August 3, 2013

The populist gun show and the servile nerd convention

I've been visiting the central Texas area and recently helped my brother out at the Austin Gun Show. (He's stationed here in the Army, not a local hipster.)

The gun show seems to be the only other major themed convention these days aside from the sci-fi / video game convention. (Not counting corporate-audience conventions, but only pop culture ones.) I went to two nerd conventions in the '90s when they were just getting started, but I have a pretty good idea of what the newer ones are like too, both from osmosis and from poking around just now to find out how much tickets and tables cost (both way more expensive for the fan con).

We can learn a lot about the state of our culture by contrasting the two types of gatherings, mostly reflecting a populist vs. elitist orientation.

Celebrity worship. At the gun show, there were no panels of speakers, autograph booths, "have your picture taken with So-and-So" booths, and so on, that cater to fan-boys. Those are common at sci-fi / video game conventions, which are attended more by fans and followers than by hobbyists and participants.

Infrequency. A given nerd convention is usually only held once a year, while a given gun show may meet up four times a year. Looking at all the different locations where they're held, this gives the attendants of a fan convention only a handful to attend, usually crammed together, like rare vacations. It's the one or two times per year that they're willing to leave their home, join a crowd, and pretend to be social. With all the locations for gun shows, each meeting several times a year, there's one every month that you could go to. It's a more regular meet-up, like church or college football. All else equal, greater frequency of interaction bonds the attendees closer together -- more in the abstract, feeling like they belong to the community of "people who go to gun shows," and not necessarily recognizing individuals from previous shows.

Spectacle / Intensity. This somewhat includes the topic of celeb obsession, and the related topic of dressing up in costumes, which you don't see at gun shows but are common at fan cons. The booths at nerd conventions have a lot more bling and wow-factor thingies going on, rooms full of arcade video games to play for free, karaoke, live music, parties, and so on. Since fan cons are less frequent, they must make up for that by being more intense, in order to glue the members together. Still, they appear to meet too infrequently for the greater intensity to produce the same effect as the gun show phenomenon.

Social awkwardness. While fans may not be openly hostile toward each other at nerd conventions, they certainly are awkward and uneasy interacting with each other, giving lie to the idea that they're stepping out of themselves and taking part in a Mardi Gras kind of atmosphere. * By contrast, at the gun show folks show much more camaraderie toward one another, and not only for fear of disrespecting a man with good aim. There's more openness, joke-telling, and good cheer in general. So, the product of frequency times intensity per event must be greater for the gun show than the fan con.

Demographic insularity. Nerd conventions, whether based on pop culture or the greater Nerd Way of Life (atheist conventions, etc.), constantly wring their hands about their sub-sub-sub-culture being too male, too young(ish), too white, too suburban, too middle-class, too a-religious or anti-religious, and too-whatever-else. At the gun show, you see a more representative mix of races (like Spanish-speaking Amerindians with cowboy hats), guys and girls (generally being dragged along by their boyfriend or husband, but showing a good attitude about it), and elementary school-aged children up through the grandfatherly age groups, city-slickers and suburbanites and middle-of-nowhere-livers. My impression is that females felt less creeped out by their fellow male attendees at the gun show, compared to their greater state of alertness at a fan con. Probably from both sides, the females being more anti-social and paranoid there, and the males being more desperate and awkward.

Most noticeably of all is the range in social class -- you see never-married, burn-out / drop-out types who haven't been to church since the 3rd grade, and whose philosophy (and praxis) of the good life is fast cars and loose women, right alongside the God-fearing nuclear family who stay out of trouble and are net wealth-producers for society. One smokes, sports tattoos, and shows up in Black Sabbath t-shirts, while the other abstains, maintains neat personal hygiene, and wears khaki shorts or pants with a polo shirt. Unlike the typical nerd at a fan con, though, both tend to keep their hair into adulthood, and are less obese than the American average.

There are probably other differences to cover, but those are the main ones that stick out. Feel free to ask in the comments about something major you think I didn't cover.

