On virtual events and community

June 10 2020 | #resources, #conferences

Or thoughts on the whys and hows of online conferences

This blog has been sitting here for 6 months with nothing more than a “welcome to my new blog” post and a blogified version of a short write-up about the practicalities of webcasting a conference.

For a while I’ve been thinking about trying to start posting more regularly. I had imagined that this might involve writing about, you know, linguistics, but here we are instead with another post about the practicalities of virtual conference organizing. Nothing like establishing a Brand.

As anyone who tried to have a conversation with me recently would have learned, perhaps to their regret, I spent most of May involved in organizing two virtual events: WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, and the CLA annual conference, a normal academic conference that usually takes place as part of the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities in Canada.

[ETA 06/20: For WisCONline I was not a member of the Online Con department, though I participated in setting up and running online infrastructure for the convention. For the 2020 CLA meeting I chaired the Ad-Hoc Technical Committee tasked with coordinating the pivot to an online format.]

These were very different events, but a lot of the considerations involved in moving them online were the same. Both went very smoothly, with no catastrophic technical failures, and I had a great deal of fun at both of them.

I wanted to write up some of my experiences with both partly as a resource for people who are considering their options for making certain kinds of events virtual, but also as a commentary on why one would bother to do so. And this is particularly timely, because if you applied to NELS 51 you might have seen this morning that NELS will be virtual this year—I am on the organizing committee in an advisory capacity, which is now specifically advising about the practicalities of going virtual.

Why go online?

On Twitter the other week I saw a comment suggesting that moving academic conferences online, as an alternative to cancelling, plays into a fetishization of productivity above all else, and ignores the fact that a lot is going on in the world right now, that people have more important things to do with their time than attend events. Surely, some say, we should just hit ‘pause’ for a while, and acknowledge that things aren’t normal, and that many people are preoccupied with things closer to home.

I entirely agree that we should move away from valorizing productivity as the highest academic virtue. But I also believe very strongly that travelling to events—whether for fun or for work—isn’t something we do just to consume or dispense content, or to perform normalcy.

For me, and perhaps many of you, the real value of attending large in-person events is the opportunity to build community. This is perhaps more transparently obvious for an event like WisCon. WisCon has an incredible depth of programming and the occasional big-name headline guest, but what most people attend for is the chance to see and interact with a particular community of people.

It became obvious in early March this year that the in-person WisCon convention would almost certainly be cancelled, and in deciding whether to cancel altogether or to begin to put together an alternative virtual event, those of us on the organizing committee grappled with a tension between a recognition that many of the volunteer organizers did not have the time or the mental energy to create an entirely new kind of event in the midst of an evolving global catastrophe, and yet at the same time a feeling that an evolving global catastrophe was precisely the time when the sense of community and shared purpose provided by WisCon might be most valuable.

In contrast to fan-run speculative fiction conventions, academic conferences are more transparently transactional: you give a presentation, and in exchange you receive some combination of professional renown and a CV line item. But they nonetheless play a role in building community. For me the value of attending conferences goes well beyond presenting my own work and catching up on the research being done by others (though those aspects are great). I travel to conferences—even when I’m not presenting, as long as they’re sufficiently close by—in order to see friends and colleagues who I might never otherwise see in person, and to hang out with people who enjoy thinking about the same kinds of questions that I enjoy thinking about.

One value of going virtual, rather than cancelling, is thus that it offers the chance to maintain these communities, at a time when a lot of venues for in-person connections have been abruptly cut off. But a virtual format also has the potential to make that community accessible to people who are otherwise shut out of it. The “normal” format for conferences excludes anyone who can’t regularly travel to spend weekends in distant locations, whether because of family obligations, health issues, lack of finances, or because they live in a country where getting a visa to travel to North American or European conferences is difficult. While I look forward to being able to meet in person again after the pandemic, I also think virtual events have the potential to radically improve equity of access, and I sincerely hope that they become a more central part of our social ecosystem in the future.

All of this is why I was willing to put time into helping move events online. My personal timeline actually wove back and forth between academic and non-academic events: because of my experiences last year with THEY 2019 I was very interested in the transition to a virtual CUNY at UMass, and spent a lot of time reading their how-to guides in the early days of thinking about a virtual WisCon. Then after WisCon’s virtual planning had gotten underway, the CLA also had to decide whether to cancel or pivot online, and it was my experience with WisCon that made me advocate for a virtual CLA was possible, and made me comfortable chairing the technical committee that undertook to make it happen.

