This post is a reflection on my experience planning virtual events, with some thoughts about extending virtual formats to hybrid events (those with both virtual and in-person participants).
There are times in life where you learn how to do a thing, are proud of doing that thing, and yet never want to do the thing ever again. For example, in 2018 I tiled a shower. In doing so I gained a number of useful skills, a sense of accomplishment, a minor repetitive strain injury, and a determination to share tips and advice with others undertaking first-time home tiling projects. But I also gained a determination to never personally tile anything more complex than a flat wall ever again.
I feel somewhat the same way about organizing virtual conferences. I ran or helped run the logistics for 1 science fiction convention and 5 virtual linguistics / language-related conferences in 2020-2021. The time I spent doing this work was not wasted! I learned a great deal! The work was incredibly worthwhile! But though I now have fairly strong opinions about how to run online events, I also wouldn’t mind stepping aside to make room for other people to acquire these skills.
To help make that happen, it seems useful for me to try to translate my own experience into a kind of guide that other people can follow. This post updates (and in some cases recapitulates) some of what I wrote in 2019 and in 2020 about organizing virtual and hybrid events, but with the benefit of considerably more experience.
Parts of this guide are fairly conceptual, talking about what (I think) we’re trying to do when we run events, and some of it is more concerned with the practical logistics of choosing platforms and creating schedules. Towards the end of this post I also make some comments about running hybrid events, but I should say up front that these are mostly speculative, as I haven’t run a hybrid event since I gained my recent familiarity with entirely virtual events.
A table of contents, for those who want to skip ahead:
Right now, writing in November 2021, it’s still the case that people are organizing virtual events because there’s an ongoing global pandemic. When the topic comes up, I hear from a lot of people that they want to return to gathering wholly in-person as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.
But reverting to in-person-only events would overlook the people who have said the opposite, people for whom that the explosion of virtual events during the pandemic has allowed them to participate in spaces that they can’t access in-person.
In-person conferences are inaccessible to many people with disabilities, to people with limited funds for travel (especially those who might live far from major travel hubs), to people with caring obligations that prevent them from being away from home. More and more people are also conscious of the environmental impact of air travel to conferences and other events, and may prefer virtual events because they avoid the carbon impact of travel.
Historically, making events accessible is something academia in particular has been really bad at! But that’s hardly the kind of legacy we should hold on to; if we want to make our events more accessible, we should want to keep organizing events that people can attend virtually. If we also want to have the option of seeing each other in person—as many of us probably do—then these events need to be not just virtual by hybrid.
There are a lot of different types of events, with very different logistical considerations. Putting a concert online is different from putting a book club online, is different from putting a lecture online, is different from putting a conference online. So before I start talking about how to put events online, it’s worth taking a moment to be clear about the types of events I have in mind.
I come at event organizing mostly from the perspective of academic workshops and conferences. Even more specifically, I’m a linguist, and linguistics (at least my part of it) is a relatively small field: the largest in-person conference I attend (the LSA annual meeting) has perhaps 1500 attendees, but most are well under 200 and many are more often in the range of 20-60.
As a result, the virtual conferences I’ve been involved in organizing have also been comparatively small. They’ve often had more people attending than their in-person counterparts, but never radically more.
The specific virtual conferences I helped organize over the pandemic were: two annual meetings of the Canadian Linguistics Association, NELS 51, PSST 2021, and SILS 27. Beyond academia, I was also on the organizing committee for WisCon 44: WisCONline in 2020, though I didn’t take the lead on any of the planning for its virtual format.
These events have a lot in common, at least from the perspective of what’s involved in planning a virtual instance:
The last point is particularly relevant when we’re thinking about the scale or sophistication we need to aim for for virtual or hybrid events. If you’re planning a virtual instance of an incredibly sophisticated and slick mega-conference, then it makes sense to aim for a slick and sophisticated online experience. But if your in-person event is more modest, there is nothing wrong with a more bare-bones online instantiation!
A lot of smaller academic conferences take place in a single university classroom, with “catering” limited to coffee + muffins during a mid-morning break. Small conventions are scarcely any more involved, albeit slightly more likely to take place in a hotel. There is no reason to worry about professional-quality video and audio when taking such events online; the question is what can we do to be good enough to make these events accessible remotely, without burning out the organizers and within existing financial constraints?
