Interview with Great Steampunk Debate Moderators – Part 3

Welcome back for the conclusion of this interview with moderators from the Great Steampunk Debate – Amanda Stock, John Sondericker III, and Tome Wilson.

Part 1 can be read here.

Part 2 can be read here.

AA: Welcome back everyone. Continuing our discussion about the Great Steampunk Debate, there were several contentious and very heated discussions once the debate started. One thread was temporarily locked, another was deleted and restarted. What happened behind the scenes in moderator discussions about how to handle those types of situations?

AS: There were threads dedicated to each one of these issues for discussion of how to deal with it. Temporary thread locking was used to prevent things spiraling out of control before we could come to an agreement on how to handle the situation. All possible courses of action were discussed and the best one was chosen as soon as possible in order to help keep things on track.

JS: I missed this. I think I was traveling.

TW: Behind the scenes, we really wanted to let everyone to voice their opinion, regardless of viewpoint.  This was made very clear.  No matter how negative the opinion, it was still protected.

However, halfway through the event, we noticed a trend.  A handful of very vocal participants were consistently using personal attacks to make their arguments, and were creating an uncomfortable environment for the other participants.  While their viewpoints were as valid as any other, their debate styles lead to moderation of their threads and eventually of their accounts.

Like any organized event, there are usually a few rotten apples who would rather stay and spoil the bunch than leave in peace.  So, after multiple warnings and a ton of behind the scenes discussions by the mods, those accounts were disciplined by being temporarily suspended.

AA: There were several postings in GSD and elsewhere that a handful of participants were intense enough in their postings so as to dissuade many others from participating and posting their own thoughts. At least one of them commented a few times that he was prohibited from replying, commenting, or responding. Was this situation discussed beforehand as a possibility, especially by those who operate their own forums?

AS: It was discussed very briefly before the debate, and especially once some familiar names of people known to have caused trouble on forums in the past had registered. We didn’t want to stop anyone from sharing their opinions outright, so everyone was allowed to register and join the debate, but there was a warning system in place to deal with anyone who repeatedly caused problems.

JS: I expected this.

TW: While the existence of internet trolls is an unfortunate truth, we truly wanted the Debate to be as open as possible.  However, when some of the debates turned into personal attacks, we needed to get the debate back on the rails in the best way possible.

AA: Was it a surprise in an online forum for some people to be aggressive, vociferous, even relentless, in their mode of expressing their opinions?

AS: It wasn’t really surprising. Thankfully this seems to be less common in the steampunk community than some other places online, though.

JS: Not at all.

TW: In general, the members of Dieselpunks and most other retrofuturist sites I frequent are extremely genial and friendly, regardless of personality or differenced opinion, so it was a minor surprise that this kind of childish activity would pop up on a similar website.  As a matter of fact, the only person that I’ve had to ban from Dieselpunks since we started the website was a member of the same group who was temporarily banned from The Great Steampunk Debate.

AA: In retrospect, some people seemed to be anti-steampunk, felt that what steampunk is today isn’t the way they want it to be, or defined steampunk in an unusual way. Valid or invalid, honestly questioning or intentionally provocative, what value do you think those critiques presented to other participants?

AS: Those critiques were of value, no matter how inflammatory they sometimes were. They often showed how steampunk had grown and changed over the years, and helped members new to the community see what sort of divisions were present within it.

JS: There is a lot of this out there. Steampunk has been around for a while and some people are pretty tired of it. Look at the comments on most any boingboing.net post for steampunk and you’ll see a string of complaints of the coverage Cory [Doctorow] gives steampunk, and you’ll see a fair number of people just saying, “Steampunk is gay.”

TW: I think it brought a sense of history to those unfamiliar with the genre previous to its current incarnation as an arts & crafts movement.  However, when presented with an orthodox viewpoint, most members of the Debate expressed that they enjoyed the personal freedom and artistic flexibility of the genre, which heated some topics to the point of flame wars.

AA: Heated rhetoric aside, there were several other (calmer) threads discussing things like manners, role play, music, and literature. Do you think these topics had easier agreement, or people had less strong opinions to voice, or something else?

