Further Thoughts on Chi-Fi Con, Transparency, and Con Culture

Watching things unfold since the news broke that Chi-Fi Con had cancelled their March 27-30 event at the Westin Chicago River North (CRN) last Tuesday has been one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The speed at which the story was picked up on Twitter, Facebook, and eventually news outlets was unexpected, to say the least, as was being contacted by a couple of press outlets asking for my thoughts on the matter. Seeing yourself on television is a profoundly odd experience, but as I’ve said elsewhere, I really appreciated how the reporters I talked to presented the geek community in a respectful manner, rather than as, well, “freakish” curiosities.

I’ve also been impressed with how (for the most part) the responses expressing disappointment and upset with the Westin over the notion that management thought it was ok to refer to people who attend cons as “costumed freaks” have been passionate without devolving into abusive language or behavior. What’s been less impressive is the resurgence of same old responses to the idea that anti-harassment policies are necessary and repeated misconceptions about what these policies are meant to do and how they work. I’m also perplexed by the amount of suspicion directed at the con organizers motives and honesty.

Initially, I was going to address both these issues, but it quickly became apparent that both issues deserve separate posts. The harassment policy issue, while triggered by the Chi-Fi story, isn’t really about Chi-Fi, as the reactions to the idea that Chi-Fi’s anti-harassment policy was received negatively by the hotel are symptomatic of a much larger issue than just this one con in particular. I’ll be making a separate post looking at this issue more in depth, so this post will focus on the reception Chi-Fi’s cancellation news got from some corners of the con world and how it seems to be reflecting some clashes over a changing con culture.

While I agree with the con’s decision to cancel the event, that doesn’t disallow for recognizing where missteps were made. This is the first con these organizers have ever run and rookie mistakes aren’t uncommon or unexpected. Steve Davidson’s recent piece on Amazing Stories highlights several of the issues that raised red flags for some who have been involved in fannish con running for many years. There are some fair questions and criticisms regarding Chi-Fi Con’s decisions over the planning process, and Davidson illuminates some of the more esoteric elements of hotel negotiations and con planning. The article’s conclusion, one echoed by others in the con-running world, is that any perceived hostility from the hotel wouldn’t be a strong enough reason to cancel the con and the organizers are attempting to pin a fig leaf over the “real issue” – that of low registration numbers and not enough hotel rooms booked. Even if registration and hotel booking was an issue, I remain puzzled as to why it seems implausible that concerns over a venue’s view of con attendees might negatively impact the experience of attendees and guests could factor into a cancellation decision as well.

(Before going further, I should also address the fact that Davidson’s original article insinuated there was something fishy about the fact that my original blog entry on the con cancellation was being shared around social media and linked to in other articles, and that I appeared on the Fox News 32 at 9 segment. With regards to the Fox News segment, I was contacted by reporter Lisa Chavarria via the Chi-Fi Con’s Facebook page and I was not the only commenter on the page who Chavarria asked if they’d be willing to speak to her.

As questions regarding the nature of my relationship with the con have arisen, I should make something abundantly clear: I have not now, nor have I ever been involved with Chi-Fi beyond being an attendee and possible panelist who lives in the city, does not own a car, and has been looking forward to a fannish con actually taking place in the city itself. I’m a community organizer who’s fairly active among the Chicago-based nerd communities, and a lot of what I focus on is related to inclusion, diversity, gate-keeping and promoting a more safe and welcoming geek culture. Full disclosure, after the cancellation of the weekend-long Chi-Fi Con event, the con organizers extended the invitation for me to run a panel about diversity and inclusiveness in geek spaces at their one-day event on March 29, which I’ve accepted. I’m acquainted with the organizers mostly through having attended the same cons and events – as a member of the Board of Organizers for the Chicago Nerd Social Club, I often come into contact with and socialize with other active members of the local nerd/geek/fan communities.

Davidson’s article was updated at 3:30pm the same day it was published, acknowledging that he erred by not contacting me to determine the nature of my relationship with Chi-Fi Con. Which is interesting in an article cautioning about jumping to conclusions before getting all the facts.)

