A How-To: reflections on planning virtual science conferences
A guide to online scientific conferences — creating a virtual world
It was April of 2020 and in light of COVID-19 we were faced with a difficult decision. Do we go full steam ahead organizing our large international conference (ALife 2020) that we had been planning for the last two years in beautiful Montréal, Québec? Do we move the conference online? Do we cancel it altogether? These decisions are happening all over the world as event organizers weigh the costs and benefits of these three options.
If we hosted an in-person conference, we would be putting our friends and colleagues at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Full stop, we were not going to do that. Some of our organizers were infectious disease researchers and we knew that this was not an option. We had, however, already sunk tens of thousands of dollars of non-refundable deposits for venues and services over the past two years. We couldn’t cancel without encumbering those costs directly, and that also wasn’t an option. So, our team decided we would hold the conference online and build a virtual event in 4 months!
Moving the event online was terrifying, and obviously involved a lot of work that teams around the world are now having to repeat. We, therefore, want to share our experience about what worked and what did not. We will note right off the bat that planning a virtual conference (if well done) is at the very least twice the work of planning a face-to-face event. Luckily, one of us — — Juniper — — had quite a bit of experience under her belt running online events. Notably, she had just finished co-organizing a 4-week online workshop called Net-COVID which was an incredible learning experience in online event planning. We’ll also note that we are pretty whimsical event organizers even for our in-person conferences, so this seemed like an exceptional challenge our team was ready to play around with.
Here, we would like to share some of our thoughts about what has worked and what didn’t. We would also love to hear from you, and learn about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your experience. With all that said, here are our thoughts:
0. In sum: Beyond the video stream.
In our humble opinion, the real challenge when organizing a virtual event is replicating meaningful social interactions. In many cases, networking with folks is the primary reason people attend conferences. Yes, of course, we want to hear all about the cool new research, but what compels many of us to travel and spend resources is that we want to meet new collaborators, connect with old friends, network with potential employers, find students, make new contacts, and have inspiring conversations.
For virtual events, interactions are not a given, they need to be facilitated flexibly to work for a diverse audience. Yes, you can get the right people in a virtual room, but that might not be enough to spark the social magic you typically expect around the coffee table or after hours at the pub. For this blog post, we are going to focus on giving a few simple guidelines on how to create a socially meaningful virtual event.
1. Hide the technology and focus on people — Create metaphors with physical events
One of the big decisions we made early on is that we wanted to hide the technological platforms as much as possible and instead create a user experience that was familiar for conference-goers. When you entered into our online conference portal (our website) you enter a secret code and then unlock a world where you can choose your own adventure (visual buttons to navigate the platforms). The options, buttons are nice illustrations, are labeled as follows: lobby (slack), the pub (social calendar + Whereby, Minecraft, Smule links and others), lecture halls (Zoom rooms), poster session (website gallery +Whereby rooms), exhibit halls (website gallery + Whereby rooms) and more. We wanted to make this accessible to those who might be intimidated by all of the technical details, or simply not aware of what the different platforms were called. Under these options, the website offered drop-down menus with technical details for troubleshooting if the user needed them. Importantly, we had to avoid overcomplicating things and confusing the initial experience for the attendee unless it seemed warranted.
Our choose your own adventure model:
A Slack workspace with rooms for random discussions, topical conversations, regional meet-up groups, social planning, conference troubleshooting, Q&A with speakers, and so on.
Slack was our asynchronous space where folks watching the talks on YouTube or reading papers in the evenings could still reach out and ask questions. Importantly, it was the place where long, deep, interesting conversations could happen over multiple days; giving a voice to anyone interested in participating.
Slack was also our silly space! It was the first thing anyone willing to go beyond the website and lecture rooms would see and we had to make sure it would help people feel welcomed. It was where people could share memes, self-care tips, recipes, or pictures of their pets (in our pet parade channel). All of which was meant to make it clear that it was fine to be yourself.
Lecture hall A & lecture hall B
These were two separate licensed Zoom accounts with large meeting and cloud recording addons.
We chose to have two non-overlapping lecture halls for an important reason. In our memory, we just couldn’t recall any science event that ended on time and that’s good! Cutting off great discussion breaks our heart, and undermines the most important goals of scientific meetings. We wanted to make sure that all sessions (even though they weren’t parallel) didn’t overlap in the same virtual space. There will always be overlap in time, always.
