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Geek Wars: The Politics of Media Fandom and Geek Conventions

The Ghostbuster wander the hallways of the Louisville Convention Center

The Ghostbusters wander the hallways of the Louisville Convention Center

This week a convention in Louisville, Kentucky served notice once more of the concrete and distinctive politicization of geek fandom while it also reminded geeks of the erosion of their insularity from mainstream society, casual fandom, and capitalism itself.  A weekend of breakdowns at the FandomFest convention—cancelled events, multiple conflicting schedules, photograph lines lasting for hours, and poor spatial management, among other things–resulted in mounting frustration, increasingly grumpy tweets, and the most feared of all nerd battle cries: “I am going to blog about this!”  The responses to FandomFest underscore the digital sociopolitical dimensions of contemporary geekdom; however, they simultaneously reveal the ways once-insular and well-defined geek fan communities have become a dynamic media fandom inseparable from the broader fabric of popular culture and ripe to be colonized by the mass marketplace.

The failures at FandomFest are perhaps symptomatic of the growth of convention culture in particular and geek fandoms in general.  The “mother fandom,” in the words of Fanlore, is probably Star Trek, whose fans began orchestrating conventions in the early 1970’s (and one fan gathering that may claim the award for first Trek con was held in Newark in 1969).  From the very beginning these Trek conventions included personalities from the show itself:  Gene Rodenberry appeared at the 1972 Star Trek Lives! Convention and other cast members appeared at subsequent fan-organized conventions through the 1970s.  Those fan-run conventions produced little or no profit for their organizers, but they served notice that geeks were a potentially massive constituency:  the 1974 Trek Lives convention, for instance, hosted 15,000 people and reportedly turned away another 6000 people.

A circa 1969 Star Trek convention program cover (University of Iowa, M. Horvat Collection of Science Fiction Fanzines)

A circa 1969 Star Trek convention program cover (University of Iowa, M. Horvat Collection of Science Fiction Fanzines)

The Trek conventions were very much fan-organized events whose structure is familiar to anybody who has been at contemporary conventions.  Rodenberry and the Trek casts’ appearances at the 1970’s Trek conventions underscores that fandom has long embraced the allure of personalities.  The 1975 convention, for instance, was simply a series of appearances by the Trek stars (punctuated by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison), lacking any panels assessing the philosophical dimensions of Trek or science fiction.  There was never an especially clear division in Trek fandom between, on the one hand, a fandom focused on the personalities themselves (e.g., Q-and-A sessions with the stars recounting “life on the set” stories) and, on the other hand, a genre fandom (e.g., panels intellectually contemplating the complexities of multiculturalism in Trek or deconstructing science fiction tropes).  The most dramatic transformations in Trek conventions came with the arrival of corporate profiteering: ironically, Star Trek conventions declined after the 1979 Trek film, which appeared a decade after the show had been cancelled; the studios subsequently wanted to license Trek events, and stars began to demand significant appearance fees. Read the rest of this entry