Con running is serious business and there’s a history of cons having to recover (or fail completely) due to fallout from shady business deals, poorly negotiated venue contracts and lofty expectations. Understandably, it’s made many people cautious and adamant about transparency from con runners in general. That need for transparency, especially regarding aspects like registration numbers and contract requirements not covered by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), is something that the Chi-Fi Con organizers may have underestimated and will hopefully inform how they respond to inquiries for similar information in the future. Assuming that actions from the “new kids on the block” who aren’t a known quantity would be taken in good faith also looks like something that the organizers miscalculated, as well as the need for an experienced con-running consulting group.

Considering newbie cons have failed due to overly-optimistic attendance expectations, questions about how Chi-Fi Con’s room block and registration may have factored into the con’s decision to cancel don’t come as a surprise. On the flipside, I’m not surprised by the Chi-Fi Con organizers’ reluctance to release that information because lower-than-expected numbers could be seized on as “proof” that the con was failing and they were looking for any way out, either. Any speculation I could make about why and how Chi-Fi’s decisions were made would be Monday Morning Quarterbacking at this point, but I think it’s worth examining how reactions to the Chi-Fi Con cancellation from some corners of the fannish con organizing world are indicative of some of the “changing face of fandom” issues facing con culture.

ChiFi’s reluctance to release information about the registration numbers and room blocks could, as some argue, indicate that their decision to mention the hotel had a objections to their anti-harassment policy and that their event planner at the hotel had referred to con goers as “costumed freaks” was deflect attention from the low registration and reserved hotel rooms issue. However, from another perspective, that decision to mention those issues with the Westin CRN could just as equally be attributed to inexperience, and a perhaps naive belief that they were doing the right thing by mentioning those issues with the hotel. This further seems to stem from skepticism that a venue’s staff and/or management would express negative views of the con, much less hold such views, yet oddly enough, that same skepticism isn’t being applied to the Westin’s apparent denial these views were expressed, despite the fact that Davidson even admits:

There is, unfortunately, no smoking gun when it comes to determining exactly why Chi-Fi cancelled their event: it could be because of Chi-Fi’s stated reasons, or it could be because, as the Westin suggests, the event was not going to live up to their contractual obligations and wanted to avoid what would come next: having their facility space reduced, being moved off to another, smaller Westin facility or having to pay cash for a large number of un-used hotel rooms..

If there is no “smoking gun,” and the correspondence between Chi-Fi and the Westin CRD boils down to “he said, she said” regarding negative comments about con-goers and an anti-harassment policy, why attribute Chi-Fi’s actions to a deliberate intention to mislead and inflame fans instead of inexperience and questionable judgment calls, characteristics that criticisms like Davidson’s have made a point of highlighting. There’s an inconsistency in portraying Chi-Fi Con, as Davidson does, “a story familiar to those in the convention game: a new group of enthusiastic yet inexperienced fans wanted to try something new, declined help in order to establish their own reps,” and then concluding that the con deliberately obfuscated the fact that low room bookings and registration numbers factored into the decision to cancel in a move of bad faith, when inexperience could also account for the format in which the con cancellation news was presented. Being media savvy isn’t necessarily an indication one should be suspicious, nor does it prevent poor decisions.

It’s entirely possible Chi-Fi Con bit off more than they could chew and the hotel, seeing the lower than expected numbers, decided it would be beneficial to release the con from their contract in order to open up the venue for another event. None of this means that a negative attitude from the hotel toward the con wasn’t a problem that factored into the decision, however. Venues taking a dim view of fandom-style events isn’t an unheard of issue and that could also have seriously adverse consequences for a first-year con’s viability. Having a safe and open atmosphere at cons has become an issue for fans, due to the growing number of conversations looking at how not everyone’s actually been made welcome in fandoms that are supposedly for everyone. For a con that apparently has made it a point to highlight these issues, it doesn’t seem a stretch for concerns about a welcoming venue to factor heavily into a cancellation decision. And while, as Davidson notes, the hotel may not “have had a problem with [the con harassment policy]” after the con organizers explained why the policy was in place, that doesn’t categorically prove the hotel staff didn’t hold a negative attitude toward the con.