For workshops, Zoom breakout rooms were great if they were randomly assigned. Otherwise, if the breakout rooms needed to be topical and participants needed to be able to move from one to another we assigned topical Whereby rooms and would frequently link to those in the main Zoom chat or in the Slack channel for the workshop.
If you are interested in seeing the very detailed Zoom configurations, norms, and troubleshooting docs we used, you should feel free to contact us for access.
We will talk about this in detail in the following section. As far as we see it, this is the most important part of this and therefore deserves more than a bullet list.
Posters, and our Art, Robot, & Virtual Creature Gallery
For the poster and gallery sessions, a user in a physical event would typically walk around a piece of work with a presenter standing in front of it. As a presenter, you are left awkwardly wondering if the onlooker will make eye contact and ask you about your project. Sometimes, they just look at your work while you are standing there and move on without a word. We wanted to recreate that experience! The awkward random walk through space, needing to muster the courage to engage someone new, but facilitate it a little bit.
For both the poster and gallery sessions, we made a website that highlighted all the projects with a still image, a short 3–5 minute recorded presentation on the work, and a pop out box that would transport the attendee to a Whereby room. The Whereby platform offers a simple video chat option to talk with the presenter during the poster or gallery sessions, letting anyone share their screen or view YouTube video together without the need for a moderator.
Remember: We want to let people engage in ways that make them feel comfortable, they can just look at the work, they can engage a little further, or they can completely fall in and engage in a synchronous (Whereby) or asynchronous chat (via Slack). One key difference is that a simple click on the Whereby link replaces the awkward eye contact. Once in the room, starting the conversation is usually natural as the ice was already broken.
For those who rely on sponsors, we think you could follow a similar format to the one for posters and gallery sessions. In our case, we used this space to give the audience more information about all the cool books that our keynotes had written and link to relevant book collections.
Our conference published proceedings so this is where we link to our collection of papers. This was also a space where we linked to all of the pre-recorded and archived YouTube video playlists from the conference.
2. There is no perfect platform, create a whole world
In physical meetings, people will explore the different possibilities for interactions. Participants can meet over a quick chat around the coffee table, a longer discussion in a hotel lobby, a walk to the nearby coffee shop or an evening at the local pub, or more formally during a poster session or Q&A. Some of these meetings are private, some might invite other participants to join. These physical interactions are flexible in length, atmosphere, size, expectation, and privacy. For good measure, some folks feel more comfortable with certain interaction types than others. This presents a challenge organizationally, if you provide only one interaction type then you may alienate subsets of your conference-goers. No single virtual platform will give you this flexibility. It is important to try and recreate a whole world (e.g., like a conference center and a surrounding town but virtually) to give a range of opportunities for participants. Here is what we did:
We used a slack app called Shuffl (which Juniper really liked and renamed the serendipitous collision fairy) that would randomly assign people who had signed up in the serendipitous collision Slack channel. The app would randomly assign 3 people each day (twice a day early on) at an assigned time to engage in a direct message dialogue. We had provided some icebreaker questions and reminded folks that, if they had a great chat they could continue it or transition it into a Zoom call (Zoom has a nice and easy Slack integration) or move to a Whereby room to open it up for more serendipitous encounters.
We wanted to create spaces that were collaborative and creative for our team and for the attendees. Places that people could make their own. We were also a little forlorn about not being in Montréal so we decided to create a virtual Minecraft Server (guided tour video here) that embodied all of our wildest dreams and expectations about Montréal and artificial life. Luckily, our awesome team of volunteers (mainly Chloe Barnes) were really excited about this project and set up the amazing infrastructure of the initial world, but what also amazed us was how creative and collaborative and into it the conference attendees were. The Montréal’s skyline, topiary animals, a poutine head monster and more, were put together to create this place both beautiful and strange. One of the big reasons we wanted to create this space was as a sort of bridge where working parents could share a fun activity related to their work with their kids during the conference. Many of the creatures and themes were inspired by the science, which drummed up a lot of discussion and creation. As this was meant to be a family-friendly space, we made sure to reiterate the Minecraft norms to all conference-goers; and all of the contributors were incredibly respectful.
