Back to the Futurians
The study of social networks—and in particular of how ideas travel from one person to another—can pose infuriating problems, especially if you’re trying to follow along in real time. Entire movements have a way of exploding into existence online and disappearing before you have a chance to react, and their beginnings and endings can fall so close together that it can be hard to see the intermediate stages. From the point of view of sociological analysis, it would be nice if we could find a way to slow it all down. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell recommends putting together a paper prototype of a game, even for something like Tetris, both because it’s easy to make and because it naturally decelerates the process, allowing you to study each step. Speaking of a hypothetical paper version of Doom, Schell describes a setup with cardboard pieces and a metronome, then writes:
Configure your metronome to tick once every five seconds, and make a rule that you can move one square of graph paper with every tick…This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.
On a similar level, we’d learn a lot about social networks and virality if we could somehow reduce it to paper form. It would slow it down, allowing us to examine the components at our leisure and trace the interactions from one stage to the next, while leaving a paper trail to show us exactly how an idea spread and mutated from its point of origin.
In fact, at least one paper version of a social network does exist: the early science fiction community. I got to thinking about this while reading The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom by the fan and historian Sam Moskowitz. It’s a book that has a deserved reputation for being unreadable: even Isaac Asimov, who know most of the players firsthand, found it hard to finish. There’s something undeniably amusing about its endless, detailed descriptions of disputes and controversies that occurred within fan clubs with fewer than a dozen teenage members in the late thirties. Really, though, it’s in the same vein as the oral histories of newsgroups, or even individual threads, that have started to appear in recent years, and it gains additional interest from the fact that many of the participants—Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl—went on to become pivotal figures in the genre. The overall beats of the story are familiar to anyone who has experienced fandom’s ability to bring people together and tear them apart in the same breath. (Moskowitz describes one club, with a total of five members, that immediately split into two irreconcilable factions.) But if the patterns are the same, it’s also emphatically a story about paper: magazines, letters, fan publications. As Moskowitz writes:
The early fan publications were not only the pride but the very foundation of the field…History is a systematic record of man’s progress, and we turn to their magazines to discern the story of science fiction fans’ progress—and progress it was.
And it’s a kind of progress, with frequent moments of regression and implosion, that will immediately ring a bell for anyone with experience of online communities. Science fiction fandom began in the letters columns of pulp magazines like Amazing and Astounding, which provided a forum in which fans could communicate and learn one another’s names and addresses. This wasn’t what the editors had in mind, but much like later platforms like Twitter or Reddit, the user base quickly appropriated the available infrastructure for ends that their creators never intended. (Among the fans who met through through a shared love of Amazing were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who went on to create Superman.) The letters pages led to private correspondence between fans, followed by meetings in person, at least in cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and above all New York—where the population density was great enough to allow a critical mass of enthusiasts to congregate. The fans in question were almost invariably white males: then as now, communities tend to attract new members who look pretty much like the ones who are already there, although there were a few striking exceptions. Most were teenagers, the equivalent of the youthful early adopters who have driven nearly every successful form of social media. They also took advantage of new technology, notably the mimeograph and the hectograph, to print fanzines and newsletters. Some of the organizations were “sponsored,” after they had already come into existence, by magazines like Wonder Stories, which devoted a few column inches to promoting favored groups like the Science Fiction League. This led, in turn, to accusations that such clubs had sold out, and that the real fans were the ones who were opposed to the establishment. Sound familiar?
The resulting clubs and fanzines were shaped by the many of the same forces that we see online today. Fan magazines began as a place to discuss science fiction, but they quickly became a closed world of their own, with running jokes, insider references, and memes that had the effect of excluding outsiders. An ongoing fake controversy about the use of wire staples by the pulps, for instance, spiraled into a war of letters between groups like the Society for Prevention of Wire Staples in Scientifiction Magazines, or SPWSSTFM, which feels a lot like the labored gags we find today on Reddit. And like any close community of fans—for much of the thirties, there were fewer than fifty active members—it was dominated by a handful of strong personalities, many of whom came to prominence by their frequent appearance in the letters columns, which was the equivalent of being upvoted. Donald A. Wollheim, for example, became a major force in later years as a writer and editor, but in his twenties, he was basically the first known troll. He alienated just about every other fan at one point or another, and his favorite trick was to find a vulnerable club, take it over, and dissolve it. (In response to one controversy, fans passed around what Moskowitz demurely describes as “numerous unsigned drawings [of Wollheim], some of which were quite pornographic.”) And many supposedly ideological conflicts, like the feud between New Fandom and the Futurians, were really about clashes of personality. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about one dispute, which culminated in a confrontation at the First World Science Fiction Convention, and the light that it casts on issues that we’re still seeing today.