The Anatomy of A Decentralized Online Festival

Adam Hyde Jun 18, 2020

The Open Publishing Fest, held over two weeks in May 2020, was a great success with over 150 events from all over the world and a huge variety of topics. The fest really brought people together and injected some charm into the communities life at an otherwise bleak time.

With this in mind here are some things we tried to achieve, and some lessons learned. We hope this will be of use to others considering doing something similar.

How it Worked

The fest had the following principles:

  1. anyone could propose an event
  2. no central curation committee – all events were proposed and organized by the community
  3. no co-ordination of tech – all those that organized events could use the video conference tech of their choice
  4. no filtering – all events were accepted as long as they were on topic

Practically it worked following these steps:

  1. proposals were submitted using the fest online form
  2. the small fest team checked each proposal and if they looked sound (were on topic and thoughtfully created) then the event was immediately pushed through to the calendar
  3. all events then were organized and run by the proposers at the time they proposed and to the time and timezone that made the most sense to them
  4. the fest calendar was the central organizing motif

The following is what we learned…

Distributed works if you trust folks

The premise of the event was to have a distributed event – to hand over the curatorial power to the community itself. In-person events tend to be curated from the top down, and that brings with it a more gated dynamic. There was some concern from folks in the community that opening up the curatorial method to ‘anyone’ would be too unstructured and result in bad sessions and a little bit of chaos. We are happy to report that exactly the opposite happened. Of all the 150+ events proposed only one wasn’t scheduled and that was because it was deemed to be off topic. For the rest, everything that was proposed was pushed through to the calendar and we had amazingly good content – sessions were well thought through and well organised and run. Trust, it seems, is what you have to work with in a decentralised event. We trusted folks to make great sessions and they did. At no time did we feel the need for any additional curatorial oversight. Our curation came in the design of the framework – the event imagery, the ‘mood’, and the high level framing of the content types that this fest was designed for. We left everything else up to the community and they responded beautifully.

On the topic of content themes… it makes sense that folks will curate content that is topical since we are all part of this ‘moment’ and are just as interested in ideas of the time as everyone else is. It brings about the question – do we need to thematically curate real or virtual events? How about setting a high level framing (eg ‘open publishing’) and let people sort it out and bring topical sessions forward? It worked for us.

Additionally, when there was a time clash between similar events on the calendar we simply introduced each session organizer to each other to sort out. It worked very well.

Being Playful works too

Lets face it, most conferences – realspace or virtual – are a lacking a little bit of spark. More or less they are the same – a theme, sessions selected if they fit to the topic, and squeezed into a form and format to suit. Industry events, no matter what the domain, tend to be straight jacketed by this approach and feel formal and no fun. We deliberately tried to loosen the event by being playful in the imagery and framing. We deliberately used words such as ‘tents’ instead of slots or sessions or tracks. We used happy and playful imagery, and we went out of our way to hire some performers to be part of the event. We had mostly drag queen performers and musicians but also a few film screenings. We were happy to do this as performers are suffering at the moment so throwing some work their way was a good thing to do. The performances were amazing and really added a nice dimension to the event. The COVID Gurls particularly turned the hours they performed into celebrations – a amazing highlight and very energizing. The Open Publishing Fest is possibly the first publishing event to feature drag performances on the mainstage but we hope there will be more!

The film screenings also helped form a sense of community. It is kind of amazing how watching something online together with other folks helps generate a feeling of togetherness. We could all watch these films in our own time but the intangible feeling of connection by watching them together was quite powerful.

The imagery and language of the fest was also very important for generating a sense of playfulness. We spent a lot of time with funny small things to get the tone right. The language of a ‘festival’ was adopted – most notably the idea of ‘tents’ really helped conjure up our approach. Tents are informal and something you can easily browse in and out of. Tents also feel more lightweight and fun than a ‘session’ or ‘room’. We also spent many hours going back and forth with the designer Kevin Muñoz on small things. For example we spent a lot of time discussing how to make the little tent icons look welcoming – “the tent doors need to look more open and inviting!” is a sentence none of us ever thought we would utter before the event happened! These things are important. Nuance is everything when you are trying to communicate the feel of something remotely. It is very very important to take the time to get the wording and imagery right. As anyone that has designed a website will know, you sometimes have to go to the crazy part of your brain to tease out the nuance of why an image or text doesn’t feel quite right. It is weird work but worth it.

KISS – Keep it Simple, Smarty!

The fest website was designed to be as simple as possible as was the process for contributing events. For this reason we did not push any particular video conference / streaming tech on anyone. This meant that folks could use the tech they already knew, which is a way to ‘keep it simple’. No need to complicate things by requiring people to use new technologies they are unfamiliar with. We did also have the wonderful Cloud68 crew providing support if an organiser needed a conference tech – Cloud68 not only supplied free Big Blue Button servers but spent a lot of time helping people use the software.

