Well, last weekend was WisCon. Very late last night or very early this morning, I made it home from there.
I told a dear but distant friend who was at the con for part of it but whom I missed in both applicable senses of the word that I was having a silver/gold situation this year: lots of old friends, lots of new ones, and not enough time to go around. Another very good friend told me that she did not even go to any official programming this year, which surprised me until she laid out how she was prioritizing her time and I realized that if I had the same constraints and I had to choose between programming and seeing my con friends, I would have made the same choice.
In fact, I largely had. For years I’ve dealt with the problem of too many panels/not enough time-turners by setting my priorities around which people I wanted to who I hadn’t seen yet. This year, every single programming item I attended had one or more person on the roster I was there to see. I also realized that the general trend for me has been to attend fewer formal programming items over time.
The first years, when I knew few people, fewer of them well, and fewer still from anywhere face-to-face, attending panels and readings and speeches gave me a structured way to participate, to interact, and to meet people. A lot of the people I’m now unabashed fans of and even friends with, it started with seeing them on panels.
And a lot of my friends have had a similar arc.
A con is, at its core, people (most things are, babies), and if you keep going to a con long enough, then past a certain point what you’re really going for there is the people, both the individual persons whom you know and the amorphous, energetic, memetic organism that is generated by the interactions of these people in large numbers.
So there is always the danger (and frequently, from what I hear, the reality) that a long-running con will grow insular at its core, reach a tipping point where it’s pulling inwards more than it is reaching outwards. It’s not an absolute (few things are, babies), and there have certainly been shades of that at WisCon. There likely still are, in places.
While the con was ongoing, though, there was a conversation that kept happening from two different ends, which I kept or hearing or having.
From the one side, it always started something like this, “Every time I tell someone this is my first WisCon, their face just lights up. Like they’re really happy to see me. Like they’re really happy for me.”
From the other side, it went more like this, “There are just so many new people this year, I’m so excited for them. It’s such a great energy this year.”
And it’s such a great feeling, to be part of a con that can be so warm and welcoming, that doesn’t hold with the idea that people have to “pay their dues” in some fashion other than literally paying the actual membership dues before the con is “for them”… and I know there are gradations of this, I know there are multiple factors at play and that there are still doubtlessly a few people who cling on to the con with both hands while grumbling about how all these newcomers are changing the tone, but in the terms of trends and prevailing factors: I like where this is going. I like the way the wind is blowing.
One of the secrets of congoing is that whether anyone is going out of their way to make you feel unwelcome or even if someone has gone out of their way to make you feel welcome… a lot of the time, you do have to kind of stick with it a bit before it’s really actually as fun and rewarding as you feel like it should be. There’s impostor syndrome, and there’s also just not knowing how to navigate the event in a way that you get the most out of it… believe it or not, going to cons is a skill. In fact, I’d say each con is its own skill.
And some cons will never be worth it for you personally, so you’re taking a risk by putting the time, money, and effort into it. And the hypothetical best con in the world might not be worth taking that chance for a year or two or three, when it might never pay off and the harm you suffer in the meantime is still real.
And there’s really no way around that, just like there’s no way to make a space filled with people safe in an absolute sense rather than safer, always a little safer than it was or would be without the effort. But I like to think that at WisCon, we’re doing what we can to speed people through the adjustment period, invest them with the skill of being at WisCon, and give them a softer landing into con culture. It’s both a formal effort by the people doing the hard work of running the con (the volunteers and the committee members) and it’s part of the feeling on the floor, as it were.
I tried the committee thing a while back and found that it’s outside my strongest skill sets and current level of ability, but nonetheless, I’m doing what I can to be a good member, a good representative of the WisCon brand, a good guide for newbies, and a good ambassador between the con and the world outside. And while I can hardly take credit for the still ongoing improvement myself, I feel confident I can say I’ve been helping. It’s part of why I was so committed to throwing a party for the con this year.
Last year, when I was talking to a new friend about the almost inevitable impostor syndrome that almost everyone feels their first year, she told me that she must be weird because she didn’t feel that way at all. I thought this must be something special about her (and she is pretty special, to be honest), but maybe that was also partly just a sign of our progress as a con, because I heard from a lot more people saying the same this year.
This was also the year I had the most people coming up and talking to me, instead of finding Jack when I’m not right by his side and telling him that they’d wanted to do so, but were too intimidated. Maybe part of that is the fact that I spent an entire year, off and on, telling the internet “I’m going to be at WisCon and I’m there to see people and this includes anyone who wants to see me, for real for true.” Maybe part of it is the con’s increasingly welcoming atmosphere making the whole experience less scary. Maybe I’m just figuring out how to be more approachable.
I’m sure a part of it was the fact that more people than usual this year were there specifically to see me, but the thing is, the heartbreaking thing about the people who tell Jack (or tell me later, online, after the con) that they were too afraid to say hi is that some of them have always said that.
This is so far the year where I have heard the least stories of how the con as an entity egregiously failed, harmed, or let someone down. It’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. But a science fiction convention of all things should never let the impossibility of reaching the heavens prevent it from reaching for them.
Mikki Kendall has a post up about her own complicated relationship with the con. In her post (which you really should be reading in full), she pushes back against the too-prevalent idea that people of color attending the convention aren’t investing in it, a notion which baffles* me as women of color in particular (including Mikki herself) have saved the body and soul of the con often at great personal effort and cost.
But as she also notes: new people are coming in all the time. They bring with them new ideas and new energy. And a con is, at its heart, people. New people make a new con.
And as I said up above: I like where this is going.
(*I mean, it doesn’t really baffle me, because I know that racism and sexism, and their painful intersection, exist.)