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The Art of Gathering Remotely

I wanted to write a bit about how I see remote gathering happening currently.

Speaking for myself, I’m gathering remotely way more then I used to, and I consider myself a Fairly Online person.

Earlier this year I read The Art of Gathering and it was so lovely. But what about The Art of Gathering Remotely? I want to highlight a few spaces I’ve been in, hopefully to seed some more noodling or discussion. Here are some patterns I’m starting to see, with examples.

Doing in-person-like things, but remotely

My coworking space has transitioned to being online, and I maintain my membership (which also helps them survive this time).

This isn’t too shocking, as I remained a member of the coworking space (at lower levels than maintaining a desk) even when I had in-person jobs — I feel a sense of continuity in this, and the people I “work” with over the years changes, or we each change what we do or as people … so “staying” here has reduced friction for me.

One of the things Indy Hall has pleasantly re-created online is “Morning Coffee”. I want to describe the IRL version first to demonstrate its evolution to online: When I get to Indy Hall, there’s the period before I start working or whatever I’m up to there, where I am in the kitchen and chat a little with whomever’s there. Or maybe I got a pastry and tea and am chilling there for a bit. It’s sort of like my “booting” sequence for the day.

When everyone went home, Indy Hallers started having “Morning Coffee” which are chats that start at 9 or 10am and only last 15 minutes. People can come in or out (the same way you’d flow in and out of the kitchen), and it’s especially understood that you … probably have things you want to do. And since it’s a coworking space and not a job, it’s not “to go do your job” — it could be a project, it could be … whatever. That’s not the point! It’s a small bit of social contact to create delineation, and also nice to see familiar faces (yay dopamine hits from seeing friends).

I consider this a skeumorphism for gathering — we model our online gathering after an IRL one, because (so far) everyone who comes into the “space” has an idea of how IRL gatherings work — in the same way that we understand that we put things in “folders” on a computer, because we put them in folders in the real world (or, we used to).

Creating a sense of space online

When everyone is in a different physical space (their own home, or wherever they’re quarantined), how do we create a sense of space online? At !!con, there were a few things done to do this: one was to have an┬ávirtual space with a map, provided by the Recurse Center (who would build you one of these, if you’re interested):

It’s not seen in this photo, but when people are “in” the space, little icons pop up and have a bit of motion, so you can see how many people are “in a room” (where each room is a separate video room).

Another strategy !!con used to create a sense of space was to have a “Neighbor bot” where you could opt-in (opt-in only!) to be matched to a “neighbor” like you might chat to someone sitting next to you at a conference. When enough people have opted-in, the bot matches people and drops them into respective voice-chat channels.

And bonus: after 4 minutes, the bot sends each participant a little note reminding them that a few minutes have passed, and it is totally polite and okay if they want to duck out of the conversation for any reason at all.

Inducing FOMO

Running things that never end, or things that are always available (i.e. “Check the recording!”) is a recipe for disengagement.

One of my pet peeves as an event producer has/remains/will probably always be the “I’ll come next time” response. Next time is taken for granted.

I had such a great time “at” !!con largely because it was on a schedule with a sense of time … in fact, I’d say if “create a sense of space” is a topic, “inducing FOMO” is really about creating a sense of time. Now, !!con was all recorded, and if you attended the conf and you could read all the Discord backscroll if your heart desired.

But what about gatherings that start and end?

At the #p5hangout, I heard about a “Night Market” that was running from 8-12pm that night. And so it was. The day after, the site only displayed credits. Now, the site says the portal is closed.

In order to enter the Night Market, you filled out a TypeForm that felt like a text adventure. It made me think about how you enter a gathering is so important, and I think something that is often lost in the consideration of online gatherings.

Once in, you could go to different “streets” full of “trucks”:

Some trucks had differing hours. Some trucks were a video call. Some trucks were a YouTube or Twitch stream. Some trucks were a phone number you were instructed to text. I visited a couple trucks, namely the “Potato” truck and a YouTube stream of creepy puppets reading tarot (I called in, and they read my tarot and suggested I eat walnuts for my night terrors).

This experience was so, just, delightful. I loved it.

I loved it so much I texted a bunch of friends telling them to go check it out immediately.

And very few of them did, and told me the next day how the site only showed credits.

Because there was an event and it was over.

And I think creating that sense of time is so so important, and what a gift you can give people now when, the other day, a housemate described an event, and I had to (very forlornly) say “… that happened two months ago.”

Give people a sense of time. Maybe you shouldn’t record your meetup. Maybe, in doing so, you’d even get a different crowd of presenters than those who want whatever they say to be┬árecorded online forever.

(side note: if the Night Market really intrigued you, you might want to checkout this list of experiential theater happening online right now)

Weird Fun Internet Things

I want to name a category/idea that frees us from the restrictions of thinking of “the way things are in the physical world” and the one that sparked the most joy for me (that I learned about at !!con) is the spreadsheet party (this is !!con’s).

I am very curious to get thoughts on spreadsheet parties from those who are not programmer types. Does this seem interesting to you? Is this level of weird something you can get down with? I really hope the answer is yes.

OK, what about something that takes a physical-world idea, but makes it more absurd, more “online”? I’m thinking of Indy Hall’s “Morning Announcements”, which are shared on the coworking space’s Instagram with events of the day and interesting facts (or “facts”). This is my favorite one thus far.

Indy Hall never had morning announcements before moving online, and the morning announcement vibe is patterned off of something you might hear at summer camp. So, this experience has only existed in and for Indy Hall online. How interesting!

This category is the hardest for me to spot, I think, because I can be very stuck in following patterns and muscle memory with regard to events. But I’d be intrigued to see more.

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