AS: Well, those topics are by nature less personal. Things like politics and social theory have important ramifications for members of different groups and can be intensely important to many people. On the other hand, everyone has different music taste, but that’s fine because we don’t all have to agree to listen to the same thing.

JS: Those topics allow people to talk about what they like, rather than state their opinions, so it was automatically easier to agree on the content.

TW: The Debate in general became a sharing ground for ideas rather than a “you must feel this way or that way, because of XYZ reason.”  While this helped us gather an opinion about the current state of steampunk, not many black-and-white questions were hotly debated.  Rather, many people stepped in and said, “it’s okay to live in a world where grey exists.”

AA: What are your thoughts in review about the event, the process, the discussions, and any outcomes?

AS: I’d have to thank the rest of the team, especially Nick and Allegra for their dedication to the event and their vision of what it could be. The process of organizing it was so smooth with them at the helm.

I wish we could have had the actual debate run a little smoother but I think that overall it was a reasonably successful venture. It did what it set out to do; it brought members from across the online steampunk community together and gave them a structured place to discuss steampunk ideology and culture.

JS: Thanks Nick & Allegra. The whole thing was obviously a lot of work and I half suspected that it would lead to unmanageable flame-wars. Nice job.

TW: At the end, I’m disappointed that people weren’t as active, primarily because a few vocal members, while still working within the framework of our rules (by the letter if not by the spirit), made it uncomfortable to participate.  Next year, we’ll have those issues ironed out and we’ll have the experience needed to anticipate the things that could be problems.

As for the process of the debate, its outline, and the organization needed to set it up, I’m very happy how that went.  Plus, I have to give Nick and Allegra extra kudos for handling the website setup and programming.

AA: Was it worthwhile for you, or not, and why?

AS: The debate was certainly a worthwhile experience, for the chance to better connect with members of the steampunk community I was not previously well acquainted with as well as the chance to discuss the finer points of steampunk ideology. It certainly helped me to solidify my positions on a lot of the issues debated and really made me think about the serious side of steampunk.

JS: It was worthwhile because I got to hear from a nice cross-section of the community. That hadn’t really ever been done before.

TW: I helped because I wanted to.  There was no reward other than knowledge.

AA: For each of you, what comes next? Any changes in what you are doing in your blogs, ezines and forums?

AS: I am continuing to run the Toronto Steampunk Society, planning more events and trying to promote steampunk within my city. Apart from that, I am trying to write more about steampunk in both the Gatehouse Gazette as well as the newly established publication from Steampunk Canada, The Dominion Dispatch.

JS: Steampunk Tales is charging along. Issue 8 should be out mid August and we have great things planned for the future!

TW: Not really.  The Great Steampunk Debate didn’t settle any pressing issues that are going to change the world.  Instead, we built a place where a community can express their views and hopefully gain an appreciation for other viewpoints within the genre.  For me, I’ve always been pretty open.  I don’t own the genre, no one does, and therefore I don’t take a hard line stance about what it should or shouldn’t be.

I believe it had underground roots, a solid trunk of work, and is now growing distinct branches.  As it continues to grow, it will drop seeds, and something new will grow.  It won’t replace the original, it will just be different.  What that will be is up to the next generation.

AA: Will there be a GSD 2011, and would you reprise your role, or is it too early to tell?

AS: The debate was originally planned to be a one-time event, although it would be interesting to see this repeated with the knowledge we have now about how to keep things running smoothly. Tracking the change of opinions over the years would certainly be of value. If another debate were held, I would definitely be willing to moderate it again so long as it still seemed like a group of people I could work with running things and keeping a similar goal in mind.

TW: As far as I know, we’re opening the site up again next year.  I think it would be helpful, because as steampunk continues to grow, it’s helpful to know what the new generation is doing to change it.  Barring any complications, I would be glad to help again as a moderator.

AA: If there is a GSD 2011, what would you like to see people (participants) do in the next year beforehand as preparation?

AS: Stay active in the steampunk community and keep thinking about the sort of topics that were covered by the debate. Also, come up with new topics they’d like to see discussed.

