The Great Steampunk Debate was an online event in May and June 2010 where everyone was invited to participate in discussing various topics related to steampunk – the formative history, the expressions of it today, and where it might be going.

This week, we talk with several of the moderators who built, coordinated and ran the event

Amanda Stock – co-founder of the Toronto Steampunk Society, an administrative member of Steampunk Canada, a moderator, community member and erstwhile contributor to the Gazette over at The Gatehouse

John Sondericker III – Steampunk Tales Magazine

Tome Wilson – the creator/admin behind Dieselpunks,

Other Moderators include:

Allegra Hawksmoor – one of the editors of SteamPunk Magazine

Chris Garcia – editor of Exhibition Hall

Russell Alexander – the founder of the Wings of Steam Anachronistic Society

Dylan Fox – administer the UK Steampunk Network, a contributing editor to Steampunk Magazine, member of Vagrants Among Ruins

Nick Ottens – creator and editor at The Gatehouse and the Gatehouse Gazette

Mike Perschon – author of the Steampunk Scholar blog, with a focus on literature

John Naylor – Chair of the Victorian Steampunk Society and creator of The Asylum festival, a professional TV art director and production designer

Airship Ambassador: Welcome to all of you, and thank you very much for taking time from your other responsibilities for this interview. As a project manager in my own day to day life, I could see how much work it must have taken to organize and execute the Great Steampunk Debate. As such, I am personally very curious about all of the behind-the-scenes work and activity. First, how did this event come about?

Amanda Stock: I’ll let the others handle this one, seeing as I was involved more as an additional moderator and not as one of the primary organizers.

John Sondericker III: As far as I know, Allegra contacted the moderators. The initial thrust was to decide if steampunk was inherently political. The topics grew from there.

Tome Wilson: The Great Steampunk Debate came about as an open, politically-neutral forum where people interested in the retrofuturism subculture could share ideas and help define what steampunk has recently become and give insight on where they think it is moving.

AA: How much planning and discussion went into creating the GSD before it launched

AS: Oh, months worth of planning things down to minutiae preceded the actual debate. All of the moderators and administrators had access to polls and discussion boards for deciding exactly how everything was to be structured and run. Most major decisions were made by majority vote and discussion of details. The planning went on right until the week before the debate started.

JS: Months and months. At times I wondered why we were taking so long, but in the end it seemed like it was well worth the time involved.

TW: A great deal of planning was needed to get The Great Steampunk Debate off of the ground.  Primarily, there was the need for a neutral area, unassociated with an established forum or group so the GSD contributors could feel at ease stating their opinion without the fear of backlash.  For example, you don’t try to hold an open political debate with anarchists and communists at Republican Party headquarters.

Once the groundwork was set, a call was sent to those whom the organizers felt were influential within the retrofuturist community.  This guaranteed a certain amount of publicity for the event, and helped bring a larger, more varied group of participants to the fore.

From there, it was a completely democratic matter of creating questions, and goals for the event.

AA: What were the important elements which kept all of you together and moving forward towards a common goal when each person’s perspective, personality and goals might be completely different and even in opposition to others?

AS: The desire to create a space in which all members of the online steampunk community could come together outside of their usual spheres was the overarching goal that kept us working together. There were some disagreements as to how certain elements of the debate should be run, but with the voting system in place, things went pretty smoothly. I personally really enjoyed working with the other moderators. Everyone was very friendly, civil, and willing to try and see things from each other’s point of view.

JS: For the most part we agreed on a lot of things, or didn’t feel strongly enough to pose much opposition. I recall there were a few votes on topics where we didn’t reach a consensus. We’d then typically just come together and agree, post poll.

TW: We used a very structured, democratic voting method for shaping all elements of the event.  This helped the process from being railroaded by one strong personality.  While it may have taken longer to come to a consensus, I believe it was the best way to create something we could all be proud of.

AA: The one agreed upon purpose of GSD was “to explore steampunk ideology’ – what other ideas were proposed, discussed, modified, and struck down?