For anyone who has ever spent time banging their head on their desk in frustration over the debates regarding the feasibility, implementation and use of anti-harassment policies at cons and other events, the plausibility of the hotel taking a dim view of the con’s anti-harassment policy and what it signified about the kind of people who would attend the con is all too familiar. Con anti-harassment policies are absolutely “hot button issues” but, I’m perplexed by the implication that because it’s a passionate topic for many fans, Chi-Fi Con would use it as a distraction from the “real issue” of the hotel block and registration numbers. While having them and promoting them is increasingly bringing in good will and PR from fandom, that doesn’t necessarily indicate that con organizers aren’t sincere in their support of such policies.

As increasing emphasis on prioritizing welcoming atmospheres and anti-harassment policies is a thread now weaving its way into con organization. Chi-Fi isn’t the only new Chicago-based con operating on this principle. ValorCon, which aims to bring a gaming con similar to PAX to the Chicago area, is billing their event as:

“Chicago’s only gaming-focused convention, and we’re the only con in the U.S. whose first priority is to provide a safe, comfortable and fun environment for ALL gamers, whatever their gender, age, orientation, ethnicity, or game preference.”

(Full disclosure: I do have an affiliation with ValorCon, having consulted with them on the development of their anti-harassment policy.)

Author Madeline Ashby made this observation in discussing the shifting demographics issue facing Worldcon that I think applies to the larger sphere of con culture in general:

“It’s more than just an active distrust of young people (and young women in particular). It’s a totally different set of life experiences. And, I suspect, a different set of values.”

There’s an increasing portion of fandom that’s deciding it isn’t always necessary to put up with negative or hostile attitudes, nor are they willing to stay quiet about negative experiences because “that’s just the way things are.” This extends from perceived ostracism by “mainstream” establishments to microaggressions against members of marginalized communities to issues of harassment. The rise of “call out culture,” for better or worse, has led to some people deciding that putting up with bad behavior in silence isn’t always golden, and the risks involved with bringing discriminatory actions to the public view don’t always outweigh the benefits. Questions of the professionalism of doing so aside, choosing to air one’s dirty laundry in public, especially if it’s in a way that someone else wouldn’t personally have done, isn’t necessarily an indication that one is trying to distract from the “real issues,” or that said dirty laundry didn’t factor in the the decision in question.

As to the consternation over why Chi-Fi Con didn’t avail themselves of the experience and resources available from established con-runners, consider: How willing would you be to go to people who apparently seem ready to view mistakes made from inexperience as evidence of malfeasance? Viewing newcomers with healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing, but the level of suspicion some have directed at Chi-Fi Con’s motives and actions because they’re relatively unknown is a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, people’s own experiences and viewpoints are going to determine where they fall in “assigning blame” for Chi-Fi’s cancellation. The preponderance of evidence may never pass the smell test in some corners of con culture, and it’s fair to say that for some, Chi-Fi Con’s handling of their cancellation news came across as less than professional, with their press coverage engendering wariness from some corners, as well as support. How that will affect Chi-Fi Con’s ability to make their proposed 2015 event happen should be interesting to find out, to say the least.

What this comes down to for me is the notion that geeks, nerds and freaks should get to enjoy celebrating the fandoms they enjoy in a safe, welcoming environment without being judged for their interests. Chi-Fi Con’s states that this is the kind of con experience they want to make happen for attendees, guests and staff. I hope they’ll be able to do so and find a welcoming venue with management and staff who will work with them to create an event that will mutually benefit the venue and the con. Being the new guy isn’t easy, especially in a community where news travels fast, there’s considerable baggage from mistakes made in similar fashions, and wariness can be as much of an asset as an impediment. I really hope they’ve learned from this experience: what red flags to look out for when dealing with a venue; when to cut your losses; when to release information and what kind of information they need to share; and know who to ask for help and advice when you need it.

Chicago geeks, nerds and fans have been waiting for a fan-run con take place within the city. Whether that con is Chi-Fi Con or not, Chicago fans deserve a safe, well-organized con at a welcoming venue.

