On the Hugo Awards “Best Fancast” Category: Eligibility, Vote Value, and the Unlikelihood of Change

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Recently, I had a Twitter discussion* with Nerds of a Feather about the “Best Fancast” category for the Hugos.**  Briefly, Nerds’ Hugo Nominations Draft Ballot contained several podcasts which I had thought weren’t eligible because of their association with a pro site (Tor.com).  This discussion continued today with Justin Landon’s comments about nominations, which I’ll discuss farther down on the page.  First, some factual bits and pieces:

The Hugo Award categories page lists the following definition for Fancast:  “Awarded for any non-professional audio- or video-casting with at least four (4) episodes that had at least one (1) episode released in the previous calendar year.”  Most podcasts would be eligible for this category if not for the word “non-professional.”  According to the Hugo rules,

[the] definition of what is a “professional” publication is somewhat technical. A professional publication either (1) provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or, (2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.

Basically, this means that any podcast hosted by a professional publisher or a professional website is considered a “pro publication” even if the individual creating that podcast does not individually qualify in either category.  Tor.com podcasts, in other words, appear to be ineligible.  A lot of podcasts, in fact, are out, since they use sponsors that pay upfront or are funded by donations that go to pay staff, etc.

There’s a reason for this, of course.  The fan categories, as archaic as they might seem, are designed to preserve the space that separates strictly “fan” activities from the professional (i.e., paid work) activities on the other side.  In principle, that’s fine, but in practice, it’s questionable.  While fans are right to be concerned about the “invasion” of their space by professionals, the fancast category is already one where that is true anyway.  Professionals are producing “fancasts.”  And they are winning awards (or not, as the case may be).  So the rules don’t actually prevent this, but they do prevent the “mega podcasts” (The Nerdist, etc.) from dipping into the fan well.  And that sounds nice, except the writing of the rules also means legitimately “fannish” efforts are ignored simply because they are associated with non-fan entities.  Tor.com podcasts are, I’d argue, fan endeavors, but they appear to be out of the running simply because Tor.com is a professional market.  Other fannish podcasts may be excluded for similar reasons.  This is almost like “guilt by association,” and it’s that unintentional thematic which rubs me — and others, I suspect — a little raw.

But the rules are as they are.  Their intent may be noble and their practice seriously flawed, but they will still affect the makeup of the upcoming final ballot anyway.  This leads me to the next part:

Change:  A Beast That Bites Way Too Much
Nerds and I had a long discussion about the need to correct the absurdity of the categories in the Hugos.  I noted that we tried talking about this in 2013, but to little effect.  The way the Hugos function on a “legislative” level are such that change is almost impossible, or just downright ugly.  And you’re unlikely to make headway on creating a Pro and Fan Podcast category given that so many people in the Hugo voting pool literally want the Fancast category to die (or because getting involved requires an extraordinary amount of effort and patience, which most of us probably don’t have a lot of, to be honest).

Yes, the Hugos need to be changed.  They need better categories, updated language, and more inclusion.  But to get there requires a lot of effort that I suspect most fans won’t put in, not because they don’t care about their favorite whatever, but because they’ll just go elsewhere when they realize how much easier it is to celebrate their favorite whatever in a space where their opinions aren’t routinely rejected.  The people who want change tend to be from that younger generation or outside of traditional fandom, and short of the fluke that was LonCon3, they’re just not going to Worldcon or giving as many shits about the Hugos as those of us who have something invested in it (myself:  a podcast).  Exceptions, of course, exist.

That creates a lot of tension.  I spoke with someone at a con last year who lamented the disdain members of the older generation(s) have received from the younger generation — in general, undeserved.  The notion that the older generation(s) should get out of dodge and make room for new ideas came up a number of times.  I mentioned that the coin works the opposite way, too, a fact that becomes apparent when one looks at the 2013 Hugo Awards fiasco.  But the tension that exists between these generations has produced a massive divide in which two fandoms with a lot to offer one another are frequently found doing the mystical game of avoidance (intentionally or otherwise).  I noted as much at LonCon3 during a panel on conventions, because it seemed to me that older fandom were just not as engaged in the same spaces as younger fandom, sometimes because the two had decided they didn’t get along and shouldn’t bother.

