As we near the point of being able to meet in person again we ask "What happens to events?" Join us and a range of developer event organizers to discuss what they see as being the future of gathering. With Em Lazer-Walker (@lazerwalker) is a Toronto-based artist/engineer and Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft. Jon Gottfried (@jonmarkgo) is the co-founder of Major League Hacking. Suze Shardlow (@SuzeShardlow) is a multi-award-winning tech community manager, technical author, event MC and coding instructor. Moderated by Kevin Lewis (@_phzn) - a Developer Advocate at Orbit.
Kevin Lewis (00:00): Jon, Suze and Emillia. Hello everyone.
Jon Gottfried (00:03): Hello.
Suze Shardlow (00:03): Hello.
Kevin Lewis (00:05): Good day. I was going to say, "Good evening," but that is not the case for everyone. Good day, everyone. So I think we'll go in the order people are on the screen, let's say in clockwise fashion. So give us a couple of minutes, introduce yourself and your work in any way you see fit. So let's start with Jon.
Jon Gottfried (00:23): Thanks. Hi, everyone. As Kevin mentioned, I'm Jon Gottfried. I'm the co-founder of Major League Hacking. We are the global student developer community. We work with at this point, hundreds of thousands of folks who are learning tech and entering the industry to help them build community and learn skills that are going to be important to their career. That's largely done through events, which is why I'm on this panel.
Jon Gottfried (00:49): We historically hosted on the order of hundreds of hackathons and many thousands of workshops and meetups a year in person. That abruptly changed over the last year and now we're thinking about it very differently going into the future. Before MLH, I was a developer evangelist and a subpar web developer for a number of years and I'm really excited to get to work with a lot of really smart young learners these days.
Suze Shardlow (01:21): Hello, everybody. My name is Sue Shardlow. Like Kevin said, I'm a tech community manager, technical author, event emcee and coding instructor based in London, England. Just a little bit of background, which is kind of related to how I ended up where I am now. I've been coding since I was a child. UK education system didn't know what to do with girls who liked computers. I can see Jon nodding there. I went into something totally different, but still carried on my hobby and then re-pivoted back into software engineering.
Suze Shardlow (01:53): But the thing that I did in the meantime before I discovered software engineering professionally was marketing. What I do now is a really good combo of what my previous career was and the whole software piece. Because I used to work in marketing, been running events for nearly 25 years and obviously back in the day, they weren't online because we didn't really have much online back in the 1990s.
Suze Shardlow (02:19): Like Kevin said, I'm the online event and community host for cfe.dev, so we run monthly meetups for software developers. I'm also the community lead for Ladies of Code London. Ladies of Code London, during COVID, we had two choices, either go online or just stop. There wasn't really a third choice. We decided to go online and that involved a lot of experimentations, being really good, learning curve, taking us out of our comfort zones and so far personally, I have delivered more than 109 events since the start of COVID, which covers over 250 hours and one of those was one that Kevin mentioned, which was Global Diversity Call for Papers and like he said, imagine saying that five times. I did a six hour live stream for that a few months ago. So imagine how many times I said that over six hours.
Suze Shardlow (03:12): Yeah, so as well as my own events. I've been approached by other people and asked to emcee theirs, which I feel really grateful for and it's enabled me to meet loads more people in the developer community. Yeah, that's me.
Em Lazer-Walker (03:26): Hey everyone. I'm Emillia. I work as a client advocate at Microsoft focused on the games community and spatial computing communities. As an event organizer, I do a lot of work with too many small games developers to mention. I've worked with the queer JS meetup in multiple cities and online and I run a conference called Roguelike Celebration, which is a game design conference at the intersection of games and computer history and first generation both on the academic side and the weird art side of things.
Em Lazer-Walker (03:58): But my background is actually mostly as a game designer, sort of bouncing between the tech world and experimental independent game design, building any code of game you can think of that doesn't just use a mouse and keyboard or a controller. So when the pandemic happened and we all needed to figure out how to bring events online, I started looking into how do we use game design to make virtual events better? And so Roguelike Celebration is actually run on our own custom platform that is sort of halfway between Discord or Slack and a MUD which are the text-based precursors to MMOs.
Em Lazer-Walker (04:32): And so I'm really interested in not how do we do stuff like gamification, how do we make events that have like 2D pixel art avatars that evoke games, but how do we take the things that MMOs are really good at doing as generally machines that generate friendships and take our 40 years of social science research and industry experience and figure out, well, how do we take those like deep psychologically satisfying impulses and methods of getting people to get to know each other and bring that to events.
Kevin Lewis (05:00): Awesome, thank you so much for that. We will share them in the Discord, I think after, it's I think is probably the best place to roll up some links. But you did a series of write ups about the choices in how you set up Roguelike Celebration and applying game theory to it and I read them all and I was thoroughly fascinated. It was awesome.
Kevin Lewis (05:21): Yeah, thank you very much for sharing. I have some questions for you. My first question is, what have you found are the positive outcomes in taking events online, that as we start to return to some form of in person interaction, whether that's fully or partially, that you will try and retain and let's start with Suze.
