It’s a long time since I’ve written a convention report, I’m pretty sure the last one was when I was still actively using Livejournal, it was certainly before 2009. I think it’s important to write down what my experience of ConFusion was, there are a lot of things being said, by people who were there, by people not there, by people who interacted with the committee on different levels, hopefully this can add to the variety of perspectives.
I want to make it clear that this is a personal opinion, based on my own reflection and my own interpretation of events. It will almost certainly have some personal bias: I hope I have stripped out anything that is pure personal preferences coming to the fore and I will not be commenting on any readily identifiable individuals, with a couple of exceptions.
Those exceptions are below. I worked on two teams, Ops and Programme Ops. My interactions with those leading these teams, and the other members of those teams, at all times remained supportive, friendly and professional. A lot of people worked very hard in core functions to make this virtual convention happen. Any comments I make here are purely feedback for future committees that might find themselves in a similar situation in the hope it might help them make better use of volunteers. If there is criticism it is constructive, and if you feel it isn’t please contact me and we’ll discuss and I will amend if necessary. Even where I was in the middle of events I will not have had all background context, and I will be happy to correct any gross inaccuracies.
Why I signed on
I’m a great believer in fandom, I’m a great believer in fannish community, I’m a great believer that eastercon attendees should be comrades, not customers. I’ve been going to conventions for 20 years and I was volunteering at cons within a couple of years. Nothing particularly big, some light gophering, some panel moderation. I was on the youth team at Worldcon in 2005, and would have done more in the following years if it hadn’t been for a bout of ill-health. I’m a doer, not a planner, so am fundamentally unsuited for any substantial responsibility or creative input but tell me a job you want doing and I’ll just get on with it. I pretty much stepped back from attending cons for health and personal reasons for a few years but went to 2016 and 2018, and might have gone to 2020 Eastercon except I changed jobs in late 2019. I tend to sign on late to things because I’m fairly superstitious about being up to it nowadays.
I really enjoyed the virtual cons I attended in 2020, as a consumer. Eurocon was excellent and gave me an experience that I would probably not have had otherwise. Octocon, again, was really enjoyable. It gave an insight into how a virtual con could work. Punctuation, also, was an excellent con, and I did some light volunteering. Although I prioritised panels and text discussion over social zoom spaces that con worked really well. That is definitely a personal preference, I do not like large unmoderated zoom discussions, but I’m happy for other people to participate in them.
While all this was happening I was getting on with my day job and seeing the many ways that education providers were responding to the need to build online communities. I was seeing how it was possible with low tech to meet demands to disseminate information, stimulate discussion, and create accessible and inclusive online experiences. We were moving from meeting minimum requirements and bolting on accessibility to accessible-first online design. We knew that some tech solutions aren’t perfect but we were deciding when something was better than nothing, and trying to identify gaps as we went along. I was also actively engaging with my professional community and using their expertise to inform my own practice, and seeing how some simple tech solutions actually open up wider opportunities. I went to a LOT of online conferences.
When ConFusion announced it was definitely virtual I signed up and I signed up knowing that I would want to volunteer. I had seen how online conventions could work well, I could see that it provided an opportunity to increase engagement, and I thought there was a potential to fill a gap for some congoers at a moderate price. I also knew I had the experience to be able to help with a virtual con. I thought that the price, although seemingly high compared to other cons, was actually reasonable if they were potentially streaming to large audiences and needing those audiences to be able to interact in some way.
Expectation vs Reality
I think on my volunteer form I put something like “happy to help with wrangling online rooms etc.” as there was nothing really on the form that fitted. I ended up on Ops but in the week before it was clear that they were still looking for volunteers for Programme Ops so I emailed again and was put on their roster.
I was given access to Zello, the walkie talkie app on my phone. I got no calls through it and tried to use it once, got no response, so quickly abandoned it as being of any use.
I expected that I would be given training on the platform we were using, and I was given access to gather pre-con. What I didn’t see was the actual programme delivery system. At 2 p.m. on Friday I attended a meeting where I expected to get clear instructions on how this would work and a demonstration plus test environment. These things did not exist. Instead as the room filled up my gather connection became unstable, I could not interact with others in the room, as such I had no way to offer help with an issue that had arisen. I became frustrated and left the room.
I reported for reg desk shift at 4 p.m on Friday. At this point the number of people in the gather meant that my connection to it frequently dropped. I don’t think this is something that could have easily been anticipated without an early full-size test event.. everything was fine for me up until about 100 people in the room. Then if I was in a crowd I just lost video and audio and then connection, I was set up with the least resource hogging settings. I know my chromebook isn’t the most powerful beast in the world but it’s fairly recent and runs everything else fine. I did my best and monitored the con discord to try and be of help.
For the rest of Ops duties I was fairly happy, I did my roving duties, changed my status to reflect this in gather town. I was useful as long as I didn’t go through crowds. I spent time monitoring the Con Discord, passing issues on to the (very helpful) Ops Discord and trying to help people in gather if an issue arose. Most issues seemed to centre on how to access programme, how to ask questions and membership issues (which I couldn’t resolve). Links to the readme in the discord readme channel would have helped a little, maybe.
