Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Economics of SF Fandom

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.


At 7:52 PM, May 04, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I don't know to what degree this is generally true, but ConDor, one of San Diego's two local cons, seems to be moving in the direction of having more program time spent on participatory fandom. They can't possibly get J. K. Rowling to attend (and couldn't cope with the crowds if she did!), or Emma Watson, or Daniel Radcliffe. But they can have a program track of simulated Hogwarts "classes" and other Potteresque activities, which brings in HP fans who want to interact with other HP fans. Of course there has always been an element of this at cons—it's what drives masquerade groups, for example—but I think it may be emerging as a market specialization, helped by the ability of fandoms to communicate online.

At 4:08 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect there's an evol psych explanation for it - we are tuned to take information in from a living person more readily than from a book; somehow it "sticks" better. Some kind of osmosis.

Also, there's something about the enthusiasm of a professional in their field that's infectious - even if they're not such a good speaker, their love of the subject carries and inspires.

Mind you, with the wonderful proliferation of good lectures on YouTube (e.g. Feynman), even someone who's not been to university can capture something of the good fortune of students going to good lectures by experts in their fields.

However, it may be that being in proximity to a living person has the edge over even that.

Consider plays or ballet or opera as opposed to film. People do still go to plays, ballet and opera live, because there's just something extra special about seeing living people do it in person - thumping about on stage and breathing heavily, etc.

At 6:54 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Daublin said...

People attend physical classrooms to get a degree. If you look at learning that is not associated with a degree, physical classrooms are much less common.

At 6:56 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's been research into different "learning styles" (you can probably Google that to find the research). Many people learn best from having someone talk to them. I was always one of the people who learn best by reading, and I used to skip a lot of college lectures... until I took an acoustics class from Professor Bose, who covered a lot of material that wasn't in the book (possibly not in any book). One of the few times I had to force myself to take notes.

At 6:58 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Simon Andersson said...

The lecture and the written word differ in formality. Some points are easier to get across informally.

I suspect the formality of a book or a journal paper filters out some of the most important information: jokes about which research directions are considered less promising, silly-sounding but highly intuitive explanations and summaries and so on.

At 8:32 AM, May 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


How formal or informal to make a book is a choice by the author. I still remember one of the referee reports on the manuscript of my Price Theory that recommended against publication on the grounds that it had jokes in it.

One of the things I routinely do in my books is to throw in material designed to signal that there is a human being on the other side of the page.

At 12:37 PM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things I routinely do in my books is to throw in material designed to signal that there is a human being on the other side of the page.

This makes a lot of sense, now that I think about how many books I've read where I couldn't tell if a human was on the "other side" of the page. Part of the appeal of some of the O'Reilly and For Dummies books is they do feel very "human" (coherent?). I suspect a lot of this problem is due to the old saying of Gauss that "no self-respecting architect leaves the scaffolding in place after completing the building" (i.e. the author should not reveal their thought process).

Two objections readily come to mind. One, students inevitably have diverse knowledge and experience, and therefore will need emphasis or elaboration on different things. This is something only interaction can provide. Two, a lot of communication is non-verbal. E.g. the difference between "I told you to get the baseball" vs "I told you to get the baseball". Or even "I told you to get the baseball." So in addition to people having different styles of learning, perhaps speech is actually much faster for learning than text.

At 2:09 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

I have to mostly agree with Daublin. Especially in mathematics, where (at least for me) it is sometimes difficult to follow the lecture in detail in real time (since if you define 5 new things at the beginning of the lecture and then immediatelly routinely use them, it is sometimes hard to simply remmember what those definition meant...especially when you are too busy copying the blackboard into your notes...if there is no textbook accompanying the lecture).

But also in mathematics, personal individual teaching is sometimes useful. Sometimes I read something in a book and I really don't get it. Not even after a few days and then it is necessary to ask the teacher to explain it better. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, the book is of no use by itself. Googling usually helps, but if you study a particular problem that say few hundreds (or thousands max) of people understand well in the world, it is quite hard to google it.

Of course there are substitutes like math overflow (or math stack exchange) websites. But it can sometimes be faster to simply talk about it with someone with a pen and paper (since regular e-mail is a bad medium for mathematics and typying in LaTeX is much slower than pen and paper)...especially since it is sometimes hard to find knowledgeable people even on those sites.

