Alternatives to Panels at SciFi Cons

At all of the Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions that I’ve been to, the primary sort of event offered has been the panel. For those who aren’t aware, panels at these sorts of cons generally consist of three to five experts on a particular topic — either authors, scientists, or people who just happen to know a lot about something — who present their views, and then discuss amongst themselves while the attendees listen.

While there is usually an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end, the panel is usually a fairly monodirectional event from the perspective of audience members who aren’t actually on the panel. Although this isn’t always a bad thing by any means — being able to just sit back and listen can be a blessing if one doesn’t have anything to add — it can start to feel limiting when an audience member has a lot to say on the topic being discussed, or otherwise feels that they could contribute to the discussion if only they were allowed to speak.

In light of this, I propose that cons set aside a room or two that can be reserved on a first come first served basis by anyone for anything that they can think of. I imagine that many people will present readings, lectures, and perhaps plays or concerts if the necessary equipment is on hand, but attendees would also be encouraged to use the rooms for kaffeeklatsch-style discussions and other more egalitarian activities (ad-hoc filk sessions come to mind, but the possibilities are endless).

Crucially, there would be (1) no authority deciding who was allowed to use the space and who wasn’t, with the possible exception of rules preventing individuals from hogging the rooms for extended periods of time, (2) no restrictions on the format of the goings-on in the room, as would be the case with traditional lightning talk and/or talent show spaces, and (3) no judging or evaluation not explicitly organized by the attendees who had booked the room. With luck, this would lower the bar to entry, allowing more people to take advantage of cons as places to share their ideas without waiting for them to be published or otherwise “noticed” (in fact, assuming the presenters were okay with it, these sorts of small, ad-hoc venues would probably be a great place for publishers to hang out in, keeping their eyes open for interesting work).

If anyone is involved in running a con and would like to try something like this, go right ahead, although I would appreciate some sort of citation if you were inspired by this post. I expect that the first few times, it would take a bit of tweaking to get the right number of rooms, but you’d probably be able to gauge how many you’ll need after a con or two, and plan accordingly.

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