Suze Shardlow (05:44): Yeah,. So there's a number of things that the online event space has kind of opened up those advantages that I think we probably didn't realize before, which I would love to take forward. I think some of them would be more challenging than others. Like I mentioned, I've delivered 250 hours of online programming, over 100 events. Most of those content events, I've had at least one person asking me, "Is this being recorded?"
Suze Shardlow (06:13): There's always somebody wanting the recording, which is brilliant. I think I'd love to do that going forward. I think it might be a bit challenging because the organization where I work with is a voluntary one. So we don't have budget for stuff like that. And also, the whole recording of something in person is totally different from recording something online as well. So I think there's going to be more learning curve there. But I think it will be really good, because we're going to talk later about what it actually means to deliver these events.
Suze Shardlow (06:40): And I think that we probably will need to go hybrid. And so there'll be some people in the room, some people not there, some people that will not want to watch it live anyway. I think we're going to need to think about that and I think I'd really love to do that. I think people have been making more meaningful connections as well. It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but because we're all in the room and we can all see everybody kind of equally, it's not the same as being in an actual room where you can't see everybody's faces like on Zoom, you can see everybody actually put their camera on and we've seen more meaningful connections with people, we've actually set up, like networking segments that people can come to.
Suze Shardlow (07:21): These have worked really well and I think they've worked a lot better than in person and the reason why I think that is because in the online world, if somebody is in a networking space, it means that they actually want to be there. So you can approach them with confidence and know that they will receive your approach positively. Whereas if you go to an in-person event, it's really difficult to know who to approach.
Suze Shardlow (07:45): I'm really introverted and that's one reason why sometimes I just don't go to in-person stuff because I know I'm going to have to seek people. I find that really hard some days. But if you know you're going to an online event and there's going to be a networking space like in a conference, they've got a special area and in this festival, you've got a gala town going on later in the week. So if you go there, you know there's going to be people and you can just go straight up to them and say, "Hello," and it will be well received, then fine.
Suze Shardlow (08:13): I think there were a lot of people that were facing a lot of issues that came to online events and online communities to seek respite and support as well. There were so many folks that we were hearing a lot of messaging in the media about how, "You've got so much more time now, you don't have a commute. You can do all these great hobbies and you can learn all these new tech stacks and everything." When you go for a job, the employer is going to say to you, "What did you do during COVID and how did you spend your time?"
Suze Shardlow (08:40): Some people actually found themselves with less time. I feel like these were all forgotten by a big chunk of the tech community who don't... A big chunk of our community are quite young and they don't have any commitments. There are big sections of the community as well who have caring commitments and they have second jobs or they just don't have time to do anything. When their kids got sent home from school, they couldn't actually do their day job. So let alone any of the learning stuff.
Suze Shardlow (09:11): I think a lot of them have come to these online events to find support. I think that's something that I'd really like to take forward into the in-person stuff as well. I think that's going to be challenging because folks don't have time to come out. Are they going to come to an in-person thing, but I think the hybrid approach is really going to work there. The last thing that I really want to take forward is variety.
Suze Shardlow (09:34): We had to be quite resourceful when we went online and it enabled us to experiment like I said before and I produced a lot of series of events that I'm really proud of that I don't think I would have necessarily thought of if we were still doing like churning out the monthly meet up. I think you kind of get stuck into a rut, but when you're forced to pivot, it really makes you feel like what resources do I have or what can I do. I've got more time to think about it, but actually, there's less of a lead time now so I can quickly put something out. I'd like to do that but the lead time on in person events, as we all know, is a lot longer than it is for an online one.
Kevin Lewis (10:15): Cool, really thorough. There was lots of food for thought there. Thank you. Let's go to Emillia next.
Em Lazer-Walker (10:22): Yeah. I have a couple of different thoughts. I think the biggest thing for us is the accessibility, that we are sort of not event focused on a region, we're on sort of a set of niche interests, which means that we are not all geographically located in San Francisco. We are also a games industry conference, not a tech industry conference, which means employer sponsored travel budgets, basically don't exist in San Francisco. If you have not known, this is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit.
Em Lazer-Walker (10:51): So it's been overwhelming in terms of letting people who wanted to attend to never before attend, as well as getting all of the speakers that we always wanted to come and speak, who can now finally come and speak since we don't, again, as a small community conference that doesn't have game sponsorship, we can't pay to fly everyone in from across the world.
Em Lazer-Walker (11:10): And so as we are thinking towards a future where we can be in person again, we know we want some sort of online component, whether it's hybrid or something else, just to keep that aspect of it. Similarly, we have always viewed the conference as both, this is a wonderful little social event that people come to and enjoy, but also like the long tail of our talks living on YouTube and professional game designers referencing our talks all the time.
Em Lazer-Walker (11:39): It's maybe arguable, but I think having sort of video recorded talks, people doing at home, like on average, that's going to produce better looking YouTube videos than someone standing in front of stage and speaking. I think there's even accessibility things there that letting speakers pre record their talks, I think, on average, it's driving up the quality of the talks, it's also just making a lot of speakers feel more comfortable.
Em Lazer-Walker (12:04): Like we've seen some speakers who, for various privacy reasons, aren't comfortable showing their face when they're speaking so getting up on stage is difficult. But it's very easy for them to use a VTuber or have some other video filter where we're sort of giving speakers more options to figure out what is the best way for you to give a talk, which I think is really cool.