This would be one of the first guiding principles I’d recommend to people organizing any kind of event: accept that it’s okay that there are limits on what you can do! Not everything that can be done has to be done. But to make good decisions about what to spend time and energy on, given finite quantities of both, it helps to take a moment to think about what your reasons for organizing an event are in the first place. What do you want to get out of it?
When we think of events, we often think first about the content, and think of attendees primarily as audience members. From this perspective, we might think that broadcasting presentations via the internet can be the beginning and the end of planning a virtual event, perhaps with some ability for people to ask questions or leave comments remotely.
In the very early days of the pandemic, I attended one or two conferences in this format—or perhaps better to say that I interacted with them, because I definitely didn’t feel like I was attending an event. I found myself watching one or two videos, half-heartedly starting a couple others, and then drifting away from the entire experience. Other people I’ve talked to have overwhelmingly agreed—and tellingly, over nearly two years of remote events, that format has almost entirely disappeared.
This shows pretty clearly that passively consuming presentations is not what people attend conferences / conventions / shows for—rather than thinking of attendees as audience members, we need to think of them as participants.
But what kind of participation are people looking for? What are events for, whether they’re in-person, virtual, or hybrid? As I wrote last year, I think conferences and conventions are fundamentally about connecting with people and building / affirming community.
This isn’t to say that the “content” aspects of virtual events are irrelevant. But it goes some way towards explaining why giving people a link to a YouTube stream and telling them it will start airing at 2PM Eastern isn’t enough for a meaningful virtual event. Meaningful events require some level of interaction and connection.
The interactions that take place at in-person events span a range of “depths”. People often talk about the value of meeting new people (aka “networking”) and the serendipitous opportunities for spontaneous conversation in hallways or over meals. Those things are important, but in some ways I think even more fleeting interactions are just as valuable: the looser social network of a community is reinforced by saying hello to familiar faces, by exchanging a few words while waiting for coffee, even just by being aware that you’re in the same space as other people.
At an in-person event, we can simply put humans into a shared physical space and trust that social interaction will follow. If nothing else, humans have to eat and drink, and can often be trusted to do so in a social manner.
But what works in a physical space won’t necessarily carry over into virtual settings—and even at traditional in-person events, a lot of our assumptions about interaction build on what is often called the “hidden curriculum” in academia, the assumption that people will “just know” how things are supposed to work and will take advantage of the opportunities available to them. But people who aren’t already part of the community might not “just know” how the event is “supposed” to work! More equitable event design should facilitate social interaction between attendees, focusing on people who aren’t already integrated into the event’s social networks. (An exercise for the reader can be to reflect on who those people are at the events you usually attend.)
What does more equitable event design look like in-person?
What equitable and welcoming design looks like in a virtual setting will be different from this, but the motivation stays the same.
How do the goals of gathering, building, and renewing connections translate into a virtual setting?
Let’s start by acknowledging that even if the “put people into a room and the rest will follow” strategy can work reasonably well in person, it isn’t going to work online.
Let’s also acknowledge that online social connection might look different, and might end up working less well for some but better for others, and that’s okay. Some people prefer the modality of online social interaction—many people I know have made very close friends in online communities, friends who they may have never met in person, who they may know only by an online name or handle! On the other hand, even though I myself am Extremely Online (tm) and have been for many years, I am also someone for whom virtual social connection is almost always secondary to live or in-person interaction; the people who I interact with most on the internet are those who I’ve met “live” in some way, usually in person.
There are additional challenges proceeding from current limits on the technology available to us. In a 40-person Zoom call you can’t introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you, you can’t have a side conversation with a small group of people, and for the most part you can’t read physical cues. There are platforms that try to address this by creating a virtual “space” one moves through, usually with some form of proximity-based video/audio—gather.town, wonder.me, Kumospace, and many others—but even on these platforms the flow of conversation and side-conversation doesn’t work as smoothly as it does in person.
What this means is that if we want to plan virtual events that allow people to connect online, we have to be a lot more intentional about it than we often are in person. For every type of social interaction we want people to experience, we have to consciously design opportunities for that interaction to take place. Even “spontaneous” interactions at an online event will only happen if the organizers create the space for them.
Creating space for the types of conversations people have while waiting in a coffee line doesn’t mean that you have to figure out how to emulate a coffee line on Zoom. It means thinking about how people can have the same kind of interaction online—what are other ways people could briefly greet each other and talk for a couple minutes? How can you leave space for people to catch up one-on-one or in small groups? How can you make space for serendipitous spontaneous conversations?
There are a lot of different ways to do this. Practically speaking, I’ve found that the following work well.
