WisCon 38, part 1: Social Isolation

As I mentioned before, a lot of the panels I went to at WisCon this year didn’t have much to do with gaming. This one, however, did:

Social Isolation and WisCon

For many of us, WisCon can be a magical bastion of cluefulness in an expanse of oppression. Yet even at the best WisCon, we can have internalized phobias, impostor syndrome and geek self-loathing. And when we’re not here, we may not have access to the social support we need. How do we support ourselves when the world doesn’t do it for us?

I’d suggested part of the panel topic, but it had been merged with another topic. I was actually kind of worried that the discussion would therefore go rather octopus-shaped.

But in the end, it was quite a brilliant discussion. It was the closest WisCon has gotten in recent years to dealing with the issue of geek hierarchies. As you may have seen from my posts on the topic, nerd self-loathing is a topic I care a lot about, and one I try to address frequently.

Like a lot of cons, WisCon seems to assume that everyone aspires to be, or should aspire to be, a published author of prose fiction. Published authors seemingly get prioritized for staffing panels; guests of honor are almost always published authors of prose fiction; panelists’ bios tout their recent publications loudly, or apologize if there aren’t any; many panels are explicitly centered on how to perfect your prose fiction writing craft; panel discussions assume that everyone is trying to perfect their prose fiction writing abilities, whether that’s actually germane to the topic or not; people who haven’t published anything are made to feel like they’re somehow less qualified to be on panels or contribute; people feel like they have to apologize for not being PAPFs.

This panel was interesting in that it actually discussed these tendencies. One panelist talked about a particular con at which all the discussion very explicitly assumes everyone aspires to be a PAPF, and how this made them feel like crap. There was some discussion of this: the con she was talking of seemingly likes to reinforce geek hierarchy, and hierarchies in general. Not a good con to attend, if you’re interested in tearing down those hierarchies. (I’m not going to mention the con’s name, but I will note that I immediately knew which con she was talking about, and have experienced much the same feelings in relation to that con.)

Also, the panel moderator specifically asked if the audience has ever been made to feel “I don’t belong here because I’m not a writer”. A significant portion of the audience raised their hands. And another panelist asked if people felt non-legitimate because they’re not a published author; again, a large number of hands. And the panel briefly discussed impostor syndrome, which is a major related factor.

Another panelist reminded everyone that authors need readers. This fundamental fact gets forgotten pretty often. Seems like there’s a bit of a parallel with how the rich get to pretend they don’t actually need people to work for them. And it’s another example of how “productivity” is glorified at the expense of “consumption”.

There was also discussion of other kinds of social isolation and hierarchy within fandom: isolation because of not already having tons of friends (which can be a horrible vicious circle); feeling isolated because of body weight; isolation due to physical disabilities; feeling isolated due to being poor; isolation due to not being a techie. We certainly do find a lot of ways to make our fellow fans feel terrible!

Another very interesting avenue of discussion is how easily the desire to find community can lead to exclusion. When we feel like we’ve been excluded, we want to form a group with other people who’ve been excluded. But if we form a tight, cozy community, we’re then forming yet more exclusion. One of the panelists mentioned Bernice Reagon Johnson, who has said some really powerful things about how groups form. Reagon Johnson wasn’t talking about groups in fandom — she was talking primarily about women of color forming coalitions and music festivals, I believe, and I don’t think nerd self-loathing is anywhere near as bad a problem as racism or sexism — but her logic still applies. When we draw the circle closer, we’re necessarily keeping some people out of it. That doesn’t mean we should leave the doors wide open — that can lead to Geek Social Fallacy #1 (“Ostracizers are evil”), or even the missing stair fallacy, where we allow some really horrible people to continue doing horrible things in fandom for fear of being too exclusionary. But there’s clearly a happy medium here, where we’re neither allowing in bad people nor excluding those we should really be rejoicing with.


There was a lot of discussion about self-care and how to minimize feelings of hierarchy, isolation, impostor syndrome and other related maladies. Some things offered:

  • Volunteering to start a group of people with similar interests;
  • Continuing to bolster your own sense of self-worth in the face of negative messages;
  • Making sure to have friends you can rely on for support;
  • A healthy attitude of “screw ’em” where necessary;
  • Directly asking people if you can tag along with them at a con;
  • The aforementioned reminder that authors need readers;
  • Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable sometimes;
  • Volunteering at cons in consuite, parties, etc. to help you feel helpful, and to make contact with other folks.

There was a fair amount of discussion specifically about dinner outings at cons, because these are one of the times that social isolation can be most acute. There was a good mix of general theory and direct practicality.

Overall, “Social Isolation” was one of my favorite panels of the con. It hit a lot of issues that I’ve been thinking about lately, and it did it in a very meaningful way. It encouraged me to be more out, positive and joyful about my fandoms, and to continue delighting in other people’s fandoms.


WisCon 38, part 1: Social Isolation — 6 Comments

  1. Love this, thank you for posting it.

    I immediately thought of certain party conversations where someone goes, “Are you a writer?” and when I say no, the conversation just seems to stall out.

    Interesting topic.

  2. Thanks for this excellent write up. I left the panel too soon.

    I love that WisCon is twenty cons at once. I’m very sorry that you’ve been condescended to and brushed off. I’m lucky that I’ve always managed to feel treasured as a reader at the panels I attend. I wish we could signpost those panels more clearly: our “tracks” attempt to do that, but it’s hard to sort them in the paper program guide.

    • It’s not just me, and it’s not actually any particular track of programming. It’s endemic within WisCon — and within fandom in general. WisCon seems, however, like a particularly good place to discuss it, because of the general level of consciousness there.

      • As a gaming expert, can you think of some lighter-hearted ways of addressing what could be a prickly topic?

        • I don’t think of myself as a gaming expert… Lots of people who go to WisCon are just as into gaming as I am.

          Seems like (more) discussion in panels would be natural place to start, since that’s where so much of WisCon’s consciousness-raising occurs. Guess I’m not sure what you mean by lighter-hearted, though. Can you explain?

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