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

We hosted LingComm21 on a platform called Gather, in which each user chooses an avatar and navigates it around a two-dimensional space. When an avatar approaches other avatars in the space, the users are automatically connected to one another via video, audio, and text chat. We built a custom Gather space for the conference that featured both session rooms (for scheduled programming) and social rooms (for informal conversations and meetups), as well as a large lobby area, also with informal seating, which connected all the rooms.

Many attendees credited our choice of the Gather platform for their positive experience with the conference, and some have subsequently gone on to use Gather for other events. While there were other factors that contributed to the success of the conference, in particular scheduling that provided lots of opportunities for interaction with varying small groups, using a proximity-chat platform like Gather was certainly an important factor in giving conference attendees choice of who and what to engage with. (Other proximity chat platforms exist and could possibly be adapted along similar design principles.)

The Gather space we used for LingComm21 was highly customized in a variety of ways in light of our goal to foster the repeated, spontaneous interactions that are the groundwork for building friendship. Below we detail some of the design choices that we think influenced attendees’ positive impressions.

Make the space as user-friendly as possible.
Some attendees were understandably concerned about the mental effort involved in figuring out a new online platform. To minimize this source of stress, we did everything we could think of to make the space easy to navigate. All rooms were accessible directly from, and only from, the main lobby area. A pathway to each session room was clearly marked on the floor using subway-style colored lines. Conference volunteers were stationed at virtual “information desks” during the orientation hour at the beginning of the conference and subsequently throughout the week as a resource for anyone needing extra assistance. For attendees who expressed being especially nervous about the tech, we gave them personal tours or one-on-one help either before the conference or on arrival through volunteers.

information desks in the LingComm21 Gather space: two tables in the lobby area

Keep people within the space as much as possible.
We wanted attending this event to be as simple as walking into a conference center and being handed a paper program, rather than regularly leaving the conference platform to check on an informational email, to view a separate video feed, and so on. In addition to being frustrating technologically, frequent program-surfing would increase the number of potential distractions each attendee might face. Thus, as much as possible, we embedded things within Gather, including the programming schedule, the editable list of meetups, and video feeds of larger panel sessions. The physicality of the schedule, meetups, and intros documents also gave people an object of joint attention to use as an excuse to move around the space and interact with fellow attendees.

schedule, meetups, and intros documents in the LingComm21 Gather space: kiosks arranged in a triangle, each of which links to an electronic document, with a plant in the center

Ultimately, due to technological limitations, we did have to send people outside of Gather for live captions, and partway through the conference we ended up making live video feeds available separately, as some users were experiencing difficulty viewing them within Gather. We hope that better accessibility features are something that might change about the platform in the future.

Make it easy to have small conversations.
In a real physical space, people generally expect only to interact with a small group of people at a time. We did our best to recreate this social convention within Gather by designating each seating area (and each poster area) as a “private space,” in which people connect via video, audio, and text chat only with others within the “private space,” not those located outside it. By doing this, we effectively capped the number of people in a conversation to the number of avatars that could fit within a given private space, which had the double advantage of ensuring both that conversations didn’t grow so large that most people became passive listeners and that the number of simultaneous video/audio feeds wouldn’t strain people’s computers. We marked every private space with area rugs or colored rectangles on the carpet so that it was clear at a glance who was inside and outside a given private space. In session rooms, we explicitly labeled some private spaces as “text only” to welcome those who preferred that modality of communication, and provided guidance in briefings that in those spaces users should expect to use Gather’s text chat feature to talk.

To help with the awkwardness of starting conversations with strangers across various formats, we also labelled some of the small conversational spaces as places where people could go when they were explicitly interested in meeting someone new. 

"meet someone new" areas in the LingComm21 Gather space: sets of four chairs arranged around small tables, surrounded by text reading "meet someone new using voice chat" or "meet someone new using text chat"

Give people a place to go when they’re away.
One occasional disadvantage of the Gather platform is that someone can be “in” Gather when they’re not actually paying attention to it; perhaps they’re doing something in a different browser tab, or they’ve just left their computer for a break. This can cause confusion for others who approach their avatar and get no response. Abandoned avatars can also cause “traffic jams” in a sufficiently crowded space. We embraced this traffic metaphor and created an “avatar parking area” (complete with decorative traffic cones) that we encouraged people to leave their avatars in, either during breaks or before exiting out of Gather for the day. Unlike the other non-programming spaces, the avatar parking lot didn’t contain any other interactive or interesting objects — while it would have been tempting to put (say) a livestream of a traffic cam, we didn’t want to encourage people who were actively at their computers to have any reason for hanging out in the parking lot. Participants readily understood the metaphor of the parking lot and used it frequently, and we did not encounter any “zombie” avatars elsewhere in the space. 

avatar parking area in the LingComm21 Gather space: a label reading "Park your avatar here while you're away" above the door, with outlines for avatar-sized parking spaces on the floor and decorative traffic cones in the corners of the room

Humanize the general setting.
Humans respond to aesthetics. Hotels (even cheap ones!) invest in things like art and flowers and landscaping because humans don’t like living in blank boxes. This is no less true in virtual spaces. There were two general design principles we used here. First, we used design assets of a roughly appropriate size and scale for the 32×32 pixel avatars — for example, we want people to use chair and couch images as a cue to “sit” with groups of people there, so chairs need to be of an appropriate size for the avatars to visually sit in them. Second, we added assorted “extras” that contributed to a conference ambience, such as small potted plants on tables, large potted plants and water coolers around the edges of the rooms, and scattered to-go coffee cups everywhere. Both of these tasks were facilitated by Gather’s inbuilt asset library and its interoperability with other pixel art tilesets that people have released online.

