John Gruber recently wrote an article saucily titled “Let’s Have a Panel on What We Didn’t Like About SXSW 2007”; if you don’t know what SXSW is, it’s a festival in Austin, Texas, originally focused on music but now encompassing creative web media under the rubric of “SXSW Interactive.” But, really, SXSW itself isn’t what has me musing—it’s his observation that “at most conferences, the deal is that the content is great and the socializing is good. At SXSWi, the content is good, but the socializing is great.”
What this reminded me of is science fiction cons, except that instead of good I’d say variable for the content. And for furry cons, let’s face it, most of the time “variable” would be charitable.
Gruber goes on to write:
One problem, I think, is SXSWi’s emphasis on panels rather than lectures. Panels are good for an introduction, and they can be entertaining in the way that a talk show is. But there’s no sustained narrative, no way to build a case or leave the audience with a strong impression. I feel like I conveyed 50 times more information in my hour-long lecture at C4 in October than I did as one of three panelists in an hour-long session at SXSWi this year—and I thought our panel went well. Panels are dessert, lectures are meals.
Now, suggesting that having lectures rather than panels at cons—or even in addition to panels—is something I imagine would get one reflexively clubbed to death. “Lecture” is not a word that screams fun. It’s a word that, even in the best of circumstances, makes people think of—ick!—education.
Yet, if I look back over the most memorable programming I can think of from all my con-going time, the things that come to mind are essentially one-person shows: Pat Murphy’s writing workshop at Further Confusion, Orson Card’s “Secular Humanist Revival Meeting” (possibly at the Necronomicon he was a guest at in the late ’80s, but don’t quote me), a panel on linguistics at Anthrocon with a single panelist—a linguistics professor. Even a couple keynote speeches by guests, like Bob Shaw and Francis Ford Coppola at two WorldCons I went to.
And, really, don’t people who attend panel programming at cons actually want to be educated? They’re trying to learn something about how to tell stories or draw pictures or build costumes. And maybe it’s just me, but it seems that panels don’t do that unless at least one panelist treats the panel like something they need to prepare for. A little less like a coffeeklatsch and a little more like a presentation.
So. Where am I going with this, you may ask? Truthfully, I dunno. I suspect convention programming tracks would do better with panelists who are prepared, but in practice I’m not sure what that actually means. Simply telling panelists “think more about what you’re going to say” may be the gist of it, but I suspect it could go considerably beyond that—I’m just not sure in what direction. How can we make panel programming better at cons?