Kevin Lewis (12:27): Super, super interesting. For the event series that I run, You Got This, there's a lot of parallels there, around making people comfortable around different delivery types. And the fact that ultimately, the goal of my event series is the education. There is a talk library that we are creating and growing. Yeah, being able to drive the quality of that content up is key. I echo a lot of what you said. Finally, Jon, do you have anything to add at all?
Jon Gottfried (12:58): I feel like Emillia and Suze covered a lot of really good points there. The only thing I would add is that we've noticed that in between events, there is a much more organic level of community engagement going on than we used to see with in-person events because what would end up happening is you go to an in person event and then everyone goes back to where they physically came from or they'd go back to their normal friend group or peer group.
Jon Gottfried (13:29): For a lot of these online events, you establish them on like a Discord server or a Slack or something along those lines. Because that was the main method of communication during the event, people are much more likely to stick around and continue using that after the event. That is I think a very noticeable change. I very distinctly remember I used to go to an in person event and maybe it was like awesome and you have tons of people commenting all throughout the days that's going on and then it just like goes dead silent immediately when it's over and that doesn't really happen anymore.
Kevin Lewis (14:07): If you don't mind, I'm going to be cheeky and follow up with another question there. Pulling out my own experience with my community, I've experienced actually quite the opposite. I've experienced that between... Maybe it's around the frequency of events where generally there's quite a distance between them. The moment the event ends, Discord completely goes silent, which I'm content with. It's a temporal community based around these events. But I wonder why, if you have any thoughts at all, for some communities, that might be different and what is the frequency between the events that your community is involved in?
Jon Gottfried (14:50): That's a good point. We're doing multiple events a week every week of the year. Let me actually also back up and outline a couple of like changes in format. The events are much more centralized on a single chat platform. Like we've invested a ton of resources in our discord community as the main driver of communication during our events. Now, it's being used across multiple events. And so whenever people are checking it, there's always something new going on and there's actually never a very long gap in between us pushing things out to the server.
Jon Gottfried (15:36): But honestly, even for a lot of the student groups that we work with that have their own Discord or their own Slack, I've seen similar things where, because they're not able to meet in person, a lot of the socialization is happening on those and maybe it's like a weekly among us game. Maybe it's something else that's totally unrelated to the event itself. But people are just getting in the habit of checking it and using it more often.
Jon Gottfried (16:04): I also think to be totally honest, I love Slack, we use it for work. It's a great service. Discord incentivizes a totally different behavior because you can be on multiple servers and get those notifications and DMs much more like... I don't know. It's like a little bit more of a cohesive experience where there's not as much of it, like Stark divide between who you are from server to server. That seems to make a difference as well, because I'm on, I don't know, 10 different Discord servers for different hacker community conversations, but I can see the same people from server to server and communicate outside of that. But I don't know. It's interesting that you've seen the opposite. I'm curious to hear more about that. But I know that probably, Emillia and Suze have seen different things too.
Kevin Lewis (16:57): I'd be curious about Emillia and Suze's experience, just as a thought, for my community, it really is only a couple of things a year. So maybe it is the affordances presented by running stuff, both centrally and online and more frequently, because the overhead in running them is lower, allows for you to run more. So there's always something to push towards. Hopefully we'll get there in my group at the moment. It's not at that point. So people do just drop off without something new to pull them towards, I suppose and then you just lose them to the run up to the next event.
Kevin Lewis (17:30): In fact, I am kind of curious if I may, to not derail this for too long, but Emillia and then Suze, what have you experienced in terms of this kind of engagement between instances of your community meeting since you've gone on one?
Em Lazer-Walker (17:47): Roguelike Celebration is in a bit of a weird situation. We aggressively try not to do that just because we are a small volunteer organizing team and don't want the overhead of moderating a community. But I think what I have seen with some of the other meetups and such I ran, we have found it difficult, which I have less written off to, this is a problem with the tools or needing a new approach as much as we are not running online events. We are running online events during a global pandemic. It's sort of difficult to separate out what is human psychology of everyone being depressed and sad and lonely.
Kevin Lewis (18:19): Yeah, very, very fair. Suze, how have you found it?
Suze Shardlow (18:23): I think it depends on the organization and the events. For me, the CFB, it's been a lot slower but we've only just set up a Discord. Also, there aren't any actual meet ups where folks can actually see each other. So it's very much a webinar based type thing. Whereas Ladies of Code London, it's more of a kind of a close knit thing. We can all see each other, we all talk and it's more collaborative. So there is more chat in between.
Suze Shardlow (18:56): I think that's probably why Jon's seeing more because the nature of his organization is sort of a collaborative event, isn't it? Like a hackathon thing, it's about a group coming together and collaborating. So they're already kind of in that mindset. And that's why they're there, to talk to each other. Whereas if you're at a conference, unless you're doing a workshop with other people, it's very much you're going to be talked out and maybe discuss those talks a bit.
Suze Shardlow (19:23): But there is actually an element of collaborating and creating together. That might be one reason why it's different between events. But one of the other things that I would love to see going forward into the offline events piece that I've noticed online is that folks are more likely to speak up as well and share, I think. It's a lot harder to do that in person. I think it's become like that because we are closer knit online. You can see everybody and in Zoom, you can use the raise hand function and make sure folks all have a chance to speak and stuff like that.
