Making volunteer grunt-work and unconferences sustainable

This weekend I spoke at BIL, a conference that was created to play off of the famous and expensive TED conference. BIL began as an un-conference, which is to say an ad-hoc conference created on short notice where the attendees are the speakers. Such conferences tend to be free or near-free. The movement begain with Tim O’Reilly’s FOO Camp. FOO camp is for Tim’s friends, and he has far more friend that can come. One year, he was explaining how he rotated among people and so some of those who were not invited that particular year (including myself) had a “BAR” camp which was a tremendous success, and created a trend.

The first two BILs were a lot of fun and worked pretty well. They had a variety of sub-par speakers, as these “anybody who wants to can talk” conferences often have, but there was always tons of hall conversation or sessions in other rooms to make up for that. And a modest number of TED speakers came over and gave their TED talks for free at BIL, and various regular TED attendees came as well.

This year’s BIL did not live up to the earlier standard, and the hard-working and generous organizers are fully aware of that, so this is not an attempt to criticise them, but rather to look at the problem. Many things went wrong, including a last minute need to move the conference from a Saturday and Sunday(with only Saturday morning overlap with TED) to Friday and Saturday morning, which had total overlap with TED and minimal weekend time. This change was forced because no venue could be found (cheaply enough, at least) which would offer Saturday afternoon and Sunday. However, it was a ruinous change — attendance on the workday Friday was way down, and even lower on Saturday, and no TED speakers came though a few attendees showed up, mostly near the end in the 2 hours after TED that BIL went on. The “outdoor” post-sessions were of limited success as a conference, but OK socially (I did not attend the planned Sunday events.)

In addition, the venue finally taken had only 2 rooms — a big one and a medium one — and the medium one was allocated entirely to a new “JIL” conference which was sparsely attended (with far more women in the BIL sessions than in the JIL room) and to be blunt, viewed derisively by the BIL attendees (both male and female) for being loosely related to BIL issues (broad as they are) at best. With only one real presentation room, BIL changed entirely, from an ad-hoc conference with lots of energy to a programmed conference done almost entirely from scheduled speakers.

Now all that, in turn, was a result of one of the things I really want to address here, which is the problem of volunteer grunt-work. There have been amazing volunteer projects, and I have participated in many. Burning Man, which has been my other home for 12 years, is 99% volunteer. Volunteers will work on the less-glorious “infrastructure” for a variety of reasons. One is a social experience — working with old and new friends. The other, however, is a desire to learn and try new things, and the fun of making something happen.

There is a problem with the fun in the novelty of bringing something together, however. It often goes away when the novelty is gone. For example, for several years, I did the work of managing the power distribution and generator work for my camp. I learned all about it. But having done that, I lost interest in doing it. There was only work left, not new experience. So perversely, while I was the one who knew the most about the task and would be the obvious one to do it, I had the least interest, and so the task would fall to those who were novices at it. At the same time, while not wanting to do it myself, I could not turn off my frustration if I saw the novices doing things I had learned not to do.

With BIL, the past organizers, who had put in lots of time and money, really hoped that somebody local to TED’s new location in Long Beach would want to take up some of the mantle. Organizing such things from a distance is hard, and doing what you have done before on your own is doubly hard. Nobody stepped up, and so balls were dropped. I don’t blame the volunteer organizers for this in any way. The fault lies with all those who could not step up to carry on the torch but wanted the torch to be carried.

I don’t see an easy fix for this problem, other than to identify it so people come to understand it and work to avoid it. The best fix I’ve seen is to make the work a social task, which is done together with friends. That’s hard to do for a conference held in a town where most of those who want it aren’t local. It’s easier at Burning Man.

I should also note that I am not in favour of having the conference be all ad hoc any more than I like it to be all programmed. I think a good mixture of properly chosen pre-arranged speakers and ad-hoc sessions is the right mix. The speakers can be planned by organizers who pick them for quality, and allocate them premium rooms, or this selection task can also be done with collaborative web tools. I think it is important for both types of speakers to have some tool to judge the interest of the audience in advance, so that big rooms can be allocated to the sessions with the most interest. Too often you’ll see an empty big room and a packed-out-the-door small room, because the speaker in the big room got to the reservation wall first.

I also am a big believer in plenary sessions, as long as the plenary speaker is selected with care. Every conference should have events which are experienced by all, which stimulate discussion and provide community and common memory. Only go to multiple tracks to meet demand. At previous BILs and BAR camps and the like, there has been that demand. And it should also be expected that hall conversations will be a big part of it, so empty times should be allocated, and it should not be a sin to have nothing interesting to you in any given time slot — that’s a signal to go talk in the hall.

That said, I did get positive reaction from my new talk on “Before the robot cars” which focuses on present-day and near-term technology rather than the decade-away potential streets full of robocars, so I will be giving that one again.

There is some debate about moving BIL away from TED. There are a lot of reasons for that — with few TED speakers coming, few local organizers, difficulty in getting flights, hotel rooms and a venue, and the large supply of attendees in the Bay Area. On the other hand, with this it’s just another un-conference. A small handful of us have also attended a few TED events and parties, though the majority don’t.

Volunteering vs getting stuff done

My first reaction is actually from the WorldCon that will be here this year. It's structured so that it *only* provides the social side to volunteers - you still have to buy a full ticket to the con and there's no reward other than the social. Which hopefully will work, but it means that few to no outsiders will step up - I won't, because I don't know anyone who's involved and don't see the point in paying full price then committing con time to volunteering in a completely unknown environment. Volunteering might be great, it might really suck, but the organisers don't seem to care (which makes it more likely that it will suck, IME).

But that's "organised use of volunteers", which is somewhat different from your main point.

Having done this sort of random organising I'm a little tired of being pigeonholed as "the bike guy", so I definitely feel your boredom with the power supply. But the transition for an event from "spur of the moment" to "regular feature" is IMO almost certain to spoil the experience. My inclination is to step back early and try to help while I'm still interested. That way each "unevent" has a new group of keen fans organising it and gets the benefit of people who've done it before offering advice and helping out a bit. If the keen fans don't exist or won't step up... better luck next time. I have no time for whiners at the best of times, admittedly, and people whining that I won't do a heap of work for no reward just so they can have a good time are way, way down the list. The social benefits of organising wear off for me after the first couple of runs through, and after that I tend to explicitly ask for money. Otherwise the cost of volunteering starts to annoy me.

A couple of things that have helped us with explicitly anarchist events are being willing to use public space, especially enclosed public space, and building in flexibility. With unervents it's quite practical to say "we'll announce the unvenue at the event" and leave it at that, so you can finalise the unvenue once the weather forecast is known with some certainty and a last-minute free unvenue can be used (or you can stand up and say "we still don't have a good unvenue so we're using the band rotunda in the park"). If the organisers are willing to put out calls for help that's... helpful :) but even without that a single local willing to ring venues can work wonders for unorganisers coming in for the event. We've shown movies in parks just using a projecter and a white wall (a Sydney Harbour Bridge support pylon at one event). It's an unevent, of course it's going to be unorganised :)

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