DonAithnen (donaithnen) wrote,

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Yet Another Hugos Post

I'm a bit late to the "party, but i figured i might as well throw my 2 cent hat into the ring. Just over a week ago the nominees for the 2015 Hugo awards were announced, and things have kind of gone to hell in a handbasket.

--------------------- Background Details ---------------------

It seems that two years ago a group of people, who i shall refer to as the Disgruntled Canines, took it upon themselves to "reform" the Hugos and put together a "slate" for the nominations. i.e. a specific list of nominees that everyone who agreed with their viewpoints could vote in. This is generally referred to as "ballot stuffing", and although it is not actually against the rules it is generally frowned upon.

To be sure, listing your own works that are eligible is generally considered fairplay, particularly if you restrict yourself to a single post without "excessive" promotion. It's also considered fair (at least by most people i know) to provide a space for other people to announce eligible works. What's considered a bit uncouth is to create a specific voting list (these give works for catgory X, these five people for category Y, etc) and then tell everyone else that they should vote for it too.

If the "Disgruntled Canine" slate had any effect two years ago i didn't hear about it at the time. (Only in the past few days did i find out that it actually existed at that time.) But last year they publicized a bit better and they got several people on the ballot for the finals. This caused a great deal of consternation in the community and discussion about how to deal with it. When the final votes were counted i don't believe any of the works that were on the slate won in any categories, and a number of them ended up coming in behind "No Award". So crisis averted?

Well the Disgruntled Canines were apparently quite happy with the consternation they caused and decided to up their game. This year they picked more people for their slate, got even more publicity, and outside of "Best Novel", "Best Graphic Story" and "Best Dramatic Presentation" (Long and Short) the nominees were mostly dominated by the "Disgruntled Canine" slate.

Needless to say there was even more consternation when those results were announced and there is much discussion about what should be done about it. The immediate suggestion proposed by a lot of people is to just vote "No Award" for vast swathes of the Hugos this year. There are problems with that response that i'm not going to delve into here, but there's also concern about how to deal with the issue in the long term. There have been a lot of people saying the system needs to be changed, and some people claiming that the committees in charge of the Hugos are already working on changes behind the scenes.

I'm having a hard time coming up with a great way to change the system to prevent this kind of thing from happening where the cure isn't worse than the disease. I don't think making the voting more restrictive would really help, and i don't think requiring people to have some kind of credentials or pass some kind of test would be a good idea. (We already have awards like that, one of which is called the Nebulas.)

So here's the ideas i have that definitely won't solve the problem, but i think would ameliorate it somewhat. I shall list them in what i expect will be from least controversial to most controversial order.

1: Allow people to nominate more than five works in a category.
2: Restrict each nominee to one entry in each category.
3: Add a new "Nominating" membership level for WorldCon with a *cough* nominal fee. (Say, $1.)
4: Make the total nominating votes both public and updated on an ongoing basis during the nominating process.

Here are some alternate ideas that i don't like as much and don't synergize with the others listed above, but might help.

5: Restrict the nomination round to full members.
6: Make the number of nomination slots smaller than the number of final slots.
7: Have a jury pick the works that go on the final ballot, possibly in correlation with voter nominations.

--------------------- Details and Explanations ---------------------

1: Allow people to nominate more than five works in a category.

This is an easy fix and an entirely sensible change that i feel should have been made long ago for reasons entirely unrelated to ballot stuffing.

Imagine that George RR Martin, who we all know is a prolific and speedy writer, decided to wrap up "A Song of Ice and Fire" this year by releasing three novels, "The Vermilion Birthday Party", "The 107 Course Feast of Castamere", and "Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies". Now imagine that there are 9 people who are huge GRRM fans but are also conscientious voters and don't want to fill up 3/5ths of their Best Novel nominations with the same author. 3 of them vote for "Birthday Party" because they were really excited when the first one came out, but were kind of worn out for the sequels. 3 of them vote for "The 107 Course Feast" because they thought it was the high-point of the story arc, and also they're foodies. And 3 vote for "Rocks Fall", because voting for the last book in the series just makes sense. Even if it's really depressing. (But it's GRRM, so what did you expect?)

Meanwhile imagine Eric Flint, who we all know is a conservative right-wing firebrand, releases "314159", the final book in the Ring of Fire series. 4 people who are upset with the "liberal trend" of the Hugos decide to vote for this book just to "stick it to the man."

