A few thoughts regarding online conferences

Within the span of a few days, my plans for the middle of March changed dramatically, as they did for many people all over the world. I went from anticipating a trip to Atlanta, GA, to attend one of my favorite conferences, rooming with a good friend from another state, and attending at least one workshop which looked amazing. And then, the hotel rooms were cancelled, the flights were cancelled, and with Herculean effort a good part of the conference was moved to online platforms.

Setting everything up in less than a week is hardly the ideal circumstances for putting a conference online, but the entire team of the 2020 National Council on Public History Annual Meeting did a fantastic job given the circumstances. I attended conference sessions held as Twitter threads, as Zoom meetings, and sessions which had pre-circulated content (slides and YouTube videos) which attendees could read before the session started.

I was not a presenter this year, just a participant, and it’s from that perspective that I’d like to offer a few thoughts on conducting online conference sessions, whatever the format.

  • Try to keep the click count low. How many clicks does it take for someone to get from the entry point to the information they need to engage with a session? Is it opening an email, logging into a site, clicking through a schedule? Can people search easily for what they want? This can be high tech (using an app which allows favorites), or low tech (like a GoogleDoc which allows for search – for example the schedule for Small Things Con).
  • Be clear about Twitter norms, both for presenters and participants. Hopefully, people using twitter to present are comfortably familiar with the medium, but it’s still a good idea to provide guidelines. These can include guidance on whether or not the thread tweets, the importance of using the conference (and session) hashtag in every tweet, and reminders to use the image description option when adding media.
    • Session hashtags are so helpful, and something that NCPH does very well. They’re good for online and in-person conferences, as they allow people to follow a single conversation in the overall stream of conversation coming out of the conference.
  • Tips and tools for presenters. In the last week or so there have been stories about meetings being Zoombombed. If you’re asking presenters to use a specific kind of technology, give them tips on how to make it work well. How to start a meeting with everyone muted, how to mute a participant, how to unmute a confused presenter, etc.
    • If you have the time, ensure that all presenters get a chance to test their technology.
    • If you have the resources, consider creating a technical and/or accessibility team who can each ‘adopt’ a number of panels, serving as a point person for the panelists for questions about technology, accessibility, conference standards, etc. This is the virtual conference equivalent of the conference staff who make sure that every panel has the mics, chairs, and tables it needs.
  • Guidelines for participation. Remind presenters to clearly state (and possibly repeat) how an online session is going to work. If I walk into a conference room with a panel, I expect the standard “remarks then Q&A” format. It is fairly clear that in a web conference application like Zoom that we’re probably going to follow the same format; on twitter it’s not as clear whether the audience is allowed to reply to the presenter’s threads as they go along, or ought to wait until the remarks have been delivered. Clearly stating the process for the presentation – ideally verbally and in some sort of written format that the audience can refer to – helps clear up any confusion.
  • Pre-circulate all possible material. This is actually a recommendation for general accessibility at in-person conferences, but it applies to digital conferences as well.
    • One of the sessions I attended for NCPH2020 had presenters pre-record their remarks and post them on YouTube. Participants watched the videos beforehand, which allowed the session time to be conversational and allowed more time for Q&A. It also meant that the presentations themselves could be captioned (although YouTube captions can be disastrously bad).
  • Keep accessibility in mind. This is, for me, the Big One. All conferences should strive to be accessible for people with a variety of needs (cognitive, physical, etc). There are great resources out there for crafting accessible digital content.
    • Think about accessibility in terms of technology: are there people who will want to attend and participate who live in low-bandwith areas? If you’ve ever tried to stream video or download an image using satellite internet, you know how slow it can be (almost like the days of dial-up). How many tools or platforms are people going to have to sign up for or download in order to participate? What can you use that doesn’t require a log in?
    • Pacing is important, as is being aware that a virtual conference has different interruptions than an in-person one. People might not have to walk as far to get to the bathroom, but they might be interrupted by a family member, a fire alarm, a sudden household emergency (I was on a video work meeting recently and one of my cats started to have loud, violent hairball right next to my desk. I muted my mic)

Again, these are the impressions of a participant, albeit one whose work is broadly digital public humanities. I really enjoyed NCPH 2020. I hope to be able to enjoy NCPH2021 in person – and I also hope that the sudden necessity of online conference sessions leads to more multi-modal hybrid sessions in the future.