BiCon futures, BiCon structures

5 August 2023 by Jennifer

A late-night analysis related to a meeting coming up:  about BiCon history, how I think it’s influenced the present day, and what could be next.

As I write this, I’m in the middle of being at BiCon.  It’s in Nottingham this year, so I decided to actually go to some of the in-person stuff.1

(Brief bit of context here for people who aren’t familiar with the things I’m about to mention.)

One of the things for the “BiCon Decides” meeting is recommendations from this year’s team for what BiCon Continuity ought to do, in order to make the running of BiCons work better in future.

This proposal document was an interesting read for me, because although I agree that lots of the specified things need to be done, I’m very wary of the idea that Continuity is the group which ought to be doing them.

Backstory perspective

The context for my perspective is that back around 1995 to 2006, I contributed to BiCon most years (inc being on the organising team in 2005) and was very familiar with how it all worked at the time.  Then I mostly stepped away, with a few dip-ins over the intervening years.  Then I went to 2020 online, and to some extent got involved again.

I suspect that because of that middle phase of relative-absence, the changes between 2008 and 2020 have been more starkly visible for me than for the people who, as it were, “lived through them”, adapting more gradually year by year.  And that perspective is informing what I want to talk about here.

First I’m gonna zoom back to how things were around the time when I first went to BiCon.

At the time of the creation of BiCon Continuity

When BiCon Continuity was set up, the problem it was intended to address was the lack of a legal entity to hold the money.

Back in those days, there was no central organisation for the money.  A typical process would be that after the end of BiCon, the completing team would at some point hand off the money to the team for two years ahead.  So at times, there were two lumps of money “leapfrogging” along the years: year X would pass their money to year X+2, and a bit later, year X+1 would be passing their money to year X+3.  It was up to each team whether the team was a legal entity, or whether it was just (legally) “some people doing a thing”.

People in the late 1990s were worried about the potential for that informal, evolved-tradition system to go wrong.  I always felt it was socially pretty unlikely for someone to run off with a big chunk of BiCon money (and thereby destroy a presumably-significant chunk of their own social network) – but if some extreme circumstance ever had led to someone feeling the need to, then practically it might not have been hard.  There was good reason to consider getting more formal and centralised.

At the same time, there was a strong countervailing concern:  “If we have a central structure, someone will be in charge – who? and why them? and how do we know that they aren’t going to start speaking “for” the community, or doing things we don’t agree with?”

A lot of people liked the sense of “having no leaders” and therefore “all of us collectively being leaders“.  It was perceived as healthy for the community, and thereby actively a good thing, even though it did carry this financial risk.

In other words, when (for several years) there kept on not being a legal entity, it wasn’t just the BiCon-goers of that era faffing about and failing to get it organised;  it was people grappling with real questions about holding of power.

The tip of the balance

Gradually, the balance tipped towards “yes, we probably better had create a legal entity”.

I think one reason it tipped was a very practical one: that putting on a BiCon needed more and more money.  Universities were realising they could make a lot of money from renting out their student accommodation in the summer, and uprating the buildings and prices.  (I think the first ever BiCon to have “en-suite” rooms would’ve been 2003 – someone might correct me if I’m wrong.)

On a more positive note, I think the change was also partly due to trust having grown within the community networks.  As BiCon went on, there were more people around who’d got to know each other, and more people who’d been in visible leadership roles for many years.  This meant that it was easier for people to trust other people to wield the power of a central organisation.  To this day, I’ve never had a doubt of the integrity or motivations of the people who’ve served as Continuity trustees.

Succession planning, sustainability etc

At the point where I was stepping away from BiCon around 2008, some of my biggest concerns were around what I’d now call “succession planning” and “transmission of institutional knowledge”:

Even when people are thoroughly enjoying themselves and teams are basically functioning well, lives change and people move on. So the time to nurture the next generation is before they’re needed to step up and take the lead.

I spent a long time writing up the possibility of structuring teams to include & encourage apprenticeship roles:

… there’s a sense in which it isn’t just about “which way is easier for that particular event”. It’s about each team deciding: is their intention purely to run an event, or is their intention to run the event and nurture the skills and experience which will be needed for future similar events?

