Easter weekend

Maundy Thursday coincided with the First Thursday London Fandom Zoom meetup, so it was bustling. What should have been excited anticipation for Eastercon was mostly annoyed grumbling, which is what what happens when pre-con communications are sparse/terrible. Still, having made my decision to attend Norwescon instead I tried my best not to get too worked up. John and I had gotten Vibrant Forest delivered earlier in the day, so we were drinking a nice porter, and later we had Unikebab for dinner, a nice drunken start to the weekend.

Norwescon had opted for a platform called Airmeet, reminiscent of Accelevents, the platform Ineffable 2 used. I liked Airmeet better overall, it’s both slicker and more intuitive to use. From the member/artist perspective I still prefer the Streaming Video+Persistent Chat convention models, Discord+Zoom being the obvious but really anything that allows text socializing alongside events and panels accessible through some easy-to-use video software.

There was a convention Discord, set up last month I think. It’s not super high traffic, but looks like its been in relativley constant use and was open over the weekend, though there were periodic reminders that while you were welcome to use the Discord, the action was all over on Airmeet.

Along the top of the Airmeet you had tabs for the convention, plus dropdown sidebar buttons. The buttons were to access the Feed, Alerts, People, and your Profile. Profile is self-explanatory, Feed was a general chat but mainly in use by staff to answer questions and offer guidance, the Alerts was for announcements like game sign ups or newsletter drops. People was the membership list, with bonus option to message folks. I got to chat to my old SF/SF pal David Moyce, and I got a message from someone interested in my fans, so that was very helpful

The convention part was divided into four tabs;

Reception: The landing page with all the major links, program book, and so on. This seems obvious, but it’s surprising how often it gets overlooked and/or how many platforms don’t seem to prioritize it.

Arena: The bulk of the con was here. Special events, rooms like Games or Green Room, booths for artists and dealers, fan tables, etc. For things like Special Events, this was fine, all it needed was some links to the Norwescon website, Twitch, and to an app called Scener, plus a few tables to chat about said events. For everything else, I feel like this is where trade show focused platforms like Airmeet are the least suited to sff conventions.

My artist booth was clearly a space designed for me to advertise my company and make myself available to customers at the tables. But I have no staff, and a convention is not a trade show. I had no way be at a table in my booth while also experiencing any of the convention, since Airmeet doesn’t allow multiple logins. The booths looked pretty, but were simple web pages; a banner, a text field, and a set of links. So, to see a the art or wares in a booth you used the links provided to leave Airmeet entirely and browse the Norwescon website where the real Art Show and Dealers Room were located. Meanwhile, from the member/customer persepective, there was no way to see if anyone was actually in their booth, I’d click a booth and find it empty, click back out, and repeat with the next booth until I got bored.

The one time I found someone’s avatar staffing a fan table, they were not actually there. I sat at the table, said hello in the text chat and sat around for a minute or two wondering if they would receive a notification. Nothing happened, so I eventually left, feeling a bit silly.

One good idea was Art in Action, which had tables for scheduled demonstrations by artists. I saw a beautiful cut paper demonstration by Brittany Otto there. There needs to be a way to expand the video for this sort of thing, but it was still cool and gave some liveliness to the space.

Lounge: The social space. Thirty or so tables for video chat, some were for post-panel discussions, the rest tagged for suggested topics or general chat. Most had 4-6 seats, with avatars in filled seats which you could hover over to see badge names.

I was only there during the daytime, of course, but there was very little traffic in the tables. The problem with West Coast timezones is that the afternoon lull hits just as I need things to keep me awake, so timeshifting is difficult. The Discord chatter seemed mixed as to whether my experience was typical, and perhaps the evenings were busier. Certainly there was an enourmous amount of cheer and goodwill from Norwescon regulars who had missed their home convention last year and were deligthed to see each other.

I did manage to find one good conversation each day, the first was at the Artist table, where I got to talk to several other folks in the art show. The next day I spotted a table with a handful of what turned out to be Norwescon regulars, part of a costuming group called the Skittles, on the last day I ended up talking wrestling and metal.

And to be fair, I did avoid a few topic specific tables that did have people (I’m not a dealer, and wasn’t planning to shop, so intruding on the Dealer Chat seemed pointless), and certainly the after-panel tables were pretty well used.

Sessions: The panels, what I saw of programming was excellent, so I’m not surprised this was the busiest area. I didn’t experience any of the big events, for aforementioned timezone issues, but many were recorded and are accessible to members in Guidebook.

The schedule showed the panels by day, with my correct timezone (!!), a description, participants, and link to open the session. You could search, filter by topic, and build a personalized schedule. Bafflingly, Airmeet popped up automatic notifications for every single session as it went live, with no option to filter them or turn them off.

From a technical standpoint they mostly went smoothly, there were some audio issues early on, but the setup had the same features as Zoom (chat and Q&A channels for the audience, react icons, hand raising, etc). One added feature was closed captioning, which is obviously extremely useful though it wasn’t always available for every speaker.

A few of the standouts; Terrifying Flowers in Sunlight Fields: Beautiful Horror, about beautifully shot horror movies. Is Asking Okay? about disability, How Grains Changed Humanity, plus a leather mask demo by SunnyJim Morgan and a reading by Elwin Cotman.

So, all in all? I think the convention probably did what it needed to do. Lots of good programming, and a convention experience that made its regulars feel good. I probably wouldn’t do another full weekend Airmeet convention at $35 unless there were other social aspects, but I might pay a little less for a one day event that used it, especially if it gets developed further.

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