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image: Twitter pic by Gill Berry @fahyberry, showing particpants at an unconference in Cong, Ireland, Nov 2021

Conferencing and unconferencing online is the only way at the moment, and I have been reminded severals times recently of how critical ‘the chat’ space is to both the formal and informal aspects of the events.

I first noticed this early in the ‘pivot’ at an event I attended online, hosted from Australia. The hosts were using Jitsi and braodcasting on YouTube. So while we were listening to the speakers (it was a TeachMeet, the nanopresentation format meant it was a fast rolling affair) there was a chat window in Jitsi and another in YouTube – which gave it an atmosphere of a social event at which you could join in any conversation. And the conversations ranged from content to method to context, depending on that the presentation was prompting. And the refeshing thing was that because the online chat window uses names to tag the typed entries, which meant although partcipants were quite removed from each other, socialisation began quite swiftly. [At the time it reminded me of the in-person events which displayed a Twitter wall using hashtags to channel chat, but this had a more connected conversational feel.]

That experience was so dynamic that I unconsciously began to measure subsequent events against it.

For the first year or so, it seemed that the more ‘official’ an event was the more locked out the audience was – during the ‘delivery’ or ‘presentation’ part of the event, the hosts switched off acess to the chat window, and hid the Q&A. (At one professional network event in 2021, when asked about this, the chair responded “it would distract the speakers”). This turns the event into a broadcast – like just another channel on tv.

When the Q&A and chat windows are enabled, it adds a whole different and dynamic dimension to the interactions – questions are answered by partcipants (or the speaker if they are so inclined), links are shared, suggestions are offered, discussions take off … the whole thing happening without disturbing the audio or visual feed of the presentation. It can work both ways too – from a presenter point of view, it offers a chance to get immediate feedback to a prompt or a question by using a ‘chat cascade’ approach, and dispel that discturbing feeling of ‘speaking into the void’! And the fact that the chat can be saved is a real bonus for speakers who value what the listeners may have to say. It also allows a side bar conversation to continue among some attendees, without breaking the flow of the main conversation.

The chat window reached peak effect for me during a ‘huddle’ at the recent CongRegation unconference – during a compelling and lively conversation taking place on screen, where only one person can speak at a time through the chair, (at the speed of sound literally), a compelling and even more lively sidebar erupted in the chat window, adding a rollercoaster effect to proceedings as we listened and read and responded (by trying to type at the speed of light!!!).

So I hope this becomes one ‘ill-wind’ benefit of The Pivot or whatever we eventually call it, that whatever we do for (un)conferencing is in a spirit of all available channels for a sidebar or caucus are opened. … if we want it to be as much about the partcipant as the presenter … the chat is where it’s at.

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