Fast-forward to 2020

So there’s me in 2020, not really much in the BiCon loop, haven’t been to any of the things since 2015.

Because of the pandemic, BiCon goes online, and I think to myself, well I could go to this one without too much bother, let’s see what’s happening!

I wasn’t surprised to discover there was an ongoing shortage of teams.  From my point of view, that was where BiCon had been headed already;  and the factors I’d already been concerned about had been exacerbated by Tory “austerity”, squashing down people’s capacity to do more than survive.

But what did really surprise me was how people seemed to be relating to Continuity these days – as if the few Continuity Trustees were now supposedly in charge of everything!

“Continuity should do ABC.”

“Continuity aren’t doing XYZ.”

“We’re thwarted and stuck, because we tried emailing Continuity and nobody got back to us.”

The disempowerment!  compared to the vibes of 1997!

It took me aback.  I was like “No wait, somehow you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.  They’re not supposed to be the bosses of us!  We’re supposed to do stuff.  Their role is the money legalities!”

And I realised that, contrary to my 1990s-era reference point, there had been some “scope creep” :-)

What happened in between

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t blame the people in Continuity.  I don’t think they set out to become “the bosses of us”.  (And I’m also very glad that someone else did want to look after the money and its legalities, because I never wanted to.  Teamwork innit :-) )

Obviously this shift I’m talking about was happening while I wasn’t really tracking stuff, but from what I do know, I think it was something like:

Gradually, many of the 1990s/2000s BiCon-generation were, for different reasons, not available any more.  Some had naturally gone off to do other things.  Some were dealing with escalating health issues as they/we got older;  a few had died.  Some had burnt out.

What with that, and “austerity”, and the i.m.o. long-standing weakness in succession planning, there were fewer and fewer experienced people feeling able to step up to run a team.

In response, Continuity Trustees valiantly tried to plug the gaps!  But the more they did that, the more it looked from the outside as though they were in charge of it all – and the less BiCon felt like a collective responsibility, with everyone making stuff happen.

(That’s over-simplified;  there were other factors.  But I think it does describe one of the important dynamics.)

And the thing is:  that was unsustainable.  Neither the Trustees as individuals, nor Continuity as a structure, could replace an empowered community from which future teams were “naturally” coalescing at a rate of at least one per year.

I think it’s gone back the other way a little bit now.  I think in the last couple of years, people in Continuity have done more to push back on the expectation that it’s all on them, and I think that’s the right direction.

But I’m still picking up what to me are wrong vibes about what their role is meant to be.  And I want to send up a warning flag about that.


So, what do I think would be a better direction to head towards?

I think a more sustainable shape would be like…

  • An online space for current and past organisers, the equivalent of the old “biconorganisers” LiveJournal.

    This was a LiveJournal (locked/private) community which you could only join if you were either on a current BiCon team, or had run one in the past.  It meant that if one of the current teams had a problem, they could post and say “we have a problem – how has this been solved in the past? what would you do?” and probably get half a dozen replies by the next day.  It was worlds apart from relying on a few very very busy Continuity Trustees as your main or only source of advice.

  • A directory of all the writings already online about how to run BiCons – ordered by topic, so that, for example, if you’re doing the ents, you can easily find a list of links about BiCon ents.  Maybe there has to be a private section as well, but a lot of what’s out there is in public already, and I think teams don’t necessarily know where to find it.  (There was quite a bit of talk in 2020 about gathering and listing this information – I don’t know if that went anywhere.)
  • Added to that, an effort to gather the experience of people who’ve done all this stuff before and haven’t yet written it up.  Find people who aren’t burnt out yet, who know how to do things like “how to open a bank account for a BiCon” or “how to interface with a venue for a BiCon”.  Interview them, if they’re willing, and document what they said. See who’s up for being an advisor on which topics.  Create a directory of advisors which is available to teams and potential teams.  Invite them onto the organisers’ space.
  • Some tasks delineated as “best repeated by the same people year on year, rather than new people having to redesign it fresh each year”, and small continuous teams in place for doing those.  I’m not saying ongoing teams for everything – just where it makes sense.