How does this actually happen?

Part of putting a conference online is easy: as many of us can probably attest, there are if anything too many platforms available to meet virtually via video call. In some ways, the biggest challenge in running the online version of a usually in-person event is that nobody “just knows” how things will work (including you!) so it’s particularly important to have a detailed step-by-step timeline for both the event as a whole and for each individual session or call. It’s also important to schedule lots of practice calls in advance, to iron out technical issues in advance and get used to any wrinkles in the interface (these are practice not just for presenters, but also for the event organizers!).

But everything I wrote above was about how conferences aren’t just about finding a way to broadcast content, and so you can’t email out a bunch of links to video talks and call it a day.[1] It’s not even enough to just think outside the box about how both old and new types of events might work online, though this is absolutely great and I encourage people to do this. WisCon had an online auction and a virtual dance party, the CLA held both a roundtable discussion and a grad student social online.

The much harder question is how to recreate the sense of community and space for serendipitous one-on-one connections that are so much of what people find valuable about attending in-person events. It might not be possible to create the same sense of community you get from being in a large room with hundreds of other people, or the same spontaneous conversations you have with someone over coffee breaks, but the goal is to create something meaningfully similar.

Based on my experience so far, a key to creating space for these more ephemeral social connections is to set up a platform that exists “alongside” the conference, ideally one that’s meant for casual text-based chat. THEY 2019 used Slack; both WisCon and the CLA used Discord. The key property of these platforms is that communicating is quick and easy, and both have some fun options (via emoji reactions), but they also permit the parallel space to be divided into separate channels. Something similar could be done by using a message board, though in my experience message boards don’t create quite the sense of “being there”, because they aren’t as fast moving and interactive.

For WisCon in particular, we created unstructured social spaces by naming them after the physical spaces in the hotel where unstructured social interaction usually happens. So we created channels for the #lobby, and #the-bar, and several channels that were set up as spontaneous programming “rooms”.

Naming these spaces after their physical counterparts was useful in cueing people to what they might be used for. But of course, a benefit of virtual platforms is that you can also designate “spaces” purely by their function: you can have a channel/thread/whatever for each event, or each session, or each panel; you can have one for announcements; you can have one where people post virtual “flyers” for other events or services.

Having a Discord or a Slack is not the same as getting to see old friends or colleagues in person. For some people it probably fails entirely to create that feeling. But many people at both WisCon and the CLA, people who had never previously used Discord for any purpose, people who were not Extremely Online, spontaneously commented that they were surprised at how much seeing someone’s name appear in the “Welcome” channel “felt like” seeing them arrive at an event. And because the chat platform persists across the conference schedule—in contrast to the video webcasts or calls that begin and end at specific times—it provides a kind of binding glue to tie the programme together.

An extra thing on top of text-based communication is finding a way to encourage purely social video calls in much smaller groups. While some people are perfectly happy with 100% text-based communication, it can be nice to actually see people’s actual faces. This ends up being a further benefit of having an event-specific chat platform: it gives people a place to advertise short “coffee break” video calls, open to whoever wants to drop in, without having to broadcast the link to everyone on Facebook or Twitter. Inspired by the coffee break meetups I saw advertised during CUNY (by Tal Linzen, admittedly via Twitter), for WisCon I suggested a #meetups channel to encourage this kind of casual social interaction. My own experience was that posting a link for such a meetup felt somewhat artificial, firing all my social anxiety cues as though I was sitting in a hallway next to a large sign reading PLEASE TALK TO ME, but in the end it let me talk with a mix of people I already knew and people I didn’t, and indeed felt kind of like 20 minutes standing around during a coffee break, or grabbing a drink with a few people at the end of the day.[2]

Were I to be involved in planning a virtual conference again in the future, I would in fact be much more intentional about these chances for “face to face” conversation, by pre-recruiting people to host “spontaneous” video calls during each break. For academic conferences I would also encourage speakers to consider posting such a link in the break immediately after their talk, to mimic the way one lurks in wait for a speaker to ask the question you didn’t get to ask during the official question period.

