Community Building through Events

This text originally appeared in the Toxic BBQ Retrospective Zine, Grow your own Sideshow.


Few were as excited to talk about organizing Toxic BBQ as Sc0tland, Las Vegas Native and early DEF CON attendee, known on Twitter as @level2three. Other than Toxic, she has been involved in Scav Hunt, Toorcamp, and countless other hacker hijinx. She’s eager to share her experiences building an event to be proud of. The following is based on notes from interviews on this very topic.
- DuncanYoudaho
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of building your own event, let’s talk about why successful ones resonate and return. As a participant, they may seem to occur spontaneously, but savvy organizers are working behind the scenes to induce and foster community, narrative, and culture of the event by including these aspects:
  • Set the stage and differentiate your sideshow from the rest of the attractions.
  • Adopt rituals and add in relics to unify participants in action and memory.
  • Trim the fat and refine as you grow.
  • Protect your attendees so they are able to both succeed and fail safely.
Through fostering and pruning as you grow, you can guide your event into something worth returning to.

Setting the Stage

High-context events like hacker, anime, and Star Trek conventions have become destinations for geek culture. Whirlwind weekends spark collaboration and inspiration in equal measure. They are havens for marginalized groups: neuro-diverse with obsessions and quirkiness, cultural or racial diaspora, and online-first communities looking for face-to-face social opportunities. But these action-packed weekends can also be exhausting and impenetrable to newcomers and outsiders. Sideshows can bridge this gap by becoming on-ramps to the larger conference or reservoirs of expertise within it.

Defining your sideshow with unique attractions will draw a subset of the con audience and help it take on a life of its own. You will need to decide if yours will showcase feats of strength, unique artists, or an opportunity to mingle on the margins. The decision of what you want your event to be, and not to be, will drive everything else you do.

At Toxic, we cut the volume, invite n00bs without requiring a secret password, and bond over burgers. This opens a space apart from the con where attendees can bridge daily life and the general convention mayhem. Sc0tland emphasized this in one quip, “I feel like [Toxic is] one of the few times at DEF CON where you can just relax and talk to people for a while without the vortexing that happens at the conference.” In contrast, SkyTalks is talk track within the convention space that asks for brutal honesty by hosting talks and panels from the most experienced hackers on the planet while also forbidding recording. Hacker Karaoke, Jeopardy, History, etc. each make social spaces and entertainment only tangentially related to technical expertise. Each one is a slice of life catering to a different subset of the general conference atmosphere. Find your niche and your event will grow.

My first Toxic BBQ was also my first DEF CON. There, I was able to figure out what DC meant to me. Have a strong opinion of who you want your sideshow to serve. As you succeed, the people looking for that different flavor will find you.

Anthropology and You

An important way humans connect after we’ve parted is through objects and stories. Use this as you build a culture of your own. Give participants trinkets for the scrapbook and events they will want to share. Relics and rituals connect attendees in a time and place to which they will be compelled to return.
“One of the highlights… for me will forever be the image of a phalanx of shopping carts moving in formation into the heart of Sam's Club...”
- zCat
Repeated ceremonies anchor your attendees in time. Howl as the sun sets, get a hacker name at DC101, hit the beach balls at Linecon, just don’t be late. Sc0tland recalled a tradition that developed around lighting the fires at Toxic BBQ, “We loaded those grills with a bottle of starter fluid [each]...I am pretty sure that people in planes landing at the nearby airport could see the columns of fire coming off those grills...” These happenings become points of reference in conversation, and it is the fact that they are done together, and not strictly their content, that gives them power. For long-running events like villages and hackerspace open houses, stations might be a better fit. This bank of tables with a yearly allotment of materials and help can be especially helpful to draw in new participants. They require more head-count, but attendees each get the same experience. They are also an easy way to put volunteers and future organizers to work. Our food line is supplied by cooks that keep everyone fed. The DC’s Tamper Evident Village offers kits and tutorials for the uninitiated. Whether in time or space, these shared experiences build the culture and bring people back for more.

Swag is what you make of it.

Giveaways are still the most powerful method of building remembrance. Throw some cash at your artist friends, and bring a memento or two to life. This swag can be anything: Puzzle cards, pins, stickers, t-shirts, or food. Whatever it is, ensure you have enough for all comers, and provide something special for volunteers to motivate more participation. These medals and ribbons spark conversations and connections across time and urge people to return with friends in tow.

A compelling ritual and relic-driven format will build memories and reminders and become part of the draw. Your efforts will be rewarded when people reinforce the traditions and build the culture you seek.

Growing Safely

Once your sideshow is growing, it will start to take on a life of its own. By starting small and fostering organic growth, you can avoid getting in over your head. The heaviest responsibility you have as an organizer is safety. A sustainable event must be safe for its attendees.