However I agree that reading books and articles and consulting them with an advisor is much more efficient. Or to make it cheaper (at least for the undergraduate lectures...all of my current lectures are attended by 3 to 4 people -including the lecturer - anyway, so it wouldn't make much of a difference) there could be scheduled mass consultations every few weeks and good textbooks.

There are other subjects where personal "offline" communication is important if not absolutely necessary - languages especially, music, art in general.

Of course, with sufficiently good internet connection, a good camera and a microphone, the only thing that really cannot be substituted is the lecturer showing the student some "moves" - in dancing, guitar playing, something like that - by holding the student and moving his body.

By the way there are more and more online courses from the top universities available for free (running on two systems generally - one is paid by companies who want people who know something specific and they pay the university for the list of graduates, another one is partially paid by the graduates sort of, but not with money - they help with the teaching when they graduate).

I think it is going to be the next big thing that will revolutionize schooling. It only needs people to accept that as a legitimate form of learning things (which it surely is), because now you don't get the status of being "educated" from that or at least not as much status as you get from studying "properly"...even though I think most people who attend these courses actually learn it better than a lot of "students" who spend most of their time partying and then 3-4 weeks a semester (during the exams) actually studying

At 2:54 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I've regarded the lecture as an anachronism ever since I was a university student. Reading is more efficient, and it's under your own control: you can skip forward, or go back and repeat. You can do it at home at your own convenience. In the future, there will be more interactive learning tools.

I've been reading sf since I was a child, but I'm afraid I've never bothered to attend a convention; I don't feel the need. The book is the important thing.

At 3:35 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Several people point out the advantage of interaction. I agree. My puzzle is not why there were still classes but why there are still large lecture classes--in which very little interaction is possible.

Jonathan comments that he has never attended a con. He might want to try one. Aside from the opportunity to meet and interact with writers, there is also lots of opportunity to interact with other people who may have a good deal in common with you.

At 8:30 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm positive large lectures will stay with us for some time. Take for example the IHS seminars. A good portion of of libertarian literature today can be found online, but students are still interested in having large lectures on the subject in person.

Now that I think of it though, it might be that cons are also a useful way to meet a potential spouse. If you identify closely to a given subpopulation you would ideally want to marry within. Some subpopulations are geographically scattered so you don't get much chance to meet with others. Cons provide that rare chance to meet with others in your subpopulation.

At 10:10 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

The IHS seminars,one of which I will be speaking at next month, aren't all that large and involve a significant amount of interaction during the lecture and much more at other times during the day.

But I do wonder if it would make more sense to have the students read a text version of the talk on their own, and then spend the lecture time entirely in interaction.

At a slight tangent, that's the model for the Chicago style workshop. Instead of spending a majority of the time having the presenter, in effect, read his paper aloud to the audience, he speaks briefly about it and almost all the time is spent in interaction.

At 11:36 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I agree that interactive classes are different from non-interactive lectures. To me, a lecture is basically a monologue. Maybe there can be a question-and-answer session, but you can get that on the Web with forums and blogs. You don't need to leave home for it.

As a university student back in the 1970s, I joined a science-fiction society, and found to my surprise that reading sf doesn't necessarily give people much in common. It doesn't even mean that they read the same books: sf is a wide field.

At 12:03 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I've interacted with a number of fiction writers by e-mail and on the Web, and this is good up to a point. However, I've found that they tend to be very sensitive to criticism (of course, some are more sensitive than others). It seems advisable to make only complimentary remarks and avoid any kind of disagreement, which I find rather difficult and limiting. If I met one of my favourite writers face-to-face, there's a danger that I'd commit some failure of hero-worship and be shunned thereafter. Although I have favourite writers, I have yet to read a book by a flawless writer. (To answer the obvious question: no, I certainly can't do better myself.)

At 3:58 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...


I guess it is a little bit of a circular logic, but status seems to me to be the main answer to that. The classical mass lecture schooling has the status of being "THE education".

Interesting thing - back in my freshman year we had those mass lectures too (well, even in the second one there were some) - that is up to 150 people in one classroom. Some of the lectures were interesting or perhaps entertaining. The lecturer was simply a charismatic person who people liked to listen to. You can partially print that charm on paper, but not entirely. It is like stand up comedy - if written, most of it would be rubbish. Also, even in a class of 150 people it is still possible to ask the lecturer to explain something better and more thorougly. There is limited time for that of course, but a book doesn't offer that at all and at least in mathematics you cannot work out all arguments to the tiniest details, because the books would be too heavy to carry with all the pages and too tiresome to read for almost anyone.

