Engineering Chance Encounters in Online Spaces

The unifying factor among every great conference I’ve attended was the awesome people who participated and the amazing conversations I had with them. In rare cases these conversations were part of the conference itself, but more often generated spontaneously with a random encounter.

At this year’s National Conference for Media Reform in Denver, Colorado, my most memorable conversation happened about a mile away from the event itself and after all the sessions had concluded. I was killing time walking around the city while I waited for my flight, and so was he. That doesn’t happen in an online conference.

Journalism that Matters is exploring the possibilities of online communities and the potential for hosting its signature gatherings online. Last week we hosted an open board meeting using Google Hangout On-Air to discuss how JTM can continue to grow. This week a few of us participated in a conference call to discuss translating our unconferences for the virtual world.

When we asked the folks on the call what makes for a great conference, many of them expressed a conclusion similar to my own.

How do you create a space online to host a conference that seeds synchronistic meetings and catalyzes ad-hoc conversations?

One possible answer revealed itself during the call in the form of an awkward confession. After getting caught in a wave of multitasking, one of the people on the call (who will remain nameless) admitted their lapse and pointed out that this will be a significant issue in hosting a conference online.

It quickly became apparent that trying to stop participants from multitasking was not only impossible, but any attempts to keep people focused on the conference would probably not improve their experience. Instead, we decided it made more sense to embrace this tendency toward ADD by creating numerous side-channels that support both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

One idea was to create a sort of open board where people could anonymously share their reflections and thoughts about the ongoing conference. Someone else suggested the side-channel could function like a threaded bulletin board to help bring participants together around common interests. The topic of direct person-to-person communication didn’t come up, but that seems like an important step toward creating a space that resembles the halls outside a traditional conference.

While Google Hangouts On-Air provides a platform that allows up to 10 participants to see each other and communicate in real-time, there is still no way to easily bring other people “on-stage” to ask a question or make a comment. This might not be a problem for Open Space Technology gatherings, but the 10-person limit still poses a problem, especially as there isn’t a way to automatically generate a new hangout once the initial room reaches capacity.

By the end of the year, Journalism that Matters hopes to host its first multi-day online gathering. Our initial research and experiments have shown this is possible, but producing a conference online that’s as powerful as our previous gatherings is going to be difficult.

Please share what you think is necessary to successfully host a great conference online. And if you’d like to help us design something new and exciting please let us know.