The 2020 SF Worldcon
A personal perspective by Suzie Eisfelder on
I’ve only attended one other Worldcon, that was AussieCon #4 in 2010. I found the CoNZealand table there during my perambulations and was very quick to support them. I had no illusions about actually getting to CoNZealand in 2020, it was 10 years away and I couldn’t see that far into the future. As time went on and things changed it became a possibility and my Travelling Companion and I were in discussion mode. Would we go to CoNZealand and from there to his conference in San Diego? Or would we just do CoNZealand? Any conference is an excuse to leave Melbourne, Australia and do a bit of touring before or after, but money was the issue and could we do both? I was about to bite the bullet in February and buy our CoNZealand tickets anyway when I realised I’d missed the early bird deadline…by 25 minutes. I kept procrastinating and we were still in discussion mode when CoVID-19 hit and made up our minds for us. When it was certain CoNZealand was leaping head on into virtual mode I bought a ticket. I had been watching the forum and knew of one lady who’d been trying to sell her ticket for months, I bought it, we are now friends on Facebook. It’s funny how that works.
I was both nervous and excited when the time for CoNZealand came around. I cleared my calendar for the five days from 29th July to the 2nd August and steeled myself for the hours of time zone difference…it’s a whole two hours for me!
New Zealand is the most beautiful country. I’ve driven around it and you need nerves of steel to visit. Every corner you go round is more breathtakingly beautiful than the one before. If you think you can handle that kind of beauty then I dare you to visit… and send me a photo. Don’t forget to make a booking to visit Matamata in the North Island. It’s the location for the filming of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and also The Hobbit film trilogy. It is so, so green in the photos and looks exactly how I imagined it should look from reading the books.
In order to go virtual the committee had to stop thinking about the hotel and start thinking about how they would work around the cat in the box…especially a cat that overflowed the box by a number of timezones. I feel they did a good job, yes there were issues but there are always issues with every convention. What they did was to hinge their convention around a number of programmes: Discord; Zoom and; Grenadine. They also brought in The Fantasy Network. All of these supported the work they had already done on their website and all the discussion in the Facebook group.
Grenadine is an event management application. It dovetailed with their website to bring it all together and show people where to go at what time. Discord is an instant messaging and VoIP application and is where most of the parties, help and general information and discussion happened. Zoom provides videotelephony and online chat services. The Fantasy Network allows people to watch and create movies. Grenadine has both a mobile app and the capacity to set your time zone. I used neither of these things in Grenadine, in retrospect it might have made it easier to have set my time zone so I wasn’t constantly trying to think two hours ahead of the life I was trying to lead. In this respect I had it much easier than many people.
We had around 2,400 people log in to CoNZealand from many different countries and most people had to contend with the timezone change. The Facebook group which was started many months before the convention, for some people it was their first port of call when they couldn’t access anything else. You didn’t need to have a ticket to be in the Facebook group and I think there were people watching whatever discussions they could.
CoNZealand opened up a large number of ‘rooms’ in Discord to correspond with the meeting rooms and webinars they had available through Zoom. The Discord ‘room’ matched the Zoom meeting/webinar in that they had the same number on the ‘door’. This meant that after the session was finished all attendees and panellists were able to leave the Zoom meeting/webinar and meet in the Discord ‘room’ for further discussion via text. It was almost like wandering out of the room and talking in the corridor at AussieCon in 2010, one main difference was that it was possible to continue this discussion while simultaneously attending the next session.
The difference between Zoom Meeting and Zoom Webinar is not as big as it sounds. They can hold the same number of people but the Webinars were better suited for those sessions that don’t need attendee interaction. You can still ‘talk’ to the presenters or panellists via the chat function but your video and your microphone will be off unless the tech support person feels the need to bring you in to talk. Meetings are better suited to those sessions that need more people interaction.