Create a persistent social space for the event, somewhere that people can go at any time to continue a conversation, ask a question, feel like they’re “at” the event. This can take the form of a video call that’s open throughout your event, a virtual “space” (like gather.town), or a text-based community platform (like Slack or Discord).
In my opinion, it’s ideal to have more than one platform for this: for example, having a text-based/semi-asynchronous platform (e.g. Slack or Discord) as well as having times when a conference video call remains open. Think about what the equivalent of “getting a coffee” with someone looks like during your conference—is there an easy way for people to meet for an impromptu conversation, for example a set of stable breakout rooms within a single persistent Zoom call?
Think about ways for people to meet in small groups or one-on-one. Even if you use a text-based platform as a persistent social space, consider holding a video call open for live small group meetings during the event—and tell people about this! This gives people a way to “grab a coffee” / “go to the bar” / “get a meal” even if they aren’t physically together.
Set up planned social events. Even more than at in-person events, planned social events are key for giving new attendees a chance to meet people at an online conference or convention.
Think about social events that can work well online, and that give people a chance to meet and talk with one another in smaller groups. These work best if there’s some sort of task or project that can animate the conversation and smooth over awkwardness. Even better if they take place on the first day of the event ideally even the evening before it starts. This might be a trivia night with randomly-assigned teams, a game night, or just an icebreaker meet and greet. The goal is for everyone who attends to know someone’s name by the end of the event.
On subsequent days, explicitly schedule social breaks and encourage people to gather during them.
Recruit several people to “seed” social events. There is nothing wrong with identifying a few socially-adept conference attendees, telling them what your plans are for social spaces, and asking them to help those social spaces along. For example, let’s say that you explicitly want to encourage people to say “hello” to each other using the Zoom chat, or to have side conversations in Discord during presentations. You should absolutely announce this to all event participants, but it’s probably also a good idea to ask a few people to model the intended behaviour, to help get other people chatting.
Have public written documentation about how the event will run. People don’t “just know” how virtual events will work—and really, when we expect people to “just know” how in-person events will work this can end up being a form of gatekeeping. How do you fix this? A good start is to write things down! Post a detailed written ‘how to’ so that people know what to expect at your event.
Limit the number of platforms. Think about whether your participants are familiar with all the platforms you’re planning to use, and try to limit the number of new platforms you’re expecting people to interact with. Within the platforms that you do use, try to build in redundancies—don’t post information in only one place, post it in every place that you think people might think to check.
Platforms add up quickly! Even a very minimal event will probably have a website, email communications, and a video conferencing platform like Zoom. Registration might add a fourth platform (e.g. Eventbrite). Discord / Slack is a fifth. This isn’t intrinsically bad, but it’s worth thinking carefully about whether each additional platform is worth the additional cognitive load it imposes, especially if you think some of your platforms will be new for some or all participants.
Especially if you’re using platforms that are new for participants, see if you can minimize the number of times someone needs to switch between platforms, or the number of times people switch between calls or links on a single platform (e.g. between different Zoom calls). For example, if you’re using Zoom, one idea is to hold parallel programming items within breakout rooms on a single call—this feels more like being “at” a conference, where you just move between rooms. (Credit to Byron Ahn for suggesting this for PSST 2021. Note: some features of Zoom, like automatic captions, don’t work in breakout rooms—or didn’t at the time of writing. But live captions produced by a human do work in breakout rooms.)
Lean into social engineering. The best size for video chat is 4 to 6 people, yet video chat platforms don’t allow for naturally splitting a larger group into several smaller parallel conversations in the same way that in-person gatherings do.
Test everything beforehand. Something people hate about virtual events is having to sit around while people fix technical issues. But this is not inevitable! There are a few easy ways to reduce the odds of suffering inevitable technical failure.
Schedule tech tests before the event for all the people running the calls. Then before each session ask all presenters to show up 10-15 minutes early, so that everyone can hunt for the “share screen” button / figure out how to play a pre-recorded video / make sure the sound is working. This is also a good time to discuss how audience questions will be handled, and practice saying everyone’s names.
Designate someone in each virtual “room” who is doing nothing other than managing technical issues as they arise—they aren’t moderating a panel, they aren’t giving a presentation, they aren’t introducing anyone. This person can also be empowered to mute people with background noise, and if needed eject anyone who spams/zoom-bombs the call. (For academic events, I recommend paying these people, who are probably students, if at all possible.)
