Cheryl, Meet Occam’s Razor

Like many fans, Gary Farber wants to know what stuff on the internet has been made eligible for the Best Fanzine Hugo now that the “Making the Web Eligible” rules changes have been ratified by the 2009 Business Meeting. Which is correct, my take in “The Future of the Best Fanzine Hugo” or something Cheryl Morgan wrote in reply to a comment Gary wrote on her blog?

As Gary commented on a post of mine:

You and Cheryl Morgan seem to be contradicting each other; she wrote in her comment #7 here that “To qualify as a fanzine the site still have to be non-profit and (at least currently) to have recognizable issues.”

Which would exclude blogs. So which is it? Are blogs eligible as Fanzines, or not? (I’m fine, I think, with them not, as that seems reasonable, what with them not being made of discrete issues, and the writers still being eligible, obviously, for Best Fan Writer; I’d just like a clarification of the facts here, please.)

The answer really depends on what next year’s Hugo Administrator does if a blog or website finishes among the top five Best Fanzine nominees. And that in itself demonstrates how defective the new rule is: on its face, a dramatic change has been made yet no one can say with authority what kinds of things are allowable as nominees in the Best Fanzine category on next year’s Hugo ballot. Including Cheryl Morgan, whose comment I’ll discuss at the end.

What’s comparatively easy to show is what the movers of the rules change intend to have happen: for certain blogs and websites to become eligible in the Best Fanzine category.   

The long-established Best Fanzine rule requires four cumulative issues, one in the eligibility year. But it doesn’t define “issue.” Doubtless most fans interpret “issue” to mean a discrete, separable publication. There isn’t any restriction on media, either — the old audio cassettes of Uncle Albert’s Electric Talking Fanzine were issues. It’s evident that the rules change hasn’t been made to address “other media” but to create an equivalency for a class of things not produced in issue form with those that are.

Obviously blogs and websites are not fanzines in the taxonomy of fanac, nor are they done in issue format in the manner of paper, PDF or audio cassette magazines.

The rules change actually erases the current functional definition of the category. – fanac done in issue format – and makes any non-professional etc. etc. publication that has added material four times in its existence, once during the eligibility year, eligible to be nominated for Best Fanzine. (“Publication,” of course, merely means “distributing copies of a work to the public.”) A static website would fail the multi-issue requirement. A blog with too few posts would fail it. That leaves plenty of others that will qualify.  

And that’s the meaning of the change addressed in the 2008 Business Meeting minutes. They report the Chair offering interpretive comments while discussing the interaction of two proposed rules changes, “One Fewer Award,” the motion to delete the Best Semiprozine Hugo, and “Making the Web Eligible”:

Chair: “One Fewer Award” would override “Making the Web Eligible” with regard to the deletion of the semiprozine Hugo category.
Ben Yalow (F): We’ve decided work is work, whatever the medium. This is just amending the categories to make it clear content is key, not the medium.
Warren Buff (PoI): Would blogs could go in 3.3.5 [Best Related Work, as amended] or best fanzine.
Chair: That’s down to the administrator.

Plainly, neither the makers of the motion nor the Chair answered Warren Buff’s point of information by saying “blogs are ineligible,” they answered that it would be the Hugo Administrator’s call what category they went into (because of the complex interaction of the new category definitions.)

Also, Warren Buff wrote online in July, “given that the Business Meeting resoundingly responded that blogs belong in the fanzine category when I asked about those last year…” — verifying the consequence intended by those changing the rules.

So that’s that. There’s always a chance the Smof Uncertainty Principle may come into play, stalling a foreordained result because somebody forces a public discussion about its merits. But there is no doubt about what was attempted – and as far as I can predict, will happen.

