Why Digital Events Are in ‘an Awkward Phase’

Technology may connect us physically, but much remains to be learned about its ability to create emotional connections.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

We’ve long talked about how technology connects us, points out designer and researcher Pamela Pavliscak, a panelist at the technology conference Collision@Home, held online June 21-24. “But what we’ve meant by connecting,” Pavliscak told Convene, “is that technology reduces physical distance, or just that technology puts us in contact with somebody else.”

digital events

Pamela Pavliscak

Now, with the widespread move to digital platforms in response to the pandemic, “it’s as if we’re a big experiment,” she added, one that’s demonstrating how technology can bring us together, but also highlighting its weaknesses. To really connect, “we need to be able to read nonverbal signals — the sensorial aspect of our connection, where we are part of a larger context,” said Pavliscak, author of Emotionally Intelligent Design. “We’re in an awkward phase. We have this technology, but it doesn’t really facilitate intimacy, emotions, or vulnerability. Maybe it doesn’t even facilitate empathy in the way we want it to. And how will we get it to that point?”

A visiting professor at Pratt Institute in New York and the founder of a startup that uses AI as a tool to measure emotions online, Pavliscak speaks frequently about tech design and emotions. The same week she appeared at Collision@Home, she spoke at Primer 2020, an annual conference produced by the Design Futures Initiative, both via Zoom.

Even on Zoom, a tool “that we all rely on, we don’t truly have eye contact,” she said. Putting users’ faces on the screen, alongside with everyone else, as the default setting “was a very strange design decision to make,” Pavliscak said. “You can hide yourself, but to see yourself while you’re talking is a source of self-consciousness. Unless we intervene, we could be heading in the direction where we’re more self-conscious about how we present in meetings.”

As a researcher, digital “events are really fascinating,” she said, “because we’re using these tools now to try to connect. I think in this first wave, we’re trying to, in a basic way, replace physical events. What I think we’re going to see in the next six months to a year is that we ask: ‘What can we do with this space that’s appropriate to the space?’ Some things may not be able to be reproduced online, but there are new things that we can do that are different and really interesting — and possibly even better in some ways or for some people — in online space.”Pavliscak is already seeing innovation, particularly in the ways that event organizers are making events more interactive, she said. “Event organizers are learning new ways to prompt discussions, and how to use the camera so that people can be seen and participate,” she said. “I’ve been to events where everyone has to turn their camera on at the beginning — hundreds of people — and the moderator asks a question and you’re supposed to draw [something in response] and hold up your drawing. I’ve seen events where you have a second moderator guiding the discussion, as the speaker is speaking. And that’s really fascinating, because that’s something we can’t do in live events — or maybe we’re doing it off on the side to our friends.”

Much of Pavliscak’s work is in the design world, where “there’s a lot of creativity around how we can we listen to a talk, and have a discussion on chat,” as well as ways to incorporate hands-on collaboration by attendees. At Primer2020, a conference that Pavliscak describes as “science fiction meets design,” organizers used the online meeting platform Hopin, and team collaboration software called Miro to add attendee notes into conference presentations using digital whiteboards.

Moving events online will make events more inclusive, if “more people are willing to participate in that discussion, because they don’t have to stand up and speak into a microphone,” she said. Digital events also tend to be more geographically inclusive: Primer 2020 was scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Georgia, as a two-day paid event with 300 attendees. When organizers converted Primer 2020 to a six-day-long digital event, with tiered registration by donation, more than 1,800 people from 60 countries participated.

The ability to know what attendees feel like while attending such online events is still evolving — AI can identify emotion at a level that is comparable to that of a toddler, she said. In her classes at Pratt, Pavliscak said, her students are experimenting with new ways to enable platforms like Zoom to add a sense of a group’s shared experience, including creating create “emotional readouts” that aggregate interactions, she said.

Meanwhile, we currently use “engagement” as a stand-in for emotion in technology, measured by how often people come back or if something is stirring enough to go viral, Pavliscak told strategy consultant Seth Grimes in a separate interview.

The fatigue we feel after a day spent online is real, she said. “It can leave us with a kind of emotional hangover, since typically those levels of intensity are not meant to be sustained for long periods of time.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

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