The Bitnorth dilemma

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Bitnorth will be five this year. What started as an informal gathering in the woods North of Montreal has become an annual event I look forward to all year long, a chance to disconnect and get to know smart people for forty-eight blessedly uninterrupted hours.

Bitnorth is a little different from other conferences. It’s not an Unconference, at least not in Mitch Joel’s strict definition of the word, because there’s a structure to it. But it’s certainly Unconference in spirit, because people can present on whatever they want, in whatever format they choose.

It’s easy to dismiss events like these as a bit of a boondoggle—another of those “fabulous confabs”, as New York Magazine put it. That article skewers TED and its ilk, and it’s worth a read.

Throw in Sundance and SXSW and Burning Man, and you get what Michael Hirschorn has called “the clusterfuckoisie,” tweeting at each other as they shuttle between events. This is so exactly the sort of thing that David Brooks lives to break down into one of his fictive comic-sociological characters that, in his latest book, The Social Animal, he describes Davos parties as “rings of interesting and insecure people desperately seeking entry into the realm of the placid and self-satisfied.”

Ouch. And yet Hirschorn sounds like just the kind of person we’d want at Bitnorth. To paraphrase Wilde, I wouldn’t want anyone at my conference who didn’t have a healthy disdain for conferences.

But now, I have a dilemma. After four years, Bitnorth will almost certainly sell out fast this year, and alumni won’t come back. Having seen this happen elsewhere—and watched the trainwreck of epic proportions that followed—I’m trying to be careful about how it’s handled. When the clusterfuckoisie don’t get their tickets, they get first-world-angry.

To understand the problem, you need to understand Bitnorth. Briefly, it’s a weekend-long event at a remote location where everyone who attends has to present. While some people do extra-curricular presentations (tastings, hula-hoop lessons, slacklining, game shows, crowdsourced film-making) the core of the event is the “Short Bits”—5-minute presentations that run from 8AM to 6PM on Saturday.

This, and the capacity of the venue, limit attendance to roughly 60 people. In the first year, this wasn’t an issue. In year two, we scheduled the event in August, and many alumni were on vacation. Year three happened over Hallowe’en week-end, and some people stayed home with kids. And year four, we had to turn people away.

Word of the event seems to have spread. At a recent West Coast conference, complete strangers came up to me to ask what it was and how they could attend. I was on a Nekkidtech podcast recently, where some of the regulars are Bitnorth attendees, and without planning on it we spent ten minutes talking about the conference. (You can download the podcast if you like.)

This is all wonderful, of course. It’s more than we’d ever hoped, and 2012 will be an amazing conference. Soon, I have to open up registration. And I’m faced with a dilemma: how do I balance new blood with dear friends and longtime alumni? Each year, we have some new people in our ranks, and they’re often the ones that keep it fresh. But with the “perfect storm” of timing and burgeoning alumni lists, some people are going to be disappointed, even if we only welcome back past attendees.

This sucks.

Here’s how registration works today:

  • First, I send a mail to all alumni. This is a list of around 150 people by now. They have a month to buy a ticket.
  • If they buy a ticket, they can also suggest a +1—a friend they think will be a good fit.
  • After that month is up, I send a second mail to alumni and their invited friends.
  • After that month is up, I open tickets up for general purchase.

This has always seemed the most equitable approach to me. Alumni have a chance to get a ticket. We get new blood. The new blood already knows someone. And there’s no “glut” of new people, hard to digest, that will stay in their own group and not mix. I usually throw in a few deserving invites along the way, and somehow, it all works out.

Last year, we also posted all of the Short Bit topics on a subreddit, and attendees voted beforehand. The top three topics got fifteen minutes to present; the next three got ten minutes; and everyone else got five. This worked really well, because people stuck to their allotted times. So we’ve tried voting, but only about presentation length.

What I’ve concluded after all this is that I need to implement a lottery, and allocate a certain number of tickets to first-timers. Unlike the ill-fated Burning Man lottery, this will be a lot simpler, since tickets don’t need to be transferrable.

But that’s not all. I also need to open up the model, since clearly one event isn’t enough. So I’ve been working on a manual for running a Bitcamp (which is what I’m christening this format.) After four years, we have a pretty clear understanding of what works and how to run one, so I’m hoping that others will run regional Bitnorth-style events using this template. I’ll be publishing this as an e-book soon.

I don’t know if this is going to work. I hate that I won’t see everyone again this year. We’re already planning on Bitsouth, somewhere in Southern California, next winter, which may help things. I’m hoping I’ll hear back from alumni and that somehow we’ll avoid any unnecessary shark-jumping.

After all, I don’t want to feel the wrath of the clusterfuckoisie.