AS: That was pretty much the point of the debate from the very beginning of the planning stages. The idea of coming to some manner of overall conclusion with regards to some of the questions was thrown around, but ultimately untenable because of the sheer diversity of opinions within the steampunk community. Instead, members were encouraged to post their own conclusions and what they had taken away from the two months the debate ran.

JS: We all were interested in what the demographic of the steampunk movement was, so in general we were posing the same questions and interested in the same topics.

TW: That was the core idea, and it influenced the entire structure of the event from the beginning.  Of course, it was reworded several times over for clarification, but the spirit of “exploring steampunk ideology” was what we truly set out to accomplish.

AA: It sounds like there was a great deal of discussion among the people involved as moderators, with widely varying viewpoints about what form and format the GSD should take. What were the challenges in finding common ground?

AS: Well, because of the way decisions were made it wasn’t too difficult to come to an agreement on what format suited the debate best once the basic idea had been established. Having been brought in as a moderator by Nick once this had happened, I can’t say I know how the initial round of decisions and discussions went.

JS: We were all more or less laid back and malleable. There were some points of contention, but I don’t recall too much that was heated.

TW: I was accepted as a second-round moderator after Allegra and Nick brought the idea past the concept stage.  My connection to both of these individuals was entirely professional prior to the event, so I can only guess what their criteria guidelines were for choosing the mods.

AA: I’ve read that there were heated debates and intense discussions among the group when putting GSD together. Did you find similar discussions happened among participants once the site opened?

AS: I didn’t personally end up in any heated debates. Most of the organizers seemed to mesh well and the whole process was fairly smooth. Of course, participants in the actual debate did have widely varying opinions about whether the way things were organized was ideal, and a small but vocal number certainly let it be known that they would have done things differently.

JS: Allegra really did a fine job in structuring things. As for the actual debate, I’m glad it was somewhat heated because a debate that isn’t is not much fun to follow.

TW: I wouldn’t say “heated.”  With any new project where there are several cooks are in the kitchen making the meal, you’re going to have disagreements and conflicts of personality.  Some people bowed out after they saw that the shape of the event didn’t fit their vision of what they thought it should have been, but it was more of a “I can’t support this,” rather than a “Screw you guys, I’m outta here.”  Once the ball got rolling, the voting method seemed to work very well for ironing out the little details.

AA: Some moderators were actively part of the discussions, some stepped in as needed to keep discussions on track, some weren’t apparent in any threads. Were there any general guidelines for participation in the debate being a moderator?

AS: It had been decided that moderators were allowed to freely participate in the discussions because their opinions on the questions being explored were important, too. After all, many of the moderators and administrators were prominent members of the steampunk community with well-developed positions on a lot of the topics covered.

The way we opted to separate personal opinion posts from moderation posts was decided part way through the debate, when it became clear that members weren’t certain when mods were acting as figures of authority and when they were simply acting as participants in discussion. We ended up placing “MODERATOR POST” in bold at the top of any post in which a moderator was exercising their duty in keeping things on track, and these posts had to be separate from any personal opinions being expressed.

JS: I posted some but spent much more time lurking. After already having time to think about the questions I found that I wasn’t really in the mood to try to bring folks in line with my own opinions. As far as the actual moderation is considered, that always seemed to be well taken care of by some of the more active moderators.

TW: There were no clear-cut rules for moderation at the start since most of us were veterans at the job, but it was understood by all that we were solely in charge of keeping the GSD running smoothly.  To give you an idea of our participation rights as moderators, it might be helpful knowing that we were initially going to call ourselves “ushers.”  We were there to show people the way and to keep the event from becoming unruly, but our active participation was to be kept to a minimum.

This meant that once the event was able to stand on its own, most mods took a step back and watched things unfold from behind the curtain, only appearing when it was necessary to keep things on topic.

End of Part 1

Please join us next week for the continuation of this interview with moderators from the Great Steampunk Debate.

Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!