Your sideshow will start growing by word of mouth. “Hey, there’s this thing we do,” is a big step, so realize that planning for growth means planning for change. Sc0tland did not hold back when describing how this aspect of Toxic made her feel. “I loved every second of it. The change was the Toxic BBQ’s life!” The rush of a successful event is all the reward some organizers need to plan bigger and better next year. As you grow, others may pile on and bring their own activities without consulting you. This is normal and expected! Your sideshow is a “we” experience, and running add-ons gives them the confidence to run bigger events of their own. Boundaries are key. Pick and choose what you will change as activities scale out, and don’t be afraid to say no. You do not have to be all things to all people, nor do you need to juggle others demands. Only commit to what you can reliably fund, produce, and clean up.


Growth is also a liability. TheCotMan remarked, “Some time around Toxic BBQ 3, things shifted to have more takers and fewer givers…. The few remaining givers gave A LOT – likely thousands of dollars in total expenses shared over maybe 7 or 8 people.” Money and time commitments burn out organizers. To combat this, Toxic reconfigured into a mutually-built BBQ. We organized supply runs and cleaned up as a group. To the yearly volunteers, these became the rituals that tied them to the event. If we hadn’t corrected, there would be no BBQ today.

An unsafe event is worse than no event at all. Proving a simple set of rules to attendees and enforcing a Code of Conduct creates a playground for safe interaction where new attendees learn the norms. This lets them try new things and make mistakes in a safe way. A rule like, “Let the cooks handle the fire; you stay hydrated” tells everyone at Toxic how to respect the most dangerous parts of the event: the fire and the desert heat. If you cannot meet safely, it will hurt everything you’re trying to build.

Post-#MeToo, everyone in authority has had to reckon with how institutions foment abuse, and broadcasting your rules is signal to creeps and targets alike how you protect attendees. Sc0tland shared a story about Kiwicon where someone thought it would be funny to mess with a live demo. The organizers brought the entire event to a screeching halt and called out the behavior as unacceptable. Without even knowing who the perpetrator was, organizers made it clear that the offenders were not welcome. Eject Nazis, send the aggressive or inebriated back to their rooms, and take no shit. If you shoulder that responsibility, safety will become the mainstays of your culture.

Whether you’re running a cookout, contest, or runway show, the space you create should allow for both growth and failure among friends. And you will have plenty of each. As Adam Savage said at DC17, “I don’t trust people that haven’t failed.” So plan for growth, but also for trouble. Be prepared for the worst to protect the best.

Culturation

In the end, organizing takes its toll on you, the organizer, and the physical logistics of events are the easy part. Take time to think about what you’ve accomplished, together, as the event happens. Enable clear boundaries and lines of delegation to prevent yourself from becoming overloaded. Respect yourself and attendees by being realistic about social obligation.

Villages, parties, and sideshows are for making connections outside the maelstrom of the main event, and this includes you, the organizer. Sc0tland recalls, “...sitting alone for a few minutes seeing everyone happy and just having a good time with their friends,” as one of the most rewarding things from the BBQ. “Honestly right now in writing this there is nothing I would like more than to be at that BBQ.” We’ve talked about things that drive culture and growth for attendees, but nothing is more invigorating for you as an organizer than taking in the community as it happens.

The rewards are as unpredictable as the costs. Your event is not about growing your personal fortune or social capital. The first thing Graverobber said to us when we took over Toxic BBQ was, “This is not a money-making venture.” As it becomes a part of your identity, don’t let the event consume your wallet or relationships. "People depended on me...but we kept it light enough that it wasn't a burden,” Sc0tland shared when asked about the effort that went into the early BBQs. Don’t be afraid to delegate and do your one thing well. “If you keep it real, don't take it too seriously, it will never run away from you.” The most powerful thing you can do for your own peace of mind is, “No, maybe next year.”

As we restart face-to-face events, make sure you give others this slack as they discover what they’re comfortable with. Avoid exploiting FOMO and bifurcation of your post-pandemic audience by pushing for a similar scale or pressuring old hands to return before they’re ready. Respect those who will not go, and seek actively to allow them to be included at a distance. Treat your event as if it were starting from scratch every year, and you will be rewarded with a new and vibrant version of your sideshow that is matched to what you can do today while still feeling like home.

In Conclusion

Your event is a combination of community, narrative, and culture. Equipped with a clear format and the tools to protect yourself and your attendees, you can create a space in time that is adored and whose return is sought after. As traditions develop, you can help turn a small gathering into a draw for hundreds, a thing-apart that “we” built together. In our sometimes insular communities, this cross-over is the fuel for healthy growth, creativity, and life-long connection.

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