Several years ago, upon my return from a bloggercon of some kind, I was enthused by the atmosphere at the event and thought to myself how nice it would be to have something similar but with a focus on science. I posted my thoughts on the blog and received many enthusiastic comments and e-mails. But I did not really have a good concept or ideas how to actually make it happen.

Enter Anton Zuiker. At one of our regular monthly blogger meetups which he organized at the time, Anton took me aside and suggested we work on this project together. It was do-able, he thought, if we did it smart.

Several months later, the first conference became a reality.

And people loved it and made sure we understood that this was not going to be a one-time event, but something we'll have to organize every year. So we did.

Every year in January, we host a wonderful group of scientists, journalists, educators, bloggers, Web developers, students and others here in North Carolina for a couple of days of discussions and, more importantly, for the wonderful conversations both in and out of the conference rooms. Every topic that somehow relates to science and the Web is fair game: education, publishing, journalism, art, technology, medicine, math and more.

The meeting is an unconference - the idea is that the sum total of knowledge and wisdom of all the people in the room is always greater than the knowledge and wisdom of the person on the stage, so everyone in the room is encouraged to participate. Conversations that start in the hallways, on the buses taking our guests to lab and museum tours, or at the hotel bar, continue in the conference rooms with a little more focus. Then, after the session ends, the conversation again continues elsewhere. Including online.

Yes, I often get asked why a conference called ScienceOnline is occurring offline. The truth is - this is an online conference. It continues online throughout the year. This community continuously converses in various online spaces, using Twitter hashtags #scio09, #scio10, #scio11 and now #scio12 - thousands of tweets have been posted, a few each day of the year. This is how this community keeps in constant touch. There is also some conversation happening on Facebook (we are asking for a volunteer to set up and host this year's FB page). FriendFeed chatter seems to have thinned out, but there is a new platform in town - Google Plus - which we hope people will use. And of course - the blogs.

But every now and then, it is a good idea to meet in person. Unofficial meetups happen every time someone travels, or there is a scientific conference. More regular meetings have also sprung up (e.g,. #NYCSciTweetUp, Science Online New York City and Science Online London). But the Biggie is the original ScienceOnline annual meeting here in North Carolina.

And when we meet, the conference is happening simultaneously both online and offline. This will be the third time we will hire our friends and neighbors from SignalShare to provide wifi. They usually do much larger events, like the Grammys and Super Bowl, but ScienceOnline is, in their book, a large event. Not because there is a lot of people, but because we push an incredible amount of data over the Web during those 2-3 days we are in town - everyone is livetweeting, liveblogging, livestreaming, skyping in, uploading images, podcasts and videos all the time. The first year they were here, SignalShare people were stunned!

This coming January, we'll gather in Raleigh, NC, for the sixth meeting of ScienceOnline. The event has grown over the years. The first time, we had about 130 people on one day. Last year, for the fifth conference, there were 320 people over 2.5 days. We had to close the registration 44 minutes after opening it, as it was full. People with itchy mouse-fingers were clicking with anticipation for hours before the registration opened, and joked about it on Twitter.

Obviously, we have to do something different next year. We are moving the sixth meeting out of Sigma Xi (which we love, and thank them for wonderful hosting over the years) to a larger space at North Carolina State University - the McKimmon Center. This gives us the opportunity to expand the program, make the conference bigger and longer, and to accommodate more people. This year, we will cap the registration at 450 people, and we will do the registration (late October or early November) in a way that will make it harder to miss in case we open while you are in a meeting, or in the classroom, or fast asleep at some ungodly hour in Australia.

As the meeting has grown, it is impossible for just Anton and myself to take care of every aspect of it any more. So this year, we welcome Karyn Traphagen as our third co-organizer, as well as a committee of friends who are helping us all the way, each in a different way: Matt Shipman, Kari Wouk, Nancy Shepherd, David Kroll, Robin Smith, Jason Priem, Dawn and Brian Crawford and a cast of hundreds of people in the community who have supported us all along and are always prepared to pitch in with help.

The website is now live - check out ScienceOnline2012 homepage! Look around - there are already many pieces together, and more are still to come. Check out the blog for updates. See the first entries by Anton and Karyn.

If you are not already on our mailing list and do not want to miss out on the announcement when the registration will open, sign up here.

Much of the community organizing will, as always, happen on the organizing wiki. We have closed the Program Suggestions page over the weekend (but take a look at what kinds of topics are likely to be included), and will start working on building the Program, as envisioned by the entire community.

I hope you can join us this year in person. And if you cannot, you don't want to miss the proceedings online - there will be plenty to see as attendees tweet, blog and post videos online, we are likely to livestream most or all of the sessions, so all that you will miss is beer.

Previously in this series:

What is: Open Laboratory 2011

What is: Science Online London

What is: #NYCSciTweetUp

What is: Science Online New York City

What Is:

What is: The Story Collider

What is: NASW

What is: #SciFund Challenge

What is: Journal of Science Communication