Social drop-in rooms
We used Whereby rooms as open casual drop-in spaces, we varied each room size between big hangouts to small ones. This is a space like a conference seating area where you can just poke your head in and see who is there.
Virtual Pub Crawl
We used Whereby rooms and organized a virtual Pub Crawl with themed rooms (as Whereby lets you customize backgrounds) that people could go into with their favorite beverage (depending on the time zone) and hang out socially to just tell stories and connect with friends. We made sure to have sessions that worked for folks in different time zones but what we were really excited to see is that people who were wrapping up their evening with a cold beer were also being met by someone across the world drinking their first cup of coffee, and someone in the middle enjoying an iced tea on their lunch break. We were always exhausted by the end of each day but often found ourselves staying awake late at night hanging out in these rooms. It was a great crowd. That said, it felt important for the first few sessions for a few of the organizers to be there and facilitate informal discussions, once folks have the hang of it you can step back and rest.
On one of the nights we even had a VR world for the pub crawl which ended in a mindblowing moment where the folks in the VR room went and visited the folks in the Whereby Whiskey Room as their VR avatars. None of the organizers quite know how that worked out but it was amazing to see, and very much on-brand for ALIFE.
We wanted to make sure to let our conference-goers know that parental caregivers are welcome, kiddo and pet cameos are no big deal and super fun, and we wanted to give activities that engaged the parents and their kids. We were lucky enough to have a great illustrator (Rob Babboni) who worked on all of the conference graphics so we made a simple coloring book of these ALIFE illustrations for anyone to enjoy.
Collaborative Spotify playlist
We created a collaborative Spotify playlist with the theme songs for ALIFE. Participants could add in songs and we also solicited song suggestions on Twitter. We have to admit the playlist is pretty awesome, and we even improvised a listening party during the conference.
On the final day of the conference, we had one student-lead unconference session where folks broke off into groups of 3–5 people to collaborate on open problems in artificial life and we gave each topic a Whereby room for the day. Whereby just updated their whiteboard which includes SCRUM boards and mind maps and it was super cool.
We hosted a virtual karaoke hour on Smule Live Jam, it was surprisingly fun. Unfortunately, of all organizers daring enough to grab the microphone, all but one were terrible at singing. The Smule Live Jam app is a bit clunky for newcomers but it overall was hilarious and very lighthearted.
These all might sound a little crazy but if you work to create a special world for your online conference that harnesses all of your funky weirdness then people will be more likely to take the vulnerable leap of engaging with it. This conference had a lot of us all in it, which consequently made it a nerve-wracking event, but we think it paid off. Putting yourself and the things you like out there for public display is scary and it will hurt a bit when they are critiqued on Twitter later (and of course it all will be) but it’s worth it if you can stomach it.
3. Give an identity and personality to the event
In our world-building, we wanted to give the virtual event itself a personality. We envisioned a world that was half Montréal and half an artificial life dream. To signal this to our attendees, we relied on the visual identity from our Montréal poster, illustrating the world we envisioned and the experience we expected to share. Our poster shows a topiary horse transitioning into a giant robot jumping over the Five Roses sign in Montréal, with the city itself turning into a pixelated video game. Yes, that is where we were.
Art, visualization, and robotics are very important to this conference. We held calls for submissions for art, robots, virtual creatures, and visualizations where we selected the coolest submissions to highlight during the conference. Art makes the world sing. We made sure we had lots of it by providing artists conference fee waivers and reaching out to folks in the art community.
Cultural and fun information mixed in
We were sad not to be in Montréal so we made sure to integrate the local culture into the conference as much as we could with Minecraft poutine bars, poutine head monsters, a small improvised YouTube channel on Quebecois history and cooking recipes, and a lot of great local music. This actually helped ground the conference in a way, creating an important physical or mental space we could all identify with in some weird way.
4. Break the ice, be informal if needed
The organizers usually wear a pantsuit, a jacket, or a tasteful dress at conferences. Here we were working 18 hour days (warning to all you organizers) in our hot apartments or remote houses, opting for shorts and t-shirts or maybe some loungy activewear. Interacting online is hard, but as an organizer, you need to lead by example, let your hair down and engage casually. This is particularly hard for some (and some of us struggled with it) but if you want the audience to ease up in a really difficult slightly stuffy virtual environment you need to amp up your approachability and personability. Our advice, always, is to be friendly and conversational. Have banter with your co-organizers during awkward pauses. Laugh at technology problems, be light-hearted about the situation, and so will everyone else. Also, remind everyone to be nice, and do it often… in a nice way. Norms in virtual environments can be a bit different than in an in-person conference so it is important to write out and voice your conference norms publicly. As organizers, we took 15 minutes each day as a touchpoint to make updates but also to reiterate norms and expectations, as well as make fun announcements.
