What’s the best way to translate our program and the experience of our events to the internet? Like many other cultural organisations, we faced that question when the lockdown started in March 2020. Because we are critical of Big Tech companies, both with our research and the tools we use behind the scenes, we did not just want to broadcast our events—the core of our work—via commercial platforms like YouTube or Zoom. But what’s the alternative?
Since the pandemic, with The Hmm we’ve been exploring what’s the best approach for an online event. Simply moving our in-person events online doesn’t necessarily delight attendees. With the risk of audience members simply leaving an event in just one click, we learned that it’s important to plan well and execute an engaging and exciting experience. In this process there were so many questions swirling through our heads. How can you activate a virtual audience? How can you create an intimate atmosphere online? What’s the best platform to host your online event? How do you avoid technical hiccups? Over the last year, we tried to find answers to these questions by actively experimenting during our events. Preventing technical hiccups is not always possible with this hands-on way of researching and engaging with online event experiences. Fortunately, we have an audience that likes to experiment with us.
During our virtual tour to alternative platforms at the end of March 2021, a lot of things didn’t go according to our plans. We built a stage for our audience in some cells of the open source spreadsheet program Ethercalc, from where our speaker Karl Moubarak wanted to share a presentation and invite the audience to make carpets in the program. Unfortunately, we never got around to that because Ethercalc couldn’t handle the amount of visitors and crashed. The presentation was to be continued on our live streaming platform. Things did not go any smoother for the three presentations that followed in Mozilla Hubs, Terminal, and Nextcloud. Still, we received enthusiastic responses from visitors after the event. They found being actively included in an experiment much more exciting than the linear and passive viewing experience of events in platforms like Zoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought, and will continue to bring, many irreversible changes. For our organisation it means that we will never again just organise physical events. It has also expanded how we work: we no longer just make programs, but also reinvent the structure of that program itself. There is still a lot to figure out. Now that the lockdown is lifted, and more and more people are vaccinated, the development and experimentation with hybrid events is dawning on us. In our opinion, a live streamed registration is not the best option. The one time we tried this approach, our online audience felt like they were watching other people having a fun night. How do you create an interesting experience for both physical and virtual visitors? This is a very complicated question that many event organisers struggle with, but it’s also a question that opens up many possibilities.
We will explore this question by continuing to actively experiment during our events and sharing our knowledge and findings with you. In this growing online dossier, we’ll take you along our research paths. You can learn together with us by reading about our experiments with and research on online events, as well as keep track of the hybrid events we have done so far. We’re organising sessions with other cultural organisations to share experiences in organising online and hybrid events. You can read the report of the first session and of the second session. Lilian Stolk asks researcher Esther Hammelburg what’s the core of a live experience. And in the coming months, we will continue to expand this online dossier with the results of our experiments.