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On virtual spaces (for scientific conferences)

The title is a bit broad. What I am going to write about is I complained quite a bit re how recent conferences used the gather platform. Here I try to be more constructive, and explain why I think things were bad, and also how I think they can be improved (substantially).

I think is a fantastic interface, and I think it was mis-used or mal-used in some recent xACL conferences (EACL 2021, EMNLP 2020). It is really disappointing, as there is so much potential, which was not only left unfulfilled, but even in some cases was worse than not having gather at all. This post will try to explain what I think was bad, and how I think things can be improved.

Here are some key points that guide my thought on this:

  • Conferences are about facilitating social interactions as much as they are about scientific communication, if not more so.
  • Conference venues should be designed to facilitate such interactions.
  • is a platform that could allow this function.
  • Like physical spaces, virtual spaces needs to be designed. The arrangement of the space matters.
  • One shouldn't copy physical world constraints to a virtual one. Different mediums have different affordances.
  • Socializing is a by-product of the scientific content. It shouldn't be scheduled at specific hours, and it shouldn't be restricted to specific hours.

Let's start with that last point:

Socializing shouldn't be scheduled and shouldn't be restricted.

Look at this schedule, from EACL, as an example.

EACL Schedule

It fails on both of these fronts.

On the one hand, there are "gather town socialization sessions". This is "scheduling time for people to socialize". While it may work for some, it is mostly counter-productive. Indeed, only about 40-50 were logged in to these sessions, and it was kinda awkward, from my experience. Much like in real conference, you need some excuse to socialize. We never have real-conference slots for "just be in this room and talk". (well, we have banquets, and coffee-breaks, and lunches, and dinners. but people go there "for the food". and meet people along the way).

On the other hand, notice there are blocks where gather town is "closed" or "not available". This is "socializing being restricted". Consider as a hallway. People should be able to hang-out in the hallway and meet other people that hang out in the hallway at all times during the conference, not only at designated time slots. Granted, it may be less busy during this time, but still, should be allowed. In particular, during the last sessions (best-papers session) people really wanted to hang out on gather, maybe to co-watch the presentations, maybe to gossip, maybe to just say good-bye, or wrap-up some unfinished business from previous sessions. And they couldn't because it was "closed". This really gave some anti-climatic feel to the end of the event.

event ended

My recommendation?

*gather should be open at 24h during the event, and a few hours after the event ends. Don't call it a "socializing session", or "socializing time", just make people aware of gather, and let people use it.

At the same time, try to put as much of the "regular" conference content into gather as possible. Once people are in the space, it encourages interaction. Poster-sessions are no-brainer, but also talks can happen in gather. The platform supports rooms with "podiums", where the person standing near them is audible to the entire room, and can project a screen to the entire room. A benefit of doing things this way is that you can see who else is in the room, and it feels more social. And of course, on the way to the room you may meet people. And you can also leave the room in the middle of a session and move to another one, and people will see this. Like in real life. That's good. Here's an image from such a talk in the NLP and Open Source Workshop.


But, I realize some people may still want their zoom-sessions. That's fine, you can have them. But maybe consider putting some parallel poster-sessions in gather?

Talking on poster sessions, let's talk about room layout:

Room layout should facilitate interaction. Virtual spaces don't follow the rules of physical spaces.

I think the gather layout in both the xACL conferences that I attended (which was supplied by a third-party company called 'virtual chair') tried too much to imitate physical spaces. This was counter-productive, and made it hard for people to navigate, and made it hard for people to interact.

BAD room design

Here is a poster session room in EACL (the one in the EMNLP was very similar to it).


Look how spacious things are! So much space around the poster to stand at! And these nice tables and meeting point! Now, while this is very convenient in the physical world, it makes very poor design for the virtual world.

This place feels so empty! no one is here. This is a direct consequence of the space.

Notice how I see only three posters at the same time. At best, I would see six. But even then, only for three of them I would see the presenters, or the audience. If I want to see more (either more people or more posters), I must start "walking". This makes it hard to navigate (so hard to find other posters), and also hard to bump-into people (because I only see the people who are near the poster i am attending to, and the other one or two). Also, a person standing near an idle poster will likely feel very lonely, in this empty screen. In the real world, we appreciate space. We don't want things to be crowded. We want to talk to the poster presenters without noise from other posters. BUT in the real world we also have much better lines of sight. We can see far away posters, and we can see who else is in the room. In the real world the spacious design does not really preclude you from finding posters and finding people, not as much as it does in the virtual space.

GOOD room designs

Now, consider this design, from COLING:


Or this design, from an Israeli-local conference (ISCOL) we organized a couple of months ago:


Granted, it is not as fancy, and even kinda "ugly" and "barebones". But on the other hand, consider how functional it is. People at that event really enjoyed themselves.

Notice that the poster stands are tiny. And there is little space around them. And there is this ugly "road" in the middle of the room. This will be a terrible design for a real-world event, but consider what it allows in a virtual world: look how many posters stands I see at the same time (9 for coling, 14(!) for ISCOL)! and I can also see all the people around them! (in the ISCOL picture everything is empty, because i took this image today, long after the event was over. But imagine at least one person standing next to each stand, and usually more than that. These events felt lively!). Let's drill down to what this design enables:

  • first, because the layout is compact, it forces people to be in the same space. this is good, as now i can see who is in this room, and who is looking at what.
  • the room feels "alive", as you see at least the poster presenters next to you.
  • if the room has no external visitors, or only a few, a poster presenter can go to visit a near-by poster, talk to its authors, while still keeping an eye for their stand in case someone arrives.
  • if i come to a poster and its too busy, i can go to a different one in its vicinity, while keeping an eye on the original one, to come back to when it clears out.
  • on the other hand, i can also choose to only go to crowded posters, to hear a conversation.
  • and, if i don't want to see any poster, i can still see who is around, and go talk to them.

In short, the compactness of the space creates more traffic, makes the space feel more alive, facilitates various modes of interaction, and creates a sense of an "happening". This is in contrast to spacious design, which prohibits interactions, and makes the room feel sad, desrted and empty.

And, people do not interfere with each other, because we are in a virtual world, not a physical one. You only hear people on the same "poster area" as you, or near you on the "way", even if your avatar stands right next someone in the next poster. They won't interfere.

I really encourage event organizers to consider this "compact and ugly" layout over the "spacious and beautiful" one. It really is much better, in my experience.

I would also advocate against having too many "rooms". I'd rather see one large room with different corners, and maybe some extra "lounge rooms" where nothing is happening, so you can "relax in" (say if you want to go and have a conversation with someone). Having a single room makes it easy to know where you need to be: in that single room, looking for some poster, or in some corner of that single room, listening to a talk.

These were my few remarks regarding the design of virtual spaces, with the hope of influencing future virtual events to improve. I have other ideas and thoughts, and would love to discuss with whoever wants (twitter, email, gather, whatever). I am interested in this topic, and would appreciate hearing additional points of view. But these were the main points I wanted to make, and I hope they resonate with at least some of you.

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