Suze Shardlow (20:00): Whereas in person, you know how hard it is to do that. So yeah, just talking back to the first question, that's something that I wanted to add.
Kevin Lewis (20:07): Thank you. I promise I will move us on. Actually, Emillia's point about the context in which these events are run perhaps is the reason I see particularly high drop off. My events are at core skills. And it requires quite a lot of emotional labor and emotional investment to talk about the themes of the conference, a resource, which I think many people are quite low on throughout periods during this pandemic. Yeah, being mindful of that is probably worthwhile.
Kevin Lewis (20:36): So my next question is about the opportunities that being online has afforded your communities and your events that perhaps weren't afforded. Before, we all had to run online events. And this time, I will start with Jon.
Jon Gottfried (20:56): Yeah, totally. There's a lot of opportunities that have been created. I think Suze touched on some of these earlier, that the events are significantly more accessible, they're significantly cheaper to run. There's a lot of these like little logistical details that have changed really significantly.
Jon Gottfried (21:20): I think that when people are thinking about organizing events though and we deal with a lot of first time event organizers, the barrier to entry and the level of risk involved with putting on your first event is much, much lower. I actually think it's been like a boon for new community organizers because you don't have to rent or commit to a space, you don't have to get food, you don't have to worry about all of these physical details.
Jon Gottfried (21:51): Your first event might only have two other people show up. And that actually feels much better online than it does in person. Like being in 100 person room and having two people showed up feels kind of crappy. But when you're online, that could be a really great intimate conversation on Zoom. And I think that that's opened the door for a lot of people to experiment and really get involved with this in ways they were maybe afraid to do before or weren't able to do before.
Jon Gottfried (22:17): I also think that it's opened up a lot of creativity. There are a lot of limits on what you can do in a physical event, either due to cost or due to the amount of time it takes to execute something really well. You can get really creative with online events with not a lot of at least monetary investment. I've seen some really cool things come out of that. I didn't get to attend the Roguelike Celebration, but I was watching it on Twitter because a ton of people I follow were there. And I was like, "This looks incredible."
Jon Gottfried (22:52): Like, I have never seen an event that like functions that way before. I can only imagine that that wouldn't have happened if it were in person. It would have felt and looked very different.
Kevin Lewis (23:08): Yeah, the rest of this hour is going to be just praise for Roguelike Celebration and I am here for it. Emillia, let's go with you. That's what affordances have online bought to events they wouldn't have been able to necessarily do in person or thought to do in person?
Em Lazer-Walker (23:26): Yeah, I mean I think that creativity is a big part of it. And I think a specific mental shift that I have gotten to make is thinking much more about an event as like you are crafting a ritual and you are crafting a space in a way that if you run a physical event, your venue is going to shape so much of the space and giving you that much more control over it makes it that much easier to have that creativity.
Em Lazer-Walker (23:51): I think also in terms of the attendee experience or the touching back on some of the earlier stuff, you're talking about what the last question, I think it gives up a lot more affordances for how people want to have social interactions like to Suze's earlier point about you go to an in person event, and you don't necessarily want to go up and talk to a stranger, because that's really scary. This gives us so many more affordances around, well, instead of your choices being locked up to a stranger or sitting in a chair quietly, you can interact with text chat, you can sort of escalate up to video chat or an audio chat or one on one chat with someone instead of this large group interaction, but you're giving individual attendees more comfort with what does it mean for me to be an attendee or to be social or anything like that.
Jon Gottfried (24:37): I don't know about you, but the memes have been vastly improved as well.
Em Lazer-Walker (24:42): Oh, yeah.
Kevin Lewis (24:46): I remember. I think my first online conference that I supported running was the Women of React Conference. There was this one passing reference in one slide. I think what it was Maggie Appleton's lovely slide about a potato. And then Kathy Williams made the joke about potato and Kathy William is a potato and that's everywhere. It was really fun. People wanted to know what it was people got engaged with the event as a result. Finally, Suze.
Suze Shardlow (25:14): That potato is definitely the gift that kept on giving that time, wasn't it? But yeah, speaking of a gift that keeps on giving, doing online events and recording them has given me some artifacts and assets that I can put up on YouTube and I have put up on YouTube, which people can refer to again and again. A lot of them aren't going to go out of date anytime soon, even though they are tech related.
Suze Shardlow (25:40): But they also attract more people to the group, because they can see what they're going to get when they come to one of our events as well. I think that's one of the things that puts people off is, you know. I actually was on a different discussion earlier about hackathons and a lot of folks were saying they didn't know what a hackathon was and they were scared to go because they didn't know what to expect. So I think as human beings, if you don't know what we're getting into, then we don't want to engage with it. Again, the more meaningful connections as well.
Suze Shardlow (26:09): Like you say, you can start off with a very kind of low touch approach of, "I'm going to keep my camera off and I'm going to just chat in the chat. If I feel comfortable, I'm going to put my camera on. I might not go in the breakout room this time, but maybe next time." That kind of thing. So there's different levels of engagement that you can choose. Also, we've definitely been able to reach folks that might not have physically been able to attend before, where if they had some sort of mobility issues maybe or they just didn't have time to come or they just didn't want to, didn't think it was for them, they could try out, like I said, with very low commitment.