Think about the “flow” of a session. Who introduces speakers? How should people in the audience submit questions? Do you want people to be able to have side conversations in the chat? Think about how to prevent discussion from being dominated by people with more privilege, and remember that not everyone can unmute themselves / turn on video, so be sure to have some way of taking questions in writing. I personally prefer a model where all questions are submitted in a single “queue” via a chat window, and the chair or moderator selects questions (reading them out if submitted in full), because it doesn’t require keeping track of whether the question in the chat or the person who used a “raise hand” function went first.
Share documents / links / materials. This is pretty specific to academic conferences, but one thing that actually works better online is sharing PDF copies of slides or handouts! Some audience members will prefer to follow along with your shared screen, but if everyone is attending via device anyway then sharing a PDF lets people manage their own attention if they prefer to do so.
A note that’s extremely specific to Zoom: people can’t see the chat from before they joined a call! So it’s helpful if the person running the technical side of a call re-shares any materials or handouts periodically through the session.
And in the same vein as reducing the number of platforms / increasing redundancy: don’t only share the materials by uploading them to a shared online folder and emailing everyone a link to that folder! There’s no good reason not to share the materials in the video call, as well as in the relevant channel of Discord/Slack if you’re using them.
Finally, a plea that is perhaps unique to theoretical syntacticians: don’t just screenshare a letter-paper-sized handout at regular magnification in Zoom. This has got to be the least useful way to share talk materials I have ever encountered. At the very least, increase the magnification! If I have to lean in to squint at your examples, I am going to go check my email in another windown, especially if you didn’t share a PDF version to the chat.
For some reason, people talk about accessibility for virtual events much more than they talk about it for in-person events—at least, this is true of the academic linguistics conferences I’ve been involved with. This is definitely a positive development, but I find it a slightly baffling one! It’s true that online platforms can present accessibility barriers beyond those that exist in-person, but these barriers aren’t the ones that are solved by captioning or ASL interpretation.
That being said, I hope that the conversation around accessibility for virtual events means that we’ll start to take it more seriously for in-person events as well. This comment is directed at myself as much as it’s directed at anyone else: I’m guilty of having organized a bunch of events with very poor accessibility, and very aware that “it’s hard and also expensive” is not actually an excuse for not making things accessible.
A PSA: auto-captions are not a sufficient accessibility measure! Every single person I have ever spoken to who uses captions for accessibility is in agreement that auto-captions are mostly garbage.
Live vs. pre-recorded. If automatic captioning is inadequate, and live captioning is often too expensive, what alternatives do we have? One option is to pre-record as much content as possible, and make individual presenters responsible for their own captions (subject to some quality control). This distributes the labour of making content accessible as much as possible—NELS 52 @ Rutgers went this route, and it worked fairly well.
Not all events lend themselves to pre-recording: an academic talk or a reading can be pre-recorded, but a panel discussion or audience Q+A or roundtable cannot be. But if one has limited resources for human-provided captioning, then pre-recording some content may make it possible to provide human captions for what remains.
Almost nobody I know likes being asked to pre-record their presentations! This is probably especially true for fields like theoretical linguistics, where people do not usually script their presentations, instead speaking spontaneously from notes (for values of “spontaneously” that are consistent with practicing repeatedly in advance). Indeed, I could write a whole essay about the advantages of extemporaneous over scripted talks, from an audience perspective, and I confess that I find a similar (though smaller) advantage for talks given live vs. those that are pre-recorded.
But that advantage needs to be balanced against making an event accessible, and so I have mostly convinced myself that if human captioning a whole conference is financially out of reach, then as many presentations as possible should be pre-recorded and captioned.
Are you planning your first-ever virtual event and uncertain where to start? Here’s a bare-bones timeline for when you need to worry about what. The times should be read as “no later than”, for a comparatively small event (<200 people). For many events the timeline you will want to shift the timeline up considerably, but the overall sequence probably remains the same.
(Let me know if I’ve forgotten something!)
So far I’ve talked about how I think we can try to recreate the valuable parts of in-person events in virtual settings, but what about hybrid events? Are they at all different?
For some context, I have organized exactly one hybrid event: the THEY 2019 conference on nonbinary pronouns was broadcast online via this newfangled platform “Zoom” that I had never previously heard of, and also had a conference Slack! (Somewhat to my surprise at the time, the Slack was used by both in-person and remote participants—but now that I’ve experienced the use of chat platforms at more events, that no longer surprises me.) Unlike many other university professors I haven’t done any hybrid teaching during the pandemic, though I’ve now attended several hybrid talks and reading groups.
