Tips on organizing online meetups
I have been co-organizing the SlateStarCodex online meetup series with ~40-140 participants in each meetup. We’ve experimented to get it to work smoothly and have some tips.
This advice is for meetups which have a talk and QA and post-talk socializing. I will appreciate similar tips from meetup organizers.
For socializing, we use breakout rooms as mentioned below; but for pure socializing, Icebreaker works even better, putting people together for short conversations (like “speed dating”). This worked well in some Effective Altruism Icebreaker sessions.
Another good format is Rump Sessions: Four-minute Lightning talks, given by on-the-spot volunteers (no need to pre-apply); and for each, the audience votes for a three-minute extension if the speaker wants. That worked well for the preliminary session in the series, but all the rest had invited speakers.
Here’s how we do it.
We advertise using a regular (non-event) post on LessWrong, as LessWrong does not support non-geographical events. We also make an event post under LessWrong Tel Aviv, allowing people to get a notification or see this in the event page.
We also post to /r/slatestarcodex
We post to Facebook. Few Facebook groups in the rationality-sphere are really active, so we do not share to any of those. (I do post to my local LessWrong Israel group.)
We have a MailChimp mailing list, which has worked very well to get out the word. People can sign up when they register for a meetup.
For each session, we ask people to register; then we send them an invitation. So, we do not publicize a direct video-meet link. This approach gives us partial visibility into who will join.
We use Google Meet because the paid version allows more than 100 participants, and the paid version of Zoom does not. Usually someone can offer a paid version from their work or school, but note that the owner of the account will need to administer the call, so the owner cannot just hand off to the meeting organizers.
I suggest in the invitation and in my introduction that -- both for the main event and the after-talk socializing—participants turn on video, and connect with their real name, for social connectivity. However, this is not mandatory.
We do it Sunday 18:30 UTC because this accommodates the US, Europe, and Israel times of day and workdays. (This leaves out areas east of Israel to the Pacific, unfortunately).
Schedule: I connect 15 minutes before the session to test the audiovisuals. I recommend that the speaker connect a few minutes earlier, as we have had audiovisual problems in the past. The session begins 1 minute after the scheduled time, and I give a 2-minute technical introduction about muting mics, videorooms, etc., and a 30-second intro for the speaker. The speaker gives a talk for 0 to 90 minutes, and then we do Q&A. After that, we go to videorooms.
We ask everyone to mute mics to minimize background noise. I mute people if they forget to do it themselves.
Participants chat freely in text chat during the whole thing.
Participants ask questions in text chat, prefixed by a “Q”. My co-organizer curates them and feeds me questions to read out. This approach, compared to oral questions, shares the time fairly, avoiding time-hogs. It also supports those with a bad audio connection. Afterwards, we do allow oral questions if there is time.
For the last phase, following Q&A, we share links to 3-4 Jitsi videorooms for socializing. Participants can switch between rooms. This is meant to simulate post-talk chats in a face-to-face conference.
Note: this is no longer true (sorry I didn’t announce it with more fanfare—I was waiting till we had made a few more improvements to the overall meetup system). You can create an event with the “online event” tag, which will show up in the sidebar regardless of user location.
Thanks for the post!
I especially liked the schedule tip. It’s simple, but really clear for operationalizing what we all know we should do.
I like Icebreaker, but I noticed that sometimes questions try to be too smart and funny, which gets in the way of actually talking about stuff. I’m a big fan of questions that are not that original, but the kind of stuff EAs would want to talk on a first meeting (for example “what’s the cause you’re most invested in?”, or “How much has EA influenced your life?”)
Have you thought about doing something like a gather town? This simulates what you want pretty well, and deals with the issues stemming from 100 people in the same call trying to talk together.
I only participated in one Icebreaker. It would be good if someone who organized one of these wants to write up tips.
Gather Town and Mozilla Hubs have scalability problems, and with Gather Town I kept getting stuck. But more importantly, I believe in seeing people’s faces to built social contact. Having multiple videochat rooms solves the scale problem.
I’m confused by your last sentence: you can see the video for other people in gather town. It’s just that you control the radius at which you interact with people, and you have a physical position.
Thank you for the correction. When I joined one Gather Town event it was so hard to use that I can’t say much about how it worked.
Thank you for providing the advice! I’ve been to one of the meetups and found it enjoyable and smooth-sailing.
My tip, from organizing EA meetups for a local group (Rotterdam, The Netherlands) is to always have a set topic and if possible also presentation prepared. In the before-time, every second meetup was a general intro to EA and social meetup. But doing this online, with different social interactions, many of the new participants didn’t speak up/the conversation died down way earlier than usual.
Are you tracking where attendees come from? (% email, % type of Facebook group, or a sequence of steps?)
Do you know why the attendees come to a talk? (mostly for a speaker/topic, social interaction with like-minded people, other reasons?)
Is there something specific that you do for people who join for the first time, or give instructions on how to get the most out of the meetup?
These talks all start with a speaker. Do you mean we should have a set topic for the videochat rooms afterwards? It seems that the main event should provide a topic of conversation, though I admit that even then, breaking the ice is often difficult.
> Are you tracking where attendees come from? (% email, % type of Facebook group,
Not precisely, but the email list (opt-in and specific to this meetup series) seems the best. Back when SlateStarCodex was live, the link there was even more valuable.
> Do you know why the attendees come to a talk? (mostly for a speaker/topic, social interaction with like-minded people, other reasons?)
I do not really know, but I think that they are there to hear an interesting talk and specifically for the speaker, as different talks get very different numbers of attendees. A good fraction (half or more) stay for the conversation afterwards, so I guess they are there for that too.
> Is there something specific that you do for people who join for the first time, or give instructions on how to get the most out of the meetup?
The first two minutes explain how it works and encourage people to do things like turn on the video. What other instructions were you thinking of?