17 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Chi-Fi Con, Transparency, and Con Culture

  1. “I’m also perplexed by the amount of suspicion directed at the con organizers motives and honesty.”

    Well, I can understand the suspicion. As you mention yourself, it’s a “he said, she said” story. Chi-Fi says one thing, Westin says another.
    Meanwhile, the first word to hit the streets is “they called us freaks and are against anti-harassment policies!” That is highly unusual behavior for such a high-profile hotel chain, so OF COURSE people got suspicious. It doesn’t make any sense. The negotiations would have been going on for months, if not years by this point. If Westin had any problem with “costumed freaks” or anti-harassment policies, why would this only be coming out now? (Never mind all the stuff about them not getting back to the organizers about various requests… as a person who has organized small events, I can tell you this sort of thing happens ALL the time, even with tiny venues who have virtually no responsibility for the event.)
    Relatively speaking, Westin has nothing to gain from pulling out this late in the game, especially in the manner in which they were accused of doing. Even if they thought some people in costumes would tarnish their reputation, all they had to do was grin and bear it for a few days, and then not agree to host them next year. Very little damage would’ve actually been done.
    Meanwhile, the convention’s organizers had a LOT to gain from this. You literally could not pay for better advertising than what this had produced… rabidly sympathetic, nation-wide, and completely free of charge. Cancel a fledgling convention in 2014 as a victim of discrimination, come back in 2015 with the attendance of well-established conventions (possibly even surpassing).

    I’m not saying this is what happened. I’m saying anyone thinking about this situation with the facts we’ve been given cannot really be blamed for contemplating this scenario, and as such doubting the convention organizer’s honesty and motivation. We live in an era where every “underdog” story we hear on the internet turns out to be some idiot who faked the whole thing. Suspicion is not surprising at all.

  2. I completely understand why some of these things raised red flags for some people and there’s going to be wariness of the con coming out of this. I don’t have a problem with that at all and have said as much. What I’m concerned by was how in some corners, there’s been determination to see this as malfeasance rather than mistakes made from inexperience, or a different viewpoint of priorities (ie – the con deciding to cancel rather than pressing ahead).

    Like I said, everyone’s going to come to their own opinion based on personal experience. Ideally, I hope the con is able to succeed, as the Chicago nerd communities would love to have a fan-con downtown.

    • Isn’t that what C2E2 is for? Honestly, I never saw the need for this additional con, especially if they pull the rug from under fans and pros this close to the actual event.

  3. I’m in a position where I think I can offer some useful comment. I was an ‘entry-level’ volunteer with Chicon 7 a couple years back and I observed plenty of stuff that did not speak terrifically well of established fandom, including people standing up for their choices to let Rene Walling loose on the convention with straight up pride. There were also folks who blamed the victims of the fake room ‘jokes’ for not already knowing the regional con culture and crossing the hotel only to seek fake rooms, a bizarre choice that was difficult–particularly for those with mobility impairments to understand.

    So believe me, I know the sins of established ‘older’ con culture and they are many.

    That said, I thought from the beginning that Chi-Fi seemed to be ill-fated. Even more so as I saw folks such as yourself placing great confidence in their anti-harassment policies even as I knew important staffers were people with whom I regularly fought with _from the left_ on that very subject. Full disclosure: I am generally all about written material, not because I shame other types of material, but I think it has a special need for preservation in the crowded marketplace. And worse, I hate “sci-fi” and its close variants, being a partisan of SF/speculative fiction. So I had aesthetic biases as well. And with very little track record existing for the key Chi-Fi leader, it was hard to get behind it.

    I do see a Bayesian read of the data so far as substantially supporting the Westin/mainstream con-runner POV on this question. Have you given a Bayesian approach a go? I wonder what that article might read like. It is painfully improbable that Chi-Fi was bound to NDAs unlike those that bind other conventions, and it is unclear why you see the conrunners as not bound to disclose presently, for instance.

    • Jason, nowhere in this article have I said that I don’t think that the conrunners are hampered by NDAs or that they *shouldn’t* disclose information about rooms/registration numbers. What I *have said* is that I can understand *why* they have been reluctant to do so given how primed some corners of criticism have been to jump on this as a clear case of deliberate misdirection. And I stated that I hope Chi-Fi Con has learned how important transparency, or at least the appearance of it, is for some people.