When dealing with virtual events it’s important to give the conference a life that expands both before and after the conference dates. We gave attendees access to the platform weeks before the conference so they can get to know each other. We encouraged everyone to introduce themselves on Slack and start engaging. To our excitement, our introductions channel had an introduction from almost all 400 participants. In that same spirit we are going to keep that Slack workspace open, and the serendipitous collision fairy alive, so these conversations and connections can continue after the conference.
5. Leave place for awkwardness, randomness and improvisation
Give participants ownership over the event through sandbox activities like the Minecraft server, the Whereby rooms or the Spotify playlist, and also with more open-ended collaborations like a hackathon. Virtual conferences might be to typical conferences what the web 2.0 was to classic websites as they should rely on more user-driven content. I would love to see this idea developed further in the future.
In any conference capturing the right balance between structure and creative freedom is difficult. In our experience, the place where to control everything is the logistics and the technology (make that as tight as possible) but then let the conference be a little less uptight and let it flow organically. These events will often fail if the participants aren’t allowed to take ownership and give life to the virtual world, no matter how well designed the world itself might be.
One important thing to keep in mind is our own discomfort. A key lesson here is that we must be patient, especially in a virtual environment. In many cases you will find the first Q&A a bit awkward, folks don’t know what to expect and may feel a bit shy. That is absolutely ok, and don’t be afraid of silence once the ice is broken; they’ve learned how things work, it will flow on its own. This also has a lot to do with the technology. We allowed folks to have cameras on, to actually clap and unmute themselves after talks, to banter before and after, and chat in the Zoom chat with everyone during the talks. This informal setup, we think, made everyone feel less like they were in a webinar and more like they were in an actual get-together.
We were really worried about the Q&As when planning the conference but there was something interesting and unexpected that happened. Speakers who pre-recorded their talks were asked to be available during the streaming, to answer questions in the chat; but this was actually way more interactive than expected. And after the talk ended, we would paste the questions in the Slack channel for Q&As where — — lo and behold — — the conversations kept ongoing.
All this to say be structured, be very structured, obsessively structured, but once the event starts you have to put that energy into the right places and allow the participants to be informal and act unexpectedly in the places where structure often hinders creativity.
6. Account for time zones and regional restrictions and benefits
Running a conference virtually has many benefits for a global audience and also many headaches for organizers. Our conference had attendees from about 30 different countries and speakers in 14 different UTC time zones. In many ways this constraint really made the conference special.
Going online means that you can use this as an opportunity to engage and offer scholarships to attendees from the far corners of the world! We reached a lot of new audiences because the conference was virtual and it was a cool opportunity to hear new voices. In the future, we would challenge ourselves and other organizers working on online events to go a step further and use this as an opportunity to also expand the reach of their invited speakers and outreach efforts as well.
Because the conference had to support so many time zones, it was really important that we had both asynchronous and synchronous versions of the events available. We made sure all talks were recorded so folks could wake up, watch the videos (on our YouTube channel) and jump on Slack to start an asynchronous conversation with the presenter. We set up regional channels in Slack and many regions set up watching parties by timezone, which was just amazing to see.
There will be connectivity issues. Just be aware that not everyone has a fast internet connection so make sure that you provide your speakers with the ability to pre-record or have back-up talks available if they don’t have fast enough internet connections.
There are regional restrictions on some platforms. Keep in mind that many virtual platforms have regional restrictions and are not available in some countries. Be sure to check which regions your platforms support and have backup plans so you do not alienate a specific region of the world from your conference. In our case, the combination of Whereby, Zoom, some creative workarounds, and YouTube worked.
