Creating better online spaces: Participatory online events

Anna Clayton explores how we can make better, more inclusive, online events.

As an events organiser and member of several collaborative working groups, I have found the shift to online events and working bittersweet.

Like many people, I miss the hugs, human interaction, and spontaneous conversations but, at the same time, online spaces break down boundaries of geographical location and the size limits of a physical venue. As the lockdown has forced many people to skill up on the software, opportunities for collaboration without the carbon baggage feel vast.

However, on top of the concerns discussed in the video conferencing guide, there are the usual collaborative working challenges. Can the values that guide our in-person meetings, events, and collaborative working be translated online?

As this is a new territory for many, I hosted a small online discussion group in May to explore answers.

How to create participatory online spaces

A key theme discussed is that ethics don’t just apply to the tools used, but also how we use the tools. To be ethical, our online spaces need to be inclusive, to encourage people to feel that they can take the initiative and to enable networking, human interaction, and spontaneity.

It was suggested that allowing participants to choose which sessions or breakout groups they attend can give them more autonomy.

Offering ‘blended’ online/offline activities was suggested as a way to create a richer experience whilst still physical distancing.

This year’s inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference is exploring the idea of ‘village hall’ conversations to run alongside online events and networking sessions.

The Conflict Transformation Summit, also offers another example of how an online event can be interactive and emergent. The following advice comes from listening to this group and other event organisers:
 

  • Introduce new tools slowly. Practice it beforehand and offer training for participants.

  • Have at least two faciliators, the host and someone who keeps an eye on the technology and questions raised via chat, etc.
     
  • If you are not charging for the event there may be more room for experimenting and co-learning with new platforms that may not be so reliable.
  • Encourage people at the start to remove distractions and be fully present.

  • Add in breaks, limit sessions to two hours, mix up activities and offer space for stretching or even dancing!

  • Make events more accessible by understanding who is attending and what their needs are. This may involve using a lower bandwidth, working without videos, providing some participants with a laptop and internet connectivity, creating options for people to call in, setting event times that work, and organising for simultaneous translation or visual aids.

  • All participants ought to know what happens with any information they share.

  • Build in feedback mechanisms so we can develop, consult with participants throughout, and make time for pause and reflection.  

Resources for shaping more collaborative online spaces include:

Platforms and tech to experiment with:

Understanding the politics of data further:

Projects building online connections:

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