Dossier 1: Quarantine edition

Jitsi? Zoom? Twitch? We set out to find the best platform for online cultural events.

As it became clear that we couldn’t organise physical events at least until the summer, we had to face the question, like many cultural institutions: what would be the best way to translate our activities to the internet? None of the existing platforms seemed like a perfect fit. Which is not surprising since most of the platforms we now use for our social life are made for business or for gaming. What would be the best platform to host a cultural event like The Hmm? And how do these online platforms influence how we share and produce knowledge?

This kind of influence has been a focus of The Hmm for a longer time. When it became clear that Facebook’s algorithm pushes video to the top of newsfeeds, users and news media took advantage of this by posting more video content. According to The Atlantic, this cost the jobs of hundreds of journalists who produced non-video content. On Instagram, selfies work better than photos without a person in it. As a result Instagram has become the platform for self-promotion and narcism. These examples show how a simple change in the algorithms of the platforms we use daily can have a huge impact on our society. Platforms influence the way we share information and it’s important to be aware of that and look at it critically.

Wouter de Boer on YouTube

The experiment

Instead of opting for one platform, we made our research part of the event and included our audience in it. Our first live stream event became an experiment. On 29 April 2020 we invited five speakers for a 5-minute talk about the role of the internet during the coronavirus pandemic. Each speaker was presenting on a different video conferencing or streaming platform. Visitors had to jump from platform to platform to view all the presentations.

Fariborz Karimi on Twitch

We chose five platforms that differ most from each other. From live stream platforms to video conferencing platforms. From the business-minded Zoom (which was also the most popular platform during this pandemic among our Instagram followers) to the mainstream YouTube. From one embraced by the gamers’ community (Discord) to one embraced by privacy advocates (Jitsi). Every platform had its own technical opportunities and limitations—listed at the bottom of this article—which made organising this event quite time consuming for our team. Because some platforms allow only a limited amount of visitors, and because not all our technical tests went so smooth, we decided to use Twitch as our backup platform. On Twitch, all presentations (except for the one over YouTube) were streamed. Twitch became the place where our audience could go to if they were running into trouble with the other platforms or wanted to chat with us. Following the experiment we asked our audience to fill out a survey about their experience. You’ll see the results of this survey and some of our visitor’s comments quoted throughout this article.

An emoji representing my The Hmm in Quarantine experience? A life is worth living again face.

Quote from a participant.

How did it go?

A consistent stream of 100 viewers watched the talks of The Hmm in Quarantine. Thirty viewers stayed on Twitch, while seventy viewers switched along with us through the five different platforms. Moving from one platform to another really created a feeling of ‘audience’, as we could see people in one platform that we had seen previously in another. Our audience, who could not sit back and watch but had an active role, experienced the switching in a similar way:

For me the collective moving around created a stronger sense of togetherness then I have experienced in these events so far. It gives the web almost a sort of physicality where we are moving around together as if there are various rooms and stages.

Quote from a participant.

It resulted in a very engaged audience. The chats were filled with people introducing themselves, giving us feedback on the quality of the stream, and lots of questions for the speakers. Sometimes the interaction was even bigger than during physical The Hmm events. If there wasn’t enough time to answer all the questions, speakers were able to stay on (either in the chat or on the video itself) with any audience members that still had questions, and answer them there, while the rest of us moved on to the next platform. This is something that is really not possible in a physical event, as we have to move on to the next speaker together. In real life a visitor can always meet the speaker for a talk or question at the bar during the break, but that takes a bit more courage to do. We also experienced some unexpected forms of engagement, like when audience members were updating us that they had to leave the experiment early via the chat. Showing us a new kind of online event etiquette.

The chat environment in Discord is very playful: there are different chatrooms for different purposes and you can post customised emoji or GIFs. It was nice to see that as soon as the audience moved over to this platform, they totally embraced this playfulness. In our online survey, Discord was described as the most fun platform by almost 40% of the recipients. Our speaker on this platform, Sjef van Beers, also played with the platform by playing music during the transition time and using face filters while he was talking. It opened up possibilities for presentations that are only possible online.

Discord’s playful chat environment

YouTube was described as the platform that was most easy to use by 38% of the recipients. On this platform you could also just watch the stream. You only had to login in order to ask questions. Since YouTube is one of the most well known platforms we used, people were familiar with its environment.

On the question about through which platform the presentations most resembled a physical The Hmm event, we received many different answers. Some answered Jitsi, because it was easy to interact and the non-hierarchical environment gave our audience the opportunity to unmute themselves for a virtual applause at the end of the event. YouTube was in favour because of its comfort. You can watch the talk like an audience and ask questions in the chat. Zoom had a nice way of showing the speakers: next to each other instead of on top of one another.

I really like to have seen people from across the internet-ecosystem. I tend to forget that it’s not just artists, trolls and venture capitalists that make up the population online.

Quote from a participant.

What did we learn?