Order by time zones instead of (or as well as) by topics. Typically our conferences have sessions for contributed talks that are organized by topic. For the virtual conference, we decided that the conference would be single track (so we could keep up with all the tech in one place and have an easier time accommodating time zones). This also meant that we organized the sessions largely by speaker timezone instead of topics. This was actually pretty interesting: Instead of just attending the talks that are on one very specific topic, our audience got exposed to a wide breadth of talks, which I think was a positive externality in the end. It also highlighted the unique perspectives on artificial life that come from different regions, even when dealing with different topics.
You need to put archive videos on YouTube quickly. This is one task for which we did not quite budget enough time. But if your international audience is counting on archived presentation videos being up on YouTube by the time they wake up or start their watching party then you need to download, process, edit, and upload those videos very fast. This was a non-trivial task that ended up being rather time-consuming. We would recommend having one person dedicated to this task if you go this route.
Have a calendar that allows participants to see the program in their timezone or export to their own calendar. Time zones are really confusing! To keep track of all of them, we decided to make an exportable google/ical calendars that synced to our master calendar’s table so that attendees could see all of the events in their specific time zones and import them into their personal calendars. We also allowed people to view only the master calendar google sheet so they had a flat searchable and downloadable version of the schedule with links to archived videos. Having more than one calendar is kind of a logistical nightmare, no matter how hard you try things will get out of sync, so our advice is to have everything update automatically from one source if possible.
7. Preserve for prosperity — Amplify your authors and presenters long term
Our conference has published proceedings with academic papers but one thing we wanted to play around with is amplifying the work of our presenters a bit further and opening up the content to a wider audience.
All presentations were recorded and posted on the conference YouTube channel. Note that only those with speaker consent were posted to the YouTube channel proceedings playlist publicly. Videos are a great way for researchers to share their work and show the academic community their public speaking skills!
We chose to boost the work of our speakers even further by hosting a Twitter conference about one month after the conference. The idea behind the Twitter conference is to tweet 5–6 tweets per day, highlighting each individual speaker. In this process, you can tag the speaker and use a specific hashtag in the tweet to encourage the Twitter onlookers to engage the speaker with questions and follow the rest of the event. The hope is to drum up lots of discussion with a new audience, give our authors added visibility (maybe even a few citations or a nice boost in their altmetric), and hopefully bring new people into our community. This has yet to happen, we’ll see how it goes : )
8. Organizer logistics, consent, regulations, and budgeting
There are a few logistic elements that are very important but often forgotten. As for an in-person event, you will be very happy you think of them in advance.
If you are recording make sure to get consent from speakers and attendees, anyone who is being recorded needs to be notified and provide consent. Zoom has a consent request pop-up that you can customize as soon as the recording begins. Also, be sure to include in your communication to participants that attendees and speakers will be recorded.
Ask attendees who do not feel comfortable being recorded to not to share audio or video if they don’t want to be recorded, but remind them that they can use the chat during Q&A sessions.
Remind people to avoid sharing personal or sensitive data publically on conference platforms.
If you are allowing minors to attend your event, make sure you have parental permission and are following the terms of service of the platforms you are using. And be careful about labeling kid-friendly spaces as kid-friendly and keeping them that way.
Take shifts! These can be very long days for organizers. Virtual conferences are long and while they are fun but there is a lot of sitting. Make sure you schedule shifts and have backups in place in case an organizer has an emergency.
Don’t forget that you, the organizers, and your audience are all humans. Remind everyone to stretch, eat, drink, and take breaks for self-care. You probably care more about the event than anyone else, which is good but don’t project that to participants by burning out.
Our conference was pretty DIY, e.g., Juniper custom built our website (contact us if you want to see it). But one big hurdle we had to figure out was how to restrict access just to conference-goers. We decided to go with a nifty and very inexpensive but very customizable Stack called PageSafe on our website and assigned each user a unique random login ID to access the virtual conference portal. We also just built a simple script to assign and send the ID codes to the users so we could avoid manually doing that and avoid human error. The website was not bulletproof, but it worked great for our community.
9. Roll with it
Things will go wrong. There are so many details and it would be impossible to run a virtual conference with zero difficulties. Instead of hoping they won’t happen, plan for them as much as possible, be patient, and laugh at them when they happen!
LAFS or our Lost and Found Seminars: On the final day of the conference we planned a session block for talks that had technical difficulties and needed a re-do. Your internet cut out? Your microphone broke? No problem! We will laugh it off and reschedule it during the Lost and Found Seminars. Oddly enough, we somehow didn’t even need to use this session but we were really glad it was there just in case.
