Stanfill and Salter reflect on conferencing amidst their organization of the 2020 ELO Conference in Orlando, Florida that had to change to due a global pandemic. Sharing their experiences and wisdom, they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various virtual platforms for conferencing, coupled with the contexts of concurrent politics, co-location, and lessons for the future.
In early 2020, the ELOrlando team (led by us, Anastasia Salter and Mel Stanfill) was in full planning stages for an extensive conference in Orlando, co-located with the ACM Hypertext 2020 Conference we planned in tandem. When ELOrlando was announced at the banquet in Ireland at ELO 2019, we promised game nights, themed horror bars, and perhaps even a Star Wars ride or two. Yet that vision faded quickly as the news of the global pandemic slowly started to overshadow our efforts--though July, our conference target, was far in the future, and we had a team of faculty and students helping us imagine events spanning UCF’s new downtown campus and several gallery partners, these in-person events began feeling less and less possible. The decision to move online was a difficult one, raised hypothetically in January and truly confronted in March. The situation escalated quickly, and we--as with many conferences, event planners, and institutions around the world--found ourselves navigating the tensions of an event built around an in-person concept but suddenly held online. The disruptions of COVID-19 have prompted many to rethink attending conferences, asking whether the trade-offs are worth it. From our perspective, the pandemic has also prompted rethinking how to organize conferences to maximize their benefits to the community and mitigate their flaws.
Our original conference call was centered on “(un)continuity”: we asked those submitting creative and critical work to explore fluidity and nonbinary concepts, including representation/presentation; categorization; spectra of light and sound, including that exceeding human perception; social organization; unity; and discord. The theme was even more timely viewed in retrospect, as the breaking down of binaries--particularly of the real and the virtual--is now even more essential. What follows are a few thoughts on how virtual conferencing unsettles what we thought we knew about conferences, how we made the pivot to online, and how the work of making ELOrlando reflects the work of ELO. We offer this not as an authoritative account, but as a personal one, documenting the efforts of a small team to make do under rapidly changing circumstances, and in the face of conflicting information and guidelines, in the hopes that it is helpful to others navigating similar circumstances.
What Does it Mean to Conference?
In order to rethink the conference, we first have to think about what a conference fundamentally is. At its best, the conference is a place to present one’s newest project and get feedback, hear about other people’s newest projects, and build one’s network, both by finding new collaborators and by strengthening existing ties. The annual conference of one’s research community is often viewed as a time of renewal: scholars are frequently isolated at their institutions (or outside them, with growing numbers of independent scholars working outside of traditional academic jobs). While social media communities can offer a sense of continuity beyond the conference dialogue, the intensive event allows for a level of exchange that we have found vital for rekindling our enthusiasm for our work. The need for this type of renewal is, perversely, only rising as our ability to justify such gatherings is dwindling: as academia’s resources grow scarcer, and the pressures of the day-to-day workload mount with the adjunctification of higher education, the need for connection, collaboration, and collective action correspondingly grows.
With conferences, as with so many things, this best case scenario is only rarely achieved. In-person conferences are exclusionary. There’s no glossing over that fact. They tend to cost a lot to attend--a whole lot when they’re across a continent or on another continent, when they’re held in expensive business districts or resorts, and when many scholars have seen institutional support eroded or even removed and many more are precariously employed. They also require not having childcare, elder care, or other family responsibilities, or, at least, to be able to hand them off to someone else for a while. Once a conference-goer manages to get there to do the important work of presenting and networking, it’s often hard to decide what to attend, especially when more than one session in the same time slot looks interesting, which seemingly inevitably favors those who are already well-known over those just starting out. And for all one of the biggest purposes of bringing a large number of scholars together in the same place at the same time is networking and meeting people, that too can be like finding a needle in a haystack for newcomers who don’t already have at least a small network.
Online conferences solve some of these problems. They certainly cost much less than traveling to a physical conference. They also diminish the time where family obligations have to be put on pause to just the actual sessions rather than including travel time. But some of the problems, like finding new scholars and expanding one’s network, are unchanged. And online conferences introduce new problems. At a basic level, at least in the pandemic era when everything happens by video conferencing applications, there’s “Zoom fatigue,” where every additional hour trying to attend to a screen becomes more challenging. There’s also what we might think of as the second (and third) shift problem. When one physically goes to conferences, it is understood that some obligations are put on pause--emails might be answered more slowly, classes might be cancelled or turned into project work time, kids might have to go to another guardian for a scraped knee, and others big and small. Online conferences don’t have that sharp distinction from what we might call Regular Time. Instead, everyday productive and reproductive labor, paid and unpaid labor, are simply stacked on top of the conference. Under such circumstances, can any of us get much out of the conference?
This is the honest assessment of conferences in the Before Times. This is the honest assessment of conferences in COVID Times. Neither is very good. Both put enormous demands on participants, and heap more difficulty on those who already have the most demanded of them. How can we work toward that Platonic Ideal of a conference where you present your work and get feedback, hear new and exciting work, and meet new and exciting people? How can we balance the access and the exclusions, given that all types of conference have both? In the next section, we discuss what we did at ELOrlando in practical terms toward thinking about solutions.
