WSFS Inc. – Polemic with Cheryl Morgan

On 29th July, the Pre-Worldcon Report by Cheryl Morgan was posted. It is a very good read and it touches some important points. I decided to post about it because of two reasons. Firstly, I want to recommend the article to you and secondly because I would like to discuss some points.

The Initial Remark

As stated above, I do believe that the post is really good and I advise you to read it first. I’ll be quoting certain parts of it but I believe it is better to read the whole thing first so that you can agree or disagree with my points. I don’t want to mess up what Cheryl meant in her post so some of the quotes are relatively long but again I do believe it is needed to have the fair discussion.

All the quotes in below post come from this article.

‘We’, The WSFS

One of the points raised by Cheryl is about the WSFS membership and that people expect WSFS to have a ‘Board of directors’.

Worse still, in addition to not seeing themselves as part of WSFS, that WSFS is not “Us”, they also seem convinced that WSFS is “Them”. […] That “They” seemingly refuse to Do Something is the cause of much fannish ire on social media.

Later she writes:

For me, however, the main benefit of having some sort of central organisation is that fandom would have much more of a sense of ownership of WSFS. They would understand that they were WSFS members, and they would see WSFS as “Us” rather than “Them”.

I definitely agree with the problem statement. Understanding what WSFS is and how it works and how it all relates to participating in Worldcon is not easy. It took me some time to get it right and I had been actively looking for this information. I completely understand why people may not realise how it works.

Yet what I don’t agree with is that having a central organization would solve this issue. I do believe that if there would be a central Worldcon Inc. organization in any country it would not make fans in other countries feeling that WSFS is ‘Us’. I believe it would be even stronger giving the feeling that it is ‘Them’. To be more precise, let’s assume WSFS Inc. would be registered in USA and we have a Worldcon elsewhere. I really don’t expect a fan from the country hosting Worldcon feel that he is a part of the US-based organization. I also believe that fans would not even understand what type of organization it is as the legal model in the US is likely to differ strongly from the model in their country.

Having said that we need to find another solution. Can we make Worldcon members feel more like a part of the WSFS? That is really a tough question. It would require Worldcon to both educate the members and also undertake actions that would build the sense of community. I don’t have a clear vision on how to do that but I have some ideas. First and foremost, we should change the way how we speak about the Worldcon membership and WSFS membership. It should be stated everywhere that it is one thing. Perhaps we could say a simple sentence ‘We are all members of the Worldcon what makes us members of WSFS’ during the opening ceremony. I am sure it is not enough to explain the details. I am sure we need to do much more to address ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ problem but it may be the beginning at least.

Black flag with 'World Science Fiction Society' inscription.The flag of WSFS attracted my attention during my first Worldcon – Loncon 3 in 2014.

The Paid Staff

In Cheryl’s post it is mentioned that it may be good to have a central and lasting organization that would be taking care of Worldcon – the WSFS Inc. As it is really impossible for the same people to do it year after year we would need to pay those who would be working on it.

Part of that would probably mean having paid staff. Probably not full-time, at least to begin with, but there would be some sort of compensation for people prepared to devote part of their time to doing the same job on Worldcon year after year.

And this is part I have a big problem with. A part of the Worldcon magic and appeal to me is related to the fact we are all on the same boat. We all pay our membership and we all contribute to the con to the extent we can and want. It doesn’t matter whether you are just attending the event or participating in the programme or gophering or working on some position up to being a convention chair. Having part of the staff getting paid for the crazy amount of work would change this. I don’t say this work is not worth the money. In fact I do believe that it is worth more than the Worldcon would be able to pay. I am just afraid it may divide community into two groups ‘those who pay’ and ‘those who are getting paid’. I may be completely wrong here but this thought came to my mind.

Two man standing next to each other.As I wrote in my previous post volunteering at Worldcon i sthe best way to experience it. Volunteer t-shirt (which I am wearing on this picture) is a great memory of the convention and of the time you devoted to it.

WSFS Inc.

As seen above, a part of the area where I do not agree with Cheryl is about creating WSFS Inc. to address the Worldcon issues that exist. I am not involved in Worldcons long enough to say a definite ‘No’ to the idea of having a central team working on Worldcons year after year. I do see certain advantages to such solution yet I am also quite reluctant to say this is the way to go.

Please note that the original article does not state ‘We should definitely form WSFS Inc.’ Instead it just shows the good sides of having it but remembering that:

The arguments against WSFS Inc still have a lot of validity. We can see good and bad examples out in the world. […] World Fantasy, on the other hand, is a glaring example of how things can go very wrong when the organisation is controlled by a small number of people who tend to be very conservative and can’t easily be held to account.

One of the points Cheryl makes related to knowledge retention:

Having staff who owe their allegiance to WSFS rather than to an individual Worldcon would do a lot to help knowledge retention and discourage reinventing the wheel.

This is certainly true and I do believe it would be really helpful. The question is whether we can work on some knowledge retention mechanisms without the need to have a centralized organization. For sure many people running Worldcons do it multiple times – sometimes even year over year. This should allow for a knowledge retention but is certainly not enough. We would need to work on some other and formal mechanisms on top of that. What should they be? This I don’t yet know.

