This article was written in May 2013 for the Preview issue of Aether Magazine, which never went to publication. I'm reprinting it here so that it actually gets seen.
Annoying but Necessary Disclaimer: I naturally don't have first hand knowledge of steampunk communities outside of my region and can't speak for them. This post is not aimed at any one person or group and is not in reference to one specific event or situation. It's a response to many different instances observed over a long period of time.
We very often talk about the "steampunk community" or in a more specific form, "the (insert region here) steampunk community." In my case this is "the Texas steampunk community." But what do we mean by community? Are we simply a collection of people who all wear a certain kind of weird clothing? If not, what makes a community?
Well, in my opinion, one of the characteristics of a community is that a community supports its members. The image that might come to mind is the oft-referenced barn-raising. But support comes in a lot of different packages and sizes.
I have a belief. It is that steampunks should support fellow steampunks. That's a very broad statement, and the argumentative out there are probably already overrun with reasonable exceptions to that rule. That's ok, I've got my own. But one thing I'm pretty sure of is that if steampunks don't support the steampunk community, the future of the steampunk community is in jeopardy.
So, what kind of support am I specifically talking about? Well, we'll get there, but first I'm going to offer a series of hypotheticals.
Say you have a friend (or member of your community) who is a musician. This musician puts out an album, something you know he's been working on doing for a long time. What do you do? Well, if you're being a supportive friend, you buy the album, right? This isn't that complicated. Do you go up to your friend and say, "hey, man, I really like your music and want your album, will you give it to me for free?" Unless you are very tacky, you don't do that. (Although people being people, I would not be surprised to hear from musicians that this happens. *sigh*) Do you go illegally download the album without paying? Well, no, you shouldn't. If you want to be supportive to your friend, you take the money you would have spent going out to lunch and you just buy the damn album. (And let's just all agree that there's a difference between illegally downloading a record by the Beatles and illegally downloading a record by a struggling local indie artist.)
So, ok, that was an easy one. So let's imagine that your friend, the musician, is playing a show. What does a supportive friend do? You show up, pay your entry fee, and cheer them on. Do you demand your friend put you on the guest list so you don't have to pay? Probably not, unless you have some kind of understanding with your friend.
So my example of a musician has pretty obvious correlations to other types of artists. If you enjoy someone's work, you should be willing to give the artist fair market price for that work. Maybe you work out some kind of alternate arrangement, some kind of barter, but you should still be offering something of real, equivalent value to the price. Once again, this is fairly simple.
But what if your friend isn't an artist? What if your friend (or the member of your community) is instead someone who is organizing an event or a con? Does that change how a supportive person should behave?
Here's the reason I'm asking these questions: I have heard and observed a lot of weird behavior from steampunks towards steampunk events. It seems that whenever a steampunk event is announced, the line of people who expect free admission becomes very long, very quickly. Some people may want to be a guest, may want to be paid, may want free rooms, travel, whatever. Some people maybe just want to be involved. But it seems like a lot of people expect to be admitted free and if they are not, they will not attend.
Let's accept something up front: events can only have so many guests. They can only let in so many people for free. Someone is having to make decisions on who those people will be, and it's understandable to be disappointed and maybe even hurt if you don't make the cut. But unfortunately the next step for many seems to be to form a grudge against the event or the organizer and refuse to have anything to do with them.
Even more unfortunate are situations where someone feels snubbed and then tries to convince others not to attend an event. There's another thing I've observed that keeps people from attending steampunk events and that is just plain bad feeling and negative gossip. I've heard first year events, on multiple occasions, get bad-mouthed based on "so-and-so said that this person involved with it is such-and-such" or "the organizers don't know what they are doing because they didn't take my suggestion." These kinds of statements invariably seem to end with "so I'm not going to go." To be honest, this really, REALLY pisses me off.
Here's the thing. I'm a steampunk. I live in Texas. If there is a steampunk event in Texas that I can manage to attend, I'm going to attend it. I feel a responsibility to do so, because I want this community to grow and thrive. I want our event organizers to do well so that they can continue to hold events. Which means I will show up and pony up my entry fee, even when that's difficult for me to do, as someone with a disability who had to quit her day job.
It also annoys me, as a vendor, that vendors pay high fees for the privilege of being part of events, when others expect to get the same without paying their way in. Yes, every event has guests, but there is always going to be a limit to who organizers can afford to have. If you care about steampunk, you should still show up because this increases the chance of the event happening again, when you may be able to play a larger role. It also increases the likelihood of there being more steampunk events in general.
Because if you don't attend, then a time may come when there aren't any events to go to at all. I am honestly afraid that this may be the way our community goes. I've heard a criticism that some event organizers are "only out to make money." Let's allow a moment for all you organizers out there to stop laughing. But seriously, let's get over the idea that having a goal of being fiscally solvent is some kind of evil thing. I run a business. I am concerned with making money so that I can continue to keep going to steampunk events, to keep getting out there and having fun, to keep meeting people, and to keep helping people learn new skills. Events are businesses in the same way. Without enough money coming in, eventually they won't be around to provide us all with a space to have fun, express ourselves, and ply our trade.
Of course, there are also responsibilities that event organizers have towards the community. In return for the support of the community, they should provide the highest quality event they can. This includes going the extra mile to improve the experience off all their guests by making sure there are enough things to do and entertainments available. I think event organizers need to make every effort not to schedule things at the same time as other steampunk events, since that just hurts everyone by splitting the audience. They also have a responsibility to their vendors and guests to advertise and promote their event so that they get a good turn-out. Any event is the result of the efforts of everyone involved, and we all have responsibilities to each other. Exceptional events happen when everyone involved is meeting or exceeding these responsibilities.
In short, I'd like to see more focus on what we, as steampunks, can do for the community and a lot less focus on what we are owed by that community. If you are being exceptional at what you do, I believe you will be recognized and rewarded. But if you are spending most of your time complaining that you don't get enough recognition or rewards, instead of earning those things? It might be time for some reevaluation of priorities. A community requires active participation by all its members in order to thrive. Let's remember how amazing it is that steampunk even exists and that we can have our own events and parties.