Scheduling online conferences for building community: The case of #LingComm21

The goal of LingComm21 was to bring together a community of people who were interested in doing linguistics communication, so we were intentional from the very beginning about the community-building aspects of the program. We hosted LingComm21 on a platform called Gather, in which users communicate by navigating video game-like avatars around a two-dimensional custom map. When an avatar approaches other avatars in the space, the users are automatically connected to one another via video, audio, and text chat. 

Many attendees credited our choice of the Gather platform for their positive experience with the conference. While Gather certainly contributed to this success, and we’ll explain how we set up our custom space there in the next post, there were less obvious aspects of the event’s structure that were also crucial. Below we detail some of the underlying scheduling priorities that we believe resulted in an enjoyable, engaging online experience.

Define a bounded period of time for the conference.
The conference took place over 4 days, with 4 hours of programming per day and the entire last day devoted to meetups. We had a volunteer training the day before conference programming started, and in retrospect it might have also been a good idea to schedule a conference attendee icebreaker event the day before, as a gentle ramp up to the conference like how the meetup day was a gentle ramp down. Generally speaking, we were aiming to create a “magic circle” which requires a defined opening and closing. Inspired by the excellent advice about openings and closings in The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, we featured opening and closing panels begun by brief opening and closing remarks, rather than starting and closing with logistics. 

Make the conference a shared experience, not solo homework.
When people don’t have to travel for a conference, there’s sometimes a temptation to spread conference events across an entire month, or to assign conference homework of watching talks in advance, which makes it difficult for people to have a shared joint conference experience as an event that’s bounded in time. Pre-recorded talks and/or allowing talks to remain available after the conference may make sense for some conferences, but we’ve observed that watching talks as homework plus a live Q&A part often leads to live Q&A audiences who haven’t watched the talks, making presenters either deliver a short recap of the talk or else suffer in silence, and in any case not accomplishing our goals for this conference of encouraging participants to interact. Instead, we debuted each talk as a live presentation with live breakout groups and Q&A, and recorded only the larger sessions, which were available to attendees for a week following the conference (but not forever, to encourage more candid conversation). Some attendees who were in less convenient time zones reported watching the recorded talks before the next day of programming began, so this limited amount of time shifting helped us give attendees a shared conference experience without creating homework.

Make it possible for people to fit the event into their lives.
As a new, fully virtual conference, we expected that it would be difficult to convince people to set aside entire days for this event. Additionally, we were hoping for synchronous participation from people in many areas of the world, and we knew that longer days would make this more challenging. We settled on a schedule of 4 days of 4-hour conference blocks, beginning each day at 20:00 UTC. Ultimately, attendees in many locations were able to make the timing work, although this choice worked against us in one major way: many people were trying to fit the conference in around a full workday, and felt overwhelmed just a couple of days in. We received approximately the same amount of feedback from attendees who disliked that the conference was during their workday as from attendees who disliked that the conference was not during their workday, so for time zone math purposes we count a time tolerable if it’s during reasonable waking hours, as people clearly have a range of preferences on this issue. For future reference, we note that it is significantly easier to make a conference work for the trifecta of Australia/New Zealand, North America, and Europe when it is Australian Summer Time/Europe Winter (non-Daylight Saving) Time. 

Build interpersonal interaction into the experience.
We had noticed that in many virtual conference environments, socializing and networking were, at best, easily avoidable add-ons. Because facilitating communication among this community was one of our primary goals, we instead made these central parts of the conference-going experience. In most of our session rooms, people “sat” at tables with others, rather than in rows of chairs. Sessions in these rooms included 20 minutes of panel discussion, 10 minutes of small breakout discussions, where people chatted with others at their tables about questions posed by the session’s panelists, and then 10 minutes of questions to the panel again. These breakout tables were self-chosen, rather than randomly assigned, meaning that people could choose to sit at a table where they already knew someone, choose to keep mixing it up, or even move to a different table midway through a session. Our only session room without tables was set up as a “fishbowl,” a style of interactive session that breaks down the dichotomy between audience member and panelist.

Foster conversation…
Within the 4-hour conference schedule, we provided numerous opportunities for people to engage in conversation.  We used time cues, including moving people between sessions every hour and leaving 15 minutes between scheduled events. Additionally, we directly encouraged use of the space before/after scheduled hours, particularly if the official conference programming was at an inconvenient time locally. Many participants commented favorably on the interactivity and several even wanted more, suggesting a half hour coffee break in the middle of the 4-hour programming block. These efforts were part of the overarching goal of building repeated spontaneous interactions over time, which sociologists have identified as the building blocks of friendship. 

…but keep conversations small.
Psychologist Robin Dunbar finds that in the physical world, groups of people tend to split into smaller sub-conversations when they get to be above 4 participants large, but most videochat platforms force everyone to remain part of a single conversational thread regardless of group size. Deliberate planning is necessary to create “normal” conversations of 2-5 people online rather than an endless succession of larger, meeting-style conversations with a few talkers and a lot of listeners. We used physical cues in Gather, including seating people at small tables for talks, keeping the viewing area for each poster small, and building social spaces with areas for small groups, to encourage people to spread out and form both structured and spontaneous small conversations. We also created programming that would simulate small-group conversation by not accepting solo talks — rather, we had prospective participants describe their interests and experience and grouped them together into small panels based on emergent themes, so that even people who were not previously well-networked could get to know others with shared interests.  