    A mini example of this is Ian being in charge of the web sites these days, although I would never recommend there only being 1 person in that role;  a couple of deputies also learning the setup would be more failure-proof.  So, relatedly:

  • Wherever possible, the important roles have apprentice roles attached.
  • A default rhythm whereby at BiCon Year X:
    1. Team X+1 launches ticket sales.
    2. Team X+2, having already put their outline plan online for discussion, receives the endorsement of the BiCon Decides meeting.  By the time they go to BiCon Decides, there ought not to be any major questions remaining, because any doubts would’ve been addressed in conversations during the run-up, following questions from the wider community and/or on organiser-space.
    3. Potential team leaders for BiCon X+3 step up, and explain what roles will be available on their team, with a view to connecting with potential contributors.

    That’s not to say there wouldn’t be some changes of personnel along the way, because 2 or 3 years is a long run-up and people’s circumstances change.  But this way, the community as a whole is in a position to evaluate teams, and the normal state of affairs is not a rushed scramble.

  • Continuity looks after the money, and has final approval of teams.  They have to have that power, because “the buck stops there” as regards BiCon’s reputation and the money.  But if the rest of the process is working properly, 99% of the time they’ll be able to review the teams’ presentations & the endorsements from experienced community members, and say “Yes, looking good”.  No tasks relating to propping up a struggling team!


Easier to say than to do, though.

How do we get there from here, when BiCon has already dug itself into an energy-&-skill-deficit that’s difficult to climb out of?

  1. Invest in laying foundations.

    I recommend, while recognising some might disagree:  Start the rebuild by deciding now not to have an in-person BiCon 2024.  Whatever energy would’ve gone into that, put it into setting up sustainable structures to underpin future years:  either as described above, or better ideas from other people.

    Reasoning:  A year’s run-up is hard on the team and very likely to burn people out, worsening the overall unsustainability problem.  I think Al, Daisy and the 2023 team have done a great job – but I’m pretty sure they’d agree that in an ideal world, they wouldn’t have had to do it at such high speed.  Sustainable-style BiCon 2024 already didn’t happen, because it would’ve started in 2022, and it didn’t.  If someone’s keen to run an in-person 2024, how about they start planning a really good 2025, incorporating sustainable ongoing sub-teams?

    (Maybe do have an online 2024, though.  Or some smaller in-person meetups.  Or some working parties that are enjoyable, to develop the things I’m describing.  Or some other stuff.)

  2. Collectively, I think we need to identify what must be done by Continuity Trustees because only they are legally allowed to do it.

    Then, the wider community needs to stop expecting them to do the other stuff.  And the Continuity Trustees need to get good at making it clear what isn’t their business.

    I would actually like to see an adaptation/transition/rebalancing period of a year or two where Trustees visibly step back from anything not legally required of them, even if it means some seemingly-important things stalling during the reset.  I think if Trustees are still blurring the boundary in order to plug gaps and keep things teetering along, it’s going to be difficult for the wider community to correctly perceive (a) the gaps and (b) its own power to fill them.

I’m not going to get into detail here on the 2023 team’s recommendations: partly because they’re technically confidential till after the BiCon Decides sesh (I checked).  But I would invite the meeting participants to consider them with this wider framework in mind.  There are things in there which, yes, would be good things to happen – and at the same time, I just basically think that the community will function better if we aren’t waiting for Continuity Trustees to be doing them.

Happy to be argued with if you think I’m mistaken!

1.  “Decided to go”:  2020 and 2021 were online, and I took part in those too. Last time I went in person was 2015, which was its previous time in Nottingham. I was ambivalent about supporting 2023 because, in general, I’ve not been promoting events which don’t make masking the default (#CovidIsAirborne), and I still have reservations about that. But I hope there will continue to be online events as part of the BiCon tradition.

2 thoughts on “BiCon futures, BiCon structures”

  1. I have nothing useful to say but thank you for doing the work to help bicon continue. I am confused on how to vote on multi-pointed resolutions

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