Platforms of Pandemic Conferencing
Before we pivoted ELO to online, our primary conference logistics team was committed to coordinate two separate but co-located conference efforts in ACM Hypertext and ELO 2020, using some shared resources of AV configuration, banquet spaces, and classroom configurations, but otherwise keeping the conferences separate with one overlapping keynote and cross-talk day. The virtual pivot required rethinking these spatial resources, as well as configuring the conference to rely upon similar platforms in order to build common, reusable structures that could be shared between both conferences (and minimize confusion for us as the organizers) while facilitating the cross-conference dialogue that was originally envisioned as a benefit of co-location. Part of this was a simple matter of resources: by building the two conferences using intertwined spaces, we minimized our challenges of maintenance, moderation, and attention.
Upon reviewing the material needs of both conferences (which collectively included five keynotes, two large exhibitions, both asynchronous and synchronous talks, workshops, performances, and ongoing events), we developed a strategy relying upon a combination of already-funded platforms facilitated by the University of Central Florida, and distributed solutions using freely available tools. Each tool was chosen to meet a particular need, and interlinked as much as possible with the other platforms to provide a sense of the conference as one integral whole. We discuss each platform’s strengths and weaknesses in this section before moving to broader conclusions in the next.
- Zoom Webinar (Keynotes) - As the pivot to online events and teaching in Spring 2020 had already included some notable problems with harassment and disruption, often called “Zoom bombing,” we wanted a more protected platform for keynote events to ensure smooth participation and a good experience for speakers. As the University of Central Florida had a webinar license available, we took advantage of it for these large-scale broadcast events, taking advantage of built-in features such as the question & answer tools for moderating and responding to attendee queries throughout. By keeping the chat enabled, it was still possible to allow participants to interact while keeping the space moderated with the assistance of graduate student volunteers.
- Zoom (Synchronous Talks, Workshop, Posters) - As the University of Central Florida, like many institutions, invested in large-scale Zoom licensing for pandemic teaching, the platform presented a readily-available and familiar tool for collective gatherings. Additional security tools (such as the waiting room) were implemented to allow moderators to verify participants before bringing them onto the live call, thus decreasing the risk of disruptive participants (and indeed we had none). Zoom also provides rapid recording and subtitle processing, which enabled us to make all talks available quickly to those unable to join synchronously. However, the need to have a UCF host assigned to each call to use the benefits of the university’s paid license did create some challenges; the two primary hosts and proceedings committee co-chair John Murray (with support from grad student volunteer Lauren Rouse) alternated to cover every call.
- Bootstrap (Exhibition) - For the ELOrlando Exhibition, building a sustainable platform for archiving and accessing web-based works was our first priority: many works were withdrawn or could only be shown in documentation form because they were intended as physical installations under the initial conference plan. The exhibition site was built using Bootstrap for mobile responsiveness, and patterned after the approach of the Electronic Literature Collections to handle the variety of platforms and modalities represented in the works.
- WordPress (Original Conference Site) - One consequence of originally planning the conference as an in-person event was that the website was structured as purely informational, which didn’t easily pivot to provide a useful archival space for the revised modality. Given that, the WordPress site was primarily used to direct participants to other platforms. Some design limitations were immediately clear: for instance, posting Zoom links on a public-facing site like this one would be an invitation for disruption, and would make it difficult to limit access to registered participants for events. This platform would likely never have been employed if the event was planned virtually from the outset.
- STARS Repository (Replacement Conference Site) - Following the virtual pivot, we re-centered our efforts around the UCF STARS (Showcase of Text, Archives, Research & Scholarship) institutional repository, built using the bepress platform. The repository was originally planned to host only recordings of the major events on-site, but instead became a complete record and live program for the conference. The site continues to host the recordings and texts of all work produced for the conference, and thus offers an open-access record of the event that lives on.
- Google Documents (Event Access and Organization) - Given the need for adaptable, shared, quick updates to conference access materials (such as links to Zoom calls and recordings once available), Google Docs provided an easy-to-edit tool for any of the conference organizers to access. While occasionally the format of this document created confusion (or links were accidentally truncated or mislocated), the primary advantage of this modality was the rapidness of editing with live updating. Ultimately, Google Docs allowed the primary logistics organizers and the program chair to coordinate on keeping sessions running smoothly, and a similar method makes sense for managing future live online events.
- Discord (Social Events) - After observing several other virtual conferences pivoting to platforms like Slack, Zoom chats, and Discord for their social events, we ultimately chose Discord as the best option for combining asynchronous discussion across time zones with synchronous, low-bandwidth, audio channels for socializing. This approach proved most effective for the larger conference, ELO, although Hypertext users also participated, particularly in spaces for keynote follow-up and similar conference-related exchanges. Discord’s audio channels continue to be one of the most accessible options for socializing, particularly as not all participants in virtual conferences will have the bandwidth (internet or emotional) for large-scale video chats. However, one limitation is that Discord’s lack of threading in replies can cause confusion for participants.
