FIAWOL’s in charge

Science fiction fandom has a couple of useful acronyms: FIAWOL (fandom is a way of life) and FIJAGH (fandom is just a goddamned hobby). They’re applicable beyond fandom, and in fact are relevant to most hobbies, especially those engrossing enough to become subcultures.

I’m firmly in the FIJAGH camp, simply because I have too many interests to obsess over just one. I cannot live and breathe reptiles, for example, because I’d then have to give up my other interests. The end result is that I’m not as far into that hobby — or my other hobbies — as I might otherwise be. I simply don’t have the time.

But many hobbyists are a good deal more single-minded: they make the time. These people are usually the most visible and the most vocal participants in their subculture. They’re the ones that keep clubs going, who donate their time unflinchingly, and who live and breathe their hobby. That’s FIAWOL.

That level of commitment means that there is no time for a life outside the hobby. Not that it’s something they’d miss. Take, for example, the case of one acquaintance of mine in the reptile hobby, who once said that he generally didn’t like people unless they were other herpers. I don’t think he has a single friend who doesn’t have something to do with reptiles. (Which is not the same thing as saying that he gets along with every reptile keeper, because he doesn’t — just that it appears to be a prerequisite.)

This is why, I think, some people persist in posting off-topic messages on mailing lists. Someone for whom it’s just a goddamned hobby would post it elsewhere, on the relevant board, but someone for whom it’s a way of life would not be signed up on that other board — indeed, its existence would not even occur to them. Their fellow hobbyists are the whole of their experience, and the only people with whom this stuff would be worth sharing.

I’ve also observed that people who live and breathe their hobbies tend not to have much else. The president of a large club might work a fairly blue- or pink-collar job, or not have much in the way of education, for example. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but I am curious as to how it happens. Is this a way for working-class folks to have a life beyond a middling job, or did they make sacrifices on the career side — no time or money to go back to school, for example — to focus all their attention on their hobby?

Either way, there are implications for how hobbyist clubs are run, because these people are the ones who run them. Hobbyists with useful skills and knowledge tend not to be the ones who volunteer, because they’re busy with other things — often the things that got them said skills and knowledge — and can’t commit so much time to one thing. So what you get is rule by the most obsessed — rule by FIAWOL — not the most qualified. Well, someone has to do it, and the rest of us were busy.

But the people who are the most dedicated frequently lack the skills they need to run an association: people management skills, event planning, public relations, web design, even basic grammar and spelling for the newsletter. I’ve seen groups not do things that they should, or even that are legally required — for example, sending a copy of their newsletters to the National Library for legal deposit — simply because the people in charge couldn’t wrap their heads around it. I’ve seen volunteers make simple tasks extremely convoluted and difficult because it was the only way they knew how to do it.

They know their hobby — indeed, when it comes to their subject matter, their knowledge is both encyclopedic and frightening — but they’re not polymaths. It’s like getting professors to serve in university administration: while self-governance is an important principle, they were never selected for their administrative skills. In fact, now that I think about it, just about every self-governing organization is susceptible to this problem.

It can make for an unhealthy environment where dedicated volunteers who are over their heads get all kinds of grief for their inadequate efforts. It can also make for a club that never reaches its full potential because those in charge can’t see it. Or a club that falls apart.

It’s unfortunate, and it’s nobody’s fault, but I’ve seen it often enough, in enough different clubs for enough different hobbies, that I think it might well be an inevitability.