Friday, August 3, 2012

Is a community organized into Airships a good idea?

NOTE: I realize this may be a controversial post.  I want to make clear that this is my own opinion, based on my own experiences and observations.  Certainly your experience may differ.  Let's discuss it, but please remain civil.  Any non-civil comments or attacks on specific individuals will be deleted.  (Also I promise my next post is a craft tutorial.)

All communities have strife.  The steampunk community is no exception.  But I'm starting to wonder if there isn't something about the steampunk community that is prone to having greater conflict than it should.  Specifically, I'm wondering if a community organized into airships is really a good idea.

Art by Brian Giberson
First of all, what is an airship?  People new to steampunk may not know or understand the concept.  The truth is that all airships are different and they all define themselves in their own way.  But loosely, an airship is a group of steampunks.  Some airships are businesses, some are performance groups, some are simply a group of friends who like hanging out together.   The structure of airships also varies from ship to ship.  Some are very hierarchical with strongly defined roles for every member.  Some are much more loose.  But most airships have a Captain or defined leader.

Of course, some airships aren't actually airships.  They are steam trains, or sailing ships, or submarines.  Maybe they are something totally different like an army or collective.  But for the purposes of this discussion, all of these things are "airships" since that is the most common term.

Why are there airships?  Why do people form them and join them?  As mentioned above, some airships are very defined entities.  They are businesses or performance troupes.  They have chosen to call themselves an airship and roleplay airship positions.  But probably most airships are simple groups of friends.  The reason we form these groups is probably simply that human beings are social animals.  We like to belong.  We like to feel we have a place.  Saying you are a member of X airship is comforting.  It assures that you have a place, a crew, a community.  You're not just a hanger-on if you're in an airship.  It means you're really a steampunk.  (FYI, I'm not saying this is really true.  But I think it is how it feels.)

Airships are also important to the roleplaying aspect of steampunk.  Steampunks usually have a persona, a character they portray, whether or not they actively participate in roleplaying.  Your character being a member of an airship crew gives your character a background, a raison d'etre.  I originally never imagined my character to have anything to do with airships. I'm an widowed aristocrat after all.  But my husband created a character that was a member of an airship crew.  So we had to work out a backstory that would fit both our characters and so the Airship Octavia was born.  It's this kind of compromise that can lead to the most interesting character traits.

So the reasons that airships exist are fairly clear.  But what is the effect of airships on the greater steampunk community?  And the follow-up question: is the net effect of airships positive or negative?

First of all, let's start with the rather obvious.  A community that is explicitly divided into groups of people tends to be a fairly clique-y community.  To define one group, we typically seek to differentiate ourselves from other groups.  This can lead to negativity.  "That group is really up-tight, but we are fun!"  The converse being, "that group doesn't do anything but party, we do constructive things!"  One thing human beings are really good at is creating stereotypes and generalizations.  Therefore it is really easy to start drawing conclusions about entire airships based on one individual or one incident.

The structure of airships can also encourage a kind of groupthink.  The attitude of the Captain or one outspoken crew member can be echoed and become the opinion of all of the members of a crew.  A personal annoyance or grudge becomes a group grudge.  You may not have personal experience with an individual in the community, but one of your crewmates tells you to avoid them because they are insert-negative-thing-here.  On the other hand, a positive, open attitude can also be spread to members of a crew.  But I'm sorry to say I think the first scenario is the more common.

Airships can also serve to escalate conflict within the community by their very nature.  If two individuals get into an argument, whether in person or online, they are still just individuals.  Maybe their friends back them up, or maybe they stay out of it.  It probably depends on the nature of the disagreement.  But when these two people are members of an airship, things can escalate much more quickly.  If someone insults or "picks on" someone who is a member of your crew, I think the sense of loyalty is much stronger than if that person is just your friend.  Captains and fellow crew members often join in the argument to defend their crewmate.  More things are said, more people get involved, suddenly it's starting to look like a feud.  It's how people come to have negative opinions of entire crews.  We might eventually cool off and realize things got out of hand.  We may apologize.  But damage is still done.  Words have power, and calling someone a crewmate creates a feeling that an attack against one is an attack against all.  It justifies retaliation.  We play characters who can be warlike, and we end up acting that way ourselves.

