I first encountered the term SMOF in the late eighties. I was just getting involved with actually helping run conventions and people would through the term around. Being inquisitive, I asked what a SMOF was. Based on the initial reaction I got from people you would have thought I had asked the Colonel what the elven herbs and spices were. Eventually someone took pity on me and explained that the term stood for Secret Masters Of Fandom. Basically it was a term for the elder statesmen of the convention scene. There were no real criteria for becoming a SMOF, it was basically something that was bestowed on someone based on longevity, activity, and how well-known you were in the community.
Had I not taken a decade long break from conventions I would probably be a SMOF myself.
But what does a SMOF actually do?
That can vary quite a bit. Many of them are convention organizers, so they are the people that provide the meeting ground for other fans. Others are people who were convention organizers but have stepped down, or are just very active members of the community that have been around for years. SMOFs tend to take on the role of advisers, or at least commentators on the goings-on at conventions.
So really what they do is advise, or in some cases kibitz. And recent years have really facilitated this with the advent of mailing lists and message boards.
In some cases this can be useful. These are people who have been around the block in regards to the community. On the other hand, they can be a pain in the butt, as they have been doing it forever and that can make some of them very resistant to change.
An example of this occurred recently when one convention, Norwescon, made a change to its registration process by introducing a new computerized system that would scan barcodes on printed receipts. A group on the SMOF mailing list got very vocal against this system. They did not just object to the barcode scanning; they felt that convention registration should not even use computers, since conventions were able to run registration for years and years before the advent of personal computers.
At the same time this group of SMOFs were complaining that Norwescon was not a real fannish convention because it covered “Non-Fannish” subjects such as podcasting, gaming, and film making, and ignored the “real fannish” subject of fanzines.
So clearly these SMOFs were not happy that time has marched on and fandom has evolved.
To be fair, there were other members on the SMOF list that were defending Norwescon, and saying that change is not bad.
I think it is important to remember that with a group as loosely defined as SMOFs, you cannot paint them all with the same brush. But like any group, it is the loudest members that come to define it, and for the SMOFs it is the complainers.
And this is unfortunate, because in the end most SMOFs are going to be the best resource the community can hope for. They are the people who have been in the trenches the longest. They have made the mistakes and learned from them. And those that are afraid of change are not the majority.
The trick is making sure that their knowledge is passed down to the next generation in a useful way. The best SMOFs know that bitching on the sidelines is not the way to do it. Staying engaged with the community is.
At Norwescon, there was one guy I know to be a SMOF. He has been involved with the running of Norwescon as long as I can remember, which means at least 30 years. These days he has to use a walker. But he is also still involved with the convention. When a forum was being held about a major change to the convention’s policy, he spoke up and his statement carried both the weight of his experience and the acknowledgement that a new way was needed.
This is SMOFing at it’s best.
So there you have it, the good and the ill of SMOFs. We as a community are fortunate that the good comes out on top.