I never really got a handle on this side of things, and I regret not stepping forward faster earlier.
I prog-opped 4 panels. The first was on Saturday afternoon and I should make it clear that on Saturday morning lots of panels were dropped/recorded due to technical difficulties. It was my first experience on the programme platform and I was dropped into an empty room with my link and the email stream showed I wasn’t the only person having problems. The tech ops person obviously couldn’t hear me in the room, I walked my avatar to prog ops, was told to contact tech ops, walked to tech ops with a group of seemingly idle avatars. Eventually I dm’d someone I knew in tech through discord, at the same time a panellist was doing so to, and eventually it was resolved. I’d been told that sli.do wasn’t working so I made the decision to ask for questions in the discord. Let me make this clear, I, as an individual, made this decision.
My second panel was early evening. This time the magic link took me to the right room, but tech ops couldn’t hear me (I was telling him I could hear him in the chat panel he obviously wasn’t monitoring) and we had streaming issues again.
My third panel was Sunday morning. By then I had the admin link to sli.do and this meant that I could monitor the questions, this panel was slightly late but worked relatively well.
On Sunday afternoon the panel was ok, I was instructed to turn my mic and camera off “to save bandwidth”, was barely allowed to communicate with the panelists but did my best to do the job I’d been given. During this panel I noticed that the sli.do panel kept switching itself on and off moderation (apparently). I came back from a short walk to discover a panel I was watching had questions stuck in moderation and quickly logged in on the admin side and released them all. I did discover the announcement function and shared this via email with the other prog ops.
It was Monday morning (the last day of the con) that I discovered, in conversation with another prog ops person, that the moderation option in sli-do, despite appearances, was set across all the rooms. So every time I switched it on, it toggled it for all rooms. I walked my avatar to green room to let them know and kept an eye on sli.do for the rest of the day to check it wasn’t switched on and to support some people who couldn’t get the admin function to work for them.
As an attendee
Gather – I quickly abandoned any idea of being able to interact with programme via Gather and instead streamed from my phone to the TV. For socialising I could have small conversations when the platform was quiet but large groups at busy times were impossible. I could sit and listen to a group if I judiciously turned off everyone but a couple of people’s camera and mic. The best connection I had, ironically, was during the dead dog.
Programme – I had no problem with live stream apart from the general technical difficulties that hit everyone. It would have been useful if channel names had matched between prog guide/platform/sli.do as you needed to remember the room number and title to match everything up. I didn’t have a problem watching recordings, either, although I know other people did. I was surprised that captioning wasn’t the default. I know autocaptioning isn’t perfect but i’d have given it a go then dumped it if it was too confusing, rather than not do it at all.
Dealer’s Room – this was great, I liked the set up.
Art Show – this was magnificent and I have no idea how much it cost, but if reasonable should be considered for future Eastercons.
What I suspect is already known, but I’ll repeat anyway
This is my hopefully constructive feedback. A lot of this is obvious to me, it’s my day job, but possibly not to everyone. I suspect some of this happens in physical cons but was lost in the transition to virtual.
- Train your volunteers as early as possible and provide standard procedures
This convention lost a lot of time not having a proper, clear, training session for prog ops with demonstrations of the platform they were using and clear requirements. Not only would this have given everyone more confidence (and possibly generated more people willing to help), proper training sessions would have identified earlier people who could have moved to other areas with gaps.
- Clearly Identify roles and where tasks could be delegated, delegate them in a timely fashion.
Following on from the above, really. I’d have happily sorted sli.do out for the convention if I’d got access to it. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to firefight a situation that could have been avoided if someone had just mentioned it a little bit earlier.
- Create clear channels of communication for volunteers
Volunteer time was wasted as people made their own discoveries about what worked. If I’d had access to a private discussion space for prog ops like that for ops some problems may have been resolved quicker. It would have also helped if I’d have been told point of contact for tech.
Would I do this again?
Well, I’m signed up for 2022. So there’s your answer.
This was pretty much my experience too. But dealers room worked well. But it was clear people were having problems being in Gather and their systems crashed and they would disappear. Artshow was magnificent, well organised, planned in advanced and very well communicated. We should definitely use this model again. As an artist and a mini helper I had a great experience with Artshow. Everywhere else well it’s what you said and then more. Ps Russell created an amazing programme it’s a shame all the technical issues overshadowed all his hard work.
My volunteering was three mornings sitting on the ConFusion art show, which worked so well that I was hardly needed. I felt a bit of a fraud! As you say, the excessive resource hogging of Gather, the cognitive load, and the lack of clear guidance were very disappointing. So many volunteers worked their socks off to identify and resolve problems, and so much of this could have been discovered and fixed pre-con, with a bit of rehearsal and training.
I did enjoy myself, despite all the hitches and frustration. I met friends and went to some great talks, panels and interviews. I don’t expect perfection, all cons have weak spots and hitches, but we do need good communication.
I hope we have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work, and that future virtual, or partially-virtual cons and events can make good use of the experience.
I believe that Kunstmatrix (the Art Show platform) was one of the cheapest paid tools that the convention used, costing something like 200 (not sure if pounds or US dollars) for the whole convention.