Re: Con Consumerism

Jäger Madarame

It’s weird! Because when I see people talk about posts like this, I feel like, “what’s this? Are we back in 2007?” Still, salient points are salient.  It’s noteworthy, actually, because, well, I might be OCD when it comes to things like this. Let me quote–

  • Find out who runs your event – and if they are a non-profit. Are the organizers of your con making money, or are they a non-profit that is required to put all that money back into the event itself? Hint: Anime Expo, San Diego Comic Con, and many local cons are non-profit. New York Comic Con and Wizard World? Hell no. In the past most con attendees knew this stuff; it frightens the shit out of me how few people know it today.

  • Read up on the history of the event. Sure, so-and-so author/guest of honor/star you worship may be going to a con in your city, but if that same con is doing stuff you don’t approve of (or their leader is a wannabe CEO type with a shady police history), don’t go. While you’re at it, let that author/guest of honor/star know your concerns via e-mail or twitter.

  • Go outside your comfort zone. So many people don’t compare conventions or even evaluate the other events they could be attending because they are obsessed with going to the biggest event possible. This is ludicrous. There are hundreds of Comic, Sci-fi, Gaming and Anime cons out there and each of them are very, very different, so shop around! Trust me, the smaller, local shows are an absolute blast – and some of them have free food!

Here’s the thing: None of this really matters. In fact, the blog post’s admits basically as much. Let’s say if all I care about is some guests that only show up at SDCC/NYCC, do I really have a choice? Not really. Sure, some guests show up at SDCC/NYCC shows up at other cos, but some don’t; and more often than not the fan’s engagement is probably not hardcore enough to drive to another con, even if close enough to travel by car, just to get that one guest. If all I care about is cosplay gatherings for a [insert favorite franchise here], do I have a choice? Generally not unless your favorite thing has gone meme like Homestuck or Kyoujin (and even so your gathering will likely be way smaller). If I don’t want to travel outside of daytrip distance, do I have a choice? While more so now than before, but it’s quite limited for most people still. I kind of want to address some sour grape-type ranting about these sort of things in terms of effort versus what you get out of it. At huge cons, the problem is multi-fold because you get critical mass of hardcore campers who would rationalize the irrational to get whatever that they want, and it drives up the opportunity cost of any activity (usually in the form of wait time in line), and it causes chain effects for cons trying to manage these messes that popularity creates. And because huge cons are like shining beacons (eg., cons that can spend real money to market themselves; big enough to gain word-of-mouth marketing powers, etc) that attract newbie consumers who don’t min-max their time at cons (mostly because they don’t even know they should approach those cons this way), it makes things worse for everyone.

The second OCD point I want to bring out is that there really isn’t an alternative. This is also why it doesn’t really matter. The situation is not approachable from the “My way or the Highway” style of consumption, which is weird, because that’s the default mode of dealing with unhappy purchases as consumers. You write a nasty review, you ask for a refund, you ask to talk to a manager, whatever. None of these things typically work for cons–and when they do, it’s because they are a genuine awesome con, which is rarely your average megacon. What does work is running one yourself. Compete. Provide the solution you wish you had. And obviously you can see that is not a trivial undertaking. Even just joining the megacon that you are “forced” to attend so you can improve the con from within is a very long shot, either as staff or as a local loudmouth.

The other way to approach this is, well, take the Highway to get your way. Create an alternative by overcoming your personal limitations. Of course, things are still complicated even if you are okay with not going to a con, or willing to spend more money to fly to a better one. It’s okay to prop smaller, better-run cons that serve your needs. This is the “Animazement” effect personally, since attending that con hits various personal sweet spots, despite the rather long ride to get there. But those are just my sweet spots, not yours or anyone else’s, and I’m the kind of guy who spends a good chunk of his disposable income this way, having attended cons since the 90s–not your average consumer. In the spirit of this, let me provide with some, I think, alternatives. Not quite alternatives to the bullets I quoted, but they’re probably more helpful. Maybe these alternatives aren’t available for you, but they could be for someone else you know.