In the summer and early fall of 2021, I also organized a small number of virtual roundtables on how to do hybrid events. My thinking about hybrid event planning has been informed and clarified by the people who participated in those, though not all of them might agree with everything I say here.
Let me start by saying that the unfortunate reality is that hybrid events are harder to organize than either entirely in-person or entirely virtual ones. Not exponentially harder, but harder in at least two ways:
There are also some equity concerns that bring with them added logistical complexity: if hybrid events are important because some people can’t attend in-person, then we should try to ensure that virtual participation is not just worse, even if it’s different.
We can also ask what social events look like at a hybrid event. When I imagine what a hybrid conference reception might look like, I confess I can’t quite get past a mental image of motorized laptop carrels / autonomous Zoom robots circulating through an in-person crowd. This does not sound like a good use of anyone’s time, or of autonomous robots.
If we’re taking the extra effort to plan hybrid events, we can also take the time to stop and think about how to improve our events, rather than simply figuring out how to recapitulate what we’ve already done in a slightly different modality.
As noted above, the technical bar for hybrid events is higher than it is for either entirely virtual or entirely in-person events. But again, I think it’s worth emphasizing that for most events, the standard we’re aiming for isn’t professional-quality broadcasting! The goal is “good enough that the quality doesn’t impede communication”—for academic conferences, I like to imagine that I’m aiming for quality comparable to an unrenovated classroom in the least-desirable building on a university campus.
What are the pieces needed to put on a hybrid event? Let’s assume that presenters are in a physical room with an audience, but some audience members are participating online (there are other setups possible, but this is probably the most technically demanding one!). In that case, then for each parallel track that you want to make hybrid, you would need:
Some additional pieces might be useful, depending on your specific plans:
These are all in addition to other technology that might be needed in the room. For example, academic conferences require a way to project a speaker’s slides (usually a projector + screen). Most events need microphones for all speakers, and ideally for audience questions.
In recent memory, things like projectors couldn’t be taken for granted on university campuses, but this has changed, so that you can now assume that any classroom (and many bookable spaces in hotels) will have a projector that can be used for slides.
We might be coming up on a similar change for hybrid set ups: universities and hotels increasingly have spaces that are set up for small hybrid meetings, and I have high hopes that those will become more common and easier to access. For the moment, though, these seem to still be thin on the ground, and when they do exist they’re expensive to book and limited in capacity.
The bare-bones version of the setup, though, can plausibly be implemended for somewhere between $150 and $300, depending on how much you splash out on a microphone. This would cover an omnidirectional USB microphone and a webcam; I assume the laptop computer would be supplied by someone involved in organizing the event. If you have to decide where to spend extra money, spending it on higher quality audio will yield higher returns on audience experience.
While writing this post, I kept thinking of additional morsels of advice I could potentially share, on topics like planning for timezones, (what I think are) the optimal length of virtual “coffee breaks”, or how a surprisingly easy way to make everything look slightly more polished is to make title cards to share at the beginning of each session. But at a certain point there is a limit to what can easily fit into a single post—and I suspect I may have passed that point a few thousand words ago.
But if I had to sum up the advice in this post in just a few bullets, it would go something like this:
And perhaps as a last note: at this point, there’s no reason that anyone should have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to virtual event organizing. Every single person I know who has organized one is more than happy to share their planning documents, and/or set up a meeting to talk about things live. Send me an email if you have questions you think I can answer—if I can’t, I will try to think of someone else who can! While I’m hoping to hang up my conference organizer hat for the next while, I’m also super keen to see what new and exciting things people do with virtual or hybrid formats, and I’m sure that what other people do is going to go way beyond what I’ve contemplated here.
Finally, full credit to the many people who I’ve talked with about putting events online over the last couple years, from whom I’ve learned a lot. These people include: Byron Ahn, Nathan Brinklow, Emily Clem, Vera Gribanova, Daniel Currie Hall, Sumana Harihareswara, Emma Humphries, Laura Kalin, Tom Leu, Yoann Léveillé, Florian Lionnet, Gretchen McCulloch, Abby Noyce, Omer Preminger, Rebekka Puderbaugh, Florian Schwarz, Robyn Starke, Kit Stubbs, and Jaye Viner. (My sincere apologies to anyone that my faulty memory and slapdash written records have left off this list, please let me know and I’ll add your name.)