« Nebraska story | Main | Zero day »

Open connections

Better Call Saul - S06e13-.jpgIt's easy to say the future is hybrid. Much harder to say how to make it - and for "it" read "conferences and events" - hybrid and yet still a good experience for all involved.

I should preface this by stating the obvious: writers don't go to events the same way as other people. For one thing, our work is writing about what we find. So where a "native" (say, a lawyer at a conference on robots, policy, and law will be looking to connect their work to the work others at the conference are doing, the writer is always thinking, "Is that worth writing about?" or "Why is everyone excited about this paper?" You're also always looking around: who would be interesting to schmooze over the next lunch break?

For writers, then - or at least, *this* writer - attending remotely can be unsatisfying, more like reviewing a TV show. After one remote event last year, I approached a fellow attendee on Twitter and suggested a Zoom lunch to hash over what we'd just witnessed. She thought it was weird. In person, wandering up to join her lunchtime conversation would have been unremarkable. The need to ask makes people self-conscious.

And yet, there is a big advantage in being able to access many more events than you could ever afford to fly to. So I want hybrid events to *work*.

In a recent editorial note, a group of academic researchers set out guidelines and considerations for hybrid conferences, the result of discussions held in July 2021 at the Dagstuhl seminar on Climate Friendly Internet Research. They divide hybrid conferences into four types: passive (in which the in-person conference is broadcast to the remote audience, who cannot present or comment); semi-passive (in which remote participants can ask questions but not present or act as panelists); true (in which both local and remote participants have full access and capabilities); and distributed (in which local groups form clusters or nodes, which link together to form the main event).

I have encountered the first three of these (although I think the fourth holds a lot of promise). My general rule: the more I can participate as a remote attendee the better I like it and the more I feel like the conference must be joined in real time. A particular bugaboo is organizers who disable the chat window. At one in-person-only event this year, several panels were composed solely of remote speakers, who needed a technician's help to get audience feedback.

As the Dagstuhl authors write, hybrid events are not new. One of the organizations I'm involved with has enabled remote participation in council meetings for more than 15 years. At pre-pandemic meetings a telephone hookup and conference speaker provided dial-in access. Alongside, two of us typed into a live chat channel updates that both became the meeting's minutes and helped clarify what was being said and who was speaking. Those two also monitored the chat for remote participants who needed help being heard.

Folk music gatherings have developed practices that might be more broadly useful. For one thing, they set up many more breakout "rooms" than seems needed at first glance. One becomes the "parking lot" - a room where participants can leave their computer logged in, mic and camera off, so they can resume the session at any time without having to log in again. There's usually a "kitchen" or some such where people can chat with new and old friends. Every music session has both a music host and a technical assistant who keeps things running smoothly. And there is always an empty period following each session, so people can linger and the next session has ample set-up time. A lobby is continuously staffed by a host who helps incomers find the sessions they want and provides a point of contact if something is going wrong.

As both these examples suggest, enabling remote attendees to be full participants requires a lot of on-site support. In a discussion about this on Twitter, Jon Crowcroft, one of the note's authors, said, for example, that each in-person participant should also have a Zoom (or whatever) login so they could interact fully with remote participants, including accessing the chat window. I would second this. At a multi-track workshop earlier this year, some of the event's tracks were inaccessible because the room's only camera and microphone were poorly placed, making it impossible to see or understand commenters. At the end of each session the conference split in two; those of us on Zoom chatted to each other, while the in-person attendees wandered off to the room where the refreshments were. Crowcroft's recommendation would have helped a lot.

It's a lot of effort, but there is a big reason to do it, which the Dagstuhl authors also discuss: embracing diversity. The last two years have enabled all of us to gain contact with people who could never muster the funding or logistics to travel to distant events. Treating remote participants as an add-on sends the message that we're back to exclusionary business as previous normal. In locking us down, the pandemic also opened up much more of the world to participation. It would be wrong to close it back down again.

Illustrations: The second shot of the final episode of Better Call Saul (because I couldn't think of anything).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)