Proposing an event was also very very simple. We made a form with minimal information required. If an event was submitted we would check it and if it looked ontopic we would push it through to the calendar. No nonsense, low overhead process. This worked very well. Of course no software existed to support this lightweight process so we had to build it ourselves – more on this below.

The calendar of events itself was a central motif and mechanism for the fest. We wanted something that was readable at a glance. It also had to support multiple languages, timezones and locales (24hr clocks vs AM/PM time stamps etc). Color coding of events according to the ‘tent’ they were in was quite effective as a visual element to break up a very dense schedule. Clicking on tents to see what was on was also a great filtering device.

Simplicity, at the end of the day really means taking on the difficult stuff, and making it simple for the participants. The fest team was very small – myself (Adam), Dan Rudmann, and Julien Taquet – but we aimed to take on any load necessary to make the fest as easy as possible for the contributors and participants. We effectively lowered the barrier for participation as much as possible and as a result we had 5x more events than we expected and many many more people attending than we thought possible.

Say Yes to Experimentation

We had a few people wanting to try formats we hadn’t considered. A scheduled twitter discussion, for example, was something we had not anticipated. We said yes to all the ideas. Our feeling was that remote confs are in need of experimentation and what real risk is there to saying ‘do it!’. If an event or two is badly attended or didn’t work then so what? We don’t suffer from the scarcity of resources (time and space) that realspace confs do, so why not try stuff out? We were all for it and as it happens, each of the experiments worked and we learned a lot from them. Say yes to experimentation!

Feed and Support Constructive Self Interest

While Coko was the org behind the fest (with Dan Rudmann from the awesome Punctum Books also behind the scenes) we reached out to projects in the community that might be considered to be in some ways our competitors. Some of these orgs put on many events and that was completely OK. We encouraged projects to use this opportunity to promote what they do. As a result we had more events and more interest in the fest as a whole. In other words, by encouraging constructive self interest we magnified the overall effect and success of the event as a whole which worked for everyone.

Let people speak in the language they want to, in the timezone they want to

Most industry events in the publishing sector within Western Europe and North America, whether real or virtual, demand sessions to be in English. We didn’t want this to be the case for the fest and so we encouraged folks to organize sessions in any language they wanted to. As a result we had sessions in Tamil, French, Spanish, English and Indonesian. Some of these sessions (eg Indonesian and Tamil) were targeted at specific communities and so it makes sense that they should just use they language of their community. There was one series of awesome sessions where the organizer did three sessions on the same topic in three different languages – French, Spanish and English….amazing. There is no scarcity of venue space over time as there is in real space events, so why not let people speak in the language they want to. This also enables a greater diversity of participation. Diversity is also encouraged by eliminating the need for travel for each of these sessions, as is encouraging folks to organise their events in the timezone that makes sense to them – no need to force everyone to live the 2 weeks of a fest in a regional timezone other than their own… We also endeavored to get archives online as soon as possible so that the content could be viewed in a ‘timely’ fashion by anyone in any timezone.

The Software

We looked around for software to support this kind of event and couldn’t find one to do what we needed, which is not surprising as the fest was rather innovative on several points. So we created the software. Coko is lucky in that we are a tech org and so we can do things like this. Unfortunately that isn’t true for everyone. Consequently, we are happy to help anyone that wishes to consider doing something similar to customize the software. We hope that there might be enough interest to bring together a collaboration of techy folks to work on this. The first thing to do would be to make the look and feel customisable by themes. There is an endless amount of other work that could be done to support different ideas, but best to start with the high value simple stuff. If anyone would like to join us in this effort please let us know. All the software is OF COURSE open source!!!

In Summary

In summary, we put the event on from start to finish in 6 weeks. 4 weeks organizing and building the software, then 2 weeks managing updates to events and improving the software. It was a lot to do but went pretty smoothly. In the process we learned a great deal of what could work in these types of events and we can also see how the software could evolve to support this ‘genre’ of event. We will do the fest again so look forward to more events! For this event Coko paid for everything (as we did with the Awards), however in the future we will look for funding and sponsorship. If you would like to help us pay for the next one then let us know!

We are also happy to help others who have taken inspiration from the fest. We are happy to help with what we have learned and we are happy to help tweak the software to meet your needs. If you do take inspiration or use the software please be a good citizen and credit us where appropriate – this makes us feel good and helps us keep on keeping on. If you wish to go as far as inviting us to be part of the event team we are open and would be honored to be invited.

If we can help in anyway then drop me a line – adam@coko.foundation  – in the meantime, stay safe and thanks for being part of the fest!!!!

 

 

About the Author

Adam Hyde

Coko Founder

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