Looking at the programme was totally overwhelming as it was with AussieCon in 2010. There were a number of different streams and I went through marking everything of interest, sometimes there were four or five things on at the one time that sounded like I might want to join. I gladly noted how each session finished ten minutes before the next one started. It made it possible to do important things like getting more coffee, find food, visit the toilet or even get a little fresh air. One session finished a few minutes earlier than it should as the tech person interrupted with a medical emergency he needed to deal with. I never heard if the person was okay, I hope they were.
There was so much information it was sometimes hard to find where to find help. There were committee people assigned to help everywhere, due to the nature of Discord it was easy for them to pop from room to room helping as needed. My understanding is that they had some method of being pinged when someone used the right words, it would have felt a bit like magic. I was talking to a newbie in of the rooms and gave her some advice, she had come in a couple of days late totally overwhelmed, I suggested where she should start and where she could get help.
There were a number of positive things about a virtual convention. The first is the lack of travel, add to that I got to sleep in my own bed which I found it easier on my body. As someone with allergies food is often a challenge and being in my own home I didn’t need to even think about it, a definite bonus. As I was only a attendee/participant and not a panellist or presenter it made no difference what I wore, so the early morning sessions found me at my desk in my nightie with my breakfast in front of me. As each session was being recorded the organisers wanted everyone who wasn’t a panelist to attend with their mics and cameras turned off. I’m sure some people attended from bed, and I don’t blame them. Popping out of a session I found not to my interest and popping into another was just so easy, but I didn’t do this too often.
I popped into one session and found the face of the tech person on my screen. Apparently the session had been moved and I hadn’t noticed. The tech people generally were heard rather than seen, they kept their cameras turned off and only turned on their mics when they needed to interrupt with a time stamp. This was an exception and it proved to be a lovely session. I’ve no idea what I had originally wanted to attend, that became irrelevant, I had a lovely chat with Soon who had travelled to Wellington for the convention. The lucky man lives in New Zealand and they had recently been allowed to travel, his background image was Hobbiton. That was one of my favourite sessions, it made being in locked down Melbourne feel far less locked down.
This contrasted with a panel on anthologies I was looking forward to. Chaired by an old white guy with a younger male panelist, and two females. The Chair totally suffered from old white guy syndrome. The panelists had some good thoughts but they weren’t allowed to vocalise them without the chair interrupting and speaking very slowly and carefully with many lengthy pauses. Some of the attendees really tried to protest but the webinar format made it rather challenging to protest effectively. I sent in an e-mail of protest at the end of the convention. I now follow the two female panelists on Twitter. Some of us met in the Discord ‘room’ afterwards and talked.
Discord also housed the Fan Tables. Those tables where you can find someone of your niche genre to chat with. There were some lovely volunteers who kept things in order, well, they opened up ‘rooms’ for Fan Tables and answered questions. Fan Tables included The Heinlein Society, the Australian Discworld Convention, Doctor Who Fanclub in China, GoodReads Members, Book Bloggers Australia and a number of tables for potential future WorldCons where you can stop in and have all your questions answered about the plans they have in place. WorldCon 2021 will be in Washington DC, that was decided a while ago at a previous WorldCon. Chicago’s selection for WorldCon for 2022 was announced during CoNZealand. There were discussions on the DisCon III Fan Table about conventions and whether DisCon III in Washington, DC next year would be partially virtual.
There were also parties on Zoom. This was really well organised. You could enter the Zoom meeting for the party of your choice, immediately displayed on your monitor would be a list of the parties being hosted there and you only had to change your name by putting the number of the party you wanted to attend for the Party Maven to pop you along into the breakout room where your party was held. I attended the party for the Australian Discworld Convention almost every night. By the end of CoNZealand I was exhausted having been up for a 7am start and finishing close to midnight. But I met some lovely people at the parties.
And not only parties, but Discord also housed the games channels. You could click on the link, turn your microphone on and talk to people while you played games in real time, this is what Discord is used for in normal times so it worked well. I didn’t do this as there was so much else to do but I know people who did and they enjoyed themselves immensely. Some Discord ‘rooms’ were used as bars to enable people to pop in and just chat.
