Long read

Monique van Dusseldorp, curator and moderator of events on media, technology and innovation, outlines some first ideas on what makes events special and how this can be translated online. She gives examples of successful and innovative online events in 2020 that sometimes even worked better online.

Life is digital

‘Travis Scott has a gig on Fortnite tonight!’ ‘Really?’, I reply to my teenage son, ‘that’s interesting. I’d love to see that. When is it on?’ To which he answered: ‘No, of course not. I am going with my friends’.

That evening, he closed his door, and logged on to Fortnite, as did his friends, all from their own homes. They even ‘dressed up’ for it – which means they spent some game money on a digital Travis Scott skin for their online representation.

The show itself? It lasted all of 10 minutes, and was an interactive, pre-rendered 3D music video tailored specifically for Fortnite – it was seen live by over 12 million people who logged in for the occasion in shifts, and who could move around in a separate area of the game world they know and love. The subsequent recording on Youtube generated another 120 million views.

‘I am going with my friends!’ Life is digital whether we like it or not. Digital connections are real connections. The basic needs underlying our desire to get together are unchanged.

So what is the future of events?

If you love going to an event – conference, concert, theatre, anything – the online version of it can hardly compete. Honestly. You sit at your desk, and there is a video stream and maybe a bit of a chat channel – and that’s it? Online the event is just another video stream. You miss the bundled attention an event provides. Entering the venue, the physical anticipation, the crowd you see around you, the interactions after the show – sure, a video of a talk will get the content out there, but really? The difference can be so stark it makes you wonder why organizers bother at all.

Online and hybrid events are being invented and reimagined at the moment – and by the time the world feels safe again, some new formats, habits, and platforms will have their place.

Why have events?

Let’s start with what I think most of us see as a solid justification for putting a group of people together and have them listen to a few selected others. Bringing people together from different industries and different professional backgrounds is how we build new industries and new worlds. It’s how we advance ideas, how we share our experiences and knowledge and doubts – events often are the place where the validity of ideas is weighed and contested. Events are labs, events are platforms, events are meeting places. In a field that is developing rapidly, events bring together people that need to meet.

Let’s focus on a more personal level, as there is also something deeply human about events as well. For sure, being on stage is a thrill of its own.

Monique van Dusseldorp speaking at Cross Media Cafe

Monique van Dusseldorp speaking at Cross Media Cafe

I love it. It is easy to understand why speakers and sponsors value events. Look at me!

But why do people go to events? After all, you basically sit in a room and listen to talks you can also find online. You are back in school, sigh.

So why go at all? Here are 4 reasons.

Focus

Sitting with other people, in a room in the dark, brings a unique focus that you don’t get sitting in front of a computer screen. The location, the effort, the setting, all of these things provide emphasis. If a talk is done well, you sit in that room and start thinking new thoughts. You keep watching the ballet. You listen to the music. You mute your calls. You know you cannot leave now, so you might as well experience the event with all your senses. You need the setting to get this focus. This is very hard to accomplish with an online event.

Experience

That shared moment in the dark is only part of the event experience. When you visit an event, walking down the street on your way to the venue, watching the other participants in the lobby, sipping a drink afterwards – all that is an essential part of the event as well. And not simply for entertainment’s sake. Our bodies need to move around, walking is the time when new information gets processed. We love new sounds, the streets of another city. Events are mini sabbaticals for screen people like usThe last thing we need is another Zoom session.

Expression

When I started putting down the notes to write this, the US election results had just been announced. People were dancing in the street to share a jubilant feeling. Despite a raging pandemic, there was this incredible need to do this with others.

Sitting in a room at a conference is an expression of emotion as well. Not the exhilaration of ‘’I think we just saved democracy’’ but the more subdued but equally strong ‘’we think this is interesting’’. Going to an event signals this conviction to both those in the room as well as those elsewhere. We actually care about these topics, and this is an expression of our convictions. Who cares what video streams I watch?

Connection

Of course, events are also social. But let me make it clear: I think they are not about ‘networking’. That implies some kind of transactional plot to meet new people of use for one’s career. Sure, it is a welcome side-effect if it happens, but is it really what draws us there?

