by Phil Geusz
©2006 Phil Geusz
There are in fact a few people out there whove attended more furcons than I have. However, I suspect that there aren't all that many of them. Ive been a regular at MFF and MFM for many years now, and have attended RCFM and Anthrocon once each. I even founded (and attend every year) a semi-con, the TSA-Bash, which acts a sort of small-scale family reunion for those of us on the Transformation Story Archive mailing lists and associated irc channels. Someday I very much hope to take in a West Coast convention, so as to round out my experiences. However, Ive heard from those lucky enough to have done so that there arent many significant differences between what goes on out there and the events Im personally familiar with.
So what have I learned from all this con-going experience? More importantly, how could con-staffs improve their products?
1) Its all about the interpersonal relationships
Or, at least, it should be about the relationships; con staffs should do more to facilitate socialization.
Its very easy to be lonely in a crowd. Id probably never have attended a second con if Id not already known a lot of folks at my first one. Contrary to the impression most people seem to have of me, I actually dont make friends easily. Therefore, I feel a very deep and profound sense of sympathy with the uncounted thousands who attend their first furcons expecting to find fun and friendship, but who come away instead feeling lonelier than ever.
It doesnt have to be this wayor at least, I dont think so. The key problem, as I see it, is that people usually bond best with each other when grouped in units of five or so and given some sort of meaningful task or function to perform together, over a period lasting at least several hours. I dont think its beyond reason that some sort of group activity could be set up that plays to this human trait in a favorable way; say a furry-art contest, or some sort of game open only to groups of newbies, perhaps with an at-least-slightly-well-known-in-the-fandom captain assigned to each group of five. The important thing here would not be the game itself, or winning or losing or anything else. Rather, the real purpose of this activity would be breaking down social barriers, and leaving each newbie participant convinced that someone in the fandom genuinely wanted to get to know and like them. Once the relationship between these groups of five is built, none of them will ever need to sit alone at a table to eat again for the rest of the con.
If I could change only one thing about furcons, this would be it. We send away far too many newbies feeling ignored and heartbroken. Is it any wonder so many never come back?
Dont we owe it to them to at least try to find a way to draw them in?
2) Panels, panels, panels
Being a furry writer, Ive given a few panels in my time. In fact, there are few things in life I enjoy more than sitting down with other authors and discussing the nuts and bolts of our art form. Ive even headed the writing track a couple times at a major furcon, and hope to do so again in the future. I think Ive come to learn a few things about panels along the way.
First, panels are the social lifeblood of a con, at least for newbies. Panels are the one place a new guy can go and talk things over with others, even if no one present actually knows each other. Breaking people down into small groups is the only way to build relationships, and like all other fandoms ours will, in the end, either live or die based on the interpersonal relationships of its members. Even more, panels are more often than not the only place at a con where the fandoms Big Names (yes we have those, and I believe that it is both normal and healthy that we do) are accessible to everyone, where ordinary furs can ask their questions and make eye contact with people whom theyve very likely wanted to meet in-person for a long time. This is how memories-of-a-lifetime are made.
Yet, all too often (or so it seems to me), con staffs spend little or no time on panels, and do even less to attempt to attract competent and popular panelists. A thousand times as much time and effort goes into, say, the Fursuit Parade as compared to the Spirituality Track. I dont in any way dispute that the Fursuit Parade is an important event; I simply believe that its just plain wrong to give panels such short shrift.
Ideally, the panel schedule should offer a mix of the old and the new; I cant begin to remember, for example, how many How to Get Your Story Published panels Ive attended, or at invitation helped chair. While thats not a bad subject to hold a panel on, a skilled writer (who most certainly should have been consulted) would most likely have suggested a panel on characterization, a panel on story-idea generation, a panel on what makes a story furry versus non-furry, and so on, all of them right alongside the old standby. I would submit that anyone who cant take the time or who does not possess the talent to generate a few new approaches to the old standard topics probably should be working in another con-related job. Furthermore, anyone who cant find engaging, entertaining, and above all competent individuals to chair these panels needs to be fully prepared to present them him or herself. The writing-track head should be a competent writer; the fursuit-track head, a skilled tailor; etc. While this ideal might seem difficult to achieve, and might in fact prove an impossible goal at least some of the time, I think that con-chairs would be amazed at how willingly and eagerly artists and writers and such would sign up for such jobs if asked. After all, being asked is the surest recognition of ones having made it in their area of special skill.
According to my way of thinking, at no point during any con should newbies find themselves with nothing at least mildly interesting to do. Sure, there should be holes in the schedule for sleeping, eating, and attendance of major events. And of course it is to be presumed that anyone who attends a furcon has an interest in one or more aspects of Things Furry; otherwise, why would they be present at all? But given this basic level of common interest, a con-attendee sitting around bored a) has been failed by the programming staff, and b) is unlikely to return if said state of boredom continues for too long.
Sadly, at a typical con, I encounter these let-down types by the dozen, while program-rooms sit empty and unused.
3) Cons are no place for Politics
My worst moment ever at a con came when I attended what I thought would be a pleasant musical presentation, but which instead suddenly morphed into a political rally that ran diametrically opposite to my own deeply-held personal beliefs. This is America; I dont mind that people disagree with me, and in return ask only the same level of tolerance from others. Even one or two political jokes by emcees or comedians can be overlooked, so long as both sides are allowed to participate. However, it is wrong to introduce significant political content into con events, particularly without prior warning. It is every bit as wrong (and more importantly, every bit as offensive) to preach a political viewpoint at a convention as it would be to preach a particular religion. Some things are simply too hot to touch these days; religion and politics both qualify.
I exited the concert in question madder than hell, and to this day I refuse to apologize for slamming the door on the way out. It took me several hours off the con site before I cooled down enough to return, and while Im ready to forgive the con-staff in question (were all human) it took the personal intervention of a friend to persuade me to ever return to that event.
Is this how we want con-goers to remember their experience? I dont think so.
Some cons take place on holiday weekends; Mephit, for example, is traditionally held Labor Day weekend. So why is it that so many cons so begin on Friday, a day that the attendees typically dont have off, and then end on Sunday, leaving the holiday Monday empty and open? Ive never received a good answer as to why con staffs deliberately inconvenience the attendees this way, and I dont really expect one now. But if anyone has one, Im all ears!
This is my personal convention wish-list, as shaped by my own experiences and personal biases. I dont claim to speak for anyone else. If you dont agree, thats perfectly fine by me. Write your own article, and maybe between us we can make cons even better and more fun than they already are!