A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

The Bitnorth dilemma

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.






12 responses to “The Bitnorth dilemma”

  1. Kamal Jain Avatar
    Kamal Jain

    I’ve made it to 3 of 4 Bitnorths thus-far, and would be terribly disappointed if I couldn’t attend again this year. (To misquote David Banner, “you wouldn’t like me when I’m disappointed.”)

    There are so many awesome people I meet anew, or get to see again. I *LEARN* stuff.

    With eager anticipation.
    – K

  2. Aidan Nulman Avatar

    Alistair, what a great pain to have. Yet another one of your creations is loved by all.

    While I could throw a couple of solutions down (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t already have ideas), I’m curious to understand your goals better…

    Do you want attendance to naturally gravitate to 60, or do you want to encourage the overflow to set up satellites? If there are satellites, do you want them to be directly linked, loosely linked, or not linked at all? Do you have any data about how the balance between alumni and newcomers affects enjoyment (measured by “fervency of responses”, “speed of signups”, whatever).

    It’s too late to take an a priori lean approach… I’d love to try a post hoc look, though 🙂

  3. eva Avatar

    I like the way Bitnorth works now. Alumni invite new people and throw in extra people that we might not know but will bring “more interesting”.

    There’s a lot of alumni so doesn’t that mean a lot of them don’t have to speak/present which leaves more openings for new people? Maybe figure out who’s coming and not speaking to figure out how many slots you have?

    Bitsouth! Yes! Yes! Yes! Can you sponsor my flight? 😀 Seriously though for Montrealers, it would be nice to do this somewhere else. Also, twice a year means more people can participate, more diversity and more choice – yes?

    I gotta say I like the voting system or the veto by group. I totally believe in diversity but it’s also a very long weekend if you get one bad egg. Maybe put a list of newcomers and have alumni/attendees vote up the people they’d like to meet/attend? You know the group is smart sooooo you know they’d pick interesting. 🙂

    I believe that if it gets too big, it’s not the same intimate setting anymore. As it is, you don’t get to meet everyone and add more people to the mix means meeting even less but on the upside more chance meetings. If it gets big, that means changing venues, right? Make Bitnorth small and Bitsouth bigger? Kinda like TED vs TEDx?

    Meh clusterfuckoisie! They come once and then they move on when it’s “uncool”. Aren’t most of us “uncool” in the conventional way anyways? If I feel stupid with all the brain cells / IQ in the room, they won’t be able to handle it and you can weed out the lack genuineness for the year after. 🙂 Which means implement the “you’re voted off the island” option if they’re invited. 😀

  4. gminks Avatar

    so….not everyone can come back to Montreal? 🙁

  5. Jonathan Ginter Avatar
    Jonathan Ginter

    Well, I’m sure many, if not all, of these suggestions have already been considered but here goes:

    1. Move the event to the middle of the week. By cutting into people’s work days, you would probably reduce demand by enough to control the problem.

    2. Have a longer event – say Friday morning to Sunday @ 5:00 pm. Or even making it an official 5-day event. I know this would raise the price but it would be worth it. Moreover, this includes a bit of option #1, thus reducing demand while increasing capacity.

    3. This is more of a comment about the idea of regional events. Although it’s a good idea and should be done anyway, it assumes that adding a BitSouth, BitEast or BitWest would actually reduce demand for BitNorth. I’m not sure if enough people would be siphoned off by sister events held in San Diego, the midwest, Florida or BC. It seems to me that most participants in recent years have been local or within a 1-hour flight from Montreal.

    4. Have two BitNorths per year – one in spring and the other in the fall (or maybe winter vs. summer). That would keep it small and still allow more people. You could even restrict participants to one or the other but not both. I know that you’ve thought of this one before, though.

    That’s all I have. Hope it helps to spark an idea.

  6. Sarah-Jane Morris Avatar

    As someone who experienced her first Bitnorth last year, I would hate to think that others would miss out on that possibility this year, especially since I know so many worthy yet uninitiated Bitnotherners in the making!

    I’m leaning most towards blocking off a certain amount of tickets for alumni and a certain number for newbies (based on invite only), & giving them both a narrow window to purchase and confirm. You snooze you lose.

    If there were two BitNorths a year, I would want to go to both. 🙂

    All I know is I’ve been counting down to this years event since that fateful weekend in September wrapped up. Serious <3s for the Crolls. Serious.

  7. Robin Ahn Avatar

    I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Bitnorth and as an alum, I would be disappointed if I couldn’t attend. By the same token, I know that I’m only part of a growing number of alums. I also feel that it would be legit (though unfortunate) if I weren’t able to attend if preference were given to more senior alums, partly because I feel like this is part and parcel of a closed event.

    I think if you want it to keep growing but still retain the original feeling, you may have to grow and recruit people to help you to organize from ranks of the alums.

    Like Sarah-Jane says, serious love to you guys but growing each gathering is going to mean distributing the effort, I suspect.

  8. Liesl Barrell Avatar

    Best. Dilemma. Ever.

    #Ifidontgettogotobitnorththisyearillbeasadpanda #HastagAbuse

  9. Liesl Barrell Avatar

    PS: the missing “h” in the hashtag-related hashtag left for pack of smokes last week and never came home…

  10. Kim Fuller Avatar

    I like the suggestion of “Have two BitNorths per year – one in spring and the other in the fall (or maybe winter vs. summer).” but I also know that means a helluva lot of planning.
    First come– first serve, with the alumni getting first dibs is still a good format until the alumni list gets too long! We missed the last one but would love to attend the 2012 edition, others may have to skip this year due to scheduling conflicts so it could even out over time. Anyone who gets bitter over missing their chance to attend doesn’t belong at Bitnorth in my opinion so stick to your guns and tough titty for those for miss the boat (like I did last year!)
    Thanks for the time, energy and effort you put into this event. Can’t wait to read the ebook 🙂
    (The other) K.

  11. Alex Haraldsson Avatar
    Alex Haraldsson

    Hmmm, tough dilemma to have…I know I look forward to meeting new people and learning new stuff. BUT, I also love the opportunity to hang out with familiar faces that I have no other chance to see except through BitNorth. Just my selfishness, tho. I don’t mind not presenting…:)

  12. Kamal Jain Avatar
    Kamal Jain

    It’s June, and I’m not registered for Bitnorth — and I’m panicked that I’ve missed the deadline!

    As others have so eloquently said, it’s a good problem to have, and one you’ve earned for creating something amazing. I also would emphasize alumni preference, and let the Gods of chaos and good intentions sort the rest out. It often works surprisingly well, despite the occasional bruised ego.

    So…did I miss the deadline? Please PLEASE tell me I haven’t!