My lifetime official science fiction convention attendance is probably fewer than 20 events, including three Worldcons, a couple of Readercons, several Finncons and one Eastercon, as well as free single-day cons and day memberships elsewhere. Now I’ve attended two online cons: Flights of Foundry last weekend and Balticon this weekend. Much as I like traveling, it is pretty amazing to be able to go to conventions without arriving exhausted or wrangling train fares, and that is the first great advantage of online cons.
Another good thing is that like a lot of other online events at the moment, attendance was free or asked only a donation – partly because committees don’t have time to integrate proper membership systems into all the other systems that need putting together. This advantage won’t last, except for small ad hoc events.
I circulated an incoherent version of the following notes to other Easterconners in May. Now (2 August) that the reviews of CoNZealand are confirming some observations, I feel confident to revise and post.
1. Schedule: Flights had a really beautiful schedule interface using software called Sched. This is the Balticon schedule interface for comparison – a static webpage that looks like it uses invisible tables.
2. Session entry: Both cons required individual registration for events and produced quite a bit of tab and e-mail clutter. The Flights/Sched interface required you to click into an event to register for it. This took you to Eventbrite, which generated an e-mail with the room link.
Once you had registered for one event, you got a shortcut page with direct links to all the “rooms,” which you could keep open in a tab throughout the con. However, the rooms weren’t marked on Sched so it was still necessary to go into Eventbrite to check which room you needed. This seems like it would have been easy to fix.
Balticon put the Zoom links for each event right on the schedule page, next to the title. Zoom then demanded the usual handshakes and generated its usual series of pre- and post-pages. Each event attended then also generated a separate Baltimore Science Fiction Society donation page, even if you had already donated. Flights had one Eventbrite donation page and generated no extra donation pages once you were registered overall.
3. Session presentation: The virtual rooms at Flights manifested as persistent GotoWebinar meetings. Audience were permitted to stay in the same room through multiple sessions if they wished. However, as usual at small cons, there was no attempt to make sure there was any relation or progression between successive events in the same room – vs. aca/pro conferences where most of the stuff is tracked and there is at least an intention to appear coherent.
Balticon held some events on Zoom only, some in parallel on the YouTube stream, and some in parallel on a Twitch stream. Waiting rooms were used for Zoom. Labeling was a bit unclear; I could not see whether an event was on YT or Twitch until it started. The only pattern was that science talks were generally on YT or Twitch.
Transmission worked remarkably well. Only a few panelists seemed to have trouble getting in or being heard, at either convention. Nevertheless, organizers should plan to have less high stakes events in the first hour or two while things are getting set up (says a person who several times has given talks first thing at a conference and had them come over more like A-V tests).
As far as I could tell, no room at either con reached capacity or kicked people. So I really wonder if individual event registration was necessary. Analytics of the actual session would be a more accurate measure of interest for future planning if that is needed.
4. Session switching: Now we come to the second definite advantage of online cons: the relaxation of attention. Both cons allowed you to register for multiple things at the same time, and to room hop. At Balticon, it was easier to room hop between Zoom/Twitch/YT than between Zooms, because of the aforementioned transaction layers and clutter. You could even be in multiple rooms at the same time, though it took some practice to mute all but one room. And obviously, you could be working or cooking or websurfing while listening to a panel. Not worrying about being stuck in a dud session and wasting your time increased satisfaction, at least for me.
Even better, this format minimizes schedule clashes and FOMO. In one slot at Balticon there was a panel with a frequent topic (SF has always been political) and big names (Ada Palmer, Arkady Martine, Sarah Pinsker) at the same time as a panel on costume in SF that might have amazing images and a talk on Jews in space that is an unusual topic and could be great or not. In real life you’d be committing to a queue for one of the first two, or looking at the length of the queues and bunking off sadly to the third just because it was least crowded. Some people might vent their frustration out loud or on social media. But with an online con, especially with a Discord and recordings of some sessions, you get to see most of what you want to. (The Jews in space talk was very good by the way, and curtain raised a museum exhibit that is coming to Baltimore.)
5. The second screen: Both cons used Discord as a parallel mode, and this was the third great thing. Flights used it more successfully from the point of view of an information-hoovering panelgoer like me. There were channels corresponding to each WebEx room, so while a panel was going on, that was the chat and the collector of questions (to be prefaced with Question:). When lots of references and reading recommendations were flying around, the self-appointed “court reporters” could type them in, those who knew better could fact check and correct, and the information stayed in Discord for copying. Panelists occasionally wrote some stuff too, both during the panel and afterward to answer questions. Anyone who missed a panel could still get a taste of it by looking up the chat for that period. On Zoom, there seemed to be one tech host per period and I am not sure what their duties were other than monitoring the panel and timekeeping.
Balticon had a sprawling Discord with the panel discussion channels buried near the bottom. There were fewer channels than the number of parallel sessions, and they were labeled with a few broad topics, like “reading-writing-editing” and “science-skeptics.” Inevitably comments for different panels at the same time got mixed up together and were not as useful. The individual sessions did have their own Zoom/Twitch/YT chats, which were hard to follow because information such as book titles scrolled past rapidly, so people asked “what are they talking about” questions over and over. Zoom chat saving was turned off, which does not prevent people from capturing whatever they like through other means, just makes it slower and increases panic. The Balticon Zoom setup had a separate channel for questions which viewers had to be reminded to use. There were tech team moderators managing the streams and conveying text inputs to the panel.
6. The third screen: Balticon also used Second Life, which I’m not on, and I think used it for ceremonies.
8. The archive: Both cons talked about having some kind of watch again/archive of some talks on YouTube. Balticon promised nearly all talks to be posted with closed captioning; I volunteered to help caption but was never given instructions.
Three months on, FoF has posted nothing, though its Discord remains a vibrant writer community that I am glad to have discovered. Balticon has posted single stream videos for each day of the conference, showing the talks that appeared on YouTube.
As of August and the conclusion of CoNZealand, online cons seem to be an established modality, with a low cost structure. The ad hoc reCONvenes convention later this month has a $10 registration fee. Octocon, the Irish national con in October, will be a free con. Eurocon in Croatia, which I had really looked forward to attending before all this happened, will be 10 euros.
The structure, if it holds, takes money and jobs out of the economy. The traditional volunteer-run cons actually operated as a patchwork of gift and money exchanges: the providers and consumers of the main content were supposed to be (and needed to be) subsidized by income from jobs or other external sources, but hotels and other goods and service suppliers could directly make money from con operations. Everything from Post-It notes to fire extinguishers was bought in from the con budget, and much of it would be sold off unused at the end. Members went out to dinner, toured local museums, bought tram tickets, rented mobi scooters. Now it seems cons will be even more of an intangible gift economy, for good and bad.