It sure still doesn't answer why the model is not "read a book, at the end of each month we are going to have a mass consultation and if you really get stuck, you can come for a private one".

Possibly the answer is that students really come for the entertainment rather than for learning things.


kinda suggests that might be the case. This "Dr. Fox" (who really was a hired actor) kept talking to grad students about "game theory in medicine" knowing nothing about either field and really saying nonsense 100% of the time. But he could put out it in an entertaining way (being an actor) and almost all the students (who were supposed to grade the lecture) gave it great score.

And partly the status thing works here as well - "Dr. Fox" was supposed to be a top scientist in his field and was introduced to the students with a lot of hype. They then enjoyed just being able to be listening live to a person of such a high fact that is exactly like fandom...if you brag about reading a book by Feynman, nobody is going to be particularly amazed, because anyone can do that. But if you brag about attending his lectures (then you are a liar, since Feynman is dead, but anyway :) ), it gives you some of his status, at least in the eyes of some people. It is in a way similar to some people boasting about their second cousin's wife new succesful business. Not that it has to do anything with their skills, but since they are remotely related, they feel like it is their achievement as well.

This does not apply to your average university professor though. But I know that classes run by professors who were neither entertaining nor especially highly esteemed had a sharply lower attendance - especially if a textbook was available for free on the internet of at least cheap. One such a lecture in my freshman year dropped in attendance from those 150 to 15 or so.

At 8:07 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger lelnet said...

A couple of relevant phenomena come to mind.

Firstly, with the exception of media cons, most of SF fandom isn't really dominated by people coming to a con to meet a particular person who's a guest of honor. Having such persons is typically viewed as a nice bonus, and if one of one's favorite authors happens to be guesting at a con that's nearby but one doesn't normally go to it, then one might add that con to one's repertoire for the year, and might even end up coming back again. But the main draws for cons (in terms of the core demographic that makes the enterprise viable and self-sustaining both financially and socially) aren't the pro guests, they're the other fans. It's very much a network effect.

Second, one might give attention to an essay written in 1998 by Neal Stephenson ("Why I am a bad correspondent", which used to be available in several locations online, but since being included in a book of his short work seems to have been taken down). Although it is in part a request of the substance "please _don't_ invite me to your con", I nevertheless think that, at least in the case of other authors, it might explain the _value_ of cons.

Advancing technology has indeed substantially reduced the cost and friction involved in the process of a writer interacting with his fans. But what _hasn't_ been reduced is the _time_ it takes. And a moderately popular writer (let alone an insanely popular one) with even the smallest difficulty in self-discipline can easily find himself spending more and more time (as Mr. Stephenson fears) on fan interaction, and consequently less and less time on writing material for publication.

Writers whose flow-state is less sensitive to disruption than Mr. Stephenson's might continue to find value in con-attendance precisely _because_ of the friction and cost. That is, the relative difficulty of physically hauling one's body to a different city and staying in a hotel to dedicate a 3-day weekend just to fan-interaction allows the mutual desire for such interaction to be satiated, while preserving non-con periods of time free from excessive temptation to neglect one's productive work in favor of constant casual socializing.

At 8:56 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

Tibor: "Possibly the answer is that students really come for the entertainment rather than for learning things."

This is a novel idea for me. I managed to go through university without encountering an entertaining lecturer. However, I suppose there are some out there.

On the subject of meeting writers at cons, apart from the risk of offending them, I also doubt my ability to engage them in conversation without boring them. I can read a book without needing to keep up my end of the conversation.

At 9:45 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Jonathan: Most of mine were not very entertaining either. But it was reflected in the attendance. The entertaining ones had full attendance and others much lower.

At 12:20 PM, May 06, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your talking nonsense lecture reminds me of an entertaining game at the evening party after an academic conference. It was called "powerpoint Karaoke," but my wife's response to my description was that it should have been "Powerpoint Improv."

The "lecturer" is given a stack of about ten powerpoint slides he has never seen before, pulled off the web. He shows the first one, improvises a lecture to it, continues.

At 1:14 PM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: That's great! :) I gotta try that sometimes with some friends.

A loosely related thing it reminded me of:

At 11:49 AM, August 30, 2013, Blogger Sound and Fury said...

One view on the continued popularity of mass lectures, at least in mathematics, is given in T.W.Körner's "In Praise of Lectures",‎
I don't know whether it's right or wrong, but it's entertainingly written(!)


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