I’ve just been to my second virtual convention. I went to SFWA’s Nebula Convention and now World Fantasy Convention. I enjoyed both. The first is an industry convention, focused on writers as professionals–so the focus is on contracts, agents, as well as craft; the second more a fan-run, but fan and author centered convention more about what is being published, talking about great stories you’ve read, and working with themes of that particular convention.
I used to go to about three conventions a year— World Fantasy, Can-Con, SFWA/Nebulas, and maybe AWP, sometimes. I’ve been to one WorldCon, a couple of smaller local conventions–Confluence, and Philcon. I did this to see friends, but mostly I did them as a professional writer–someone wanting to get better at writing, meet other writers, get to know publications, publishers, editors and agents that I might like to work with. Friends are a benefit of going to the cons. They are often a lot of fun too. But fun is expensive too.
Sometimes it came from my own pocket. Sometimes I had department money (when I was a lecturer or sometimes as an adjunct teacher). Sometimes I was helped out by Yukon funding–through CITF (the Cultural Industries Training Fund, which allowed artists to go outside the Yukon [Territory in Canada] to receive training). Each of these conferences was expensive in its own way. Travel, hotel, food were all the same—near $1000 these days, but higher when I lived in the Yukon (travel to get out and back to the Yukon was $500–and that was only to 6 major cities at the time, so + more to get farther), and varied registration costs, some lower, which helped some of the smaller cons be more affordable.
I always had a great time, though! I always made new friends and had experiences and memories I will keep with me forever.
But there are virtues to Virtual Cons, and I want to talk about that.
Virtual cons are completely online, and have the same programming and panels–and many of the same features–as a F2F conference. They usually have spaces for panels, for readings, and bar/patio lingering. And John Scalzi has deejayed two dance parties for SFWA already. These cons are usually held on Zoom (or Crowdcast–which uses Zoom). They last as long as F2F conventions. So–much is very similar, content wise. How do they stack up to F2F conventions?
The Virtue of Virtual Conventions
— Cost efficient (conventions are often $1000 with flights, hotels, meals, and registration) reduced to $150 or lower just to attend from your bedroom at home.
— ADA accessible –those with mobility issues or accessibility needs can go to these conventions because they don’t have to face travel, hotels and convention spaces that are often not accommodating to their needs
— Recordable sessions. While readings may not be recordable because of copyright issues, sessions are! Panels are! Have to choose one panel over another? In a typical convention, you just lose out on one of the panels. In a virtual space, you can catch both, one later in recording!
— your own space. If you have any issues about crowding or noise, you have control over your space, your drinks, your volume, and even your camera! You dictate how you will experience each panel.
— time to do laundry. Get other stuff done WHILE you are going to a convention! Instead of having to take a weekend away, you can do errands and chores, or chat with others virtually like (almost normal) while at the convention. Meals, laundry, etc. You can be at home and with friends.
— no capacity issues. For a convention, capacity issues for rooms, for hotels, for convention spaces, are an issue. But in a virtual space, pack 200 in that room–go ahead–no one is going to be sitting on the floor (unless they want to), or in danger of Fire Marshall restrictions, have problems with sight lines (every seat is a good seat). You won’t run out of tickets to the convention — maybe 1000 will come! (Okay, perhaps you might be paying Crowdcast more if you increase the traffic—so there might be a few bugs to work out)
— you hear everyone on a panel–and can (in recordings) rewind a panel to find out what someone said, or pause it.
— Panels are not influenced by the crowd, and their response, and so panel discussions can be more intimate, more focused. No one is trying to score entertainment points (I am guilty of doing that on a panel!). The conversation tends to be deeper, more thoughtful, I think…
— niche conventions possible. virtual conventions cost less, so more folks can host a convention without having to secure physical space. The opportunity for smaller groups of people, more niche conventions, more marginalized people hosting conventions exists because virtual conventions might be cost effective.