Suze Shardlow (26:46): They don't have to kind of physically make themselves come and psych themselves up to do that. Also, we've been able to get speakers and audiences from all around the world. Like I have met so many amazing people like including today, I don't think I probably would have met any of you folks if we were purely relying on in person events.
Suze Shardlow (27:05): That's been a really good thing as well. Just getting that expertise in those other voices and being able to find other voices as well. Finding speakers for stuff is really hard anyway, but having that global pool, it's just been absolutely amazing. Luckily, everybody I've asked to come and speak has turned up. That is one of the things that as an event organizer is really scary, isn't it? Is everyone going to turn up? And is the food going to turn up and stuff. So with online stuff, you don't have to worry about the food, but you still do have to worry about whether your speakers are going to show.
Jon Gottfried (27:36): I think the point about speakers is really interesting when you think about dev rel professionals too. I'm sure Emillia can empathize with this where it's like that can be a high burnout profession because of the level of like in person travel involved. I actually think it's made events more acceptable for companies in a lot of ways in addition to attendees.
Kevin Lewis (27:59): There's cost attached too, to sending people places that is much lower now, it's mostly people's time and a one-off costume equipment. One other thing that's interesting riffing on what Suze said, if I may, is people's choice to get involved in different ways can change during the period of an event. If you kind of get to a point in an event and you are... You're done, like, "I have no more capacity to take in information," are you going to get up and squeeze out of the theater and cut out the back?
Kevin Lewis (28:27): That is really, really hard to do. With online events, it's really easy to just close the tab or come back to it later. As organizers we probably also want to remember that people are at home, it is a global pandemic, people will change how they interact with events and perhaps drop in and drop out and that's okay, when you're looking at numbers afterwards and perhaps something you should be factoring.
Suze Shardlow (28:46): Sorry, I just actually had the opposite in Global Diversity CFP day. So somebody reached out to me afterwards and said they were only planning to come talk to the first bit because it was six hours long. And she said, "But it was so engaging that I stayed for the entire six hours and I asked questions, which I don't normally do." And I was like, "Wow!" I didn't expect somebody to say that. Especially because it was me really doing the emceeing, but she stayed with me for the whole six hours. I was really pleased to hear that.
Kevin Lewis (29:12): Why wouldn't they? Why wouldn't they? You are a great emcee.
Suze Shardlow (29:18): Yeah.
Kevin Lewis (29:18): My final question, and probably the biggest question is, what do you see hybrid events, hybrid for those who aren't familiar with the term, it's an event that both has an in person component and a component that people can take part in remotely online. We will start with Emillia.
Em Lazer-Walker (29:39): Yeah, I feel like this is tricky for me in particular because I'm very opinionated about why events exist. And to me, events are-
Kevin Lewis (29:46): Be opinionated.
Em Lazer-Walker (29:47): Events or social experiences, and the talks are important. Like the talks are there to inspire. They're also there to provide shared cultural context. You can talk about the talks. They're there to give you a break from socializing, but to me, at least for the event itself, like online YouTube talks later a different, those talks are serving many purposes that are less important than you are learning which is difficult when so much of hybrid events is how do you get people to socialize online versus offline.
Em Lazer-Walker (30:17): I don't know if you can really bridge that gap well, like in context of Roguelike Celebration and having all of these sort of game like interactions, you could imagine having, this is a world you can explore and puzzles to solve and people online need to work with people in person. But at that point, I don't know if I'm designing an event as much as an immersive theater experience.
Em Lazer-Walker (30:36): So for Roguelike Celebration, we are very much thinking, maybe this means we run two events a year, because the overwhelming feedback we're getting is people love the online events, they don't want the online events to go away, they also miss the in person event. I think, for our audience, specifically, saying this is the time people are going to go and talk in-person and this is the time people are going to go and hang out in our weird online space are very different use cases with different goals and design strategies and trying to mash those together isn't really going to work out well, with the caveat, but also, we have always live streamed our events on Twitch. There have always been ways to engage with at least the top content live while it is happening.
Kevin Lewis (31:19): Cool. Really interesting. Thank you. Let's go to Jon next.
Jon Gottfried (31:24): I actually think that's a really, really good point. I think that in the same way that it's really hard to take the hallway track of being in an office with your coworkers and move that online at least partially, it's also hard for events. I think that like... So it's important to think about like different formats of events, when we're considering this.
Jon Gottfried (31:48): For a hackathon, I actually think it's much easier to have a hybrid event than for a conference, because if you have two team members in person and two team members remotely, you as a like micro group are going to figure out your own way to collaborate.
Jon Gottfried (32:08): That's kind of a offloading that decision into like a social group, but the problem with a conference is that you end up in a situation where there's a lot of serendipity happening in person, there's probably a lot of a lot of serendipity happening online. But there may not be a lot of overlap between how that's happening, between the different formats. I think that the way you make that successful, at least from what I've seen, is by giving people some level of autonomy on a smaller scale for how their interest groups or sessions collaborate.