The experiment introduced our audience to platforms they had never used before. One recipient won’t use YouTube for streams anymore because the quality was lacking (Twitch worked better) and the interaction was better on other platforms. A few people acknowledged that they will use Jitsi more often, especially as an alternative to Zoom. For some, this open source platform was totally new. Others were surprised by its improved quality. Just like us. While Jitsi allows a maximum amount of 75 people in a video conference, on its community page it is written that the quality can suffer when more than 35 people are in. With around 60 viewers, the quality of our talk on Jitsi by Cas van de Ven was surprisingly stable.

“This was emotionally useful for me, thanks”

Quote from a participant

Esther Crabbendam, from digital rights organisation Bits of Freedom, will be glad that our experiment stimulated the use of Jitsi among our audience. During our after talk with her, she shed a light on how the platforms that we used are organised privacy-wise. What data do we give away when we’re sitting behind our webcams? According to Esther, Jitsi is most safe to use as it’s an open source platform. You don’t need to download an app when you use the browser version and you don’t need an account to participate in the chat, which makes the platform very accessible. You can also choose to host Jitsi on your own server, if you want to keep control over your own data.

Most of the platforms we used are owned by Big Tech companies who do not offer any transparency about what they do exactly with our data. YouTube is owned by Google. Twitch is owned by Amazon. Especially that last fact opened the eyes of some of our audience, who had no idea about this affiliation. Via our survey they shared that they will delete their Twitch account or stop using it.

These kind of events are really motivating and so helpful for cultural spaces.

Quote from a participant.

Zoom experienced an interesting development during this quarantine. After its 378% increase in active daily users a couple of weeks ago, the platform faced a backlash because of its privacy issues. This must have been a wakeup call for the company. Esther found out that they have recently updated their privacy policies. In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, they now clearly describe on their website what information they use. Besides having cookies for advertisements, they don’t use any data from calls. At least, they say they don’t.

Joran Backx and Esther van Brakel on Zoom

The live stream experiment showed us that the environment of a platform does influence the interaction of an online event. When it’s possible to share funny GIFs via the chat people will embrace that. It opens up their creativity. We noticed that a harsh control over your audience like Zoom offers—as a host in Zoom you can control whether other participants stay muted and invisible—is not really necessary. Just as it is rare in a physical lecture that someone from the audience just stands up and talks through the presentation, this won’t happen when you give the audience the freedom to open up. On Jitsi, everyone has the power to kick-out the speaker or unmute their microphone, but no one did this. Not even our visitor “5GcausesCorona” who was flooding our chat with messages that Cas (our speaker on Jitsi) was telling lies.

Based on what we’ve learned from this experiment, we are going to build our own ideal live stream platform for our next online events on 27 May and 17 June. It will be self-hosted on our own website, so that we determine the atmosphere ourselves and ensure that we provide a safe space for our audience and speakers. Hope to see you there!

Cas van de Ven on Jitsi

Technical notes

Below you’ll find our setup for every platform. We also added their conditions and limitations.

For the YouTube stream we used Skype to connect the speaker, moderator and technician with each other. The speaker did his presentation via Skype. Our technician made sure it was broadcast via YouTube along with his presentation using OBS (Open Broadcast Service).
An unlimited amount of viewers could watch the stream.
The audience could see the stream via the link we sent, but needed to login on YouTube in order to ask questions via the chat.

Similar to YouTube, we used Skype for Twitch to connect the speaker, moderator and technician with each other. The speaker did his presentation via Skype. Our technician made sure it was broadcast via YouTube along with his presentation using OBS.
An unlimited amount of viewers could watch the stream.
The audience could see the stream via the link we sent, but needed to login on Twitch in order to ask questions via the chat.

In Discord, the moderator and speaker joined a voice channel on a server that we created in our account. It was not possible for them to show their video, since there’s a limit of 25 people who can see this. The speaker used “Go Live” and OBS to share his screen with his presentation.
Discord has upgraded their limit of viewers for their livestream from 10 up to 50. Viewers that did not make it onto Discord before the 50 person limit was reached were able to watch the stream via Twitch.
The audience had to login in Discord (either the browser version or the app) in order to hear the moderator and speaker, and to see the presentation.

We created a Zoom meeting before the event, and let it begin during the Discord presentation. The moderator was the host in Zoom, which gave her the power to unmute the speaker. The speaker shared his screen. Zoom automatically shows both the speaker and the presentation in a nice way.
A Zoom meeting (based on a free Zoom account) can have 100 participants and lasts for maximum 40 minutes.
Tip: in your settings you can allow participants to join the Zoom meeting from their browser version. In that case they don’t have to download the app and they don’t need to have an account to join the meeting.

You can just open your own Jitsi meeting by typing a name you made up behind the URL We created a link before the event and opened the Jitsi right before the event started. In our settings we specified that everyone started muted, hidden and followed the screen of the moderator. There’s no hierarchy in Jitsi, so in fact all participants are free to unmute themselves and turn on their camera. By enabling ‘everyone follows me’ the moderator had control over which screens were shown.
When ready, the speaker unmuted himself and started sharing his screen.
Jitsi has a limit of 75 participants. The quality can suffer when more than 35 join the conversation. This went surprisingly good during our event, probably because there were just a few people who had their camera turned on.