOX! companies live off the specific shoppers and impulse purchasers they bring. Small press publishers, indie booksellers, you name it and there’s an industry in the geek circle dependent on waiting for people to wander around a sweaty, crowded room six times, ask what price something is and then buy it three days later.

Then there’s the fear. The simple thought of being in a confined space with a couple of hundred people frightens me right now. Hell, there are days when my local Tesco frightens me. Paying money to go stand in a badly in need of modern decorating hotel? Surrounded by people? That’s going to be the hardest of passes from a lot of people, for a long time. And that, like I said earlier, is good for personal comfort but bad for indie businesses.

Finally, there’s a different kind of fear. One which looks at open digital doors and a flood of new people and starts looking for a corner to back into. I’ve seen major names talk about how every convention is 20% panels and 80% “backroom deals” (that’s soft-skills and networking to the rest of us). I totally get that, and I totally get that it’s a convenient and for some, important part of career development. I’ve watched informal conversations turn into jobs since the first convention I ever attended.

It’s also privilege. On so many different levels. Privilege of geography, of disposable income, of neurotypicality, of freedom of movement.

Right about now it’s possible some readers are getting angry at me. That’s okay. No one likes having their advantages pointed out. I struggle with it, because I’m CONSTANTLY learning where I have privilege. I’m a cishet white guy; like is permanently on the lowest difficulty setting for me.

But here’s the thing. Just like saying ‘podcasting is open to everyone!’ assumes everyone can afford a smartphone, broadband and the time required, saying conventions are vital to developing a career is an intensely privileged view. Conventions are always expensive, usually massively so. The financial barrier of travelling to one is bad enough before you need to worry about accommodation, accessibility needs, parking and dietary requirements. Throw in what stuff you’re bringing to sell, how you’re going to display it, how you’re going to handle cash and food and the rest and you’re looking at substantial investment.

Of course going also means, to some extent, a return to high school. You have to be of the right height / colour / age / gender / number of books published / etc. to be allowed to sit with The Cool Kids. I have a thousand stories about this kind of bullshit and, again, cishet white guy so look at any POC, LGBTQIA+ or female creator and I promise you they have ten thousand. It’s another aspect of convention attendance that almost burnt me out last year. You pay to roll the dice on whether you’ll be treated like an adult or asked to carry someone’s bags. (And yes, that happened to a friend of mine.)

So, looked at one way, the ‘get drunk, pitch an anthology idea to an editor and get handed 10 grand to publish it” end of the pool means this is the last place you want to be. But looked at the other way, this really is where business gets done. I’ve never sold work at a convention, but I have friends who’ve signed life-changing contracts because they and their agent arranged face time with someone. I have ABSOLUTELY had meetings with agents at cons that will hopefully go somewhere positive that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Privilege? Absolutely.
Useful? Efficient? Absolutely.

Necessary? No.

Remember…

“This is a solved problem”

Flights of Foundry, the 2020 Nebula Awards and PodUK have, in the span of absolutely no time at all, Apollo 13’d a new way to convent (is that a word? maybe it is now!) into existence.

Flights of Foundry‘s use of Discord break-out chat rooms was inspired and their technical staff were unfaltering, responsive and kind. The Nebula conference used a connective narrative, some homemade special effects and a wickedly well-realized social network system to invoke the feel of an in-person convention, just with more slippers and easier access to coffee for everyone.

PodUK Goes Digital took this one step further, running panels on Twitch and workshops on Discord. That meant there was a real sense of moving from one type of programming to another and it was far from their only innovation. PodUK also programmed breaks into their schedule and brilliantly ran adverts for other podcasts in those breaks.

The effect was exactly like what I’ve been told the Nebulas were like; a coherent, discreet event. A destination. A convention. Just an online one.  You want your breakout spaces for deals? You’ve got them. You want to sit and chat with your friends? You’ve got that too. Again, there is privilege here. The privilege of having a stable internet connection, enough of a computer to run things smoothly, and at least a semi-quiet space at the right time. It’s not perfect and people will and should still crave physical presence. But right now? It’s a solved problem.

More importantly, we need to carry that solution into the future. Because this? *gestures outside* Will eventually end. But that’s not what worries me. What worries me is that things will go back to normal, in every way. They can’t, in every way. The world as it was — 10,000 years ago in February 2020 — was not sustainable and shouldn’t be brought back as anything approaching ‘normal’. That applies to everything, everywhere.

I know it is DAUNTING. But we can do it and it can start here. We have the ability to make sure a whole lot fewer people continue to be left behind, be overlooked, or discriminated against. We live in the 21st Century, in the actual future. Every show needs a digital component and the rocket scientists of 2020’s con scene have shown us we have the technology.

If we go back to physical conventions, to half-assed digital solutions, to telling our disabled community that all these scrappy workarounds aren’t here to stay, to raising the drawbridge of privilege?

Then 2020 has won. And none of us want or deserve that.

See you in the chatroom.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.