FANDOM FLAMES: Are virtual fan conventions exploitative?

In the era of virtual everything, it only makes sense that during the height of the pandemic companies gathered together to create virtual fan conventions. Now while some of us can say that the pandemic is nearing its end, virtual conventions are definitely here to stay. To clarify, I am not talking about the DC Fandomes, or the Netflix Geeked Weeks, or the Comic-Con@Homes. Those are free conventions that audiences can tune into for free.

I’m talking about the virtual conventions that sell tickets for an à la carte experience, whether it’s attending a virtual panel with a Q&A or jumping into a one-on-one Zoom meeting with an actor for a couple of minutes and taking a screenshot — I’m talking about the cons that are making a profit off of every single minute. On a general note, I will not be addressing any one convention company, the thesis of my argument applies to virtual fan conventions in general.

So, are virtual fan conventions exploitative? Well, yes and no. At their best, virtual fan conventions offer the ideal situation for all parties involved, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Older companies that made their living off of in-person conventions are able to continue to keep the lights on during the worst of times, newer companies can capitalize on the digital freedom of a virtual environment, actors who weren’t able to work are able to make a little cash on the side, and fans from around the world who might have been restricted by their location and travel costs can now meet their favorite stars for a semi-reasonable cost. On paper, this is a win for everyone.

But things don’t always work out like they do on paper, and every convention company is different, which means every ticket buyer must read the fine print or sometimes rely on other word-of-mouth to learn the ropes when the fine print isn’t enough. To understand what I’m talking about, let’s go over what exactly is a virtual fan convention.

Unlike an in-person convention, you do not purchase a general attendee pass. Some conventions might bundle together purchases, but that is rare. The virtual products typically boil down to tickets to a panel/Q&A, one-on-one meetings/group meetings, and autographs. For anyone who has attended in-person conventions, this is a familiar setup. And, if you have attended a fandom-specific con (e.g. Teen Wolf, Star Trek, Wynonna Earp) you know that it is also a common practice to charge for things à la carte, including panels.

But, virtual cons differ when it comes to two things: experience and transparency.

The difference in experience is not hard to imagine. Instead of meeting an actor in person, talking to them for an unspecified amount of time, and getting to shake their hand or pose for a fun picture, the virtual meeting is typically over Zoom and timed down to the second. Once your two minutes are over, that’s that. Virtual conventions can charge upwards of $60 for about 2 minutes of conversation. If you’re doing the math, that means the convention is pulling in about $1,800 per hour for one actor, that is on the low end, and if the actor is only there for one hour and not all day doing different events.

virtual fan conventions
Photo by Chris Montgomery; Courtesy of Unsplash

But, with the fine print laid out and the prices made clear, all of that is fine. After all, booking guests often cost thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, plus there are the convention employees to pay, the man-hours it takes to organize before and after the event. I get it. We’ve got to keep the lights on. And who am I to judge someone for how they spend their money?

However, then comes the second difference. Transparency. In the rush to switch to a virtual landscape, it feels like, a lot of the attention to detail regarding fine print and customer policy has fallen to the wayside. Refund policies and privacy policies are vague and buried within cookie-cutter terms and services. Basic rules regarding screen recording and posting purchased recordings can be difficult to find on their website or are simply missing. This can end up creating catastrophes for both the company and the fan. When you have a virtual convention with exploitable loopholes, without clear-cut rules on what can and can not be done, problems arise.

The biggest loophole is a byproduct of a virtual convention. When a fan purchases a ticket for a one-on-one meeting with a guest, that Zoom meeting can be recorded. During that meeting, fans have the opportunity to talk privately with one of their favorite actors. Sometimes at the end, you might take a snapshot that you can purchase afterward, you might also be able to purchase a recording of the meeting. But, as a convention company, how do you stop a fan from side-stepping all those extra add-ons when the ability to screen-record exists? The short answer is, you can’t.

At an in-person con, recording your one-on-one meeting with a guest is often prohibited, but in the case of a virtual con, recording the meeting is not actually prohibited since nearly all virtual conventions record all meetings whether they intend to sell the footage or not. Doing it yourself, for free, and posting it online is prohibited. Every convention is different. Some won’t offer you a recording to purchase at all, some will, some will even allow you to post it on social media, some will not. Depending on those rules, if the convention finds your prohibited screen recording on social media, the fan who recorded it risks being banned from future events held by the company.

But, that’s the cost of doing business. In this way, they are very much like their in-person counterparts. Everything comes at a price. And breaking the rules comes with consequences. The exploitation comes when there is no transparency. Especially for those conventions that target fandoms with young fans.

I know, I know, I typically hate the pearl-clutching “Think of the children” attitude that people take. But when pre-teens are dropping hundreds of dollars on conventions without a clear understanding that the convention itself is not your friend, but a business, therein lies an intrinsic insidiousness. And when a convention company conducts all of their customer service over Twitter instead of email, using casual vernacular to build trust with their customer base, the lines between business and friend can be blurred.

At the end of the day, are these conventions exploitative? No more so than an in-person fan convention. The truth is some in-person conventions can have the same lack of transparency, look at Fyre Festival, look at DashCon.

But it should be made clear that these virtual conventions are not doing fans a favor by holding their convention in these tough times, despite marketing tactics. On a virtual stage cons have access to a much larger, international customer base, they are able to hold to stricter time tables, and they are able to profit off of every aspect of an experience. It’s about money, as it always is. So, screenshot the fine print, save every tweet reply, double-check the FAQ, and enjoy yourself.

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