Events are perhaps not so much a place to meet new people, as a way to get away from the familiar ones – to for a while be away from those we know us too well people raising their handsso we can be someone else. We love being near strangers as a welcome relief from the familiar.

Benedict Evans recently compared a mass event like Web Summit to the Gay Pride: events as a conduit for finding the people that are ‘your people’. You do not even have to talk to them. It is simply reassuring to find out they exist. But online, most of the time no one knows I am there.

Focus, experience, expression, connection. But to get that, you really have to be in that room. Breathe the same air. Right?

Focus, experience, expression, connection

Seriously, how can any of this ever be replicated online?

You and me: that is impossible.

The internet: hold my beer.

Let me share four examples of events that I think managed to establish focus, experience, expression and connection with their online events. This is not ‘the future of events’, this is what happened last year. In 2020, we all focused on getting existing events online, and these are four examples – same delegates, speakers, partners, and sponsors. Same bundle. But online. Platforms used: Twitch, Discord, Let’s get digital, Zoom, and more.

Focus: Playgrounds

One of the first events I signed up for this spring was the online Playgrounds Festival. In a normal year, Playgrounds brings around 4.000 visual artists from across the world to the city of Eindhoven. Artists present their latest work, young talent gets the chance to get feedback on their portfolio, digital tool makers show off their wares – and people hang out. A good time is had by all. Focus, experience, expression, connection, in droves.

For the online edition, held in the first month of a global lockdown, Playground went where their audience hangs out: the multi-day ‘festival’ was now one evening with online presentations, held on 2 Twitch Channels – video plus chat – with an after-party on Discord. (Discord is a popular group-chatting app, originally made to give gamers a place to build communities and talk, and Twitch is a live-streaming platform that allows gamers and content creators to build communities around their streaming). 

They did something unusual. It was clearly communicated that sessions would not be recorded to be published later on. This made people super focussed – and they started to alert their friends – you have to come to check this out now. The most compelling sessions also had this clever ‘live’ feel. They were the sessions where you could see an artist make work on the spot – digital drawings, short animations, showing off personal skills as well as the digital tools of their craft. You have to see it to believe it, but this was absolutely fascinating. 

Dutch artist Loish – she has 2,2 million Instagram followers – talked about her work in a very informal setting – how she started, what decisions she made, when she takes on commissions, etc – and then turned the camera to her tablet, to give a demo of her style and actually create a work on the spot. I was there. For those watching, this was a colleague at work, talking you through the different steps – an ASMR/Bob Ross experience so to speak. You think you want to just see the beginning, but then you stay on to see the end result.

This closeness, where you can see everything in detail and follow every step in the process – with the artist talking you through her every decision – this worked incredibly well online. The result? Over 30.000 people from 30 different countries visited the event that evening. Festival director Leon van Rooij later shared how unexpected this was, and how he got mails from digital artists from places like Venezuela and Rwanda, indicating not just their delight in taking part, but also pointing out it was the first time where they felt equal to all the other visitors.

There you go, thousands of people mesmerized, watching someone make a digital drawing. A new kind of gig, something that worked better online than in a room.

That certainly provided focus!

Tweakers – expression

Let’s take another example. Tweakers is a Dutch technology website for computer enthusiasts – with news, best buy guides, classifieds, and more. With over 700.000 members its carefully moderated tech forum is lively as ever and has over 29 million posts. The annual summit usually brings together over 500 developers and the ‘Meetups’ tend to be a bit smaller.

In November, Tweakers hosted The Privacy and Security Meetup online – in this case, I was personally involved as I selected the speakers. The platform used in this case was Let’s get digital. Around 500 people logged on around noon, listened to the talks, asked lots of questions, some chatted with each other, and almost everyone stayed around until the end. On a Saturday afternoon!

tweakers digital meet-up logo

My guess? This is an audience that does not particularly care for small talk, has a razor-sharp focus on the content itself, and feels confident interacting with others online. That’s where they always meet after all – on the Tweakers forums. And by getting together, they also signal to each other, to the speakers, to themselves: this is what interests me. In fact, the event was evaluated as one of the best so far. There was one particularly relevant question in the feedback form: ‘’what do you prefer – an in-person event or an event online?’’ Over 65% said: I prefer online events. 