—home locations aren’t an issue. In Australia? Finland? You can just sign online and be with Canadians or in Brazil. Coming to BIG conventions gets easier for many.
—support animals are in your lap through the whole convention and you can show them off to everyone during a panel! No need to try to convey through a pic on your phone and your stories of Bill Murray the Newfoundland*. You can show him during your panel discussion!
The Drawbacks to a Virtual Convention
— timezones. Yes, Finland and Australia can participate, but often at weird times. So they won’t see people unless they are active at 3am Sydney time!
— not everyone has equally good internet connection at home. So on a couple of the panels, speakers could not come in well. They had issues with technology (on their side mostly). Now, there were ample practices for Panelists and readers via the convention—but still sometimes, internet is spotty, goes out altogether, or is somewhat unreliable. Korea Black couldn’t participate in the panel he was on–and I missed that voice. Others could not either.
— you don’t get to randomly run into someone (so networking has to be a very strategic, purposeful thing—contacting people. But that only works for people you know.) Getting introduced by others doesn’t happen. Chance encounters are rare if impossible. “Making new friends” is very difficult.
— You don’t get a break from your mundane world. Some of us LOVE the hotel room beds, and the new restaurants, and the noise, and the meeting strangers, and the packed rooms after 10pm where you chat with strangers about your conference experience.
— it is difficult to “make memories.” Since we are still in our home spaces, it is difficult for our brains to make memories that are unique to this conference, perhaps. The setting is our home, and our bodies are no where near anyone else (at the convention). All that meeting up with folks, having dinners, talking instead of going to a seminar… doesn’t happen.
—conventions cannot make as much money, but then they don’t have as much cost, perhaps, either.
— the sessions look just like your work sessions–on ZOOM. You are zoomed out. You use Zoom every day for work, and you are exhausted Zoom saps your energy and unlike a F2F convention, you don’t get the rush every hour of racing through hallways and talking to folks and getting to the next panel. I suspect that in the years to come, very soon (because I just looked at Oculus Quest 2 online) that conventions will try out more VR spaces. Spaces that look more like Final Fantasy 14 or Red Dead 2 or Second Life–at least as a way to interact at the bar/patio area. I suspect that panelists will not want to choose an avatar for a panel discussion. Hopefully, we will be through with Zoom as a necessity for work.
So what do I think of Virtual conferences? I like them. I hope that conventions think about ALWAYS having a virtual component. The cost-efficiency and the nearly identical programming make virtual conventions a great idea–but the accessibility and the ability to participate at multiple levels of interaction makes virtual conventions necessary for many people. This should not just be a COVID feature. Cons should be partially virtual to increase accessibility to the maximum number of participants–those who can’t afford to come, those who are too far away, those who have accessibility requirements that make frequent cons improbable, and for those who may not feel like jetting across the country but just want to stay home this time and drink wine with you on screen, thank you.
That said, I miss people. I want the F2F component back. I have friends and need to connect with them, friends who are also professionals–so that we can brainstorm things that you can only do late at night, in a lounge, getting silly–anthologies we want to create, projects we want to collaborate on. Or just to share what we just heard in a panel! We are stronger as a family of writers when we spend time together.
We need them to meet the needs of industry professionals–it would be important to have a F2F component for networking. Kaffeeklatsches with agents can still happen in person, and virtually. But running into them at the bar or in an elevator won’t happen–if that’s the kind of scenario you’ve dreamed of and prepared for: the elevator pitch! (I know some agents hate meeting that way!) When a virtual panel closes, people don’t bump into each other at the door. They turn off their screens, so no chance for follow up questions, or coffee, etc.
Lastly, virtual conventions open up opportunities for niche cons, small seminars, that ANYONE can host. And that broadens the scope of cons and opens the doors to people who might not have thought about attending a con.
So, let future con runners think about dual conventions–the virtual one, the F2F one–as a norm to maximize the potential. But until Covid(s) are under control, let’s enjoy the advantages we have in virtual cons and work to make them even better.