I expect to attend a local science fiction convention (Baycon
) in a few weeks, which makes this an appropriate time to talk about the economics of fandom. One part of it—fandom as a modern gift economy—I discussed briefly in an old post
. This one is on gains from trade and the risks of technological progress.
Suppose you are a moderately successful sf author but not one of the handful of top writers. Your writing pays well enough to support you but not well enough to make you rich. Your neighbors, unless they happen to read your books, see you as no more important, no higher status, than anyone else on the block. You are, along with most of the population of the world, a nonentity.
Most of us don't like being nonentities. But somewhere, scattered around the world, there are thousands of people who look up to you as an artist, a magician, a story teller, the creator of worlds where they spend hours of enjoyment. Humans enjoy status, and putting you together with your fans gives it to both of you. You get to spend time being an important person, a celebrity. They get to actually meet, talk with, a celebrity—not, perhaps, a celebrity for most of the world, but a celebrity for them. Both of you are better off, benefiting by gains from trade, although a trade not in material goods. That is one of the reasons they are willing to pay to attend a science fiction convention at which you are a guest, and one of the reasons you are willing to show up at the convention and spend many hours interacting with fans, even though you are probably not being paid to do so. That, as I interpret it, is one of the things that makes the subculture of sf fandom, and similar subcultures that I know less about, work.
The mechanism I describe has worked for quite a while, but it may be encountering a problem due to technological progress. One way of interacting with an author you admire is to attend a convention and hope he shows up. Another is to read his blog, comment on it, with luck get comments in return. Exchange emails with him. Chat with him on one of the sf Usenet groups. The less such interaction depends on being in the same room, the better a substitute it is for a convention, hence the less the gains from trade that a convention produces.
The loss is to conventions, not to fandom more generally. The new technology has made it possible for substantial parts of what fandom produces to move to cyberspace, where it can be produced at a lower cost in money and effort. How large the effect is, I do not know. I read and write sf and attend an occasional convention, but I am not enough a part of the subculture to tell whether attendance is on net falling, or if so by how much.
One relevant question, to which I do not know the answer, is to what degree people see virtual contact, contact online, as an adequate substitute for realspace contact. That gets me back to an old puzzle—why the mass lecture survived the invention of the printing press. Reading a book is also a form of virtual contact, it too is more convenient than the realspace equivalent, and it has the further advantage of giving you contact with a much higher quality and higher status partner—the author of the best book ever written in the relevant field. Yet many students still prefer to get their information sitting in a room with several hundred others listening to a professor talk.
Which may mean that sf conventions will be with us for a while longer.