In fact, almost everything I would do differently involves consciously setting up social spaces, which brings us to…

What I would do differently: stepping up the social engineering

In talking to people who attended WisCon or the CLA, something I’ve heard a few times is that these succeeded in feeling a bit like the real event for people who attend them regularly in-person. Both seem to have felt less like attending an in-person event for people attending for the first time, those who didn’t already recognize many of the names they were seeing on the calls or in Discord.

Of course, this isn’t something unique to virtual events. Some in-person events are easy to join for the first time, while others are incredibly difficult to break into without a personal connection. Creating the first kind of event isn’t something that happens accidentally, though: it involves building a schedule that includes events and spaces designed to welcome first-timers and help them meet people.

This is… almost never something that academic conferences have. And indeed, academia is often identified as somewhere that can be incredibly hostile for people who aren’t already “in”, or who belong to the “wrong” subdiscipline or theoretical framework. This problem is only exacerbated in virtual spaces, where you can’t just hover next to the coffee table and try to strike up conversations.

So what to do?

If I get another chance to help organize a virtual conference (*cough*NELS*cough*), I would consider organizing something like a “welcome reception”, either the evening before the conference begins or in the morning of the first day. This could take the form of a video call with “breakout rooms” that people can sort themselves into, with miscellaneous topics for discussion, but it could instead (or also) involve a set of themed channels on Slack or Discord (this is what we did for the virtual Gathering at WisCon). I’ve thought a lot about an article I read early on in these pandemic times How to Host a Cocktail Party on Zoom, and though I haven’t gotten a chance to implement any of its suggestions I remain keen to do so in the future.

Where to start if you’re doing this yourself.

This post has been fairly high-level in its discussion of the practical details of running a virtual conference. I thought it would be helpful to end with something more concrete, a kind of list to work through, so I’ve put together a list of questions that need to be answered when organizing a virtual event, with some of the answers we reached at events I’ve been involved with.

There are probably details I’ve overlooked, and certainly other events have been organized differently, but hopefully this list will suggest some points you might not have thought about otherwise.

  • Are you pivoting a previously-planned in-person event, or planning a virtual event from the ground up? Is the event purely virtual, or hybrid virtual and in-person?

    • I would love to see more blended events in the future, but now being able to compare THEY 2019 (an in-person conference that could also be attended remotely) with fully online events like WisCon or the CLA this year, the latter were much more straightforward.
  • What platform will you use for broadcasting video content?

    • WisCon used Jitsi Meet + YouTube
    • the CLA used 3 paid Zoom accounts that exec members already had (sessions were regular calls, not “Webinars”)
  • How many people do you expect to have in attendance? What is the largest number of people your platform can accommodate?

    • For both WisCon and the CLA, the peak number of people viewing a program item live at any one time was somewhere above 30% but below 50% of registrants. WisCon had a bit over 1000 registrants, but because program items were streamed to YouTube there was no cap on how many could watch at once. The CLA had around 350, but never had more than 115 attending a single session.)
  • How can you address any accessibility barriers created by your platforms? Can you pay to have content professionally captioned?

    • The answer to this is probably “yes”—and you may be surprised to find out that this is less expensive than you might have thought!
  • Are you going to charge for the event?

    • Nobody wants to pay $70+ for a virtual event, but they might be happy to pay $10-$20—especially if you can tell people what the money will pay for (accessibility? student support? a fancier Zoom license?).
    • It is worth requiring people to register even if the event is free, so that you can collect email addresses for the purposes of sending conference announcements.
  • Do you care about limiting access to people who paid / registered? How will you prevent “Zoom-bombing”, or other unauthorized intrusions into the event space?

  • Does your Code of Conduct need revision for a virtual event?

  • Who will run the calls during the event?

    • This should not be the person who is chairing or moderating the presentation! They will have enough to do running the session in a possibly-unfamiliar virtual setting.
    • For academic conferences, this is a good role to consider for the students who you might otherwise have employed to coordinate registration, coffee breaks, etc.
  • How will you fit small interstitial program items into the schedule? “Opening Remarks”, “Closing Remarks”, “Business Meeting”, etc.

  • How will audiences interact with scheduled presentations?