I can’t talk much about the individual panels. I wasn’t expecting to write an article so I didn’t take many notes. One session I paid close attention to and took as many notes as possible was the session on 'Running Conventions: A Worldwide Perspective'. Having run Conventions before and being on the committee for the Australian Discworld Convention for 2021 I have a vague interest. My feeling is that the information I took away from there would help to colour any future conventions I help run. We’re just beginning to look at running the first Book Bloggers Australia Conference and I need all the information I can get as this will be virtual.
Zoom has a great chat function. I enjoyed many conversations using chat while the panel or presentation continued. In some of the sessions the chat contained almost as much information as the panellists. The discussions were illuminating and exciting. It was something that couldn’t have happened if we’d all been in a room together. Each session where the chat function was used to the max extended the session and made everything better.
One thing I want to make mention of that I didn’t attend was the Hugo Awards presentation. Normally a presentation of around two hours this year’s ceremony clocked in at three and a half hours. From all accounts, there were many issues. The ceremony should be a celebration of the current winners, with a brief nod to previous years. Because of the virtual nature of CoNZealand some sessions were pre-recorded by George R. R. Martin. I also attended a talk given by George R. R. Martin and Robert Silverberg during CoNZealand. They both talked a lot about writers past. And while this is fine during a session designed totally for that and that alone, it is not appropriate for a ceremony that is meant to be focussing on the current winners. I don’t know how long Martin spent talking about the past but there are a lot of complaints written by bloggers. Some nominees were coming in from the other side of the world and due to the time zone they were attending during the middle of the night. Names were mispronounced despite each writer being asked to write their name phonetically. Essentially, a few issues they need to work on…
Elsewhere, authors were given a space where they could sell their wares. This is something that authors and other creative people really need. I spent much time wandering round the Dealers’ Hall at AussieCon in 2010. This year I found this was supplanted by the panels. When I’m at a convention in person I find it’s much easier to gravitate towards the Dealer’s Hall than to make plans to not go to a session and to wander the Dealer’s ‘Hall’ when I’m sitting at my computer. I did a little wandering through the Dealer’s ‘Hall’ but only a little. I only bought one book, something that is really good for getting through my To Be Read Pile and not so good for the authors.
During my unanticipated session with Soon, he directed me towards the Exhibition ‘Hall’. It blew my mind. I got a small idea of what could be possible with a virtual convention. Artists were given an area and let loose, it was an enormous amount of work that I didn’t manage to see much of at all. Another member of CoNZealand mentioned a 3D component, I wandered in after the convention, didn’t stay too long as I found it very hard on the eyes.
The sessions were recorded and every member was given access for one week afterward the final day of the convention to be able to watch whatever they wanted. This finishing date was due to having only asked permission from the panelists for the recordings to be on the internet for only the one week following the convention. I heard some people watched some of these recordings, especially those people who weren’t able to attend the first days. I’m over committed and couldn’t devote any more time so didn’t have the pleasure of attending more sessions.
Another thing Zoom Webinar worked well for was the readings. Webinar works by only having the panelists’ videos on and the attendees/participants totally without video. This fits very nicely with readings as it means the attendees/participants have total concentration on the author, there is nothing else within the Zoom to distract them, you’re not watching someone else working away on their computer or picking their nose or whatever.
Something I totally loved was being let into people’s homes. I sat and admired bookshelves and pets. I had the pleasure of meeting people from many countries, live into my computer.
Everything should now be closed down. If you have a membership you can still access the Discord channel and read everything there. You should not be able to reply though. Everything else, apart from the Facebook group, should be no longer accessible.
There was so much to enjoy about a virtual convention, and so much I missed. On the whole I feel it worked and I feel it is the way of the future. As I write this I’m in the middle of organising the second meeting for a future Book Bloggers Australia Conference. With members spread across Australia who are all blogging as a hobby, a virtual conference makes sense.
Suzie Eisfelder is a fan from Australia who loves attending and organising conventions. She regularly blogs about books, writing and conventions on her blog suzs-space.com. In 2019 she chaired Nullus Anxietas 7: The Australian Discworld Convention and she currently heads the Victorian Discworld Klatch, the Terry Pratchett Club of Victoria.