      • So I guess the final disambiguation is this: do you believe there is any plausible legal obligation they could be bound to, and if not, in the absence of it would you openly advocate for a pro-disclosure policy?

        I apologize for the fact that I blurred ‘understanding’ with advocacy above. 🙁

        • I’m not affiliated with the con, so I have no idea what they’re legally bound to or not. Frankly, anything in that direction is speculation.

          What I think is that Chi-Fi should look at the reactions they’ve gotten from various parts of the con running world and fandom, both the critical and supportive, and keep that in mind when they decide 1) how important transparency is to their process; 2) what they can be transparent about; and 3) when they disclose any info not bound by NDAs.

          • I note you’re not responding to my points premised on a Bayesian world/decision model. In case you’re unfamiliar here’s a useful wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian_inference

            It is important in he-said, she-said cases like this where there are not good unbiased sources and one has to achieve probability estimates to guide opinions rationally. Of course, there are inevitably also governed by one’s “priors” the probabilities one assigns going in. I suspect we assign different priors going into this example. I for instance, believe that mainstream conrunning is almost certainly not lying when they indicate that NDAs are not normal in the ways that might explain Chi-Fi’s behavior. I assign that probability the same way I assign probabilities _against_ conspiracy theories, because only one defector would render it unsurvivable. Surely there is substantial interpenetration between the pro-anti-harassment set and people with operational con-running experience. (I hope.)

            On a non-fact-based level, I tend to see ethics as broadly requiring maximum disclosure and having no room for personal special treatment for tactical reasons. In other words, I see transparency as a universal obligation when there is any sort of constituency involved. That’s a value I have, and sadly not fully derivable from facts. 🙁

            I would, of course, hope that value is persuasive. Especially to members of the involved constituency.

          • I didn’t respond to your point about Bayesian world/decision model because I think I’ve laid out what I think and why I think it, not because I don’t know what a Bayesian framework is. It has *nothing* to do with not having an adequate framework with which to process the information. I think I’ve made it pretty clear where I stand and why.

            I am perfectly fine with people coming up with different conclusions based on the available information, using whatever framework works for them. I don’t expect a hivemind consensus. I understand why you stand by full transparency and why that’s important to you.

            My concerns lean more toward looking at how this situation has demonstrated some “suspicious of outsiders & primed to expect the worst” tendencies, which likely is tied into the issues some corners of the con running world are running into in attracting new blood, much less getting people interested in that world to come to them for advice and help.

  4. I can only say this at this point: I really, really wish there was a prospect of a Think Galacticon 3 on the Horizon: I liked those guys a lot and they did get the whole in-city thing to work well, and twice! (admittedly at a much smaller scale).

    • I really do hope we get a fan-run con here in the city at some point. It’s difficult to get to the ‘burbs for things like Capricon or Chicago TARDIS when you don’t have a car, and as much as I enjoy C2E2 (which is immensely), fan-cons have a different atmosphere that I think provides a nice amount of variety to the con world.

      • I have had surprisingly good luck getting to Cap via a hybrid CTA->Pace mechanism. Admittedly, it is tedious, but it can be done, the final stop is in the hotel parking lot, or at least as long as it is in the same hotel, I haven’t checked this year yet.

        Basically Pink Line until the end and I think it was the 303 or something that ran the rest of the way out.

        • We did Metra rail to Lombard and a flat rate $10 cab to our hotel for Chicago TARDIS. 10min walk to the con hotel. It wasn’t bad but that extra $ for staying at a hotel for a con weekend + con registration = $OUCH.

        • Um, errors to correct: I was remembering how I got to Windycon, which is also good to know, the 313 Pace bus, basically. Capricon, of course, is north, so Blue Line and two Pace buses, 270 from Jefferson Park, transfer at Maryland/Milwaukee to the 272. I wouldn’t blame anybody for finding that too much to go through though.

  5. Pingback: Jim C. Hines » Timeline: Chi-Fi vs. Westin Chicago River North

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