Let’s Go Virtual!: Reflections on a Community Discussion

Recently, Chris Buckridge (RIPE NCC) and Nurani Nimpuno (LINX) held an online discussion with around 50 people to consider the impact that our COVID-19 era “remote only” approach to events has had on the Internet technical community. In this article, we’d like to try capture some of the key insights and perspectives that came through in that discussion, whether from our speakers or from the (very active!) chat. The session itself was very interactive, with many relevant and diverse observations and suggestions coming through over the hour. A special thanks has to go to the speakers who took time to prepare and contribute: Alissa Cooper, Fergal Cunningham, Sandra Hoferichter, Edward McNair, and Adam Peake. The view from five very different Internet community organisations made for a really valuable discussion.

There was a general acknowledgement that this is all still very new and unsettled. The COVID-19 crisis has not only prevented any physical events, but it has personally prevented many participants in policymaking or standard-setting discussions. And while the remote-only events that have filled the gap have their faults, the choice that we face now, and likely for some time to come, is not between physical meetings and virtual meetings, but between virtual meetings and no meetings.

Similarly, the novelty of the current situation probably means that we don’t yet know how sustainable an all-remote meeting ecosystem will be. Many are logging in to try out new formats, but may not come back for future events, so there are open questions about who will participate, and what form their participation will take.

Those uncertainties, combined with the likelihood that remote-only will be the only option for some time (at least for international events), may raise some questions going forward about the sustainability of events (and in some cases perhaps their host organisations), and about the legitimacy of decisions taken within some of these community structures (for instance, new policies or standards -who is actually taking part in the discussion? How effective, inclusive or exhaustive are decision-making processes that are still being adapted to a new model of community working?). That said, there was some real enthusiasm from participants about the possibilities of remote-only events, particularly in reaching out to people who have, for various reasons, not been able to participate in physical events (or who may have felt at a disadvantage to those who were able to).

Drawing on the diverse experiences of several events held since the COVID-19 crisis commenced, the discussion circled around some common challenges for online events and possible solutions. One useful insight was that at this point (quite understandably) most events have attempted to recreate the format of their physical meetings in a virtual environment. Breaking out of that limitation might allow for some quite different approaches to event planning and community interaction. There are many examples of active, dynamic communities that exist purely online, and there may be lessons or examples to draw from in that space.

Another paradigm shift, particularly as physical meetings again become a possibility, would be to think not how does virtual participation fit into our physical event? But how will a physical gathering (or gatherings) fit into our virtual event?…

Practically, such a shift might include looking at “remote hubs” -smaller physical gatherings that could feed into a larger, global (or regional) online event. Indeed, some events, including MENOG, the Internet Governance Forum, and EuroDIG, have already had some experience with this kind of approach, largely in recognition of the fact that not everyone can afford to take time off work and travel to an international meeting or conference.

Recognising the reality of “Zoom fatigue” will likely also shape how communities plan and evolve their events, and may lead to closer coordination in planning online events throughout the year. And while Zoom may have become a by-word for remote meetings in the last few months, we will likely see (and perhaps have some influence on) further evolutions by multiple vendors in this area, which may facilitate new approaches to (online) event planning.

What was very clear, after only an hour-long discussion, was that this will be a much longer dialogue, taking place in many different venues. It was a pleasure to be able to contribute a bit to that process, and we’re open to holding another of these conversations further down the line -by next year, there will no doubt be many more examples to learn from and insights to share!