Fourteen things we’ve learned by moving Polish Wikimedia conference online (part 1)

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Every year Polish Wikimedians convene to feel the human touch of the movement, and meet at conferences to learn, discuss and work together. This annual meeting, which gathers about 100 Wikimedians every year, is a great celebration of our community, movement and mission. When the COVID pandemic made it impossible for us to meet in person we decided that we would move the event online. And with that decision we started quite an adventure! And since online meetings are here to stay for a bit we would like to share some of the lessons we have learned by preparing ours.

Conference package – slippers, chocolates and a door hanger
  1. Do not replicate offline routines. You may be experienced in organizing live events, but the digital environment, the amount of things that you can control, and the needs of your participants are different. Make a list of things that need to happen for your event to be successful and then ask yourself how can you make sure they do happen in the new environment. Think not only about big things (“people need to learn something useful”) but also about tiny ones (“people need to be in the right place at the right time”). Be creative! For example we stated that wellbeing of the attendees is a factor. This is why we had a lot of breaks so that everyone could step away from their devices, and a yoga session to bring some care to our tired spines.
  2. But in some aspects – do. Especially if you replace a regular event which had its place in people’s calendars with a digital one. Bring a bit of a feeling of an in-person conference to give a sense of continuity. We knew that our attendees were excited about the fact that the conference was supposed to take place in Cracow. This is why we organized a remote guided live city tour. We were able to enjoy the views and ask questions. We also had a group photo (instead of a typical group print screen we went for a collection of selfies which made the photo more vibrant). As a replacement of coffee breaks, we sent chocolates to the participants. Also, in the registration process, attendees could choose whether they want a physical surprise package sent to their home or a digital one to download.
  3. Make it simple, and avoid adding confusion. Virtual events are still new for a lot of people. Participants need to know where and when to click, where to seek information and whom to ask for help. Keep as much information as you can on one page and, if possible, hold all (or most) of the sessions on just one or two links so that whenever the participants click, they will get to the conference room. Have a person and a separate communication channel (in our case, it was a Telegram group) assigned to give technical information and support. 
  4. The time can get tricky. While facilitating a conference and making sure that everything is on time is a challenge, it is much more difficult at a digital event. The speakers can take more time than assigned time and they can easily miss (or even ignore on purpose) cues from the moderator. Muting a person while they speak is neither elegant nor kind. So instead, plan breaks a bit (5 minutes) longer than you actually want them to be – it will give you a time buffer and will let the participants have their time to reenergize even if the session gets a bit too long. And will also let you not to interrupt an interesting conversation. But keep the buffer secret from the panelists or speakers so that they won’t treat it as an actual session time.
  5. Think of all the things in which online conferences are better than live ones. And then make the most of it! Are there any people who you’ve always wanted to invite but never could because of the geographical distance or language barriers? Now it is possible! We took advantage and invited guest speakers from across the ocean and broadened our pool of participants by offering simultaneous translation. This way we could have attendees from all over the globe: from Russia to Sweden and from Ukraine to the U.S.! Online events give you a unique chance to broaden your audience and invite people outside of the Wikimedia Movement. We promoted our speakers using social media to boost some interests from non-Wikimedians and invite them to our event.
  6. Why so serious? To the participants, we sent conference packages including a pair of comfortable home slippers and a door hanger saying “Do not disturb, I’m attending a conference” so that we could add some humour to the fact that the conference has unexpectedly moved to participants’ homes. 
  7. Conference platforms – remember your priorities. Choosing a platform is not easy. Make a list of functionalities you need and put them in hierarchical order so that you will know: how important it is to you that the tool is open source? What feature only is nice to have? For example, Wikimedians use a much more diverse set of browsers. So for us, having a tool that works on many different ones was a criterion.
  8. Test your conference platform, learn its constraints, and let the speakers test it again. Test it in different groups and in different technical conditions (browsers, devices etc.). Shortly before the event we decided to shift the conference to a different platform because the one we had planned had shortcomings that were a no-go for us. You may schedule a get together for the speakers the day before – it will help everyone get acquainted with the tool before the serious work begins.

We hope those learnings were helpful. And if you need more, check out part 2 of this post with other things we found out (including the last but most important one).

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