Due to the COVID situation, I have, in the past 2 weeks, been approached by several people whose conferences are being cancelled asking me for advice on how to organize a virtual conference. For the past 7 years, I have been vocal about the OpenSimulator Community Conference, a purely virtual conference held in a 3D virtual environment similar to Second Life (for those who remember what that is). I wrote a blog post about the first one back in 2013. The conference has been held every year since then, and it’s always one of the highlights of my yearly online life.
This post is meant to shed some light over the largely uncharted territory of online conferencing — that is, uncharted for most of you who may read this. Online conferences have been happening for a long time in niche communities, such as the OpenSimulator community, disability communities, and communities that don’t have a lot of money to travel. Since I’ve experienced it first hand with OSCC, I’m going to explain how they work, primarily from the point of view of what it takes to organize them, and make them successful.
I finish this introduction with the bottom line: virtual conferences are less about the technological platform than they are about rethinking and retargetting the things that organizers and participants do into the new media. From the organizational point of view, it’s the same, but different!
Preliminaries and What This Post Does Not Cover
First of all, there is a great document here with a long list of things that conference organizers need to think about when going online. This post covers some of the points in that list, roughly, but I’m going to make it very concrete with two use cases, each using a different social interaction platform: OSCC, held in an OpenSimulator virtual environment, and an hypothetical similar conference using, for example, Zoom, as the main social interaction platform.
There are alternatives for organizing conference-related events online that aren’t necessarily based on synchronous social interaction. I know of at least one such event, which used a combination of pre-recorded videos and live Q&A sessions. That’s an option! I am going to focus on the real-time social interaction, though, because that’s really what makes a conference… a conference. So I won’t talk much about all the things that you can, and probably should, do, like making sure the papers are linked from the web site, or adding videos or presentation slides to them. I’ll jump straight to the interesting bits: real-time social interaction.
The Venue: Social Interaction Engine
In a physical conference, one of the main decisions organizers have to make is where to hold the conference, that is, the venue. The venue is important is many ways: location, size, meeting rooms, etc. All of those are means to an end: how the venue promotes social interaction. That’s the ultimate goal of conferences.
In a virtual conference there is no physical venue, but there is something else that is equally important in almost exactly the same way: the technological platform, or combination of platforms, that will be used to support social interaction. I call this the “social interaction engine.” It could be called the “venue,” too.
For organizers, all the mental cycles they would use for dealing with the physical venue are used for dealing with the social interaction engine. Let me go through some of those issues.
Social Interaction Engine — Size Matters
The platform you choose should support rich real-time interactions between groups of people. The more options and channels, the better! Video, audio, avatarization, screen sharing, public chat, group chat, personal chat, lots of video and audio “rooms”, cues about who’s online/afk, customization of personal presence, polling… really, the more options for ad-hoc social interactions and sharing, the better!
The size of the event determines what kind of platform you can use. At the moment, Skype is terrible for more than a handful of people. Google hangouts is a little better, but not more than 15 people. Zoom is the best at the moment, and it can handle much larger events. The corporate versions of Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, WebEx and the like may also be options for larger events, but I have never used them, so I don’t know what they offer in terms of social interaction design. And I just recently found out about crowdcast.io, which I know nothing about, but seems really interesting.
In the 3D avatar-based space, there is my own OpenSimulator and, recently, Mozilla Hubs; they can both handle large groups. (An aside: I think the world of video conferencing and 3D spaces will soon merge into one big, happy social interaction design space, where lots of new ideas will develop)
Bottom line: know the max size of your event — the “max concurrency”, i.e. the maximum number of people you expect to be sharing the same virtual space (in either text, audio or video) — then choose a platform that can handle it.
- OSCC: the OSCC Conference Center can hold around 150 avatars simultaneously in the same shared virtual space, and thousands of avatars spread out in other spaces of the Conference Center. We can also stream the sessions to the Web, allowing everyone to watch (but not interact) with a few seconds delay.
- Zoom: as far as I know, Zoom can hold meetings up to 300 people and their A/V streams simultaneously. They have “Webinar” mode, too. The sessions can also be broadcast to the Web, with a delay.