It is unfortunate that the “Making the Web Eligible” rules changes didn’t modify the definition of “issue.” We’re deprived of an authoritative measure of “the equivalent in other media.” But I know that the numbered series of text-filled postcards titled Nine Inch Nails were universally accepted as issues of a fanzine though they contained only a couple hundred words apiece. Wouldn’t a series of separately-dated blog posts be equivalent to issues of Nine Inch Nails? The wording of the rules, the report of the 2008 Business Meeting and subsequent online discussion by people who were there show that non-professional blogs and websites that have been updated sufficiently often will be eligible in the Best Fanzine category.

I believe the general object of the change is entirely reasonable and appropriate, and could have been done well. Since the days when Bill Bowers’ Fan Basic 101 “aimed at providing a concise entry point for fannish fans newly on line,” practically ever faneditor with a sniff at a Hugo nomination believes he needs to have an online presence. Only one perennial contender, Banana Wings, has no online counterpart. I had a website for years and started this blog in 2008. Nearly all of the nominees have a website or blog in addition to a paperzine and believe they could not get on the ballot otherwise. Let’s not pretend this isn’t happening.

Everyone also is aware of the trend for long-time fanzine editors to produce only PDF editions of their zines. The Hugo rules have always been interpreted to accept the eligibility of fanzines distributed solely online, for example at eFanzines.com. Therefore it is apparent that the latest rules change is aimed at admitting online work not done in the form of issues, such as blogs, or websites that change their content sufficiently often to qualify. I’d rather that were done in a way that keeps fanac as the focus of the category.

In that context, let’s turn to the answer Cheryl Morgan gave to Gary:

And note that we are not lumping all web sites into Fanzine. To qualify as a fanzine the site still have [sic] to be non-profit and (at least currently) to have recognizable issues.

What is at the bottom of these vague statements?

If not all web sites will be “lumped into Fanzine,” the reciprocal remains true, that some web sites will be eligible in the Best Fanzine category, yes?

However, it is absolutely untrue that the rules make “non-profit” status a condition of eligibility for the Best Fanzine Hugo. As most Worldcon runners know (and ‘til now, I’d have numbered Cheryl among them), a “non-profit” is a government-authorized entity, usually a corporation, organized as a step in applying for an income tax exemption (state or federal).

Sometimes people with a weakness for high-flown language say “non-profit” when all they mean is “doesn’t make money.” If that’s what Cheryl means, well, losing money also has never been a condition of eligibility for Best Fanzine and hasn’t been made one by the “Making the Web Eligible” amendments we’re discussing. The only measures of this type are in the definition of Best Semiprozine, which as I discussed the other day are useless for getting a handle on something like Locus Online.

Or maybe Cheryl simply lost track of what is meant by “non-professional,” which is one of the requirements of a Best Fanzine nominee. That would be an easy mistake to make. The Hugo rules no longer define “professional,” so you can hardly rely on them for any help in defining “non-professional.” Yes, there is a real-world distinction between the two classes, but a Hugo Administrator has been given nothing to point to when assailed by irate nominees he or she disqualifies.

Finally, her assurance that eligible nominees must “have recognizable issues” is the part that most begs the question. There is no definition of “issue” in the rules, so what would it mean to require that the issue be “recognizable”? How can the movers of something called “Making the Web Eligible” have intended to allow only things that look like paper magazines into contention as fanzines? For then, they need not have bothered to change the rules at all. And that’s where Cheryl runs afoul of Occam’s Razor.

The only thing that is absolutely certain about next year’s ballot is that semiprozines like Locus, NYRSF and Interzone still will be ineligible to be nominated for Best Fanzine.

Update 08/09/2009: Reworded explanation of “non-profit” in response to a correction from John Lorentz.

1 thought on “Cheryl, Meet Occam’s Razor

  1. “The only thing that is absolutely certain about next year’s ballot is that semiprozines like Locus, NYRSF and Interzone still will be ineligible to be nominated for Best Fanzine.”

    Those three maybe. On the other hand, the winner this year in the Fanzine category was a Semiprozine, so nothing is really certain.

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