What is Wiscon like? Thoughts from a first-time attendee.

Wiscon, the “world’s leading feminist science fiction convention,” held its 38th annual convention over Memorial Day Weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. Lucky me, I was there! This was my first Wiscon and I did not know what to expect ahead of time.

So for anyone else who’s curious about Wiscon, here are 5 things I think you should know about it.

[Note added August 2014: Wiscon had a serious fail in handling harassment in 2013 that carried through to 2014, including a host of bad decisions in 2014 once the issue was re-raised. The official statements can be found in June, July, and August archives on Wiscon’s blog, and googling “Wiscon harassment Frenkel” should get you a feel for the discussion.]

1. Wiscon is not a Comic Con.

Unlike the big commercial cons that I often see people blogging about, Wiscon is volunteer-run. It’s sponsored by SF3 (The Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Inc.), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. And it doesn’t have a lot of commercial vendors, celebrities, and cosplayers.

But it has Daleks, so that’s all fine.

random Dalek hanging out in the hallway

It also has a lot of attendees with brightly colored hair, but unlike the Dalek they didn’t usually hang out in one place for long periods of time, so I didn’t take photos of them.

2. Wiscon is about books… and a LOT of television and fanfic. And some comics and movies.

Wiscon is rooted in books, so there’s a lot of panels and events about books. The comics programming at Wiscon is a fairly new thing but it’s growing. There was a little bit of movie programming as well, so I definitely saw my fan interests reflected.

But hey, did you know people watch a LOT of television? And they read a LOT of fanfic. And then they talk about it at Wiscon A LOT. I felt like I was visiting another planet sometimes. One where people have lots more recreational time than I do, judging by all the entertainment content they manage to consume.

But you know what? WE’RE ALL GEEKS. So it’s all good.

3. Wiscon is a LOT of people giving generously of their time and emotional energy to educate others.

Wiscon takes place in the Madison Concourse hotel, and there are many parties at night, and various other social events, and author readings and whatnot.

And then there are panels. Panels and panels and panels, and then more panels. The programming at Wiscon is crowdsourced. Attendees suggest panels ahead of time, attendees vote on what they’d like to attend and what panels they’d be willing to speak on, and the programming committee drinks a hell of a lot of coffee or something and comes up with a massive schedule of events designed to break your heart by constantly having more than one session happening at the same time that you desperately want to attend. (No really, this is their stated goal.)

There are writing panels, since Wiscon began as a primarily book-based con, and more academic panels, and lots and lots of panels about social justice. Which is one of my passions, if you hadn’t noticed. So these are the panels I attended (links to go the Twitter hashtag for the panel if there are Tweets).

(Humor me with my listmaking, just skim it, I’m trying to make a point best made by showing you a really big list.)

And, I spoke on a panel called Diversity in Comics – Where Do I Look?

Because of attending these and because I can’t stay up much past 10pm but the panels keep going, I MISSED OUT on the following panels that I really wanted to attend:

Now look at that huge list and really think about how many people were on just these 25+ panels. And these are just the 25+ panels that I was most interested in. There were 5-8 panels running in every time slot. This is a huge amount of volunteer effort going into helping other people learn. And almost without exception, the panelists were hella smart, knowledgeable, passionate, kind, and many were extremely funny.

So I was extremely impressed and grateful for all of this. Thank you Wiscon panelists!

4. Wiscon has just as much audience fail as any other conference.

Wiscon as a conference puts in more work that I have ever seen to a conference to support diverse voices and safer spaces.

However, Wiscon can’t keep misguided clueless people from attending.

Look, I have been the bad audience member at a panel. I have talked a little too much, I have taken up time that was set aside for other people’s issues to talk about my issues, and I have spoken about other people’s experiences without considering that those people might be right there in the room and could speak for themselves thankyouverymuch.

In short, I have been a jerk. And I realized I was being a jerk several years ago and grounded myself from speaking from the audience at panels unless I had one clear, short thing to say that I knew was 100% on topic. It helps if I write it down first, honestly. I’m a rambler.

So I feel somewhat bad for the Wiscon audience members who hijacked conversations at so many of the panels I went to, because I know they didn’t mean to do anything wrong, but WTF with all the jerks?! I was really surprised at how bad it was.

My paraphrases of a few highlights:

“We’re here to talk about the problems that women of color have with white feminists.”

“I’m a white woman and I’m going to take up 10+ minutes to blame men for all women’s problems!”

“We’re here to talk about how western colonialism affects people of color worldwide.”

“I’m a white man and I want to know if union organizing can help people of color!”

“We’re a panel full of black people talking about Afrofuturism, and we’re somewhat pessimistic about the future.”

“I’m a white man and I will helpfully suggest you look at the experiences of the Irish and Jewish people in America for role models of how to succeed!”

As an audience member who strenuously objected to the time taken up by these folks but wanted to respect the panel and moderator’s choice to engage or shut them down… I felt unprepared for how to behave in those situations.

Is it wrong to stand up and yell “As one white person to another, I am telling you that not every conversation needs our uneducated input! Sit down and listen!”

5. Wiscon is a community.

A lot of people who attend Wiscon go every year, and have been going for every years. There are traditions and terms that new people aren’t familiar with, unless they’ve done more reading than I did ahead of time. I was a little bewildered, honestly. Might have helped if I’d picked up the extremely thick program guide. But hey, I had the app on my phone, what did I need paper for?

I am sure that this makes some people feel like outsiders. This sign that was posted behind registration, though, is the honest truth:

Does it seem like everyone else already knows everyone? It's an illusion.

There were a LOT of people at the opening ceremonies who raised their hand saying they were new to Wiscon. And even though some of us knew a handful of people they were hoping to run into, we did not know everybody. Even after attending for the first time, I certainly don’t know everybody.

So don’t be intimidated! Or even if you feel intimidated, come to Wiscon anyway. You can sit by me.

3 thoughts on “What is Wiscon like? Thoughts from a first-time attendee.

  1. Shannon

    First of all, I didn’t know that you ramble. A ramble seems to be disconnected and without focus and I think you’re pretty focused. Hijacked conversations are never good, but those you witnessed seemed remarkable. Do you plan to do a follow-up on any of the panels you attended (massive amount of options!)? I’m curious about what you thought of How to Apologize like a Feminist (?), & The Problem with Women and Perceived Authenticity, for sure. Finally, I love the sign behind the registration desk.

  2. Angela @ Cottage Magpie

    Okay, I have massive social anxiety and other issues that prevent me from attending conferences. My brain breaks out in hives at these things, truly. BUT, this sounds like one I might actually come to. Though I certainly won’t be able to consume large amounts of fanfic beforehand, either! Plus, Daleks! :-)


  3. Skye

    Shannon, you’re very sweet, but oh my do I ramble. And say the same thing 3 times in different ways. Next year I promise to take better notes so I can actually share some of the content from the panels. This year I was too bewildered by the newness of it all!

    Angela I think you’d possibly be able to enjoy it someday. Wiscon does a huge amount of work on access issues for people, everything from physical accessibility to food allergies to scents to social needs. There are special rooms set aside for quiet space for folks who get overwhelmed, and they broadcast some of the larger room events in small quiet rooms for people who don’t enjoy being in big crowded rooms. They’re not perfect but they put more work and thought into access than any event I have ever attended.

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