Social Interaction Engine — Customization and Configuration
What I wrote above is just the first approximation that guides you into the main technological platform that fits your event. There is more to it, and it has to do with what kind of event(s) you want to organize.
Conferences are actually many things, not just one thing. They have tracks and events inside. Typically, there is the “technical track” (one or more at the same time), the workshops, birds of a feather groups, assorted committee meetings, demos, tutorials, maybe a vendors… maybe there’s also a Program Committee meeting. These are all very different beasts!
- OSCC: the OSCC Conference Center has all these different virtual spaces that are custom-designed for the functions we hold there: the large auditorium for plenary sessions, the smaller auditoriums for specialized technical talks, a staff room only accessible to the organizers, expo areas that are widely accessible, etc.
- Zoom: Zoom is just a generic video conferencing system, so you need to create and configure upfront different meeting spaces for plenary sessions, for smaller technical sessions, workshops, tutorials, etc.
Why is this important? Because the way to setup the A/V, other media streams, and permissions in general, depends on the function. For example, for the plenary sessions, you really don’t want attendees to be able to inject audio or screen sharing into the shared space; so, for those sessions, something like “Webinar” or “lecture” mode is what’s needed: only a few speakers. For things like workshops and committee meetings, however, everyone must be able to speak.
So, what I said before about the size of the event is really an exercise that needs to be repeated, recursively, for every single event in your conference. It is also possible that you will end up using one platform, or one combination of platforms, for the plenary sessions and another one for the more interactive events. It depends on the size and complexity of your conference.
Social Interaction Engine — Text Chat
Independent of what media you choose for rendering people and their content, the glue that binds participants together is… text chat! There should be one gigantic group chat channel that includes all simultaneous participants in the conference, in a session, and smaller, specialized chat channels for smaller groups. This is really important, and it’s what makes all the difference between (A) watching a video of a talk by yourself, and (B) watching a talk together, at the same time, with a group of like-minded people. So whatever you choose as your platform, make sure that group chat is well supported. If not, consider using a external group chat system, like Discord or Slack.
- OSCC: OpenSimulator environments have distance-based and group-based chat built-in. We created separate groups for organizers and different types of participants such as speakers and exhibitors.
- Zoom: Zoom has chat channels in every meeting room and it also has group-based chat channels. You will need to create those group channels and set them up with the right people before hand.
Running the Conference
In a physical conference, a small army of volunteers — student volunteers, session chairs, and “on-site” support staff — are the ones who make the conference run. Student volunteers do tasks such as access control to the rooms, testing and support of A/V, greetings, directing people to the right places, detecting problems that may arise and notifying the organizing committee, etc. Session chairs introduce the sessions and their speakers, and keep the flow of the sessions. “On-site” staff are the points of contact between the venue and the organizing committee, or, said in another way, they are the monitors of the technical glitches of the venue.
A virtual conference needs exactly the same army of volunteers doing almost exactly the same things. Allocate volunteers to monitor the chat channels, to be present in each meeting space, to greet participants in some way and direct them to the proper places. In the case of a complex conference with multiple things happening at the same time, don’t assume that participants know what to do or where to go; they will need people-powered help — a lot of it! Don’t automate too much. This is part of what makes a conference a conference!
In a physical conference, the army of volunteers is “trained” and given instructions upfront about their tasks. Prepare to do the same in a virtual conference. You have to train your volunteers about what it is they are supposed to be doing, and where, during the conference. Don’t wing it. This is not just about running the conference, it’s also about connecting to the people in your community who volunteer to help.
The General Chair and the organizing team need to make a plan for who is going to be in charge of what at every moment of the conference. Again, this is the same kind of collaboration and planning we have to do for physical conferences; but for newcomers to virtual conferences, the first time(s) you do it you cannot rely on prior experience, because the media is completely different. So, plan ahead! Again, this is what makes a conference a conference. Talk with each other and work together.
