Chat windows and The Law of Two Feet – desire lines forming in unconference spaces

Thoughts this week are very much focussed on an aspect of the sudden pivot to online in education – in the move from face-to-face into screen-to-screen what would happen to the valued elements of unconference events – the interstitial chats, The Law Of Two Feet? Those conversations that happens before, after, in-between (or even during, if you are discreet enough) the scheduled program presenters are speaking. The permission to take yourself elsewhere, discreetly without presumption of judgement, if you are not thriving where you are. Both are important elements in the world I am currently observing for PhD field work, that of TeachMeet.

The last event I attended before Stay At Home / Fan Sa Bhaile began was a TeachMeet. The first ‘cancelled’ event I had in my calendar was a TeachMeet. However, when people caught their collective breath, it seems the desire to converse and share was strong, and ‘TeachMeet’ events began to take place online in a variety of platforms. Scroll back through the Twitter timeline for #teachmeet to see how many and how widespread. So how are events which were born of desire to meet face to face faring in the screen-to-screen world? Can we deploy the non-verbal gestures used during the “locked in syndrome” of being stuck in a CPD room – eyebrow raised, note passed, head nod of approval or dropped in horror, the discreet exit out the back of the hall, the wish to converse now with someone on the point just made … I could go on.

We can, it turns out. Here are the two emerging desire lines I have been been noticing …

Chat windows

Having spent time at several online events, some as an observer and some as an active participant, that space that is most compelling for me is the typed chat window in the events which offered it. The mix of social and professional conversation is as close to the convivial atmosphere of the round table and corridor conversations of a ‘real’ event as one could ask for via screens. Although the human voice is absent, the rapid fire sentences appearing, timestamped with an identity attached make for quite a dynamic atmosphere in an otherwise flat space. The chat window acts as a non-stop sidebar, which doesn’t interrupt the flow of the speaker, but can be woven into the event by an agile MC or curator, picking up on cues in the mood of the sentences typed, and also in the emojis and symbols used in the chat window. This reflects the way that social media backchannels, often used at unconference events, have been used heretofore to help connect those not in the room of the event – in the current state of affairs, that is everybody. It can get a little frantic, as the asynchronous timeline gets garbled – so appointing a separate curator/moderator for this space (and another for each separate social media channel) struck me as a really useful good idea (meaning I wish I had thought of it myself. Deep bow to you, Tom Farrelly).


The Law of Two Feet

The originator of the Open Space philosophy that has informed most unconference thinking, Harrison Owen, espoused one ‘law of mobility’, usually referred to as The Law Of Two Feet:  If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. Permission is implicit for each participant to move from a space in which they are not thriving (the painful inability to do this at formal professional development affairs is one of the most stated reasons for becoming involved in self-organised meetings). It is one of the elements that puts the ‘un’ in unconference. Can it be facilitated in this new online world? From what I have observed so far, seems it can:

  • breakout rooms can be configured so that participants can ‘apparate’ (the move is so sudden that is what it seems like) from room to room
  • there may also be a facility to signal that “I am stepping out, will be  back”
  • choices can be offered for how deeply embedded in the meet the participant wants to be –  active within the chosen platform, or passively following on a live stream
  • choices can be made be part of the chat window or just watch a feed streaming in the background
  • and there is of course the stark Leave The Meeting button!

Most platforms show the number logged in at any given time; it has been interesting to watch these numbers change over an event, particularly if time is not managed well. And what to call the digital version of this? The Law of Two Fingers has a cheeky flow to it for those at a keyboard meeting, but might sound a tad rude. Owen’s original inclusive version, The Law of Mobility, could be the best solution to cover ALL meetings.

The One Law - The Law Of Mobility

Owen, Harrison (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, p.95. Berrett-Koehler.


Note of thanks – this week I am concluding the observation phase of my field work researching TeachMeet. In the very unexpected turn of world’s axis, half of the events were face to face and half online. I am grateful to all who gave their blessing to my passive presence at their TeachMeet events in both formats: Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
Next phase up will be a survey open to all TeachMeet participants. Be ready – bígí réidh!

Creative Commons License
Chat Windows and The Law of Two Feet – desire lines forming in unconference spaces by mags amond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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