First of all, absolutely well done to everyone concerned for pulling this off. I am amazed that we have had a convention at all and given the strain that this year has placed upon everyone, I think the con committee, volunteers and everyone involved needs to give themselves a round of applause. I am certainly applauding you.
I should make it clear that although this is appearing on the Milford blog, and a number of Milford attendees have been involved in running the con, my views are my own and based entirely on my own experience at the convention. I can’t speak for anyone else. For example, with regard to access: I do not have a disability and thus am not in a position to comment from an informed point of view.
Therefore, from my own perspective, these were my main pros and cons. I’ll start with the cons first and then go onto the positives, so please bear this in mind. I also don’t want to single out individuals for anything negative: I’m keeping this objective.
This was an issue for me. I’m not a gamer and I have the ability, when introduced to new technology, to screw it up in new and surprising ways. Got a shiny new app? Give it to Dr Destructo here and she’ll find a way to completely mess it up for you. I ought to hire myself out for destructive testing.
What I really didn’t want to have happen was for me to be given some new instruction or have to download a new programme at the last minute – e.g. 5 minutes before a panel was due to start. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. So:
- Tell programme participants well in advance the precise steps they need to do to get onto their panel, and when they can expect a link. As happens on Zoom: you get sent a link a few days in advance. This would have reduced 85% of my stress.
I did look at the videos, but they told me everything I didn’t need to know: I know I can hitch up my laptop to the TV, but what I needed to know was how to get onto my panels. I didn’t know what Discord was. People kept telling me it was ‘the other server’ but I don’t know what that means in real terms. Eventually someone told me that it’s a kind of chat forum – thank you! This is all I need to know.
I didn’t get the link to one panel because my email got mangled halfway through and anything sent to me disappeared into the aether. We realised this about a minute before the final panel of the con and fixed it.
- A proper map (there is a map but initially reading rooms were on it as ‘party rooms’ and the locations, such as, crucially, Green Room, were not shown adequately on the map or on Gather at the start. I only managed to find Green Room by following Ian Whates, and I learned how to unfollow people from him, otherwise poor Ian would have had my little avatar trundling after him all weekend like a lost puppy).
- Gather Town: I have not used Gather before and I really felt I needed a guided tour of the actual Gather space, not a test. I did find it challenging: I couldn’t see the point of the long corridor, the Holodeck was roped off, and I thought you got into the programme spaces by hovering the avatar over the number – I didn’t realise there was a doorway. Farah has said that a hub with spokes would have been better – absolutely.
Back to back panels with no gaps: this should be easier in the virtual, but if you ‘walked’ through Gather you would be late and if via the website/email links, you’d need to keep checking your email.
I understand that Gather is not mobile friendly? I don’t use a mobile phone but I’m unusual. Also, although I’m on a laptop, Gather is on beta on Safari on the Mac. This didn’t help and I didn’t feel up to wrestling with downloading Chrome at this stage. I understand that Gather can be a lot more user friendly if designed with the customer base in mind. While a lot of SF fans are gamers, a lot are not and the learning curve for some of us is pretty steep. I have struggled before with tech types going into long digressions about how cool something is when all I want is to just use the damn thing. I don’t mind putting in some effort, but the easier it is to use, and the better informed I am, the happier I am. Otherwise I find it really stressful. REALLY stressful.
We did, however, learn from one another in a kind of ‘all hands to the pump’ way, mainly via Facebook.
I understand this version of Gather was ‘pay by the minute’ so perhaps it was too expensive to do a real walk through?
- Panels: Some people said that the panels were too much like watching TV. I don’t mind this but some people did. Streaming it alongside a chat would be a good idea as it allows the audience to feel that they’re participating – and it’s easier to ask questions. Not all questions might be answered, but a lot of people who do Zoom conferences are used to this. Also, although this was sorted out, having the wrong names for panellists isn’t a good look – though resolved, if I’m billed as Gertrude Manly-Earblossom, and she is billed as me, and fans don’t know what we look like (why would they?) and take this as face value, and I then say something outrageous for which Gertrude is blamed all over Twitter….you can see the problem. We can all see the funny side of it BUT.
I don’t really care if there’s a countdown clock or the format of the screens. I have a clock on the laptop and I’m used to speaking to time as I, and quite a lot of other panellists, are teachers.
Some panellists also felt that the lack of a perceived audience was offputting: I didn’t have this problem because I treated it like radio, and I’m used to doing radio.
- Website: someone told me about the link to ‘today’s events’ – I had a terrible job finding it and when I read in the initial email that there would be links on the website, I thought the links were on the main programme page. More idiot-proofing required…
Summary: did I get stressed over the level of technology? Yes, very – but I ought to note that this was a bit disproportionate to the actual context. It’s a me thing, not a tech thing: it’s only a SF convention, we’re not battling against time to save the world.
How to solve this:
- better communication further in advance (expectation management)
- consult a range of your client base first (from experienced gamers to complete numpties like myself)
- don’t make the classic tech mistake of getting carried away by the shiny. I don’t care how cool it looks, I just want it to work. I’m sure the programme staff feel the same! I don’t know how much training they had but I suspect it was not enough, and unfamiliarity with the platforms put a number of us off volunteering when a belated call for volunteers went out over the weekend (however, from the feedback I think this has been taken on board).
These were the negatives for me. The following are the positives:
The Hay Lecture was excellent.
The Art Show was fantastic. Top quality and it was like being in a private view.
The programme content overall was very good. I have checked out a number of panels and they’ve all been excellent.
Once I’d got my head round Gather (sort of), I found it a better experience than I’d expected. It was frustrating at times but I could wander into the Green Room and the Dealers Room and chat to people. I’ve had some great conversations via Gather this weekend and there have been several people here who don’t normally come to E/con – as a result of distance (Australians, yay) or because people usually celebrate Easter at home and could thus drop in and out. This was a huge plus for me as I spoke to people whom I don’t usually see at the con. And on Gather there were fewer distractions than in a real life bar, so I’ve had longer chats with people.
I believe that lessons will be learned and hopefully carried forward. This was an experiment under unusual circumstances, mistakes were inevitable but can be corrected.
Would I like to see the accounts? Yes, please – as one of your paying customers.
We are all very conscious that everyone has been working very hard behind the scenes to make this work and have given up their Easter weekend. We all know that it’s been a struggle and that without this, there would have been no Eastercon. Despite the technical hitches, I think a virtual con with a bit of stress and glitches has been better than no con at all. Do I feel that I’ve been to a convention? Yes. A weird one in which I am somehow in my house! Have I torn my hair out a bit? Yes. Have I learned stuff? Yes. Have I enjoyed it? – a bit of a curate’s egg but overall, once my nerves have recovered, I will look back on this as a positive experience. I would like once more to thank everyone concerned.