If you organized a physical conference you know how important, and expensive, A/V is. Well, A/V is even more important in virtual conferences. In virtual conferences, audio and video are not just for showing the slides but for showing the presence of people! It is absolutely critical that you nail every detail of A/V down: who can speak/share screen, and when? Is this a single-speaker session or a panel-like thing? Does the session chair and the session participants have permission to speak? What are attendees looking at during a session? Who can mute? If you broadcast, or record, who is pressing the buttons for that to happen? Etc.
- OSCC: the secret sauce of OSCC is the volunteer A/V team. They are the operators of conference, the staff backstage. They are amazing. They deploy volunteers in every session whose task is to record/broadcast, even from different angles! And they run a whole series of session-based chat channels that bring the session participants together in chat before going live. They are a well-oiled machine!
- Zoom: I haven’t organized a conference in Zoom yet, so I don’t know how that would look like. But I suspect that, like in OSCC, organizers of Zoom-based conferences will want to form an A/V committee, or even hire somebody to make sure this is done correctly. In particular, they need to set up those session-based chat channels to bring people together before, during, and after each session. Again, don’t assume that session participants will know where to go and what to do! There needs to be backstage activity, not just what we see “on stage.”
A virtual conference could, in principle, be completely open to whoever wants to show up. That’s also true for physical conferences. In practice, however, that is a bad idea both in the physical and in the virtual cases. You do want to know who’s planning to attend, and you do want them to attend. So, there is no question that registrations are a necessity for virtual conferences, otherwise you can’t really plan ahead.
In the same vein, virtual conferences could be free of charge. After all, there is no food&bev. But food&bev is not the only cost of a conference. There are costs associated with publishing the proceedings, with the platforms, awards, super-important invited speakers, and even with A/V if you decide to hire a professional team. Moreover, everything that is free of charge can be easily ignored, which is to say: if you don’t charge anything, the people who register won’t feel obligated to come (niche communities are an exception to this rule). Like physical conferences, most virtual conferences will need to charge a registration fee both to cover the costs and to pressure people to come get what they paid for.
- OSCC: OSCC has registrations but it doesn’t charge anything. All costs are absorbed by the organizing team through equipment and time donations. However, it asks for donations from participants. But OSCC is a niche community, one of those where people are there because they really want to be there; so, attendance is not a problem.
- Zoom for academic/research conferences: I don’t really know what the right price point is. Rule of thumb: around $250.
Time zones are one of the biggest challenges of virtual conferences whose participants live around the world. There are no good solutions to overcome the fact that some people will be sleepy when others are wide awake. There are, however, some less-horrible solutions.
In OSCC, we have participants from all over the world. We have converged to holding the plenary sessions between 7am and 1pm in California time, with the keynote speaker, or the most important panel, at 7am PST. Then we have additional sessions past 1pm PST for those more on the West. We have also held satellite events on a rolling basis, organized by groups in Asia/Australia.
Bottom line: in a virtual conference with international participants, you will not be able to have a block of 8 hours for sessions. Instead, you have shorter blocks (2-6 hours), that most participants can attend. You may need to spread the conference over more days than the physical equivalent. And/or you may add more sessions on a rolling basis throughout the day, accepting that those will be inconvenient for a percentage of the participants.
The great thing about physical conferences is the serendipity that happens outside the conference program. You bump into people in the corridor, you end up in a bar with people you just met, etc. This is very hard to port to virtual conferences.
- OSCC: Virtual reality conferences, with a 3D space, are not bad for socialization. You can move around, and get into proximity with people you don’t know but may want to know, so you start chatting. In OSCC we also have satellite social events with live DJs streaming from their homes. People put their avatars in dance animations and start chatting. It’s actually fun.
- With 2D video spaces, like Zoom, this is not possible. But it is possible to add socialization into the event, even in something like Zoom. You can include live DJ streaming, for example, or some Twitch session of some sort — anything that gets random groups of participants chatting with each other.
In physical space, socialization is a natural thing, we don’t need to think about organizing it. In virtual spaces, we need to think ahead about how to get people to talk to each other over something fun.
Some conferences already have a Social Committee of some sort, a group of people who think about entertainment. That role is even more important in virtual conferences!