It's easy to see the circumstances that could follow on from that which would lead to "314159" making it to the finals while none of the GRRM books do. And it's even easier to see how such a situation could arise if those four disgruntled people are coordinating their actions via a slate. With coordination even if Eric Flint released one or more other books the disgruntled group could make sure to all push the same one.

However imagine that each person could nominate 20 works/people for each category. Now those GRRM lovers can nominate all three of his books without feeling bad, because they'll still have 17 other spots left to nominate other authors. Now GRRM's books will coast into the finals with 9 votes each while Eric Flint will be left out in the cold. Unless of course some of the GRRM fans decide to use their extra spaces to vote for Flint. (In which case Flint has the support of both groups, so that's all good.)

The downside to this plan is that making the choice of who to nominate less difficult might turn the awards into more of a popularity contest. But really i think it's a little late to pretend that they're anything else.

2: Restrict each nominee to one entry in each category.

I think, given what happened with this year's Hugos (and what's happened with Doctor Who in years past,) that this would be a good idea regardless, but it would be practically a requirement if idea #1 was implemented. From the previous example it would be a little silly to have three GRRM books in the finals. (Damn you GRRM for writing like the wind!)

My original though was to just handle things as normal during the nomination stage and then merge "duplicate" items after the nominations were over. However then i realized that would give authors who produced more than one item in a category a distinct advantage. If someone wanted to game the system (and the whole reason this discussion is happening is because we know there are people who want to) they'll just fill their nomination list with as many works by that author as possible. And author who put out three short stories in a year and has a dedicated fan base will be three times as effective at getting onto the final ballot as an author who only put out one story.

The only way i can see around this would be to limit the nominations to one work by an author in each category. If someone tried to nominate more than one work by the same author in a category the first such instance in the list would be counted and the rest would be ignored. Whichever work by that author got the most votes would be the Hugo nominated work.

I feel that the nomination stage shouldn't be changed (in regards to this issue) but after all the nominations are in there should be a winnowing phase.

First the top five items with the most votes should be selected. Then if there are any repeats (based on author for the relevant categories, and possible based on TV series for Dramatic Presentation) the votes for those items should be merged and the new top five items should be examined. Repeat until there are five distinct finalists.

I feel it would be fair in that situation for anyone so merged to claim that all of the merged works were "Hugo nominated." I'm unsure if the listing in the final ballot should be the merged work that had the most individual votes, or if the author should get to choose which of the items to highlight, or if all of the merged items should be listed as a single item in the final ballot. I can see pros and cons to all of those options.

The cons to this are that it effectively turns "Best Novel/la/ette" into "Best Author Who Writes Novel/la/ettes". It also prevents authors from getting more than one nominated work in a category even if they produced multiple works that actually deserved the honor. (I can think of some favorite authors/creators who would theoretically suffer from this system.)

But on the pro side this would actually make the nominations a _lot_ easier for me, especially if this idea wasn't implemented in conjunction with #1. I wouldn't have to decide whether or not to give multiple nominations to a favorite author, and wouldn't have to decide between voting for their work that i liked best vs voting for their work that i think is most likely to get to the final round.

3: Add a new "Nominating" membership level for WorldCon with a *cough* nominal fee. (Say, $1.)

As previously mentioned i'm generally opposed to making voting for the Hugos more restricted. So the only other thing to do is make it more open, at least for the nominations. It would be a huge change, but i feel like it would be a win-win move.

A new category would be added to the "full" and "supporting", possibly called "nominating", or possibly something more catchy than that. In any case they would be able to nominate works but nothing else without upgrading their membership.

The nominal fee would provide a small bit of extra revenue to WorldCon, which could be earmarked for administering the Hugo nomination process and additional bandwidth and such, but the main purpose would be to provide an easy way to prevent people from (easily) voting multiple times. Particularly if payment was required via credit card or some other method that made it easy to verify the identity of the person.

It has been argued before that the supporting membership (currently $40) should be cheaper in order to provide a lower barrier of entry for fans who are not well-off. It has been counter-argued that lowering the barrier to entry would just lead to ballot stuffing. Well the supporting membership price was not decreased, and yet here we are having this discussion anyways.

It is possible that this would only exacerbate the current problem. Now the Disgruntled Canines would be able to recruit an even larger horde of people on the basis of it only costing $1. However i'd like to believe that there would be at least as many people with differing viewpoints who would like to participate in the process if it were financially feasible.