Taking part in the event was a signal for the delegates, who by their presence communicated their love of tech, the importance of privacy and security issues, the relevance of the topics discussed.

Showing up was a vote, ‘this is important’. 

Alex Lindsay’s Office Hours – Connection

‘Finding your people’ is as important for adults as it is for teenagers grappling with their identity. An example of an online event that provides delegates with that feeling is Office Hours hosted by Alex Lindsay. I stumbled upon this series by accident.

Lindsay is an American computer graphics and video production specialist. He has a multiple hour Zoom call every day – it starts with an hour of Q&A, and then an hour with a guest. To get an idea of the kind of topics discussed, see 10 Things I learned from office hours. I tuned in a few times – and I really enjoyed the format. The info that is being shared is highly relevant if you are in the video/streaming industry – discussing equipment, software, set-ups, and more. So for the people that log on, it is indeed useful – the kind of info you could pick up at an industry event when chatting at the end of a session, or in an online forum or in the bar talking shop.

But what comes through, even more, is that this is a club – it is where you go to hear your peers talk about the stuff you like, it is a place to find ‘’my people’’ – and hang out with them, chatting or just listening. Conversation and connection – somewhere between the club and a podcast.

House of Beautiful Business – experience

The hardest thing? Experiences. We crave experiences. No matter how fascinating the content is that online events come up with – from talks to online workshops, conversations, and brainstorms  – it’s not much of an experience right now. After all, there is a good chance that your daily work makes you spend long chunks of time behind the screen, and now that so many other activities have been canceled – who knows, you might spend some of your free time with even more screen time. How can an online event break that mold?

The House of Beautiful Business is an industry event that has a strong focus on experiences (I visited their event last year).

Normally they bring together a crowd of curious people to Lisbon, for no less than five full days of presentations, workshops, dinners, city exploration, and more. The range of activities goes from listening to interesting tech speakers to making music together, meditating, walking blindfolded across a Lisbon square, eating Pastel de Nata, and spending an hour in each other’s presence in silence – how on earth could you translate any of that to an online experience?

What HoBB did over the many months of lockdowns was first of all bring their community together in a series of Zoom sessions – with talks, music, dance but also some joint activities – like journaling, everyone in their own space. When it came to their annual event they put together an impressive four days of online activities and offered an abundance of formats and topics. Insightful panel discussions with top speakers from across the globe: check! Lots of people hanging around in the Zoom calls: for sure.

But the more interesting elements were the format experiments. The great wave actually managed to create an experience. The ‘’event’’ offered access to a virtual world designed by Waltz Binaire, it offered podcasts to listen to while doing other tasks, and it had active sessions – like one where delegates made masks – which they wore in the next hour that was reserved for dancing. Or the time in the schedule where everyone was invited to join while having dinner. In addition to that, local hubs gathered people outside – or in other settings where the Covid rules could be followed.

One of the things that worked very well was a guided conversation on Zoom while everyone was taking a walk outside. A group of acquaintances and strangers talking about dilemmas while walking and listening (no video), occasionally sharing a picture. The format was so good, that it is now a monthly walk-and-talk meetup.

After four days together at the Great Wave online event, the delegates shared messages on-screen waving goodbye, as if they were saying goodbye to family. They had experienced something together.

Where to go from here?

What we can say now is: some online and hybrid events (events that combine the best of both worlds) really do work. What the more interesting question is: what completely new events and event formats are being developed, that make more sense now than they ever did? That work better online than in real life?

Online events are accessible for many more people – as long as you have a phone or laptop, and a decent internet connection, you can take part. But not just taking part has become easy. It is not that long ago, that only big international corporations used video conferencing as a communications tool. Now anyone can set up a live video event with speakers from across the globe or across the neighborhood, and an audience anywhere.

Online and hybrid events are being invented and re imagined at the moment – and by the time the world feels safe again, some new formats, habits, and platforms will have their place. It’s time to play and discover what comes next. Suggestions and ideas?

For more, sign up for the Future of events newsletter of Monique van Dusseldorp.

Monique van Dusseldorp

About the author

Monique van Dusseldorp is an Amsterdam-based curator and moderator of events on media, technology and innovation. She recently started the Future of events newsletter as an exploration of online & hybrid events - what they are and what they will be.