Additional platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook) were used for promotional purposes and amplifying event information, but not integrated into the virtual conference centrally. We did this in part to try to avoid platform overload; while Twitter has proven essential to the ELO community in the past, there are only so many synchronous communication platforms that anyone can monitor at once. The “(un)continuity” of the event was emphasized in these disconnects, and in the absences of work withdrawn due to the challenges of the time and transition. While we don’t claim to have solved the problem of the online conference, we hope the direct assessment of our platforms and their challenges might provide a starting point for others to build upon, as the need for hybrid community gatherings is likely to continue to drive academic conferencing.
So what did we learn from ELOrlando? What conclusions can we draw about what conferences should be and do going forward? How do we move toward the best of what conferences can be while minimizing the limitations?
It seems clear that purely in-person events can no longer be the norm. The removal of travel expenses and barriers to participation (other than the obvious barriers added by our global crisis) at ELOrlando had its advantages. For two of the key conference activities, presenting and hearing work, Zoom works well, and likely so would other video conferencing platforms. The software is free to use, radically decreasing costs for participants; while the conference does need to pay if institutional support like university licenses is not available, the costs are substantially less than other fees like catering would be. To resolve the pressing concerns of Zoom fatigue and second/third shift, offering recordings of live sessions and intentionally asynchronous delivery of recorded content both worked well for ELO. The hazards of fatigue and too many competing demands could likely be further reduced by rethinking synchronous conferencing more thoroughly, such as by increasing asynchronous elements or slowing down the conference by spreading the synchronous elements over a longer period of time at less intensity. A more gradual conference pace would also prevent the problem ELOrlando experienced of difficulties staffing every single session call.
Moreover, one key lesson from the ELOrlando pivot was the benefit to scholarly community and flow of ideas that comes from a persistent, open archive. Documented in the conference repository, you can explore much of the happening as it liveson: multiple keynotes featuring speakers bringing their theoretical and creative insights to the current challenges; talks, papers, and panels pre-recorded for the asynchronous program; performances, workshops, roundtables, and collaborative experiments from the live schedule; and ongoing happenings planned for Zoom ranging from netprov to procedural cooking experiments to imaginary lunch-ing. Our exhibition, planned as a means to bring elit to both the UCF and Downtown Orlando communities as an extended installation, was reimagined for the web, but also shared locally through UCF’s gallery, and is archived online for continued access. Overall, we hope these opportunities for increased access and participation continue as the organization explores hybrid conference formats in the future.
Unfortunately, we also encountered limitations. Amid all the hype about the wonders of the internet, it’s important to recognize that online platforms are no more inherently accessible than physical spaces; future conference organizers and moderators will have to carefully consider the frustration each new technology adds alongside its promised opportunities. For all the benefits of asynchronous organization for some aspects of conferences, the networking purpose is harmed rather than helped. This must be balanced. Opportunities to meet and chat should be synchronous, but more time at less intensity could be productive here as well. For example, networking sessions for particular topics or especially for newcomers can make for more intimate spaces more conducive to finding the right people, as well as generally being smaller and less overwhelming. Online conferences also fundamentally alter what kinds of presentations can be included, as we saw with the impossibility of translating installation art. It’s essential to consider how we can not exclude such works altogether, how we can overcome the deficits of networking, and how we can mitigate platform overload.
Overall, we are grateful to the ELO community for joining with us at a time of discord and challenge. The work of building the new conference came for many of us at an almost impossible time of school closures, stay-at-home orders, and online teaching migrations. We then convened in the middle of a summer of protest, when the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN had reignited widespread struggle against racial inustice both in the US and around the world. It was a moment of reckoning with our assumptions that challenged us to reflect on some of what we have taken for granted. In the wake of this continued violence, we must renew our commitment to broadening inclusivity and working towards anti-racist pedagogy and practice in our collective scholarship and artistry, and in the ELO broadly. We acknowledge that we have a lot more work ahead of us.
We sought to bring the (hopefully playful or at least productive) disjunctures of (un)continuity to the conference format itself, as we have tried to capture here in a reflection on the act of pivoting. At the same time, this reimagined conference was built during a moment of collective fear and fatigue, and we were guided by convenience and feasibility over blue sky visions for what a virtual conference might be. Already, conferences that have occurred since our event that try to reimagine how those same constraints might become possibilities: the “shared space” model of Gather.Town, for instance, has been employed successfully for exhibitions, poster sessions, and gatherings, while other events have tried to re-craft the potential for mentoring of doctoral consortiums and organized programs facilitated via extended networking. Certainly, much more is possible than has been accomplished so far, though fatigue continues to present a challenge that is unevenly distributed and falls more heavily upon already marginalized and under-funded colleagues.
The Electronic Literature Organization's work to reshape web platforms and unexpected technologies through storytelling has never been more important. We hope that in these proceedings, which include extended versions of work originally hosted in the conference repository, you will find inspiration for what comes next. The open access repository of the conference continues to draw visitors, offering an important lesson from ELOrlando to future conferences: our work need not all be ephemeral, and our physical gatherings should not be limited in their reach to those who can traverse the miles to be in the rooms where they happen