    • WisCon: Audience was not on the video call with panelists, and were instead watching via a live YouTube stream). Questions were asked via panel-specific channels on Discord, and were relayed to the moderator by the technical coordinator of the video call. Other content (readings, academic presentations) was prerecorded, with the opportunity for live discussion at a scheduled time via Discord.
    • CLA: Audience was on the video call with talk presenters, indicated that they had questions via the call’s chat function (or could type full questions in the chat, and have them read aloud). Posters available online, with an optional video/audio talkthrough; questions could be submitted via a comment form, but poster presenters could also host a video call to interact with people live.
  • Who will take questions?

    • Probably not individual speakers: even if questions are being asked on the call (via Zoom), it’s better to train session chairs on the technical aspects of taking questions, as the speaker is likely to still be sharing their slides / screen.
    • Consider your options for improving the equity of who has the opportunity to ask questions (i.e. not all men / senior scholars / white scholars). On the one hand, many virtual interfaces make it very clear what order people submitted questions, which removes any perception bias in the domain of “oh, I think your hand went up first”—but this does not eliminate any skew in who is more likely to feel their question is worth asking publicly, while also making it clear if a chair does depart from the order in which questions were submitted.
  • Will talks be recorded? If yes, how will you host them and make them available? What permission do you need from speakers, and from the audience (if questions are recorded), to record them?

    • Many people expect that they will be able to view webcasts after the fact. If that won’t be possible, you should communicate that clearly in advance!
    • WisCon streamed all panels and presentations to YouTube, but videos were unlisted (only available via links that were only shared with registered participants).
    • The CLA allowed presenters to indicate that they wanted their talks recorded, but this ended up being tricky to handle on the back end (tracking which talks to record, hosting the videos, providing links, etc.)
  • Will any of the presentations be pre-recorded? If yes, how will you host these, and how will they be broadcast?

  • Will materials (handouts, slides) be available online in advance? When do they have to be submitted by? How will they be hosted / made available to attendees?

    • This applies primarily to academic conferences, but given fields of lingustics where detailed handouts are still the norm (and are preferable to slides in some ways), it’s useful to think about how to handle talks where someone is working through a handout. (Probably the speaker should still share the handout on the screen, but how will you ensure that people have a downloaded copy of the PDF?)
  • When will you hold practice calls in advance? What needs to happen on those practice calls?

    • Notice that this is not “will you hold practice calls?” While more and more people have experience with a variety of video call platforms, not everyone does—and even people with lots of experience should find out how things will work at this particular event.
    • Practice calls are especially valuable for the organizers, especially as a way to train the people technically running the call! It makes sense to have at least one practice call with only the “core” technical team, before moving to practice calls for people who will be presenting at the conference.
  • What should happen in cases of catastrophic technical failure? How will you communicate with attendees in the event of catastrophic technical failure? (Tip: this should probably be whatever space you create for persistent connection through the event, such as Discord)

  • How will you engineer social connection during the conference? people?

And some tips I couldn’t figure out how to phrase as questions:

  • Create a runbook that explains exactly how everything that needs to be done will work. Assume that whoever set things up will be unable to attend on zero notice: the runbook should be detailed enough that someone else could follow it and still make everything work (in other words: when you forget what you decided to do, you can just go back and read it). Keep it somewhere online, because it will probably be revised during practice calls.

Finally, if you are thinking about planning a virtual event—whether because in-person gatherings are a bad idea due to a pandemic, or just because you want something cheap and accessible—I would be super interested to hear from you, whether by email or in the comments here! And I am happy to share my own experiences at greater length one-on-one.

[1]: In some ways this year’s virtual GLOW worked like this. Talks were potentially live, but were scheduled across a two-week period at the convenience of presenters. This is an interesting way of thinking about presenting research, and I do not criticize the organizers for going this route! But I think everyone who participated in GLOW this year would agree that it didn’t feel particularly like attending a conference.

[2]: A critical piece of advice shared by Sumana Harihareswara at WisCon, attributed by her to Pam The Webivore, is to strictly limit these ephemeral video meetups to around 20 minutes. I am personally happy to stretch that to 30 minutes, or maybe even 45 if it’s the end of the day and the conversation is lively, but some kind of time limit is crucial when you’re spending an entire day on video calls.