I am not capable of liking things a normal amount. Liking things and talking to people about the things I like gives me enormous, almost inhuman energy—I can stay up until 5 AM on a work night reading about something just because I am so incredibly into it that it’s giving me something like the experience of falling suddenly and deeply in love.
People do wild things when they fall in love—quit their jobs, move continents, change their lives. Fandom makes people do the same things. And it’s always been an positive force for me. It has saved my sorry ass repeatedly by dragging me out of whatever mental toilet I’d fallen into and given me the feeling that I could actually do things other than feel numb and miserable. It has brought amazing people into my life. It has taught me and honed so many creative skills and broadened my horizons in astonishing ways.
But just like love, sometimes fandom can go bad. Really, really bad.
How Not To Run Anything
There’s a book by Peter Hook—the bassist from the post-Joy Division English rock group New Order—about the legendary 1980s Manchester nightclub The Hacienda. It is called How Not to Run a Club.
The Hacienda represented vast hubris, permissive enthusiasm and extreme indulgence. It played host to acts like Madonna and The Smiths, and was one of the first clubs in the UK to play house music. But it was plagued by financial and legal troubles throughout its life—drug-related deaths, shootings, and a lack of alcohol sales troubled it from its opening in 1982 to its closure in 1997. For most of this period, the only thing that kept the lights on was New Order’s record sales.
It was a beautiful dream executed terribly, as laid out in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People. And it’s a story about the risks of building on passion with no thought for material foundations that fandoms can learn a lot from.
Fandom is catered to on an industrial scale—the franchises that we nerd out on dwarf the budgets of sports teams and plenty of international companies exist purely to profit from our enthusiasm. But this state of affairs can leave lots of people feeling left out, whether by the kinds of stories that make it to the mainstream or the kinds of communities that build up around them.
The answer seems so obvious. If we are not catered to by colossal, for-profit spaces then, well, we’ll do it ourselves. There’s a long history of fan-led events across all forms of entertainment—actually, they’re where the whole idea of conventions comes from. Across music, literature, games, and pretty much any other human interest, it all comes down to enthusiasts wanting to get together and share their passion with like-minded people.
I used to run one such convention. I haven’t for a few years now and thankfully, that distance allows me to think about it without screaming or drinking.
Several fan-run conventions have collapsed—or been on the brink—this year. It’s a tradition as old as conventions themselves—events implode ingloriously, leaving attendees furious, organisers routed, and piles of dirty laundry aired to a public eager to get their hands on soiled linens.
Of course, plenty of events survive and thrive for years. That doesn’t always mean they’re issue-free—sometimes it means they’ve painted over the cracks, or that the organizers simply don’t see them. Sometimes problems are kept from the public out of a sense of duty to protect the event. Regardless, problems are bound to happen in any human endeavor involving hundreds or thousands of people, and organizers have to continually work to address them. Here are the ones that were the biggest problems for me.
1. You can’t do everything—and events have died trying
It’s funny to talk about the ball pit at Dashcon, don’t get me wrong. But there are less visually dramatic examples of conventions trying to be everything to everyone and inevitably falling short.
Earlier this year, Universal FanCon billed itself as an accessibly-priced, enormously inclusive on the scale of something like DragonCon. It sounded amazing—photos with celebrities, meet and greets, talks and sessions and a dealer hall.
But it wasn’t amazing—it was impossible. Jazmine Joyner’s rundown of the costs after its collapse revealed that it was doomed from the start. You simply couldn’t deliver what was being promised for the price paid—and the unfortunate truth is that under capitalism, no amount of sincerity or energy will overcome that hurdle.
Similarly, the convention I used to work on, Nine Worlds, financially sunk itself in its first year. I can’t speak for the years after my involvement, which ended in 2016. But each year we attempted to improve it while working with fewer and fewer resources, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect.
Every fan convention seems to fall into this trap. This is partly because fans compare their endeavors to large commercial cons, which are able to charge less for attendance by bringing in corporate sponsorships while absorbing the up-front costs with corporate credit. For better or worse, you are not a corporation and you do not have access to that Jeff Bezos money.
