For the past few months Code for Boston has been trying hybrid meetups. The hope for hybrid is that we can use technology to bridge folks participating at home and a group of people meeting in-person. Ideally everyone is on equal footing and you can replicate the best parts of your event on both sides. The reality is hybrid events are a more disappointing version of their in-person counterparts.
What makes virtual events more challenging than in-person? Despite a year and a half of being at home, the tools are still rough around the edges. Social interaction is tougher. Finally virtual events have a higher bar to participate than in-person.
My most common toolkit has persistent bugs. Zoom drops and skips audio occasionally. MacOS fails to connect to my bluetooth headset. It sometimes selects the wrong microphone/speaker. Slack video freezes intermittently. Despite having the latest technology and a fiber Internet connection, I get an annoying experience due to software. I have learned to live with these issues but should not have to.
The experience and limitations of virtual platforms would be comical if they were not so sad. Tools like Discord and Slack that have mastered multiple spaces with small groups provide no facility for a large gatherings. Conversely Zoom works great for a big meeting but breakout rooms have bad UX.1 None of them provide setups that work well when I am both presenting in-person and virtually.2 The result is new participants are forced to learn and setup multiple tools instead of one. Managing this medley of tools is a mess.
The promise of virtual events is they are more accessible physically. Unfortunately they are less accessible from a cultural and social perspective. Physical events create a floor of participation. You see who is there, their faces, and reactions. In virtual events many folks turn off their cameras. Microphones mute laughed reactions to a joke. Participants that might share a thought with a neighbor or passerby withhold these thoughts from chat rooms. Organizers and existing members know activity is happening, but it is made invisible. New folks, blinded to the nature of the group they are thinking of joining decide to exit.3
Failing to surmount these challenges in virtual space, can they be solved with a hybrid format? A survey of Code for Boston members surfaced that folks enjoy and prefer in-person events, but do not want to commute to get to them. They do not want to make that commute if in-person participation is low. The work and learning required to setup new technology leads to folks isolating into their laptops.4 When in-person participation is low, hybrid events are virtual events with a commute and food.
I believe virtual and hybrid events can work well, but require intentional culture building. There are tools to learn and habits to build. Hopefully better software can make this easier over time. However the future for many events will look more fragmented than hybrid. Virtual events and participation will not go away, but they will supplement in-person activities instead of being a part of them.
Besides the jarring 5-10s transfer time and abruptness of a new person arriving, there is no way for a meeting facilitator to tell the status of a room. Are people presenting? Are they working? How do I silently summon a person from the outskirts to greet a new member? ↩
Zoom and Microsoft Teams have hybrid meeting products that look good, but these are premium offerings and often require separate or dedicated hardware. What I really need is a portable offering that works on my laptop in software. ↩
A key learning from our in-person Code for Boston meetups was the importance of having someone from a project group pitch that project to new members instead of having an organizer describe them individually. This is because people are not deciding whether to join a project based on its substantive content but rather asking “do I want to work with this person or people for the next two hours of my life.” ↩