LingComm21: a case study in making online conferences more social

In April 2021, we ran the first International Conference on Linguistics Communication as a fully online and deliberately community-building event, which we then documented as a series of six blog posts. You may be interested in our approach, reflections, and recommendations if you are planning your own virtual conference or event. Check out some lightly edited excerpts and links to the full posts below.

1. Why virtual conferences are antisocial (but they don’t have to be)

  • “A conference program is not about raw information transmission. Instead, a conference program is about creating a ‘magic circle’ — a structure that brings together for a focused amount of time a group of people who care about the topics in the program, and that provides springboards for conversations within that group.”
  • “The internet and the conference are both notable for how successful they are at facilitating social interaction. With two such promising ingredients, it almost seems like the combination of online + conference should be better than an offline conference. What went so spectacularly wrong? Why is an enjoyable online conference so difficult?”
  • “Physical events come with decades and centuries of social infrastructure disguised as practical necessity and conference ritual that organizers have never really had to think about as social.”

2. Designing online conferences for building community

  • “What would be different if we conceived of a virtual conference not as a simple vehicle to port the typical conference programming online, but as the chance to take advantage of the core social strengths within the overlap of conference and internet?”
  • “By building a community of lingcommers at a virtual conference, we hoped to demonstrate that community-building through online conferences is possible, and this conference and surrounding materials can serve as resources for people with other interests who want to create online events for other communities.”
  • Participant feedback: ‘In a way this is really obvious, but wow, virtual conferences are SO much better when they’re organized and attended by people who believe that virtual conferences can be good’

3. Scheduling online conferences for building community

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

4. Hosting online conferences for building community

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

5. Budgeting online conferences or events

  • “Online conferences are much, much more financially accessible than physical events, but for a good conference to be run well, people should expect there to be some cost.”
  • “We believe that a future LingComm conference could be run in a revenue-neutral way based on two factors. First, we underestimated how many people would be interested in registering for the conference. Second, we underestimated how much registrants would be willing to pay for the conference, especially as attendees with institutional support were broadly willing to help cross-subsidize an accessible, low-cost or free registration category.”
  • “Figuring out fixed costs before an event is important, as is communicating these costs clearly to participants so that they understand why registration fees are being charged.”

6. Planning accessible online conferences

  • “Planning for communication access should be the same as planning physical access or catering: you don’t wait until people turn up and tell you they’re hungry to plan catering for an event.”
  • “Funding for communication access can be a major budget element, but one of the most important things we can do is normalising it as part of budgeting for your event.”
  • “Accessibility starts with mutual respect and learning to listen so we can all engage. Accessibility is an ongoing project that requires ongoing conversations, willingness to try new things, and understanding that what might be an occasional consideration for one person is an ongoing barrier for someone else.”
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