The final problem that crops up with airships is intra-airship conflict.  Anytime a group of people spend a lot of time together, conflict within the group is inevitable.  Things are going to annoy, tired people will snipe, disagreements will happen.  An airship is only as strong as their methods of dealing with these conflicts.  Hopefully we are all mature adults who can settle these things reasonably.  But sometimes these conflicts are more serious.  There are lots of things that can lead to serious conflicts within a group, and I'm not going to try to list them here.  But whatever the cause, sometimes conflict becomes so serious that drastic action is taken.  Someone has to leave the airship.  This is always going to be nasty.  If two people who are friends have something bad happen between them, it may be painful, but there doesn't necessarily have to be big scenes and official announcements.  You can just drift apart.  But when there is an airship involved, things become...formal.  You have to announce an end to the relationship, both to the crew and to the community at large.  This can get nasty.

I do speak from experience.  I've never spoken of this publicly, but three months ago my husband and I elected to leave our airship crew.  It was in response to behavior by someone else that we felt we could not tolerate.  We put a lot of effort into leaving with as much grace and friendliness as possible.  We made it clear we did not want a public brouhaha and that we wanted to remain friends with everyone.  Unfortunately, we ended up losing all of our crewmates as friends as a result of leaving, as they cut off all contact with us.  Once again I see the negative effects of a group identity.  It creates a "with us or against us" mentality that leads to permanent rifts within the community, not to mention personal pain.

As I have seen my local steampunk community fracture into smaller and smaller groups, with more and more resentments and grudges, I have come to question the way we have organized this community.  I think this is a conversation worth having.  I was talking to someone not at all affiliated with steampunk about certain aspects of this, and she said, "you know, the whole airship thing just sounds unhealthy, frankly."  And that helped put into words some of the questions I've been having.

I'm don't necessarily have the answers.  I'm not attacking airships specifically, or seeking to bring them all down.  I just think these are things we need to be aware of, so that we can try to minimize the negative impact and maximize the positive aspects of airships.  Personally, though my husband and I are still Airship Octavia for character purposes, I won't be allying myself with any larger groups for the foreseeable future.  I would much rather interact with people on an individual basis.


  1. I don't know why people can't just be independent of the groups. Or say have only a temporary airship for the purpose of a specific LARP or game, then go about on your merry way at the end of that. Heck, you could, in theory, organize an airship to be a place and only that place.

    My experience with all this is limited but I will say there have been...problems...with one particular airship leading to their participation in certain cons to be conditional. The insular behavior you describe here very likely led to the behavioral problems they've exhibited in public as a group. And while the whole group wasn't responsible the whole group, in the end, gets punished.

  2. Full disclosure: I'm in an airship.
    While I appreciate your bravery in posting this, and I understand you have some personal bias because of what happened to you, I disagree that this is airship-specific or steampunk-specific. This is just people. People are cliquey. My husband was involved in 12-step groups for years, and while he got a lot out of that involvement, there was a saying in that community that all it took to start a new 12-step group was "a grudge and a coffee pot." Anytime you get a group of people together who only have one thing in common (a hobby, a profession, a desire to overcome an addiction, etc.) you're going to have conflicts and people taking their toys and going home. I used to be the president of a large group, 100-200 people (nothing to do with steampunk) and the cliques and infighting that formed were just unbelievable. I don't think it would possibly have been any worse if the factions that evolved had been "formally" organized the way airships are. They were just jerks who couldn't put up with people who were different than they were. What happens to communities over time is that the non-jerks and "can't-we-all-just-get-along?" types eventually get tired and quietly stop participating (without making the types of scenes that jerks make when they stomp off with much drama and flame-throwing) and then you have a disproportionate number of jerks.
    I like my airship as a whole. I like most of the people in it. Honestly, there are some people in the group that, did we not have this in common, we probably wouldn't have anything to do with each other, but as none of us are a-holes it's not like we'd get in a bar brawl and throw chairs, so we get along OK in the context of an airship that has other people in it. I like the fact that we have people to do steampunk stuff with, reliably (the steampunk community where I live is kind of apathetic, and people talk about doing stuff but don't ever really show up and participate), and for me it's made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the larger community.
    I would argue - and hey, I know this is even more controversial than what you said - that a lot of steampunks are nerds and geeks (me included), and while nerds and geeks tend to have more fun hobbies than your mainstream armchair sports fan, nerds and geeks aren't necessarily known en masse for their stellar social skills. But that's just me.