Things will go wrong but just be patient, it might take some time to get the screen share to work or to troubleshoot a microphone, there is no pressure, talk the speaker through it calmly, and get started when it works. That’s why we don’t have overlapping sessions, just be patient, and roll with it.
10. Have backups, and lots of tech support and tutorials
Have backup videos and ask speakers who have faulty internet if they want to have a recording ready just in case something goes wrong. Make sure you give clear instructions to the speakers on where to upload videos and make sure that the organizer who is chairing each session has a local version of all the videos you need to play so you can play them locally and preserve bandwidth. If you are using Zoom don’t forget to share computer audio when sharing media.
Have back up video streaming platforms just in case. We kept one backup Zoom account just in case something horrible went wrong, someone forgot to pay the bills, or we just needed one for fun. Also, make sure all of your team knows how to access these platforms in your absence. If your internet cuts out and you are the only host for all the conference platforms, well… that’s a very vulnerable system.
Have plenty of tech tutorials for presenters and attendees before the conference and record one of them. We held four technology tutorials that walk participants through the conference technology and give them a space to test things out and ask lots of questions. We also recorded a video of the tech tutorial where Juniper went through all of the platforms we were using, and we think this proved very useful in cutting down requests for technical support during the conference.
Have a session chair and a session host. Typically at an in-person conference, you have a session chair who introduces all of the speakers and asks a question if no one has one. I recommend having a session chair who takes care of introductions but also to have a session host for each session as the person running all of the technology and is there as a backup in case the session chair drops out or vice versa.
Have a dedicated space or a Slack channel supervised by volunteers and organizers specifically for technical support. It is important that the audience knows where to ask for help and have it be a place where multiple organizers can see it. You may be too busy to check email during the sessions so having a team of volunteers helping out with technical support is a huge help.
Stress test everything, everywhere, all the time. Test all of your platforms on different browsers, in different countries, on your mobile, and make sure it all works before committing to use it.
11. Things that didn’t work
Most streaming platforms are international but are not accessible to all countries. There are creative ways around this but none of them were particularly simple and having a combination of platforms feels a bit off.
We tried to integrate Slid.o as we really like this platform for live event Q&A sessions but in the end, it just didn’t integrate well with Zoom meetings and the Zoom chat (plus dedicated Slack channels) worked totally fine and didn’t really need all of those bells and whistles anyhow.
We had live voting in Survey Monkey for the best poster award. This felt a bit clunky. Do you allow multiple votes to let people change their mind but risk gaming the system? Do you have one round of voting despite multiple poster sessions? We think there are better ways to do it, but we kept messing up the settings and it just didn’t seem very easy.
Speaking of things that are not easy: We probably all use EasyChair from time to time as it’s really the only thing out there that does what we need it to do for submission reviews. We have used it for years but it is by no means easy or user friendly but it is functional, reliable, and the price is right. So as much as we struggle through the EasyChair experience, we will certainly always go back to it unless something better comes along.
Secured website. This didn’t even cross our mind at first since we had to scramble to get things going to keep the conference on time. Next time.
Organizer fatigue and multiple session chairing. Again, burnout is a real issue with conferences that span multiple time zones. Remind yourself, your team, and your audience to take breaks.
Zoom registration and waiting room. Neither of these functions were really practical on a large scale. We began the conference using the waiting room and this quickly became a burden to the session host. We had tested out the Zoom registration function and this simply did not work well, the area where you need to approve registrations was hard to get to and updated too slowly, and for some organizers, it asked them to do the registration every time they tried to enter the Zoom call. We nixed that very quickly before the conference started but we never really found a good way to securely admit people to the Zoom meetings. Luckily, we did not get Zoom bombed but we were of course worried about it.
Dates of your events. We know people plan for crazy conference weeks with child care, time off, and other personal arrangements. We cared about keeping our planned dates for the virtual conference the same as our planned in-person conference, which was an added burden since we could not get extra time to move a physical conference online. We still believe this was a great choice, but a lot of other conferences moved their dates around and ended up overlapping with ours. Some of our organizers ended up having to run away from our event to give a talk in a separate conference. Now that we know how exhausting the experience can be, some of us wish they had reached out to other conferences to protect our dates a bit more.