Oh, and I’d like to see everyone educate themselves on feminist theory and gender studies a little more before participating in the “Gender and Steampunk” debate 🙂

JS: Can I say “learn how to spell” and get away with it? Seriously, I don’t think anyone would need to prepare.

TW: I think that it’s important to know your history and to research a topic before starting a debate with someone else.  While steampunk is a freeform and individualist genre, it does have a history prior to 2005 that people should be aware of.

This would lead to less “I think it is, therefore that’s what it must be” answers that, in-turn, piss off the orthodoxs.

AA: Any final thoughts to share?

AS: Steampunk is all about the spirit of discovery, so go out and explore it!

JS: Any social movement is hard to define because it is an amalgam of so many different perspectives from so many different people. The diversity of the steampunk demographic greatly exceeds so many other social movements. Young, old, maker, costumer, fiction enthusiast, modder… we cast a very wide net and one of our strengths is in how many things people consider steampunk, not how similar our visions are.

TW: If you’re going to dance in church, make sure you know what type of church it is first.

Thank you again, everyone, for your time and efforts for the Great Steampunk Debate and for this interview! We look forward to your continued work with the Toronto Steampunk Society, Steampunk Tales Magazine, Dieselpunks, and hopefully, the Great Steampunk Debate 2011!

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Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 7:46 am  Comments (2)  
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Facets of the Steampunk Community

The steampunk community is wide and varied, with participants from every walk of life, every corner of the globe, and every level of interest, exposure and experience.

Within our community there are a handful of areas of interest and entry points whereby a person discovers steampunk and finds their interests fulfilled. As I’ve met more people, read more articles, blogs, and forums, and generally became more involved over the years, I feel that there are four (very) general categories which describe how people express their interests in steampunk.

  • Narrative – literature, movies, fanzines, blogs
  • Cosplay – fashions, seamstresses and tailors
  • Makers – artists, musicians, builders
  • Ideology – politics, lifestyle

First, I admit that these are very general terms which encompass more granular detail, and that they really function as a simplistic label in communication to give people a common ground within which to work.

Second, each describes an area of interest in steampunk, not a person. A person might have an interest in only one area, or perhaps in all, and that person would still self-identify as a steampunk.

Which leads to a thought about the use of the word ‘steampunk’. As a single word, I have seen it used with multiple meanings and forms. It can be a noun, adjective and a verb.

  • I am a steampunk. (As in “I am a fan of ‘X’ ” Whovian, Trekker, Lostie, etc)
  • The steampunk aesthetic.
  • One might steampunk their computer.

Of course, the appropriateness and accuracy of such usage is open for a completely different discussion.

The Great Steampunk Debate site has had a number of interesting discussions since the forum opened on May 1, 2010. Topics range from reading lists to cosplay to politics and everything in between. Relating to this blog topic, there is one post by Jack Horner describing his impression of the various facets of the community and the details of each as he sees them.

When I first thought about the facets of the community, the mental image I had was of Steampunk City, where each type on interest was a neighborhood, all centering around a common park in the center. OK, yeah, I’m weird that way.

My initial official point of entry to steampunk was through the original gateway which started everything – narratives. For me, it was the 1990 release of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I was fresh off reading Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and kept thinking “How cool would it be to have these cyberpunk stories set in the world of my favorite book ever, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?” And as fortune would have it, there it was.

K.W.Jeter’s term for such a story was already three years old by then, but even with my first computer, I still had to dig long and extensively to find other stories to read and other references for information. These days with the Googleization of all online data, there are a gazillion results to peruse for ‘steampunk’. Since my initial introduction two decades ago, there have been more books, movies, fanzines, comics, blogs, and in the last few years, mainstream media articles.

Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, listed his top ten definitive steampunk books on this Debate site post.

  1. The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James Blaylock
  2. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1 – Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
  3. Steampunk (anthology) – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
  4. Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon
  5. The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
  6. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  7. The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
  8. The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
  9. Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Stirling
  10. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola (because it makes a great way to compare the original and the steampunked version!)

There are threads on Brass Goggles listing people’s steampunk movie lists.