Jon Gottfried (32:47): I think it's almost impossible to do in a conference-wide way. If you have a thousand people at a conference and you're trying to implement some kind of social network that everyone's using in person and online, it's likely to fail. I think if you have a session that's 20 people or 50 people and the session organizer defines the expectations for maybe how Q&A is happening, or how discussion is happening or breakout groups, I think there's a lot higher likelihood of success, because everyone who's there is bought into that specific session for a purpose and is more willing to experiment with different format changes, versus kind of the top down decision of a conference organizer, to push everything to a certain format.
Jon Gottfried (33:34): It's incredibly difficult. I really don't know how it's going to play out. We're planning to go back to some in person events, some online events, some hybrid events, in the next... I'll say before the end of the year. Like, I don't know, specifically when because it depends so much on region, but the hybrid events are going to have to get really, really creative. I think it's going to have to be these really small group decisions that will make it work.
Kevin Lewis (34:05): Cool. Yeah, I suppose modality for your event does make a big impact on the ease at which you can run hybrid events. Suze.
Suze Shardlow (34:14): Yeah. And I totally agree with Jon there. We as event organizers are going to have to set the new norms, aren't we? And really kind of outline those parameters through which we enable people to participate because that's the point of an event, isn't it? Something Emillia said earlier about ritual, used the word ritual, reminded me of a book that I really love called the Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.
Suze Shardlow (34:42): Emillia's, yep. So I would recommend that to anybody who's watching who loves events and maybe is thinking about organizing, I would highly recommend that book by Priya Parker. But there's definitely going to be a lot of changes. And I think any of us who have been in a meeting where we were... The only person who was participating online and everyone else was in the room probably found that it wasn't too much fun. And that's what it's probably going to be like for folks that are joining remotely when it's going on in the room, if we're not careful as event organizers. I personally, I can't add any more to that than what Jon's already said.
Suze Shardlow (35:17): I think we definitely need to really think about that and be intentional about how we include everybody because that's a question of inclusion, isn't it? Some people aren't coming because they cannot. Some folks are not going to expose themselves to the level of risk because they could die if they come to an event because of COVID. It's not a case of everything's like opening up.
Suze Shardlow (35:40): It's not safe for everybody and we need to look after people. So yeah, so with that in mind, I think there's going to be more recordings available afterwards. But like I said, there's going to be challenges around how we make those recordings, that we don't necessarily have the equipment, the money, the expertise. We need to figure out how we're going to do that. I think we're probably going to have to give more access to the speakers somehow as well, because when we're online, it's really easy to just reach out to the speaker and directly ask them a question.
Suze Shardlow (36:06): I've been on some great events recently like I went to one that Kim Scott was talking at, the woman who wrote Radical Candor, and I was able to ask questions in the chat. If I actually went to an in person event, I would never be able to get my question in front of Kim Scott. So stuff like that.
Suze Shardlow (36:23): Also venues. So a lot of companies now have gone remote only. So they do not have a venue and at Ladies of Code London, we relied on the companies to lend us their venues for our events. If companies don't have venues, then there aren't venues for us to hold that meet up. That's going to be a bit of a challenge as well. And these remote-first companies, they want to run some of their own meetups. Where are they going to run them? Some folks might think running it in a bar is a good idea.
Suze Shardlow (36:49): Is that a good idea? You're excluding folks that don't drink because they don't want to go into a bar or sometimes their faith say they cannot go into a bar. So you're excluding them. You can't do that. And also, there's a risk involved whenever there's alcohol at an event. We all know this. And Kevin, you've been very mindful of this, when you've been running your events too.
Suze Shardlow (37:11): I've spoken to other event organizers that I don't agree with that say there's always alcohol available at our event, if you don't like it, then don't come. I think that's very non-inclusive, and I don't go to their events and I don't recommend them. We need to think about where physically we're holding these things as well.
Suze Shardlow (37:27): In terms of timing as well, with the inclusion piece, I think we need to either hold them later in the evening, because folks, if they're traveling into offices, if they do still have an office, some people do want to go back to the office and they're going to need travel time to get to wherever you're holding the event. We can't still have it now at five o'clock in the evening like we have here in London today because people need that transition time to physically get there. Or you hold it during the day, which is the ones that I emcee for the American meetup that I do, at five o'clock my time, but they're at noon Eastern, and they're a 9:00 AM Pacific.
Suze Shardlow (37:59): So the American folks are joining within their workday. I don't know whether or not their bosses know this, if they're more junior and maybe they haven't told their boss because they don't feel they can. Are they going to be excluded when they're back in the office because they can't join in? I think there's a lot to consider here. I think event attendance is probably going to be lower when we move to hybrid events. Towards the end of the in person stuff that I was doing, attendance was going down to 50% and through the online stuff is the maximum has been about 50%.
Suze Shardlow (38:30): I think if we go hybrid, it's probably going to get a bit lower. Yeah, I think there's a lot to consider here with the hybrid piece.
Kevin Lewis (38:38): There was so much there. Thanks Suze. If I could just reiterate one point, remember, as you are starting to plan events, that it isn't just your attendees who have to feel comfortable, your speakers, your vendors, your sponsors. Some companies will have corporate policies still in place. That means they will not commit to in-person events. You have to remember all of these stakeholders need to be comfortable and that might change your decision around how you run in person portions of your events.
