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

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