figmo: (Lynn-Lady)
[personal profile] figmo
Every year it comes up: Why aren't we seeing more younger fen at Worldcon (or any of the many other regional general SF cons)?

I remember seeing panels titled "The Greying of Fandom" back when I first got into fandom. It seemed like practically all my friends were into fandom. Many of my co-workers were also fannish. As the years have gone by, the folks I befriended when I started attending cons have remained friends and have grown older with me. Some of them have died; others have GAFIAted. It seems like cons were bigger years ago; that's because they were. A typical Westercon used to attract anywhere from 1800 to 2300 people. Nowadays we're lucky if we go above 700 (this year's did). Worldcon attendance is also down.

What isn't clear, however, is whether we're attracting fewer younger folks, fewer folks in general, folks are losing interest, or we're alienating potential repeat members. I've seen evidence of all of these. The question is why are SF con membership counts dwindling? I'm going to throw out some hypotheses for debate based on my observations.
  1. We're attracting fewer younger folks.
    Part of this is due to changes in tastes amongst the younger generation. I look at my niece as the kind of typical fannish-oriented young adult we want to attract. She already attends media cons and anime cons. She likes to read, she likes to cosplay, she likes the Elizabethan era (she's working Pennsylvania Rennfaire this summer), she likes video games, and she likes SF TV shows and movies. What I don't know is what would get her to check out a general SF con. As far as I can tell, her local friends don't hit general SF cons, either. When she's done with Rennfaire, I intend to ask her what she and her friends look for in a con just as a random sampling.

  2. We're attracting fewer folks in general.
    There are multiple reasons for this:
    • The economy sucks. Many folks are either unemployed or underemployed. When it's a choice between paying rent or going to a con, rent generally wins.
    • School starts earlier. This is more true for Worldcon than other cons, but most fen value education more than con attendance. There are a few who can balance the two, but when going to a con means missing school, parents are less likely to come if they can't take their kids. If one parents goes, the other has to stay home.
    • Cons cost more than they used to. Facilities cost more. Hotels cost more. So does college tuition.
      Perhaps what we need is a Student/hardship membership rate that's half the regular rate. To be eligible, someone would have to present a valid student ID or some proof of lack of income at the time of purchase. So what if it's a student ID that's going to have expired by the time the con rolls around? Students have bigger college loans, too. If they can start attending when they're part of the working world, they're more likely to be hooked. Yes, there will probably be forgeries. So be it. The same folks that might forge a student ID are the ones who would forge a con ID badge, so at least we'd be getting some money from them.
    • Folks are getting ill and dying. Death happens. It sucks. I can think of many folks I used to see at cons in my age bracket who are either dead or not up to attending. There's not much we can do about this beyond encouraging our fellow fen to be more active and eat healthier. Even with a "perfect" lifestyle, some folks get sick and die. My father was the only one in our family who was always "normal" weight and who exercised regularly. When he was my age, he was dying from colon cancer.

  3. Folks are losing interest.
    To some extent, this is a normal part of human growth. Sometimes what interests us at one age no longer interests us at another age. I have friends who have mastered musical instruments and then put them down, never to touch them again. There are more than one areas of fandom, so it's not like you have to keep doing the same thing over and over. On the other hand, sometimes folks feel like outsiders because they haven't kept up with reading SF or watching SF TV or movies. We need to make sure that these folks know that they're still welcome. These are the ones we want to not lose. At the same time, we don't want to seem "evangelistic" when it comes to selling a con to someone, because that can be just as off-putting. Some folks don't go to some cons because the fannish activities they enjoy aren't encouraged. Someone who likes to filk isn't going to want to go to a con that doesn't have a place for filking, just as someone who likes to game won't want to go to a con that doesn't have gaming. If someone is looking for regency dancing and doesn't find it because it's not there, they might not bother coming back.

  4. We're alienating potential repeat members. We need to find ways to make new members feel like "one of the gang from the moment we see them, especially young adults. This year at the BayCon hiss-and-purr session we heard someone complaining about "young punks crashing our party." As the discussion went on, it turned out the "young punks" were legitimate, paying BayCon members, well-behaved, and just dressed in a way that somehow offended the person complaining. [ profile] hazelchaz was sitting next to me and rephrased it to me. "He's complaining that some young, well-mannered, legitimate BayCon attendees dressed like punks were attending his party. If most of the folks are that way, no wonder young fen don't feel welcome!" He was right.

Date: 2013-09-06 06:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
They may have their own con-type activity that the Baycon crowd are not privy to. I see something similar with the Sierra Club and with the folk dancing community. They're all aging. However, things like Blizzcon and Maker Faire go batshit crazy. It's a combination of changing tastes and the crowds who do stuff together.

Date: 2013-09-06 09:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Another reason for smaller attendances at cons is the online "convention" experience. Time was I never got to talk to a lot of folks and interact with them except at cons but now I've got a lot of the social connections, book buying, discussions, movie watching etc. I only got access to through cons sitting here at my computer desk. I used to go to at least ten conventions a year, now I only do two or three mainly for this reason. The money saved is a bonus as is the travel time.