Picture taken during Fan Fund auction. Dublin 2019 chairperson presents a shirt donated for the auction. Many people work on multiple Worldcons – here James Bacon – chairperson of Dublin 2019 an Irish Worldcon presents his shirt during Fan Funds Auction. James became advisor for CoNZealand and Chicon 8. he is also member of the Board and advisor for Glasgow in 2024 bid. Possibly fans who help running Worldcons year over year may be the key to knowledge retention – we just need to develop a good process on how to share the knowledge.

Another point I want to address:

Let’s return now to that question of what happens if none of the bids for a particular year is acceptable to fandom. […] But, if we had a core Worldcon that we could drop in anywhere, then in a year where no site is acceptable we could just run that as a purely virtual con, and not have to skip a year or choose an unsuitable site.

Having a ‘core Worldcon’ that anyone bidding is just building everything else around is to a certain extent good (and to a certain extent it is a case now). What I don’t like about making it almost an ‘instant convention’ is the fact that it may lead to subsequent Worldcons being too similar one to the other. It is not necessarily bad for a convention but I would rather prefer them to differ more year over year so that we can experience the local fandom fully.

The quote above shows a solution of having a virtual Worldcon when fans do not like any of the proposed bids. It would be just to host an virtual event. Yet making a virtual event is not easy. Even with the basics being in the ‘instant convention’ package, it requires a lot of people. This means that the core centralised team would either have to be very big or it would require to create whole organizational structure on the fly. The first is impossible the latter would lead us to situation similar to the current one that Cheryl defines as bad. Below is the part I cut out from the above quote to make it shorter:

Right now the decision would be left up to the Business Meeting. This strikes me as a recipe for disaster, because a small group of fans could potentially overrule the desires of a much larger group.

I would love to propose a better solution but I do not have one. Having a decision made by the Business Meeting is problematic (I‘m going to write about it below) but having to move event online and have a core team to build a concom from scratch creates a similar set of problems as well. The latter is somehow better because it gives a clear responsibility for the Worldcon but I prefer the current model.

Interior of a big hall. To the right there is an exposition on dark blue fabric. In the center there are two stands with 'Site Selection' posters and information. Behind the stands there are people and tables.Site selection area during Worldcon 75 in Helsinki

The Business Meeting

In the original article Cheryl writes:

So WSFS is, in effect, an anarchist cooperative. That is “anarchist” in the literal sense of having no leaders. The only way that important decisions get taken is by putting them to the membership. Like other anarchist societies, WSFS is vulnerable to being unduly influenced by those who have the time, willingness and resources to participate in its governance.

And this is very true. Take a look at the Dublin 2019 programme. There were four Business Meetings each of them lasting around 3 hours. Exactly the same situation happened in San Jose in 2018. So in order to change anything you need not only to convince people to your idea but also to spend large part of the convention doing so. I haven’t visited the Business Meeting – it was impossible for me to set enough time aside. I was however reading about the experience and more than one person complained on how difficult it is to introduce any changes.

Of course any proposed change to the constitution including creation of WSFS Inc. would need to be accepted by the Business Meeting and it is not something that can be done in a few months. I would expect at least a few years of working on this issue.

People sitting on the two sides of a long table. Table is full of convention materials.I don’t have a relevant picture showing Business Meeting but I believe that by working together fans can find a good solution to many problems – including those discussed in this post.

So Is There a Solution?

I know that my post mainly contains information about the things I don’t want to see and where I disagree with Cheryl Morgan. I do not want to finish it on a negative note, and so I would like to think about potential solutions. There a few problems here so let’s take a look at each of them separately:

1) ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ – as stated above, I believe that starting with education during ceremonies and in all publications would help here. It is certainly not enough but maybe we could start and see where it would take us? Such actions do not require to be processed by the Business Meeting but would require a few consecutive Worldcons to work on it.

2) Knowledge retention – maybe we could have a small committee similar to the Trademark Protection Committee that would work with each Worldcon to gather and share the knowledge? We have already seen that certain practices tend to stay. For the last few years, Grenadine has been used as the programme tool and it has been working pretty well. I read that both Discon III and Chicon 8 are going to use the registration engine that was used by CoNZealand. If we could have a few people helping with the communication and storing of procedures maybe this would be enough?

3) The Business Meeting –I do not have any solutions here. As Cheryl pointed out, the ‘power’ is in hands of those ‘who have the time, willingness and resources to participate in its governance’. So far, I do not see how we can make the Business Meeting to represent the will of all the WSFS members.

I am really grateful to Cheryl Morgan for writing the aforementioned article. It is a good reading and it tackles quite a few important problems. Even if I do not agree with all of the proposed solutions I do believe that they are worth considering and if the general consensus will be that this is the direction WSFS and Worldcon should go I will support it. And now I hope that this will be a voice in broader discussion and that we are going to find a solution that will benefit us all.

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