Kevin Lewis (39:05): Also, shout out Emilia Pott in the chat in Twitch and that the Priya Parker, who is the author of The Art of Gathering also has a podcast specifically about adapting various events to the pandemic, which I did not know and that is what I will now be listening to on my dog walks. Thank you very much.
Em Lazer-Walker (39:23): It's really cool.
Kevin Lewis (39:26): It sounds honestly awesome. We have got a couple of questions in. So the first question from Shehackspurple, we'll pop that up there. "How can we get more people to attend events? I find that numbers are so much lower than in person. Is this pandemic related, do you think, or do you think it is related to the online format irrespective of the pandemic?" Thank you very much for asking that, Shehackspurple. Feel free Suze to start.
Suze Shardlow (39:55): I'll keep it brief and I'll let Emillia chime in as well because I really want to hear what Emillia says about this. I think you've got to think about why you're holding the event and maybe think more about reach than attendance. So if you can record it, then you're going to get more reach. So your total reach across in person and... Sorry, live and after the event is going to be okay but also, see if you can use those assets afterwards. Because I'm not going to lie, promoting anything is hard. There is no quick answer. There's no easy answer to this.
Suze Shardlow (40:25): See if you can use those assets, chop them up and provide little tasters on Twitter and all the channels that you use to show people a taste of what they're going to get. Just kind of keep pushing out what you're about. There's no magic bullet here in my opinion.
Kevin Lewis (40:42): Awesome. Thank you very much. Emillia.
Em Lazer-Walker (40:46): Yeah, I think at least a big thing that I've experienced personally and talked to a lot of people about is Zoom fatigue or not wanting to spend your limited time going to another online event where you're going to watch a video and maybe talk in text chat or turn on video yourself. And a big question that I keep coming back to is, why is your events an online events and not a YouTube playlist? And I'm not saying that is your situation here. I'm not accusing you of anything.
Em Lazer-Walker (41:13): But I think it is, it is really important to figure out why is it important that people show up in real time synchronously to your events, instead of engaging with it after the fact. If you don't have a clear answer to that question, I think your audience is going to recognize that.
Jon Gottfried (41:31): I'm going to... I'm sorry.
Suze Shardlow (41:32): No, carry on. I was just agreeing.
Jon Gottfried (41:35): Yeah. I think I'm noticing a lot of people commenting on this in the chat too. But for me, at least, being part of an event was as much about the social interaction as the content and it's probably more about the social interaction than the content if I'm being honest. If an event is not offering a really high quality, social interaction that requires me to be there live, in all likelihood, I'm not going to go be there live.
Jon Gottfried (42:06): I think that probably a lot of people feel similarly where the content might be a hook. But content can easily be interacted with asynchronously. I don't know. I think when we're talking about why attendance numbers are lower, my read on it is that probably there is not a really good engagement strategy for the real time aspect of the event that keeps people there. I have not seen less people at events, I have seen higher attrition throughout the events, which may an interesting distinction.
Em Lazer-Walker (42:50): Roguelike Celebration, we had four times as many attendees as we have ever had in our in person events, with average concurrence about equal to our in person events, which maybe speaks to the attrition point. But it is to say that if you are providing, here's a really interesting unique social experience, people will show up.
Jon Gottfried (43:10): Yeah, we've also seen higher levels of attendance for our hackathons because there is a purpose to being there.
Kevin Lewis (43:19): Yeah. I also wonder if this is not quite the right question, which is, it's not always about the attendance numbers but the value you bring to the people who turn up and perhaps your success metric should be more about the measurable value that you have on people or however it is your community may do that.
Kevin Lewis (43:36): For example, to echo what other people have said for You've Got This, I very much frame that there are two benefits, there is networking in a space where we can talk about these quite vulnerable themes or these things that make us quite vulnerable. And that being okay, and the other is the content, the education that comes around it.
Kevin Lewis (43:53): Personally, I'm okay, with that whole networking side being popped aside for the online events, because the value it comes with, the listening to the content, asking the questions to the speakers and having them answer and that's why they turn up live and then having that content on demand. The networking has happened but not actually because I've purposefully made it happen, if that makes sense. I believe we have one-
Jon Gottfried (44:18): I would like to throw one more thing in there on top of what you're talking about which I think you kind of alluded to. But listening to a lecture live is super different than something where you can actively ask the speaker Q&A. I know we talked a lot earlier about the benefits of being able to pre-record your talks. I agree with that, right? It makes it much more accessible to be a speaker. But most people who speak at conferences have spoken at other conferences and you can find their talks on YouTube already.
Jon Gottfried (44:51): The question to ask is like, why am I watching this person live? What do I get out of that that's different than watching a talk they gave two years ago in a different conference? I think the Q&A is probably a big part of that but there's other options as well.
Kevin Lewis (45:07): Yeah, being creative as definitely in the future. We've got about five-ish minutes. So I'm going to move to the second question that was given. Which is, "When you organize events do you take into account the global audience, which could be things like timezone subtitling, etc?"
