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After an extensive attendance of early pandemic’s livestream events, Caroline Sinders ponders on how new digitals tools and practices are reshaping event planning while also unfortunately preserving some systemic limits.

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Author: Caroline Sinders

Photo Credit: Helena Majewska


Early on in the pandemic, I wondered what people were doing to foster delight? As a speaker and artist, I missed conferences, and events. The happenstance of one conversation leading you down a whole new path of research and discovery to explore. To me, that happenstance was the ‘delight’ of events. Perhaps that seems naive, and simple to wonder, during a time of fear, death and destruction.

But delight, and social connection, is a form of social resiliency, and a part of our social fabric. These forms of delight feed our brains, and our souls. What were we doing during the pandemic to continue to support and scaffold our communities, as we switched from offline, physical events to online spaces? 

DGTL FMNSM @ We are Europe
© Courtesy of Caroline Sinders

With funding by Omidyar Network (and outreach support by the Mozilla Foundation) March to June 2020 I interviewed 25 individuals in response to how communities were organizing and creating spaces of interaction during COVID19. I spoke to artists, conference organizers, digital experience designers, ad-hoc DJ networks, teachers, mutual aid group organizers, and curators about how they were shifting their community and artistic collectives and arts venue to digital meet-ups, talks, and events, and what their frustrations, enjoyment and learnings have been during COVID19.

I attended events like United We Stream DJ and club music sets, TFW dance parties, Souvenirs, IAM Festival talks, Present!, House of Beautiful Business workshops, This Human Moment and others. I spoke to collectives, mutual aid groups, artists, and alternative education spaces that have had to shift to the online like Babycastles, the School for Poetic Computation, Bed-Stuy Strong, NYC PPE, the Well Now WTF art exhibit curators, the Now Play This! festival’s curator, and different creative individuals, educators, and artists like shawné michaelain holloway, Simone Browne, Pamela Liou, Sam Garfield, Marie Foulston, Prem Krishnamurthy, Em Lazer-Walker, and Carly Ayres on their experiences attending events online and participating in digital community building.

What I saw were emergent patterns like ‘recognizing digital duct taping’, creating specific event plans, utilizing ritual design, and that intentionality in a digital event counts.

RECOGNIZING DIGITAL DUCT TAPING

Right now, communities need multiple tools to do things, and those tools sometimes sync up fairly well, such as going from Google Docs, Slack and Airtable, but sometimes they don’t. Generally, communities and groups are having to do a lot of labor to use all of these tools at once, because there isn’t a better and cohesive alternative. Schools and educators have this issue too, syncing up on classes on Zoom, using Are.na to track students’ work along with Github, email, and Google docs.

Traum Chatroom @ We are Europe
© Courtesy of Caroline Sinders

People need better ways to allocate all of these resources. United We Stream, a network of clubs to foster DJ music and club culture during COVID19, had intense digital duct taping issues. For example, they used Twitch, Facebook live, and hundreds of Facebook pages to stream from, but had to manually copy paste their live performance links into every Facebook page they streamed from.

HOSTS NEED A PLAN

This is really key. Individuals need a plan when hosting an event online, in theatre, this would be called a run of show. This is giving people time limits, themes, and specific constraints if you are running a panel or conference or community meeting. It’s upfront planning for that ‘run of show’ of deciding that there will be X minutes for X events, and it’s planning, meticulously, how the meeting will unfold and then sharing that with so participants aren’t confused when the event starts.

Video doesn’t allow for meetings to happen off the cuff, people need to know when they are allowed to talk, and how they are allowed to participate, and what is expected of them during the time they are in the video call or hang out.

RITUAL IN DESIGN

Ritual can have many different meanings to different people but in this case, it’s thinking of choices or actions that can situate the participant in what you’re doing. Ritual can be like lighting a candle, and having everyone do that at home. It can be making things feel fun or cheeky with their offline counterparts, like creating fake mics for karaoke, or using a video game to ‘travel’ to an artist talk, and be in a ‘white cube’ space.

Twitch @ We are Europe
© Courtesy of Caroline Sinders

INTENTIONALITY COUNTS

Things feel really flattened in video conferencing. This is where intentionality matters, such as planning the rhythm of the event which such as short and long talks, video, planning or even exploring new spaces for certain kinds of talks all comes together as a way to create a more cohesive experience or even using a new kind of tool or space to ‘host’ an event.

For example, holding artist talks in Animal Crossing or going to a 3D space like Mozilla Hubs for a dance party. These designed spaces create special, with different UI than other video conferences. Asking participants at home to pick up a mic, ’traveling’ to a destination. While at first, this would seem more friction filled experience, it allows for more delight for users because it adds more intention to the activities.

Digital interfaces are the bridges to our communities. Technology can’t fix the systemic inequality revealed by COVID19, but it can help make connections with our communities better. I created a tool kit and website to bring together emergent best practices, workflows, and tools that communities, educators, mutual aid groups, designers, artists and activists are using for community building, and how design needs to change to best suit people, right now.


This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.

On the Author

Caroline Sinders is a critical designer, researcher and artist deeply interested in technology’s impacts in societies. She believes in anti-oppression, racial justice, and let’s think about how we can, through collective action, make technology better. Check out Caroline’s research project here: https://responsibledesign.tech/.

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