So, we did it.
With the idea spearheaded by Claire Rousseau
, the first Booktuber—that’s the community of book reviewers and fans on YouTube—to make it to the Best Fancast ballot for her (excellent) channel, it was an obvious choice for CoNZealand Fringe to be hosted on BookTube, with 11 different channels hosting various Fringe streams and panels dedicated to BookTube itself and to popular BookTube video topics. Our panels were built from the premise that fans of colour, queer fans, fans with disabilities and other marginalised folks have vital things to say about every fandom topic, and given the genesis of the Fringe concept, ensuring a diversity of expertise was a fundamental part of our responsibilities. We had a raucous discussion on “problematic faves,” a deep dive into genre podcasting that overran by 30 minutes because the panelists had so much to say (another benefit of the BookTube hosting was that nobody could kick us out of panel rooms!), and panels predicting future genre classics and talking about favourite media of 2020 which were bursting
with incredible recommendations. The game worldbuilding panel offered a thoughtful discussion on “representation” in video and tabletop games and why, when there are video games that allow you to define the size of your player character’s butthole, representation of Black skin tones, Afro-textured hair and visible disabilities are still incredibly limited. We had experts and authors discuss the process of sensitivity reading in publishing and celebrate the variety of genre bending fiction that’s currently out there and the role that genre boxes play in our reading. We even had the panel of my heart: a fanzine discussion entirely focused on the world of online blogging, newsletters and zines, which did not even once have to reopen the long-ago settled question of whether a genre fanzine can
be online. Truly, a magical point to reach in 2020.
(By the way, the best part of YouTube hosting? Every one of those panels is still available to watch online
, and will be indefinitely. I will forgive you if you stop reading right now and go check those out!)
Not everything went right. In particular, hosting panels with open chats via YouTube meant that one of our panels had a moderation incident, in which we weren’t able to prevent abusive messages being sent to participants in chat. We very quickly tightened our processes around chat moderation and briefing YouTube hosts to ensure that the specific kind of incident wouldn’t be possible again while still maintaining our free, open streams on the channels scheduled, but it was still a failure to the participants and viewers of that panel and one we should have been more prepared for given the known vulnerabilities of open events.
We also weren’t able to extend invitations to everyone we wanted to, and given more time we would have been able to build an event that represented even more facets of the genre we know and love.
Finally, for a small set of fans, the name “CoNZealand Fringe” caused controversy because it was felt it implied disrespect to the convention itself, or misuse of its brand. While the name was selected in the tradition of Edinburgh fringe festival and other fringe events, and some were unlikely to view fringe content in a positive light regardless of the name, the subsequent focus in certain circles over whether “CoNZealand Fringe” could expect legal action was, at best, a distraction from the content and purpose of the programme itself, and might have been avoided.
In short, the intense period of time we spent bringing things together meant the choices we made reflect our own biases and limitations, with limited time for taking stock and managing risks in advance. Acknowledging those limitations doesn’t make me less proud of what we did achieve, but nor do our achievements cancel out our mistakes—and, with more time, we could have done better.
What CoNZealand Fringe clarified for me, personally, is the level of responsibility that goes into volunteering, and the responsibilities that we all have to each other to ensure the actions we take, and the things we build, leave this community a little better than when we found it. Sometimes, when we bake those responsibilities in from the start, it takes almost no extra effort at all: ensuring that panels were not all white, or all one gender, or that prospective panelists weren’t invited onto events while observing Shabbat, was relatively straightforward for us because those expectations were built into our systems (such as they were) from the ground up.
But sometimes those responsibilities involve going beyond what you thought you signed up for. After pulling sixteen hour days during CoNZealand week to bring fringe together, I took on responsibility for coordinating the transcription for all our panels among our (AMAZING) team of volunteers.
While most of our panels had reasonably good auto-generated captions from YouTube, having transcripts would ensure that our panels were accessible to anyone who couldn’t watch the original, or preferred a text-based version. Transcribing is also very labour-intensive and, for a zero-budget event, difficult to resource. What I had hoped would be a few weeks receiving, proofreading and processing drafts turned into over half a year before we were able to put the transcripts up for viewing (all are now hosted on the fanzine I co-edit, Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together
And, honestly? Much of this six month process was spent feeling overwhelmed, lost and being pulled in other directions without doing any work on the transcripts, all the while with the sense of responsibility eating at the back of my mind. At several points, I almost convinced myself that putting the transcripts up late would be more of an embarrassing failure than simply never finishing them and letting the commitment go. But finally, at the start of 2021, I was able to find enough time in my schedule to put that final administrative push in, with our team coordinating the last transcriber efforts we needed to get us over the finish line. Now 160,000 words of transcribed panel are now available alongside their video counterparts—all for free, all indefinitely.