Numbers -- I can't say anything about Westercon but Worldcon plateaued a couple of decades ago at about 4500-5000 for a US Worldcon and a lesser number for out-of-continent Worldcons depending -- Australian Worldcons get fewer members than a British one but the numbers don't change that much con to con. British Eastercon numbers go up and down depending on a number of factors -- recent ones based in London, the main population centre in the UK with guests like Neil Gaiman as GoH limited out the site's capacity at 1400 attending whereas non-London-based Eastercons tend to have about 800-900 attendees.

BTW I remember the same "Greying of Fandom" panels back in the 80s here in the UK and long discussions of the impending death of mimeo fanzines and APAs which was going to be a disaster. We changed, cons changed and the folks following us will do things differently. Whether we'd recognise the cons they run and attend as cons I don't know.

Date: 2013-09-06 01:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Speaking of SMOFs:

Date: 2013-09-06 02:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Of course, the way to find the answer is to talk to a lot of people you'd like to attract and find out what they like and don't like.

I'd guess that for younger fan types, the problem is that the cons are all run by their uncles, if not their grand-uncles. Not only is the culture off, but there's no way to become a big shot until the elders start dying off. (Hmmm, make a historical graph of the mean age of the con comm's members over the last 20 years. Does it rise by 20?)

Deeper, it seems like there's a loss of prestige associated with the mastery of technology, which seems to me to be due to the loss of the wage premium for engineers, and historically a lot of the interest in SF has revolved around the future of technology and its consequences. At one Arisia, the audience of the panel on the future of spaceflight all had greying hair, the audience of "Intro to BDSM" was overflowing with twentysomethings.

Date: 2013-09-06 03:58 pm (UTC)
patoadam: Photo of me playing guitar in the woods (Default)
From: [personal profile] patoadam
I have no answers, only questions.

Have cons failed to adapt as tastes change? Are we Palm Pilots in a world of iPads and iPhones?

What does Burning Man know that we don't know?

What need did cons meet when they first came into existence? Does that need still exist?

Date: 2013-09-06 06:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I find this conversation fascinating, and I have a few questions myself.

First, my own position in fandom. I consider myself a young half-fuddy-duddy. Of 58. Whether I'm fuddy or duddy depends on my mood. Been a fan since I started reading. I think the second book I read on my own (right after Chicken Little Counts to Ten) was The Wizard of Oz. My parents were amazed I could read that at the age of - oh, probably 5 1/2 or 6. Discovered fandom through academia - took a college class in SF, and the prof was a fan who did slide shows on things like cons, pulp magazines, filking. First con didn't happen til I was in my 20s. Read about Worldcon and decided to go off to Europe in 79, so my first one was Seacon in Brighton. Laker Airways. Amazing.

There has always been some resentment and suspicion about wild teenagers at cons. Some of it is justified. I used to huckster, and the only people who ever tried to steal anything were teenage kids. Some of them were actually caught breaking into the dealers room at a MileHiCon one year. On the other hand, there's one local kid who was probably 15 when I met him huckstering buttons at a Trek con, who called me on the phone and talked forever about huckstering and starting his own business - he'd probably be around 40 now - and I still see him at cons. I think he makes more money in a year than I've made in my entire life. Brilliant.

Questions (or ponderings that could be converted to questions): 1. Perception vs. actual demographics. I wonder if there are any actual stats available on age ranges at various cons. I for one would not be surprised if my own perception is biased in some way, and I'd be more impressed by actual numbers. 2. Comparison of Dragon Con vs. Worldcon. Their population is way higher, and they suck in a lot of people who might otherwise attend a Worldcon. Personally, cons of over 50,000 people scare me, and I doubt I'll ever be convinced to attend anything with a huge body mass like Comic Con or Dragon Con. 3. Should Worldcon do the things Dragon Con or Comic Con do to get more people, or would that change the character and tone of Worldcon and make it into something else? The 1984 Worldcon was the largest thus far, at close to 10,000, and many would say that's too large. Personally, I thought it was great, but a lot of the 10,000 drawn in were from demographics outside the usual Worldcon fan base. As to the stats on various Worldcons, a lot of that is explained by the two groups who attend a Worldcon: Worldcon regulars, and locals. Areas with a larger local fan base like Boston, Chicago and L.A. tend to have larger Worldcons than other cities. Also, Worldcons outside the US/Canada lose a bunch of the regulars, who whine unendingly about not being able to go to Worldcon because they can't afford to go.

Re: BayCon punks

Date: 2013-09-06 07:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Some of the "young punks" are regular convention-goers. They're pretty cool.

Some of them are just looking for free drinks at parties, and don't have badges. They get belligerent when they're told they're not welcome, because they're not members. It's a bigger problem with FC, which is downtown.

Check with the old punks, they can tell who is who.

Date: 2013-09-06 08:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the general-interest SF con is kind of a victim of its own cultural success. In the world that was a few decades ago, if you were inclined to go spend a weekend going to an event somewhere in the wide universe of fannish interests, there weren't many choices. Even if you were only especially interested in one facet of fannish interest, you would likely choose to go to a general interest con that included some of that interest, because it was the only game in town. These days, whatever that interest, there's probably dozens of events a year targeted just at that specific interest, and those events are likely to absorb all of your available weekends/money/time, leaving you unlikely to go to a general interest con.