I think this would be even easier to accomplish if they also...

4: Make the total nominating votes both public and updated on an ongoing basis during the nominating process.

This would be completely abandoning the pretense that the Hugos are anything but a popularity contest, but as previously stated i think that ship has already sailed.

Every day the Hugo website would update a list of all works that are currently nominated and how many votes each one has.

This would prevent the Disgruntled Canines, or any other group that tries to form a slate, from "sneaking" into the ballot. It would presumably also result in lots of cheerleading and people urging their friends to register as nominating members. However once again i don't really see any way to proceed from this point except to make the voting process more inclusive and more populist.

On the plus side it would help promote both the Hugos and WorldCon, not to mention the authors/works in question. In fact for the categories where it's relevant each item in the list could have two or more links next to it. One to a small sample of the work in question and one (or more) to someplace where an electronic copy could be purchased or rented. Overall i think this would be a win-win. More participation, more discussion, and more people actually reading (or at least sampling) the works that are what we're doing this for in the first place. Yes there would be more drama as everyone gets in a tizzy over what is (or isn't) at the top of the list on any given day, but it's already been demonstrated that it's too late to avoid that anyways. I think it's better just to get it out in the open.

And in the end one of the things the Disgruntled Canines claim is that they feel the Hugo awards have become too "literary" and esoteric and have gotten away from their "popular" and "fun" roots.

I don't think that's true (cf. but i also don't think that "popular" means the same thing to the average fan that they think it means and it might be interesting to give them the more "popularity" based awards they're clamoring for. I would like to believe that giving them what they claim they want would not result in the outcome they desire.

The con to this idea (other than the aforementioned drama) is that i'm not sure how much the actual final round of the Hugos would matter in this scenario. If you already have five finalists ranked by the number of nominating votes that people have been arguing about and rehashing for weeks or months, would anything change significantly in the final voting? Or would whoever came in first in the nominations always take first in the finals?

And the other ideas i don't agree with as much:

5: Restrict the nomination round to full members.

There have been a number of proposals about how to restrict the number of people who can vote in order to prevent ballot stuffing. As should be clear from above i'm more in favor of opening the system up more rather than trying to close it down. (Though as someone who only started participating in the system about five years ago my opinions are obviously rather biased.)

However if opening up the voting process more turns out to be a non-starter i think restricting just the nomination round to full members would be a reasonable compromise. The idea is that the internet has proven that there are a lot of people of *ahem* a certain political/moral persuasion and are willing to rig an election in their favor who have $40 to spare.

The con is, aside from the obvious downsides of preventing a lot of people who've been doing things the "right" way from participating in the nominations, that if these people could spare $40 just to spite some people they don't like i'm not sure if increasing the price to $210 will be enough of a disincentive.

6: Make the number of nomination slots smaller than the number of final slots.

The exact opposite of #1. Keep the final ballot the same size but reduce the size of nomination round to 1-3. Or keep the nominating round at 5 but increase the size of the final ballot to 10 in each category.

The theory is that if the Disgruntled Canines, or anyone who follows in their lead, puts together a slate of 5 nominees then those 5 will make it onto the final ballot, but so will 5 other works, and the much larger population of voters in the final round can be trusted to sort things out appropriately.

The con is, with enough support the Disgruntled Canines (or anyone else interested) would only have to put together multiple slates and make sure their group was evenly divided between them. It makes slates a little more complicated to organize but far from impossible.

7: Have a jury pick the works that go on the final ballot, possibly in correlation with voter nominations.

This would fix the current problem, but definitely create other problems, as well as kind of breaking what i think the Hugos are all about.

The big question of course would be "who shall pick the pickers?" And what standards should they use to judge the works? The jury could just be a backup review system, to disqualify anything that "obviously" only made it into the top 5 of nominations only because of voting shenanigans. But coming up with guidelines to determine that would be very difficult, and the first time they were applied to disqualify one or more works would almost certainly result in a firestorm of controversy.

It would also make the accusations (which i believe to be currently baseless) about the Hugos being controlled by a secret cabal practically true. It would be a somewhat ironic twist to have the rabble-rousers bring about the very thing they were rousing rabble against, but i'm not sure it would be worth paying that price in order to fingerpoint at them and go "Ha ha!"
Tags: books, sf/f
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