Find out about the nature and tendencies of your event organizers. Here’s a detour: you might know both AX and Otakon are “non-profits” but do you know the MPAA and the NFL are also “non-profits”? Because they are trade organizations, or 501(c)6s. AX is run by the SPJA, which is also a 501(c)6. This means when you donate money and items to the SPJA, it can’t be a tax write-off. On the other hand, Otakon is run by Otacorp, and they’re a 501(c)3 educational organization, and money donated to them are tax deductible. So, like, what is the point of this? Who cares if Reed Expo (which is a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier, a FTSE100 company (a London Exchange index)) is a part of a corporation? Honestly? It doesn’t really matter. This is why it’s a detour. Heck, NYCC would not be possible if not for the throngs of volunteers every year. It’s not like everyone gets paid (money) anyway. The point here is about the culture of the organization. Otakon and AX cannot be more different in some ways, because of the culture and the transparency and the pay structure and countless other things that are inherent in the history and the leadership of those organizations. The visions of these cons vary, and it matters. There are positive and negative aspects to all these organizations, and different tendencies about these cons that sophisticated convention “consumers” are ought to know. Just because one con hires a couple full-time staffers and another doesn’t may not mean anything at all. I mean, just look at AX con drama for an example. And for-profit cons have their own benefits, such as leveraging more experienced staff and better consistency over time as a result of staff retention. It really comes down to the details and the competency and experience of the leadership of those organizations.

And yes, this means read up on the history. But that alone is probably not enough–look for trends. Farm their official forums (if available). Use Google to your advantage. There are sites that track cons. Talk to people who went to those cons in the past. One thing I realize is that a lot of small cons are poorly documented, especially if they don’t have much besides the dealer’s hall. I don’t know how you would approach those cons in that case, because I don’t really do those types of cons. For anime cons, guests are generally a major indicator–oversea or not, diversity, point and purpose of guest selection all play a role in indicating if the con organizers are competent or not. It’s complicated but basically the higher profile, the more expensive, and the more rare the guests are, the harder it is to handle them and to bring them over, and more likely that the cons have some actual competent people behind it. Cosplay photography in some ways are another point of documentation, something anime cons are full of compared to the rest. I think it’s okay to stay in your comfort zone, and go to just the big cons. It doesn’t matter that much.

What matters is the ability to make an informed decision. Informed decisions require a good grasp of what you are paying for and what you get out of it. What you can get out of a con depends on what stuff you know you want out of a con. But stuff you are missing out on aren’t going to come and grab you by themselves. The goal is to get beyond the “you don’t know what you don’t know” stage of things, which I feel describes how a lot of people engage these large cons. For those of us who are getting beyond that level of engagement, then that’s the next thing–just hit up a lot of cons that have good reps, and do stuff at cons that are probably up your alley. Compare and contrast. Go to both big and small cons. A lot of people don’t go to small cons because they don’t know the difference between a good small con and a bad small con, or any small cons at all. And you can perfectly go only to the biggest cons–go to the same cons and do different things, hang out with different people at different times, and discover that mega con from a different point of view. Don’t spend all your time in line, or if you don’t line up for things, try it once. Mega cons are multifaceted things and are complicated to run, and unless you know about these components of a con, you wouldn’t even know if a con is any good even if you attended it. Maybe you’ll find something you didn’t even know you like, who knows? I think it’s perfectly rational and probably a good thing to think about spending time, effort and money going to cons and balance that with what you get out of it. I don’t know if you can call that consumerism, however. Certainly most con attendees are a far, far cry from being a good consumer in this regard, but more importantly I think they don’t care to be because they’re happy where they are. I don’t know, it’s a weird thing where you either take it not very seriously, or really seriously. There’s not much of a middle ground.

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