Building Community @ Virtual Unconferences

“People don’t feel connected to your community because they joined a big crowd in an arena. They feel connected because of the individual conversations, private moments, and vulnerability that they experience with other participants.” - Charles Vogl

Unconferences build community through specific characteristics: its collaborative conference agenda creation, “vote with your feet” model of participation, and dynamic pace. These components are difficult to recreate in a virtual setting. There are several components that are often missing from these virtual settings that detract from these distinctive unconference characteristics:

  • PRESENCE: What is the popular session? Where is a specific person that I’m looking for?
  • LINGERING: That person made a great point. Let me see if we can grab a coffee and chat.
  • CHOICE: This session isn’t really resonating with me. Let me find one that does.

Most virtual conferences are set up with the organizers setting the sessions and running the environment. There is often an involved process of signing out and signing into a different session to switch between virtual session “rooms.” It is rare for there to be an ability to do on-demand, informal, live, video chats with other participants in the context of the conference infrastructure. And, there is usually no ability to see who is where in the conference without signing into each concurrent session and seeing the list of attendees, if visible.

In my next post about community, and on a quest to find a virtual setting that is suited for building connection and community for multi-tracked events, I tested several tools and environments. (You can read about one of these tests on my blog.) Below is an analysis of several virtual gathering tools and how they do in providing the components of presence, lingering and choice to attendees.

Virtual Event Tools

QiqoChat

QiqoChat provides a social wrapper around Zoom meetings that provides presence as well as cohesion and freedom of movement between zoom sessions in a multi-tracked event. Agendas and information sharing are driven by Google Docs or other tools that are embedded in the environment. What’s more, you don’t have to have a pile of zoom accounts already to accomplish this, as the sessions are built into the use of QiqoChat. It has the advantage of not requiring participants to learn yet another tool - just how to navigate from space to space - not that different from having to learn the layout of the event space during a conference. Participants from the IIWXXX unconference left the week raving about the platform and how it enabled similar interactions as if in person. QiqoChat has even published a how-to specifically for unconferences.

One can see where all other participants are, and get a sense at a glance of which sessions are the most popular.

There is a social location (The Gardens) that allows for impromptu get togethers, though this is largely just another zoom room.

Switching between rooms is similar to stepping out of one room, and stepping into another. One never leaves the event environment during the process.


 

High Fidelity

A brand new tool that has a lot of promise. There is an extremely high degree of virtual presence, and the ability to completely customize your virtual environment, giving it a very immersive feeling. But their focus on audio over video will not be appropriate for all events. But, for a social event, this environment could be perfect. And, with the ability to add interactive landmarks within the environment (with a bit of programming), it is possible to embed videos, links, audio (like a DJ) and more in the virtual environment, which could lead to some very interesting and creative applications.

One can see where all participants are at all times. And, the ability to overlay presence on an image representing your venue (a conference hall, backyard patio, etc) helps to set the stage for the conversations that you’re expecting participants to have.

For audio conversations, this tool is exceptional. As you get closer to groups of people, you begin to hear them talking, and you can can join groups of conversations already in progress. Sound is directional. As you turn to face someone, you will hear them more clearly.

While it is straightforward to move around to where one would like to go, It likely would be complicated to have many pre-planned items going on at the same time in this environment. This is better suited for a fully free-form session where participants have complete autonomy.


 

Pragli

A newer tool that is primarily set up for virtual teams. The environment looks a bit like Slack, with a list of virtual rooms, and a visual indication of who is where. These virtual rooms are equipped with video and audio chatting among whomever is in the room, but the built in video conferencing is not well suited for groups larger than 5 or 6, so a supplemental tool would be needed for larger sessions. While those links can be left in a room for participants, the experience is not completely seamless.

All at the event can see where others are, and even find a specific person if desired. (individuals can “hide” themselves if they don’t want to be visible.) It is possible to see popular sessions at a glance.

Rooms are equipped with video and audio chatting among whomever is in the room, so no pre-set up is needed; finding a place to chat with someone would be similar to walking down a corridor and finding a space to chat.

Switching from room to room is a single click, making it extremely easy to virtually check out what is going on in a room with minimal fuss. In addition, participants don’t need to leave the event environment to move around.


 

Traditional video conference software

(Zoom, Webex, BlueJeans, etc)

These tools are not set up for multi-track events. For multi-track, each session needs to be run as a separate meeting with different links. Most conference software has no way of natively linking these disparate sessions into a comprehensive unit, so tracks are often left feeling disconnected from each other.

There is no way to see who is where in real time. Pre-registration can help, but is in conflict with the “Choice” characteristic

While organizers can offer open sessions to be used by participants, use of the rooms would be overly formal, likely requiring sign up and limitations.

Although the set of “room” links can be provided, it is awkward to switch rooms, requiring one to leave one meeting session (and the event all together), and then find the link to sign into another session.


 

What is important to note for ALL of these tools, is that going virtual is not a time to cut corners. You will still want plenty of advanced event planning and some dedicated event staff to help ensure your event success. Planning a virtual event is definitely different. You may need an orientation video and technical support available throughout the event. Session timing, participation limits, and content approached may all need to be adjusted to better leverage the virtual setting. Some things even work better virtually than they do in person when they leverage more interactive and collaborative activities, or highlight information that would be difficult to show in person. But, this means getting creative on the parts of your event that otherwise would have been the tried and true, predictable parts of the planning process. And also, an opportunity for innovation and a possible new favorite way of doing things.

Other resources

While this article is primarily about the resources you may use for a multi-tracked event, most events and virtual meetings are not that complicated. As a resource for those other events, I highly recommend the guide to virtual events created by the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE). While their focus is on events and meetings for scientific collaboration, the guidebook is really more general than this. The authors have done a nice job of creating a set of “recipes” that can be used based on audience size, format flexibility and type of activity.

Woodley, Louise, Pratt, Catherine, Ainsworth, Rachael, Amsen, Eva, Bakker, Arne, Butland, Stefanie, … Tsang, Emmy. (2020, July 17). Using virtual events to facilitate community building: event formats. Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3934385

… but don’t forget

Most important to remember as you are planning your event to have fun. This is a chance to explore something new and have your event truly stand out. With enough time and creativity you can use this opportunity to create something that has never been done before!

Be Different.

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