Fundamentally, the reason I think us old farts like to keep going to general purpose cons is that our friends are likely to be there, and what we really want is to be able to hang out with our friends. But people who don't already know the crowd don't have any reason to choose a general interest con when they have plenty of choices of events that more closely match their interest, where they'll be more likely to form connections and then want to go to those events to be with their friends.

In short, I think the decline in general-interest SF cons is mostly due to what's happening in the culture in general, not what the cons specifically are doing.

Date: 2013-09-06 08:57 pm (UTC)
hazelchaz: (gif)
From: [personal profile] hazelchaz
May i quote your paragraphs 2 & 3, please? (Or all three. Haven't made up my mind which way to go.)
Edited Date: 2013-09-06 08:57 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-09-06 09:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Be my guest!

Date: 2013-09-07 12:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
We now have a generation of young fans who've always interacted with social media - and who do a lot of online fannish interactions (which cost hella less than travel to a hotel, especially on minimum-wage service-job salaries).

The fans are there - they just don't go to the cons as much.

There are also a lot of fans of color who don't feel as comfortable in convention space who do a lot of online fannish activity. To be frank, cons are mainly white, mainly older, majority male folks who have enough disposable income to travel, stay at hotels, pay for convention memberships and the like. Teen baby-fans no longer have to take 3 busses for 2 hours each direction just to spend one day talking to lots of other fans, sharing art, reading stories, listening to filks, watching films, chatting with actors and buying sf-themed goodies the way they did when I was their age.

(Oh, and I'm still waiting for Galacticon 4 to refund me my $12 after they unceremoniously cancelled at the last minute in 1980.)

Date: 2013-09-07 02:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
2 and 4 for me, but mostly 4. Without mentioning any names, there were people in Pittsburgh who told me to my face that because I chose to read "fluffy shit" instead of real sf, and because I preferred to watch "low-budget cheese," that I was Not A Real Fan and was only tolerated in their clubhouse because Ann Cecil liked me and she had actual fan cred. I remember mentioning at one point that I wasn't a big fan of Heinlein, and the response was along the lines of "of course *you* don't, you're not his target audience," with the implication that I wasn't smart enough to understand him. Every time I consider going back to Confluence for a visit, the thought that I might encounter certain people and have to deal with them outweighs the idea of spending time with the people I actually like. I haven't gone back to OVFF for similar reasons. (At one gaming con that I worked at, I overheard someone say that the next time he saw SJ he was going to tell him that if he was going to have chicks doing demos they should at least be cute (and, presumably, have a bigger rack and fewer clothes on than I did) and he knew SJ would listen because they were friends blah blah blah. I'm more amused than annoyed about that one, because SJ was standing next to me at the time. But women in fandom is a whole different kettle of chips.)

Money and general life come into it also, though. I didn't go to the Denver Worldcon because even not needing a hotel or airfare, it was still too expensive. I did go to the Denver Comic-Con last year and had a blast, but this year I had a very tiny baby. We might go to MileHiCon this year, if we feel like getting up that early and making the drive with a baby in tow.

Date: 2013-09-07 02:35 am (UTC)
howeird: (Naga)
From: [personal profile] howeird
Fandom isn't getting older, just the fans who attend fan-run cons. I give you Comicon, DragonCon, any of the professional Trek cons, Animecon, and so on. The younger generations have no qualms about attending conventions which are run for profit.

Date: 2013-09-07 02:53 am (UTC)
gorgeousgary: (woohoo)
From: [personal profile] gorgeousgary
Fandom as a whole seems to be doing just fine. As some of the commenters note, things like DragonCon, SDCC and other Comic-Cons, anime cons (e.g. Katsucon and Otakon in VA/MD) and media cons (e.g. Shore Leave) are doing quite well and drawing young fans. Even some of the filk cons have a steady stream of new voices (FKO particularly).

As for the traditional literary/general SF/region cons, that's certainly a different question. I've certainly seen some cons, like Philcon (and Lunacon) are definitely shrinking. Which is both a combination of failing to stay fresh and relevant on the programming side, and issues on the committee side. On the flip side, Balticon (with a reputation as being well-run) seems to be finding ways to stay relevant - for example through its New Media track - and is I believe holding reasonably steady membership-wise. And I do see younger fans attending and getting involved with Balticon and BSFS.

Date: 2013-09-08 01:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My observation is we are saturated with cons. Also, younger people like specialty cons. Furry cons have had tremendous growth because they realize that the fandom is younger and cater to that. They know what the young want like dance competitions, hip stuff. Lots of younger folks don't like to sit in a room for panels maybe gaming. I think its more social and partying.

Date: 2013-09-09 05:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
one thing that really startled me was when i found out how large vidcon was. 12,000 and counting. a friend's 18-year-old daughter attended, had a blast, and said she wants to go again next year. so i'd tend to agree with cat_herder's point above that the young people do engage in lots of fanac; it's just not the same cons that we go to.

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