As a final historical note, it's worth pointing out that the gun show is more a product of the rising-crime / outgoing era of the 1960s through the 1980s. "Gun show" first regularly appears in the New York Times during the early '60s, and the original bigass gun show, the Fort Worth Gun Show, began in the early '70s. They have continued strong into the '90s and 21st century, probably with some major changes reflecting the falling trust and rising paranoia of the times, but still recognizably from a more populist and outgoing era like the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

The major Comic-Cons, however, are a product of the past 20 years. There were comic book conventions before then, but they were like the gun shows, only for comic books. My dad sold comic books as a side venture in the early '90s during an industry bubble, and I helped him out at many conventions. They never had speakers, panels, autographs, etc., and nobody dressed up in costumes, held a nerd-themed party, etc. It was just a bunch of tables staffed by comic book vendors, with comic book readers (and speculators) milling around to look for rare finds and good deals. The fan pilgrimage is a product of the cocooning Millennial era.

* No carnivalesque event is as hierarchical and celebrity-worshiping as a fan con -- at Mardi Gras, nobody is following anybody else, or otherwise mindful of leaders and idols. It's closer to decentralized mob rule.


  1. Booth babes, "paying to flirt" - you covered those topics in your Hooters post.

    Also, gun shows would be more outgoing simply because the clientele are Boomers and Gen-Xers. Millenials never got into guns, just as they never got into cars.


  2. Gun shows def. seems rising-crime. Don't ask me why, but it reminds me of a book I read about Big Foot.

    Interest in Big Foot totally exploded in the late 50s, and was mostly conservative, rural white working-class men living in rural Oregon. The movement seemed pro-social, since everybody wanted to share info and experiences with each other in an effort to catch Big Foot, and they were pretty serious about it.


  3. "with comic book readers (and speculators) milling around to look for rare finds and good deals."

    What ever happened to the old used comic book store? Or the old used book store, for that matter?

    There used to be a great used comic store when I was a kid, with books in the back. I practically learned to read buying stuff there. It disappeared in 1993-1994


  4. Celebrity worship. At the gun show, there were no panels of speakers, autograph booths, "have your picture taken with So-and-So" booths, and so on, that cater to fan-boys.

    Possibly betraying my ignorance here, but if gun shows did have these, who would they have? Lead engineer on such and such gun? Corporate executives from gun companies? Particularly talented shootists or catalogers?

    Gun fans might be person oriented in general, but the gun hobby isn't really oriented towards the individuals who make or use the guns in the way that any media product seems necessarily to be, but "thing oriented" towards the guns.

  5. I had the impression that fandom conventions had become increasingly female-heavy, hence the dress-up and celebrity obsession. Of course, I haven't actually attended any. I would be quite surprised if gun-shows had a lower percentage of males. If we don't count asians as white, I would also expect fan conventions to be less white.

  6. Whenever I think of a comic-book convention, I think of the movie "Chasing Amy". I rewatched that movie about three times two years back, and man is it such a better movie than most of the drivel I see in theaters nowadays.

    My dad brought me to "hunting" conventions when I was a kid. I loved them! I could check out the guns, shoot a bow-and-arrow, fish in a pond they set up indoors, check out fishing lures, etc. I would definitely take my kids to a hunting/gun convention, but no way in hell to Comic Con.

    I've never gone to Comic Con, but I presume your analysis is spot on: ueber geeks coming out of their basements/hovels to dress up in CosPlay and orgasm when some dumb character gets on stage and acts. Naturally top comments in Reddit are often about Comic Con.

  7. eh. I think the gun show guys are dorks too.


  8. I think you are too hard on nerds these days.


  9. Fishing and Boat shows are the best. I have guns, but gun shows feature quite a few nuts you just as soon keep at the Planter's factory.

  10. The things you say about "nerds" are generally true, but the harsh tone may scare away or offend those who would otherwise accept the messages of your blog, and try
    to earnestly improve their lives.

    I don't think boat shows would necessarily be prosocial, as they'd attract many rich pricks. Buying a boat doesn't creat a sense of solidarity or trust between people.

    fishing, on the other hand, seems like it would be, though; the effort it takes to learn to fish and do it regularly creates trust and a common bond.



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