Such a list would include, among others:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  • Captain Nemo and the Underwater City
  • Steamboy
  • The Time Machine

With more local meet-ups and conventions happening each year, more and more people are entering the community via the cosplay and fashion expression of steampunk. Within this group, there are seamstresses and tailors, custom made outfits and off the shelf wear, and people who just dress up to look good along with those who come complete with a character and back story.

People indulge their fashion interests for a wide variety of reasons, all very personal. For some, it’s their way of expressing their interest in steampunk, just like an author writes a story. For another group, it’s coming to the party in great looking outfit. For others, it’s about acting, becoming a character, a chance to step outside their own daily lives and be someone different.

My experiences with people who dress have always been positive. People’s creativity is amazing, how a common theme or archetype can be expressed in so many different and spectacular ways. Some people can pull together approval-winning outfits from pieces already in the closet. Some of us have no fashion sense beyond t-shirts and jeans but with a little inspiration from others can create a fun outfit, too.

However, other people have expressed negative experiences with cosplay and its participants. Some people’s ‘acting’ isn’t seen as a character performance but as real personal interaction, which has led to misunderstandings, and perceptions of all sorts of negative, offensive, and demeaning ‘–isms’. Also, there are people who find various outfits themselves intrinsically offensive as seen through a lens of stereotyping, and that an outfit means that the person wearing it completely supports and endorses the behavior of that given role in the nineteenth century – people who wear aristocratic dress are elitists seeking to control others, those in military uniforms believe in warfare and subjugation, those in street urchin/ruffian attire are engaged in unethical behaviors…

While people are people, with all the good or bad characteristics that may be accurately applied to them, steampunk cosplay and dress per se are not strict Victorian recreations, nor are steampunk attitudes and beliefs completely Victorian in substance. A steampunk wears their outfit of choice for their own reasons which usually have more to do with resources, abilities, and a desire to look good than to advance any display of or support for outdated, non-inclusive sociological or cultural views. If a person is inherently a jerk, they will still be a jerk if they wear a steampunk outfit or not.

In the last few years, online images of the steampunk technological design aesthetic have been another way for people to first experience steampunk. Artists and builders have created images, props and technology which entice the curiosity and imagination. The recently concluded Museum of Oxford Steampunk Art Exhibition drew crowds to see objects from the future that never was. Conventions this last year were also venues to display this form of creativity, such as Tom Sepe’s motorcycle at Nova Albion.

There’s always a discussion somewhere about how this design aesthetic started, how important it is and where it’s headed. Check out the Great Steampunk Debate site, and the forums on Brass Goggles, and Steampunk Empire, among others.

More recently, there’s a growing group of people who see or promote an action oriented, or political, agenda within the steampunk community. This ideology is as varied and wide ranging as the people in the community. Some follow the philosophy of reuse and recycle in every aspect of their daily life. Others encourage more self-reliance, personal accountability, and self determination over government assistance programs and perceived forms of interference. There are philosophies to buy locally, avoid excessive consumption, and resist crass commercialization; engage in conservation and cooperation.

Are these ideas, values and actions necessarily part of the evolving steampunk community, or should they reside as a choice of the individual? Is a political agenda the expected result of how a person adopts those Victorian, neo-Victorian, and steampunk attitudes and philosophies into their daily lives? Is it important that the community have any stated or defined political agenda or actions? Or is it sufficient that members will find others of a similar temperament to talk with about issues of the day? Is it even possible to have one set of political ideas that the whole community could agree upon?

There’s also a small group of people who say they live a steampunk lifestyle. I don’t see it, personally, but that’s how they describe how they live their own lives. There are a few threads on the Great Steampunk Debate site which discuss this and how one considers their life to be steampunk in nature. I also came across this post from 2008 where many of the comments relate to a lifestyle, or not. This other post had several good ideas and was more convincing that other postings which seem to indicate that wearing Victorian clothes, having antiques in the house and using a straight razor constituted a lifestyle instead of being a decorative veneer or affectation.

The steampunk community has grown and changed over the years in some significant ways, not always to everyone’s satisfaction, and chances are that it will continue to evolve. Whatever one’s initial entry point and interests are, there are other facets of the community to explore.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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