The Upcoming Future of Online Meetups
June 13, 2020 • 7 min read • by Loris Cro
As we adventure into the phase where society needs to learn to cohabit with the virus, the tech industry comes to the full realization that in-person conferences and meetups are not going to resume anytime soon. Good, but not good enough, especially when it comes to online events.
Organizers have had enough time to think it through, and yet we are still seeing many of them host what are basically extracurricular meetings. If you join a conference now, you are likely to see something straight out of The Matrix, where humans are not born, but grown in fields.
The journey that brought me to rethinking online events started with a moment of self-reflection.
In IT we think of ourselves as innovators and heroes but in fact, we’re just normal people with a hammer in our hands and the conviction that everything is a nail. In our defense, the hammer we hold is a pretty good one that can solve a lot of modern problems, but not all problems can be solved by technology alone and our general success sometimes makes us forget that.
The 3rd hardest problem in computer science, right after naming things, cache invalidation, and off by one errors, is recognizing when a problem can't be solved by technology alone.— @croloris on Twitter May 24, 2020
More concretely, as much as I am dissatisfied with events run on Zoom & co., the tool is not the problem, and changing it won’t be enough to produce better outcomes. So where do we find a hammer for this specific nail? It turns out that occasionally people working outside of IT can be innovators and heroes too. In our case, this particular hammer was forged in 1964.
You surely heard that phrase before, alongside many other sayings of dubious value. But this one is genuinely useful. In our context, it means that you won’t be able to successfully replicate the essence of in-person meetups over an online medium because their original structure was never the result of an entirely deliberate choice, but rather a compromise heavily influenced by the intrinsic characteristics of the original communication medium.
Here’s a 5-minute video that explains the concept in broader terms, I highly recommend you watch it.
To make online events better, we need to deconstruct meetups into their raw ingredients and understand what we have to give up and, more importantly, what we can gain. A blog post doesn’t offer enough space to do a full in-depth analysis (DM me on Twitter if you need a consultation), so I’ll just report my experience running a new type of event and leave to the reader the job of extrapolating any useful tip from my recount.
On the 30th of May, I hosted the first-ever “zig online meetup”. I opened a call for speakers a couple of weeks earlier and luckily received a few applications right away. While I did refer to it as an online meetup, I clarified immediately that the name was temporary and that people should think of it as a live-streamed show, more than anything else.
The day came, the intro aired, and at that point people understood that I was serious about it not being just a meetup.
A bit of production quality is a nice touch and helps in setting a tone, but that alone is not enough, so let’s talk about how the show is structured.
The show is titled “Zig SHOWTIME”, which is in part a wordplay on a keyword unique to the language:
comptime. It airs on my Twitch channel and I’m the host. An episode features two speakers, each of whom presents a session that lasts between 10 and 30 minutes, followed by a short Q&A. The show is meant to be less than 2 hours long and there’s a 10 minutes break in the middle, between the first and second session.
Zig SHOWTIME doesn’t always air at the same time. I have a call for speakers open and, depending on the respective availability of the speakers, the show will be scheduled on a different day, or at a different time. That probably sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many events are still trying to be California-centric for absolutely no good reason. The expectation for Zig SHOWTIME is that some episodes will be easy for you to watch live and some will not — regardless of where you live — but in all cases, you will be able to find all recordings on YouTube.
The speakers and I interact with the community in the Q&A part of each talk. Viewers ask questions to the speaker by sending a chat message directed at me, and I’ll read it out loud to the speaker. This is where things become a little bit interesting with the Zig community in particular, because Twitch chat is not the only way to ask questions and interact with other viewers.
Zig has no official place of gathering. At the moment of writing, there’s an IRC channel, a Discord server, and a few other places. Each place is managed by different people and has different rules. While the communities partially overlap each other, the topics of discussion and general tone change from place to place.
During Zig SHOWTIME some people feel the most comfortable participating in Twitch chat, while some others prefer the more reserved environment of their community of choice. During the Q&A I look in all places for messages directed at me so that people can stay where they feel comfortable.
Another fortunate property of this system is that when the view base will grow (the first episode had around 100 concurrent viewers), Twitch chat will inevitably devolve into a stream of collective consciousness, and at that point, the various communities will play a key role.
The beauty of this model is not only that it can scale alongside the stream, but also that it makes good use of the work done by the different community administrators and builds upon the relationships that people have created over time in each place. Zig SHOWTIME would be a much worse show if it had Twitch chat as the only way for viewers to interact, and it wouldn’t be as good if it required people to join a new Discord/Slack/IRC channel.
I’m planning to make many improvements to the show, starting from polishing scene transitions, to tweaking the format itself, but right now the imperative is to grow the show. The biggest thing I’ve done in that regard is to aim for a weekly schedule. Normally meetups don’t happen this frequently, but that’s just another difference between the two mediums, as a weekly cadence works great for both Twitch and especially YouTube.
See you at showtime!