We all want to build a Hacienda—a great palace dedicated to our passions. And it always seems just within reach, if only we all worked just a little harder, if only we had just a little more money. It isn’t. Trying to build a perfect con sets you up for psychological, economic, and organizational failure. And perhaps most importantly, it will end up totally pissing off your attendees.
2. You don’t have to set out to make a racist event to end up with one
This is a difficult one for a lot of people to swallow. But look: when I ran panels and talks, nearly every panelist I had was white. I mostly know white people. As with my panels, it’s not that I’m not I’m actively avoiding people of color—it’s that I kept finding myself in spaces full of white people and failing to ask basic questions like “Why aren’t there any people of color here? Why do I only ever meet white people? How can I address feelings of exclusion?”
You do not need to have done anything actively hostile to nonetheless be reinforcing racism. Simply not asking these questions does it. You need to do the work, you need to scrutinize your own habits, and you need to reach out to—and compensate—people of color.
I thought I’d honestly tried. I posted calls for submissions after calls for submissions and committed to spending my tiny budget on bringing marginalised voices to the event. For some reason, I thought this would enough to get people of color to come and validate my own wokeness. It was, in retrospect, pathetic.
Pushing past these ingrained, institutional exclusions means you need resources, either time or money. And what is time but money? You can’t do this all on good will. And if you don’t have the resources, if you’re white then you need to think about whether you want to run an event that will likely end up reinforcing the racist status quo. Fervently wishing won’t change the structures of the society you’re working within.
This goes for other marginalised identities, of course—but geek fandoms are, for the most part, terribly white.
3. You may not be ready to turn what you love into work
I stopped reading comics a few weeks before the last time I ran panels about them. I managed to read one in February this year, two and a half years after I’d stopped. I actually quite enjoyed it.
Burnout is, of course, extremely real. But also, presenting and moderating panels about something you love isn’t just about the fizzy bliss of fandom, it means becoming responsible for the wellbeing of attendees and panelists. It means backing up a little to let others lead conversations. And all of this can be exhausting. Once you get to the event itself after as much of a year of preparation, you might not be as enthusiastic as you were when you started. You might even come to detest your hobbies and interests that are central to the project.
These are, after all, things you love and willingly invest your free time in because they alleviate the stress of day-to-day life. They represent an escape—the one thing organizers can’t do. You’re there to help everyone else enjoy the experience, not to enjoy yourself as an attendee.
It’s all very well to try and build your own personal Hacienda but, then patrons turn up and start wanting things and your plan to get off your face on pills with the other new romantics is snatched away from you as everyone’s demanding different tracks off the DJ and someone’s registered a health and safety complaint about the loos and no one’s done the bar shift and somehow all that is your fault.
And that’s where the energy runs out. I remember sobbing into a breakfast I couldn’t eat and then finding myself crying for the next five or six hours because I had tried my hardest but I wasn’t better, or more brilliant, or in possession of a secret superpower—I’d just drank my own Kool-Aid for two years.
I wish I could have been kinder to myself. Instead, the whole debacle still looms large in my endless, guilty list of failures despite every intellectual effort to insist that you can only do your best with the dice rolled for you.
Have I learnt my lesson? I’d like to say so, but I went on to become a journalist covering the sport I used to use to escape my life. I still cannot like things a normal amount. After a few drinks, I still muse on running an event again. It’ll be better this time. I know it will.
Of course it’s possible for fans to run events successfully. But for people with extensive experience playing resource-balancing games, geeks are terrible at realising resources must go in for results to come out. We all want a gorgeous, free, inclusive convention that makes everyone feel good. But in reality you need money—really quite extraordinary amounts of it—and organizational structures far beyond the haphazard and chaotic way these events are usually birthed, especially if you are taking on any form of commitment to duty of care and inclusion.
Clubs after the Hacienda got the hang of it, not by being more brilliant and energetic and amazing but by sorting out their accounts and trying to ensure minimum standards of safety. We’ve got to learn from their examples. At the very least, it’d be a start.