This is a critical mistake for the sf/f community, and it will have serious impacts on how the Hugos and any other traditional sf/f space develops over time.  One cannot create respect for a tradition on the basis of having been static for so long; that creates resentment, not love.  And in a rapidly evolving geek culture, it’s so much easier to discard those traditions for other spaces, ones where a newer fandom can get what it wants without compromise.  Hopefully, we can see the potential for a cycle here.

Your Vote Matters:  Eligibility and Vote Value
While I wish more people of the newer generations of fandom were interested in the management of the Hugos, I think it’s unlikely they will be so any time soon.  What we have, then, is a vote.  A simple, straightforward vote.  Oh, who am I kidding.  Your vote is nothing but complicated!

In a Twitter conversation with Justin Landon, he noted that while Rocket Talk (hosted at Tor.com) is technically ineligible for the Fancast category, telling people how to vote was outside of his “rights” as a member of the community.  I took that to mean something similar to the arguments the community had at the end of 2013, in which much debate and general bafoonery was had over this post at Strange Horizons:  in brief, authors who appear in the comments on fan blogs have the effect of stifling conversation and making fans feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially if the author’s purpose is to correct or reject a criticism of their work (see Justin’s take here).  This issue was coupled with a related concern:  the possibility of wasting a vote on a work which cannot win in a particular category (a point on which Neil Clarke and I agree:  it’s a serious issue!).  Justin disagreed with the latter point because the Hugos have included seemingly ineligible works before.  Fair enough.

While I recognize and respect the concern about invading fan spaces, I don’t think any invasion is possible (or, at least, the invasion is forgivable) if all that is being offered is a correction about eligibility.  Since the rules for the Hugos are as widely known as the molecular makeup of aspirin, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of ineligible works get nominated every year.  While there’s value in the notion that voting for something regardless of eligibility shows that thing a certain kind of “love” — which is essentially the point of the Hugos anyway — there’s also value in the assertion that voting for an ineligible work is essentially a wasted vote.

Except in extreme circumstances, votes for ineligible works are generally not counted unless that work is eligible in another category (this appears to have been the solution in past years for handling votes for narrative-oriented television shows like Game of Thrones).  In essence, you’re casting a vote that might make you feel good, but will amount to little else.  Additionally, by voting for an ineligible work, you are denying a vote for another work which you may very well have liked, but which got bumped out because work X was slightly more favored.  In my case, whittling some categories down to five works is quite difficult.  My “Best Novels” list has one clear winner, but the other four options are a mixed bag.  As such, I cannot afford to use one of my five nominations for a work which isn’t even eligible, since it means another worthy work won’t get recognized at all.

None of this is a suggestion that anyone has to go about things in any particular way.  Rather, I would hope that voters would seriously consider the eligibility of the thing they are nominating before putting it on the list.  Justin and I may disagree here, but he can do as he likes as much as I can do what I like (well, unless what we like to do is eat human beings, which is a rumor for one of us).  Personally, I think creators should do their best to inform their fans about their eligibility.

I also hope that maybe — just maybe — someone in the Hugo legislature of doom will consider that knowing the eligibility of things in the various fan categories is actually quite difficult for consumers and sometimes just as difficult for the creators.  Having mechanisms in place for ferreting out eligible works before nominations are due would help solve a lot of these discussions, even if the mechanism is little more than a self-reported database.  Obviously, this is no easy endeavor.  Podcasts would be easy enough, since there aren’t that many of them, but dealing with the endless sea of blogs and zines and fan artists would certainly make things difficult, if not impossible (the Hugo people are just fans, too, so they have lives as much as the rest of us).  One can hope, though…

Well, that was certainly a mouthful.  On that note, I will leave future conversation up to the Internet.  The comments are yours!


*I wanted to use Storify, but the interface is still the most cumbersome thing imaginable that I just got mega frustrated trying to put things in chronological order, let alone trying to hunt down individual pieces for each conversation.  Seriously, the people who created that need to make the interface easier to use.  “Drag and drop” is nice if all you’re doing is grabbing a few tweets from one feed, but if you’ve got dozens of tweets from 5 or so participants, that interface just doesn’t work.

**Paul Weimer, Mahvesh Murad, Dark Matter Zine, Jonathan Strahan, and Luke Brown also made appearances, but most of the conversation was between me via the Skiffy and Fanty page, Nerds, and Justin Landon.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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