Jon Gottfried (45:25): This is my favorite thing, because actually, I think this is one of the prime benefits of online events, at least from what we've seen. Historically, most of our events were regional, you'd get people from driving distance or public transit distance. Now, every event we do has people from many different countries. The way that we've accommodated that is a couple of different things.
Jon Gottfried (45:48): We often have staggered start times and we will do opening ceremonies or intros multiple times throughout the event for different key time zones. Generally, it's like APAC, maybe West Coast US and then some kind of combination of like Europe and East Coast US. Actually, it has worked out really, really well and people start the event at different times. But most of the content is scheduled in such a way where we have speakers or sessions or networking groups going on every couple of hours throughout the events so that no matter where you live, you can attend stuff like that.
Jon Gottfried (46:27): I also think that you have to think about... One of the things... I know someone mentioned, like subtitling and time zones and all of that. The other thing that we've actually noticed is internet speed is a major factor here. Not everyone around the world has equivalent internet and watching a live stream is actually incredibly difficult for a lot of people. Live streaming themselves is also incredibly difficult for a lot of people. I think you have to consider that somehow, whether it's offering talks to the downloadable format or offering audio only versions or things like that, can make a huge difference.
Kevin Lewis (47:06): Although, depending on what those opening ceremonies are, why are people coming live? For one that I ran, we just recorded that part threw up and went, "You can view this whenever," because there was no live element to it. We could do team matching and stuff that might bring-
Jon Gottfried (47:19): Great question.
Kevin Lewis (47:23): Emillia.
Em Lazer-Walker (47:25): Yeah, I think a lot of what I would say boils down to this is a very complicated problem and I don't have great answers, but I will go off on my own minor rants and subtitles are mentioned, which is you should absolutely have subtitles. That is not a global audience thing. Paying a human captioner helps anyone who's not a native English speaker, it helps anyone who has ADHD or other neuro typicalities, it helps your content in the long term on YouTube or anything like that. It is easier online than in person, like another benefit to online events, but you should be paying a human captioner.
Suze Shardlow (47:59): I just want to hop back to what you and Jon was saying about Ceremony earlier. And the thing of Ceremony is you kind of have to be there, I think personally. What's the point of watching Ceremony later? It's like watching the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you kind of want to say, "I was there." You might have not necessarily been there, but you watched it live with everybody. Something might have happened that everyone's talking about and you don't want to join the conversation 12 hours later on Twitter.
Suze Shardlow (48:25): So personally, that's my view. Ceremony is a special kind of event. We've seen that during COVID. Folks were getting married, babies were getting born and things like and people missed out. Yes, you can go and see those people later. You can watch it over video, maybe not the birth but the wedding.
Suze Shardlow (48:42): But it's not the same, is it? But in terms of the timezones thing, I think that... I'm not talking about my esteemed colleagues here on the panel. I think a lot of people who are running meetups or running events, they're like, "Oh, yeah. We're running it at 9:00 Pacific, noon Eastern and 5:00 PST because we're getting all the times zones. You're not getting all the time zones. You're ignoring everybody that's like east of Moscow. You're not getting the Asian folks. Some people have actually attended my meetups that I work with the American company for, some of these folks are up at 10:30 at night if they're in India, and these people are arguably the folks that need it the most because this is free programming we're giving them to learn stuff that they might not have access to otherwise, because their circumstances are different. We have a lot more privileged than they do.
Suze Shardlow (49:34): But yeah, we are not necessarily catering to them. One event that I did do, Global Diversity CFP day, the clue is in the name, it was global. We did start in Australia and then sweep across the world. That was good. Yeah. But I don't see a lot of meetups actually catering to all timezones and like I said, I don't include my colleagues here on the panel in that even when they're saying that they do. Yeah, I think folks really need to think about that.
Kevin Lewis (50:04): This is exactly what I do with You've Got This. APAC is a timezone where there is a region where if people want to get involved, it's going to be really late. But for events that aren't extremely long, there's some gifts somewhere where for someone that isn't going to be ideal and it's how can they still get the value from the event irrespective of their timezone. I would say the recording in that context provides an element of that.
Em Lazer-Walker (50:28): I think it's also somewhat of an unsolvable problem in that if what you are really interested in is synchronous communication, unless you have a very, very urgent event, you're not going to be able to fit enough hours of content in the day to let everyone in all time zones interact synchronously. It's an unsolvable problem. There are trade offs to every solution.
Suze Shardlow (50:49): Yeah, totally. But you could actually gear it towards folks that were east of Moscow and make all of us lot record. So yeah, we could try that.
Em Lazer-Walker (50:58): Yeah.
Jon Gottfried (51:00): The one thing I would add there is if you want to have a global event, you probably also need to have global facilitators. One of the things I've seen is that often events will have a schedule that is global, but not have any staff online running it.
Jon Gottfried (51:18): They just kind of like are live streaming the talks or have pre-recorded announcements or whatever in Discord. One of the things we found is that by having a global staff working on an event, they're able to kind of engage people on the fly, that are online when they are and that seems to make a huge difference.
Kevin Lewis (51:38): Well, I think that means we are just about out of time. I wanted to say thank you once again to Jon, Emillia and Suze for joining us for this session. Thank you to those who have participated in the chat. Thank you to those who have asked questions. It's been a really nice vibe. Thank you for allowing all of that to happen.