Use design to set the mood for various kinds of social spaces.
We had three general-purpose social spaces: a cafe, a boardwalk, and a rooftop bar, which were created as modifications of existing Gather room assets (and thus had much nicer art than we could have made on our own, especially the pixel art skyline at the rooftop bar). The cafe and the bar naturally suggested themselves as social spaces for before and after the conference programming, respectively, while the boardwalk was an “outdoor” space that could be enjoyed at any time.

Further, we had two additional social spaces restricted (by labelling and courtesy, not by technological limitations) to smaller sub-groups within the conference: the Green Room and the Student-ish Lounge. The Green Room (a custom space that was indeed green) was labelled for panelists and moderators only, who were encouraged to meet there 15 minutes before the start of their panels in order to coordinate about technical details and get to know each other a bit, and also to use the Green Room space if at any other point they needed a break from the general conference hubbub. The Student-ish Lounge (created from Gather’s “diner” layout) was labelled for students and others who are socially like students (e.g., recent grads and other junior people), and contained some interactive virtual board games, for more junior attendees to have a low-pressure space away from the general conference hubbub. The organizing committee spent quite a lot of time going in and out of the Green Room during the conference and deliberately did not enter the Student-ish Lounge; conference volunteers, who were largely students, were instructed to keep an eye on it and let us know if there was anything we needed to know about there. We created these spaces because we wanted to recognize that power differentials at conferences are real, even in virtual space, and it can be valuable to have an option where you can remain part of the conference but not risk running into your lingcomm heroes who got you into linguistics (or conversely, where you’re not risking getting surrounded by fans). Although it can be tempting to use technology to limit who can access a particular space, in a relatively high-trust environment like people who were registered for a conference and with a relatively low-stakes outcome of social awkwardness if people did enter a room they weren’t supposed to, we deemed it worth demonstrating to participants that we trusted them by opting for the less friction-filled option. (Had there been any problems here, they would have been dealt with as a code of conduct issue, i.e., by organizers talking to the parties involved.) 

Give people pretexts to spend time in the virtual space.
While the session rooms themselves were mostly business, we added fun interactive details to the social spaces. The unexpected hit of the conference was the “magical duck” that dispensed emojis of snacks or dinosaurs, a fork of a Glitch bot by Alison Stevens that was inspired by an “emoji bar” created by Em Lazer-Walker. There were other Glitch bots, as well, largely inspired by the Gather Glitch bots by Janelle Shane, as well as Gather’s default interactive piano and whiteboard objects. Each day we added a new interactive experience or two so there was always something to discover. These “Easter eggs” motivated people to join early or wander around the space to find things, and sometimes served as convenient conversation starters (“have you gotten a snack from the duck yet?”). For one day, the cafe space was transformed into a “cat cafe” that included several images of cats (including a foreground image so that people could sit “under” the cat) as well as a livestream of kittens, which some people “stood around” watching for some time, thus allowing others to run into them organically. There are many great nature livestreams available on YouTube, and we think that they can be a great solution to the “cheese plate problem” of giving people objects of recurring interestingness to interact around. 

It’s about the space, but it’s not about the space.
Could we have made the Gather space more aesthetically attractive and with even more interactive Easter eggs? Yes. Would doing so have actually made more people use it, or the existing people gain more utility out of it? Probably not. It’s easy to attribute the success of the conference to the Gather space itself, but we’ve seen beautifully designed Gather spaces languish unused when more attention was paid to spatial design rather than temporal design — i.e., providing more and more elaborate rooms and pixel art rather than coming up with events and occasions and programming as a reason for people to keep coming back. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the architecture is in a community center without a calendar of events that provides reasons for people to drop by the community center regularly (and even a shabby building can be much beloved if it hosts warm and welcoming events), and the same thing is true in a virtual space. 

Building elaborate spaces in Gather can be a fun hobby — it appeals to the same parts of our brains that like Lego and Minecraft and The Sims. But if you want other people to actually use your space beyond the initial tour, you need to know where to cut yourself off on the architecture side and direct the bulk of your energy to the people side, prioritizing ease of navigation over esoteric Easter eggs, and especially focusing on events and activities that give people a reason to come and get them actually interacting with each other. Yes, it’s scarier to reach out and invite real living people on the other side of the screen than it is to fuss with virtual furniture solo. But anyone who’s worth being friends with won’t mind if you invite them to your home when it’s still a bit messy, and your digital space doesn’t have to be pixel-perfect, either. In fact, for smaller groups we’ve found that embracing chaos and inviting your guests to help decorate the space with you can be a fun activity! 

Finally, we want to note that while these advice posts may look long and exhaustive, many of them are pulling from things that other conferences, both physical and virtual, are already doing well. We know that many people already recognize that the social parts of conferences are important — hence the oft-repeated advice to go to conferences in the first place rather than just staying home and writing up your ideas. Meeting people at conferences is a way of finding out about news through informal channels, getting to know potential future collaborators, or having a gut-check about whether things in your existing situation are normal. It’s just that the practical implementation of conferences as social spaces can be a huge challenge when it’s something most people are trained to leave to hallways and afterthoughts. 

We hope that putting all of these social design suggestions in one place can help other conference and event organizers take the social function of conferences seriously, and develop concrete ways of making conferences more effective, especially for fostering connections between newcomers, who are the future of any human space. If nothing else, we’d encourage conference attendees to pay attention when conferences are doing a good job at social facilitation, thank their organizers in such cases, and borrow things that previous conferences have done well on the social side when organizing their own conferences.

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

%d bloggers like this: