A typical SpatialChat screen, showing the thumbnail video images of participants

I’m probably not the only person to lose enthusiasm when I hear the word “Zoom”. It’s no better or worse than other conference call software, but its ubiquity during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the way it has been applied for webinars and for conferences, has been less than imaginative. Typically, it means 30 to 45 minutes of listening to someone speaking in a monotone, as if reading fr0m a prepared script.

Not only have conferences continued online in a seeming replica of the face-to-face format, they have become even more concentrated. A worrying trend is evidenced in a typical conference, the APE Berlin event, one of my favourite conferences when held live. The two days of the event have been replicated online, but now there are sessions lasting 7.5 hours each day, with no fewer than nine presentations, and only 15-minute breaks! For the most part, these sessions are lecture-style, with minimal or zero interaction from the participants. The organisers claim that attendees can join recordings of the events, and thereby catch up on what they have missed, but that takes away one of the key reasons why you attend in the first place: either you join at a specific date and time, or you don’t participate at all. As soon as you can choose when to participate, the value of any event immediately drops. There are other things you could usefully be doing. My rate for attending sessions from a conference I have booked for but was not able to attend at the time is woefully low.

Is there any way to replicate the interaction of live conferences? A typical conference will include around two hours of intervals, allowing for coffee, tea and lunch, and that is often (perhaps most often!) the most valuable part of the whole event. But yes, there are alternatives: a fascinating experiment just before Christmas 2020, set up by Heather Staines and John Dove, comprised two sessions of online chat using software that enabled users to interact with each other, by moving towards and away from groups – as you move further away, you can be heard less or not at all (just as in real life). The reason for two sessions was to trial two different software packages, although the only one I was able to try was spatial.chat. I can’t say if this software was better or worse than other products on the market, I should add – it’s the only one I’ve tried. But the principle is excellent.

The simple addition of a location feature to chat software means that attendees at a conference, for example, can replicate the two main interactions they typically have: either one to one, or in a group. If you want to talk with a group, you hover near a group. If you want to talk one-to-one, the two of you find a space that is not too close to anyone else. Just like a live event, people get the idea of when a conversation is coming to an end and they move around.

Such software could be provided very easily in the framework of an online conference. Between the presentations (I almost said lectures), there could be 30-60 minutes of interaction for anyone who wants it. Perhaps, to provide some structure, there could be a suggested theme, but this is most likely to emerge from the immediately preceding event. Conversations tend to be self-fulfilling, in that people choose their interaction.

One great benefit of this kind of chat is that, for someone like me, endlessly curious about what people do, there is a chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. In my day job I am in contact with many publishers, but one thing I notice from professional contacts is that interactions progress very rapidly from explaining what you do, to needs-based, assuming your contact knows everything that you do. The idea of an information gap seems to be something that we have only for new acquaintances. Once our acquaintance becomes more established, we tend not to have information-based conversations. I assume the reason is that participants feel “you know what I do – there is no need to explain it any more” However, the value of work-based conversations is that very often, I don’t know what you know, and I’m very interested to learn more about it. Perhaps this new software can provide an opportunity for that interaction. Perhaps, who knows, it would reduce our rather unthinking dependency on Zoom.