How do we ensure that online events feel like events?

Mark Carrigan and Dave Elder-Vass

Online events are likely to be a dominant feature in the academic landscape for the foreseeable future. This is a transition which was already slowly beginning to happen on both environmental and accessibility grounds, with a growing recognition of the carbon footprint of academic mobility as well as the deeply exclusionary character of many academic events. In this sense this is an opportunity to embed online events in academic culture, as a superior alternative to many, though probably not all, face to face events. This is why it’s so important that we think carefully about our approach to online events, in order to establish approaches, formats and standards which help further this transition.

How we imagine ‘online events’ tends to be dominated by our experience of ‘offline events’. Given most of us have attended far fewer of the former than the latter, it’s understandable we would think in these terms. However if we confine ourselves to reproducing analogue events through digital media then we will fail to take advantage of the affordances of the digital while also missing out on an opportunity to address some of the obvious deficiencies of face-to-face meetings. The familiarity of conferences, seminars and symposia can make it difficult to see how these are formats which emerged as a response to the particular challenges of organising academic exchange in time and space. There is a litany of grievances which any academic will be familiar with, ranging from speakers monotonously reading their papers, audience members dominating with their rambling non-questions to the difficulty of striking up conversation with others at an enormous conference. It would be overstating matters to say that analogue events don’t work. But there are limitations which we should be careful to avoid reproducing when we plan online events. Even if these are strictly speaking replacements, it doesn’t mean they must function in the same way or serve exactly the same purpose. 

At the moment event organisers are mostly at a very early stage, finding a good enough solution for our particular event and trying to make it work. Over time we will become more aware of the range of different solutions (where ‘solution’ is not just a technology platform but a whole range of choices about how to configure an event) available and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Eventually we will develop a repertoire of styles of online meeting, and become more skilled at stitching together solutions tailored to fit the needs of each event. 

To ensure this happens we need to develop a conceptual framework for thinking about online events and how they vary. For example are they synchronous or asynchronous, hosted on one platform or multiple platforms, planned from the top down or facilitated from the bottom up? There will be no one size fits all solution because each group is different and each event has different objectives. There are elements of offline events we might want to preserve such as opportunities for professional networking, the energy which comes from a gathering in which participants are meaningfully engaged and ensuring people can be recognised for their participation. This might involve stitching together combinations of offering across platforms, including finding ways to allow participants to determine their own mode of participation which might not be part of the original plan. Whereas it’s easy for interaction to spill outside the confines of what organisers had planned in face to face events, it’s much more difficult to do this when reliant on digital platforms. 

It’s a real challenge to replace the informal networking affordances offered at face to face events by meeting rooms (before and after sessions), corridors, coffee breaks, opportunities to go for dinner in interesting groups, etc. How can we create both planned and unplanned spaces of porousness? These cannot be replicated exactly but the online environment has huge potential for different but loosely equivalent activities. For example consider the growth of virtual pubs, online performances and online screenings. The current system works (to the extent that it does) because the organisers (whether intentionally or not) provide spaces in which it can occur and participants understand how to make use of those spaces to establish connections with each other. In the virtual world, something loosely parallel will be needed. 

Organisers will have to think creatively about providing spaces while participants will need to be given some hints about how to make use of them. The simplest and most effective way of providing spaces will perhaps be to identify a suitable public platform for personal interactions and encourage all participants to (a) register on the platform; and (b) provide their contact details on the platform to other participants. That way participants know how to find each other to initiate conversations. Organisers might also establish guidelines e.g. suggest times to be available for interaction, and protocols for starting, joining, leaving and ending them. This will mean developing a literacy about the platforms we are using and recognising when they help us and when they hinder us. There’s a learning curve to this process because the physical venues we have mostly relied upon until now have affordances we’ve been learning to use our entire lives, as opposed to the relative novelty of using a platform like Zoom to coordinate a seminar.

At the moment participants are also mostly at a very early stage, seeing online events as poor substitutes for face to face meetings and learning how to participate in them. Mostly we are unaware of how much we have already invested in learning how to function well in face to face meetings and are only slowly grasping the need to invest significantly in learning how to function well in online meetings. That learning is going to be complicated by the fact that the meetings themselves are not going to be ideal over the coming years as organisers will be learning as they go, including lots of learning from mistakes. We must avoid the natural reaction of dismissing online meetings as ineffectual and instead contribute constructively to making them better, both by influencing organisers’ choices and by learning how to participate better ourselves. 

This is a time of enormous and painful disruption as we head towards a future which remains uncertain. It’s clear our established model of academic events isn’t feasible for the foreseeable future but it was always unsustainable when seen in terms of environmental impact and meaningful accessibility. We sincerely hope there will be a return to face to face events as we transition into the post-pandemic university. But these should be reserved for occasions when they truly serve a purpose, as opposed to being our default option for coming together for thought and discussion. It’s been clear for some time that online events will have to become the norm and, crass though it is to frame a crisis as an opportunity, the lockdown means we need to engage deeply with the question of what it means for these events to be successful. 

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Mark Carrigan is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, the second edition of which was published in October 2019.

Dave Elder-Vass is a Reader in Sociology at Loughborough University, UK. His latest book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2016) theorises appropriative practices, economic diversity and their implications for social theory and politics.

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