Tia Wilhelm: The On-Line Fan
(See the photos of the 2001 ConStellation for a picture of Tia.)
Tia Wilhelm would not have been a science fiction fan 20 years ago. Let me explain.
Science fiction fandom has been around since readers of Astounding magazine and its brethren started noticing each other in the letter columns. This started sometime in the late 1920's. Fandom as a semi-organized entity goes back to sometime in the 30's. For most of its existence, SF fans have had two ways to interact: in person at club meetings and conventions, and in print through fanzines and apa's. If you did not live in a major American city, you mostly experienced fandom in print.
In the late 1980's, we saw a third way blossom into being. Now a fan could meet and mingle with other fans in electronic forums. Bulletin boards were the first. The major boards like CompuServe had special interest groups. A number of fans started small fandom-related boards. But you had to be a customer of the major board or know how to contact an independent operator. You also had to know enough about computers to use a modem and connect to a board via phone lines.
Then the World Wide Web took over. It has changed most of the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Suddenly anyone can connect to anyone else quite easily. One of the most important new parts of the Net is the real-time chat rooms like ICQ and America On Line's Instant Messaging.
What does any of this have the least bit to do with a young SF fan from Lansing, Mich. who works in a fabric store? You see, she might attend one traditional convention a year. When she goes to a con, she might take part in the masquerade. (She entered the masquerade at the 2001 ConStellation in Huntsville as a bar wench.) But her primary fannish occupation is as part of the Baen Books on-line community called The Barflies.
According to Tia, The Barflies offers forums for the Baen authors. Tia says The Barflies has a number of regulars who look out for each other. They don't see each other very often--a meeting at the 2000 Worldcon was the first time many of them had joined another Barfly. But she reports a strong community feeling in the group, just as other on-line communities report similarly strong ties. As you talk to her, you can tell The Barflies mean a lot to her. She even met her boyfriend through the group.
The Barfly community serves as Tia's primary fannish interest. She does not participate in fanzine fandom. She also has little use for most of today's movies, which she dismisses as so many shoot-'em-ups with no plot. She has a small interest in animé. Being an introvert like most fans, meeting large groups of new people can be uncomfortable. Being in The Barflies helps there. She can meet them on line, which makes the subsequent in-person meeting much easier.
Tia still reads a fair amount of science fiction. Unlike most fans, she inherited her love of SF from her parents, both of whom read a lot of it. She remembers that her mother, a medical transcriptionist, preferred hard SF. Tia would also borrow a lot of books from the bookshelf of her father, a CPA. She did not know any science fiction readers outside her family for most of her adolescence. She attended her first convention in Lansing, Mich. when she was 18, which she thought was the minimum age for any SF convention.
Tia was born and raised in the Flint area but spent time in other parts of the country while growing up. After high school she served a hitch in the military working in communications. It was a way to earn money and see more of the world. She accomplished the last goal since she was stationed in Korea, which proved to be an enjoyable experience because she was able to work indoors most of the time. Most military forces aren't so lucky. Her tour also included time in Alabama, which is why she knew about the Huntsville area.
The interview ended in time for Tia to attend Toni Weisskopf's presentation for Baen Books. Tia is not a Secret Master of Fandom and may never be. She may never chair a major convention or publish a Hugo-winning fanzine. Chances are that if the on-line revolution had not occurred, Tia would be at most a fringe fan who attended a convention every few years. But she has found her place in our world and seems to be very happy in it. That is reason enough to celebrate.