Make starting conversations easy.
Before and during the conference, many people expressed concern about entering into conversations, especially if others were already chatting together. While the scheduling helped with some of this, such as the explicit invitation to sit in a “chair” to be part of a breakout group or to go up to poster presenters during the poster session, the informal parts were more tricky. Based on a suggestion from a Gather staffer, we promoted a conference-wide convention of using the “raise hand” reaction (similar to a wave) when approaching people to see if they were open to someone joining them. We explicitly instructed volunteers to go up to new arrivals and proactively greet them on entrance to the space on the first day, and the organizers also tried to keep an eye on the space and social media and introduce people to each other where possible. We also created several seating areas in the lobby explicitly labeled as “MEET SOMEONE NEW” for those who felt more comfortable being approached than doing the approaching, which some attendees reported using. Finally, in making these suggestions to attendees, we acknowledged that these concerns were valid and widely shared, which itself may have helped some people feel more at ease.

In future, we might also consider other social lubricants that adapt approaches we’ve seen work well at physical conferences, such as suggesting that people could put a smile emoji in their names to signal when they’re open to striking up a conversation with someone new.

Give both speakers and attendees the feeling of an audience.
A good public speaker can hold an audience’s attention solo — but they do so by reading the vibe of the room and creating opportunities to get feedback from the audience, such as laughter, gasps, and applause. In an online setting, even the best solo speaker can’t tell how an invisible audience is reacting. So don’t make them give a talk by guesswork — give them some kind of audience! An experienced streamer can keep an eye on a parallel text chat channel, and science comedian Kasha Patel recruited a few audience members to provide a volunteer “laugh track” at a conference one of us attended, but the easiest thing to do is just not have solo talks. If you instead host conversations between two people, or small panels of three speakers and a moderator, then the fellow panelists can be each other’s audience proxy. Audience members also benefit from feeling like they’re part of a communal experience, which we accomplished by livestreaming the talks within Gather and having people watch them while connected to participants at their table via video, audio, and text chat.

Designate roles for attendees.
Many people find it easier to interact with others if they have some kind of existing role, pretext, or shared knowledge to go into the interaction with. In addition to giving people programming roles by being on panels or presenting posters, we also encouraged attendees to organize meetups on the final day, and designated official conference volunteers to greet people at the entry point of the virtual space on the first day and be a first line of contact for basic questions (which they could surface up to the organizing committee as needed). It was more welcoming to attendees to have someone greet them as they entered on the first day, and the volunteers bonded with each other by meeting at the orientation on the day before.

In future, we’d also consider some sort of day-before small group mixer for attendees with an activity to help them meet a few people, such as attendee bingo/a trivia night/small group tours of the conference space with the volunteers as facilitators, analogous to a pre-conference dinner.

Give people some control over the event.
The entire fourth day of our conference was designated as “Meetup Day,” with less formal programming suggested and run by participants on a schedule that we provided and encouraged participants to add to throughout the conference. Meetups included continuations of some conference sessions as well as casual chats about lingcomm on particular platforms, a discussion of possibilities for the next iteration of the conference, and some purely social gatherings for games and crafting. Not everyone attended programming on this day, but at least a third of active participants from previous days did, and many of them commented on it favorably. In addition to helping continue conversations and community-building more generally, Meetup Day provided a gentler re-entry into regular life from the more intense conference experience of the previous three days.

Give people social license to post about the event.
We wanted not only to foster an event for people who communicate about linguistics to broader audiences to talk with each other, but also to help support cross-pollination for people who are fans of the lingcomm materials that many of our attendees already produce. To that end, we also hosted LingFest, a fringe-festival-like series of online events about linguistics (such as podcast liveshows, quiz bowls, Twitch livestreams, etc.), each independently organized but with a centralized website listing all of them where interested people could sign up for notifications about the whole series. LingFest ran during the week following the LingComm conference, which allowed people who’d heard of a project during the conference to subsequently check it out in a streamlined way.

Crucially, LingFest disambiguated who the conference itself was for. Since many of the people we were aiming the conference for have a public presence with fans, rather than having to awkwardly say “no, please don’t come,” both organizers and attendees could point fans to LingFest instead and say “here, this is the event you want.” In this structure, we were inspired by how fan/industry hybrid conferences like VidCon have both fan and creator tracks. 

Many of these schedule-related elements could be designed for regardless of which online platform is used. For example, one could set up an online conference that takes place mostly in a single Zoom call with many breakout rooms, some for talks and some as social spaces, which attendees could move themselves into and out of — thus giving attendees a chance to run into each other in the main “lobby” of the Zoom meeting. One could also organize parallel text-based social spaces on internet platforms that have already proved that they can be social, such as Slack, Discord, or a conference hashtag. At minimum, any conference can manage basic scheduling features like building in breaks, keeping days a reasonable length, considering timezones, and encouraging audience members to use the parallel text chat to a video talk for virtual applause and lightweight interaction. 

In our case, we decided that the community building experience we were aiming for with LingComm21 would be best served by using a relatively new platform called Gather. In our next post, we’ll focus more on Gather itself, and the design decisions we made in our virtual space to encourage a positive virtual conference experience.

Part of a series called LingComm21: a case study in making online conferences more social. Stay tuned for the following posts during upcoming weeks, or subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter to get the full list of posts sent to you once they’re all out

  1. Why virtual conferences are antisocial (but they don’t have to be)
  2. Designing online conferences for building community
  3. Scheduling online conferences for building community
  4. Hosting online conferences for building community
  5. Budgeting online conferences or events
  6. Planning accessible online conferences

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