What is it that makes a convention so popular? This is a question that I think many of us know the answer to: the amazing and fun atmosphere that they provide. What makes it fun and amazing? It’s the fact that we are all part of the same group, that we are all self described as a geek, a nerd, a gamer, or whatever else the convention is offering. But more so, we get lost in the collectivity of the convention.
Collective effervescence was first described by Emile Durkheim in his book Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He was studying “primitive” religions (I put primitive in quotation marks for, what I hope are, obvious reasons) and in studying these religions he most notably had a focus on the rituals and rites of the religions. In these rituals he noticed this perceived “collective effervescence” which was an energy that flowed through the group participating in the ritual. For the individual it was about forgetting about the individuality of one’s self and thinking of one self as a part of the group, being the group not the individual. The group provided the identity for the individual. In short, collective effervescence is a shared experience and elicits strong emotion, most often euphoria.
This collective effervescence has been studied for decades now and it has become clear that this isn’t just a religious phenomenon or something that is solely associated with rituals. Collective effervescence is something which is experienced merely by being a social creature. Anyone who plays games, who gets together with friends, or does something that involves direct interaction with a group (as opposed to doing things only as an individual) can be a part of the shared experience that is collective effervescence.
We can see this in just about every large social event. Sporting events are an excellent example where people are no longer individuals and become defined by the group they are a part of. Going to a sporting event one loses their self and connects with every other person through a single rallying point – the support of a team. I know this experience with the Green Bay Packers. When going to a bar or a friend’s house to watch a Packer game I am no longer defined by my individuality as a Philosophy and Anthropology major, or as a geek who goes to conventions. The things which make me unique, are wisked away and I connect with everyone around me through our mutual and collective support of the Green Bay Packers. Screaming, shouting, and yelling are all mutual feelings that make up a shared experience.
Conventions are not unique in their creation of collective effervescence. It is the idea behind conventions, the rallying point, which moves us to buy our tickets and take 6 hour car rides that makes it unique. The being a nerd, a geek, a gamer, or whatever else the convention focuses on that makes it and its participants unique. Conventions are so popular because it is a way to connect with people who share the same unique interests. Conventions are ways to share experiences with friends, family, and complete strangers.
It is also about celebrating what makes us unique. There’s a subtle and beautiful irony there that I love. When we are out in the world, scattered, the things that we love separate us from the majority of people around us, and we have pride in that unique thing which we don’t necessarily share with the majority of people. Out of this pride we seek to have experiences with others who share that same uniqueness which separates us as individuals from society as a whole, while simultaneously binds us to others in society. At conventions it is about celebrating what makes the group different from other groups and being proud of it.
It is easy to lose one’s self among all of the costumes, games, parties, and dances that happen throughout a convention. When one is stopped for pictures of their costume the costumer is recognized not just for his or her individual effort, but for being a productive part of the community. The mere act of taking a picture of someone in costume tells them that you like, if not love, their costume and that you think they are a valuable member of the community. This is the atmosphere that conventions have been built around.
Losing one’s self is a great thing to do as well. It creates human connections. It relies on empathy. It is a way to have trust in someone who you barely know, to let your guard down and say “This is me!” and have someone say back to you “I’m like that too!”
But it isn’t only about the shared experiences with strangers, but a way for friends to participate in the larger group together. It’s about sharing moments with both friends, family, and strangers simultaneously. Costuming is something that I cannot do on a regular basis (at least not yet) and even when my friends and I get together it would be rather strange for all of us to be in costume constantly (even if it would be absolutely awesome). Conventions serve a purpose of creating memories and experiences with friends and strangers that couldn’t normally take place.
Conventions are not just a bunch of geeks or nerds getting together, but geeks and nerds building experiences and memories together that are unique to only geeks and nerds. It is about building an experience and a memory that only geeks and nerds can have and also sharing it with the people that you love.
One more photo from CONvergence for everyone:
Your Resident (Not Really) Anthropologist