Fostering social interaction

This topic is to discuss how one might foster social interaction before, during, and after the virtual conference

In my opinion this is the hardest part of hosting a virtual conference. We’ve experimented with several things:

  • Zoom breakout rooms. Not bad, but the random nature of it was awkward for some, and we had 50% of the people just leave when the breakout rooms started.
  • Zulip server, with Jitsi for small video chat rooms (we prefer it to Slack)
  • gather.town for small group video chat rooms. Crude, but not bad
  • Mozilla hubs (basically failed due to confusing UI and severe hardware requirements)
  • a scheduled social hour with links to a bunch of different video chat rooms

One thing we observed from the social parts of our program was that while they had good participation by young people there was rather little participation by senior members of the community. I feel that mentoring is an important part of the hallway conversations at conferences, and in the future we plan to put a bit more structure into it to encourage participation by senior people. I’ve found the ACM report to have good ideas, but it’s pretty thin on specific recommendations for technologies. I’m frankly tempted to build our own experience using a WebRTC backend. The PLDI approach mentioned in this video sounds interesting, but as far as I can tell it’s hard to deploy: https://youtu.be/Y0xZLJVhzPc?t=179

The platform that PLDI is using is a part of a larger system under construction, called Clowdr. It’s built on the Twilio WebRTC framework. Still raw, but the potential for greatness is there! It’s more or less impossible for anyone other than the developers to deploy right now, but this will change over the next couple of weeks. Several conferences will be using it over the summer.

  • Benjamin

I had looked at the clowdr code, and noticed that it’s built on the Twilio React app. Since I’ve already done React in the past, and I already have a Twilio account (and I have a friend who works there), this has been on my list of things to investigate for Crypto in August. I thought about using the Zoom API instead, but it doesn’t seem to be possible to query for users in a room unless they go through the Zoom registration. That’s basically a non-starter for us.

It feels like the CS community should try to make some small things that can be redeployed for other conferences, because each conference has their own requirements for registration, classes of participants, web integration, submissions, video upload, paper hosting, program, fees, platform, countries, etc. gather.town is a good example of something that can be deployed separate from the other requirements for a conference.

We’ll have much more experience with Clowdr in 10 days, after PLDI, but (as you’ve seen) the chat functionality is packaged separately from the rest.

PLDI will also be using Gather, BTW.

  • B