Filtered for hallway tracks and spreadsheet parties

13.29, Monday 15 Jun 2020


When I’ve been posting about rethinking conferences in the Age of Zoom it’s all been about the talks. But conferences aren’t just talks…

A conference, or an ‘event’, is a bundle. There is content from a stage, with people talking or presenting or doing panels and maybe taking questions. Then, everyone talks to each other in the hallways and over coffee and lunch and drinks. Separately, there may be a trade fair of dozens or thousands of booths and stands, where you go to see all of the products in the industry at once, and talk to the engineers and salespeople. And then, there are all of the meetings that you schedule because everyone is there.

And in particular, this line: Most obviously, we don’t have any software tool for bumping into people in the same field by random chance and having a great conversation.

Evans is a formidable technology analyst, and his use of the word bundle is a callback to how newspapers were unbundled over the early 2000s: classified ads went to Craigslist, ads went to Google/Facebook, news discovery to Twitter, op-ed to blogs/YouTube/etc, filler to Buzzfeed, etc etc, and pretty soon the very special job of newspaper journalism was left without the commercial viability lent by its fellow travellers.

So if we’re doing conference talks on video now, how do we do the hallway track? And should the two remain bundled together?


Tamas Kadar has a great write-up of how !!Con 2020 worked.

e.g. The conference organisers covered [the speaker’s] cost to get a good webcam and a microphone. Vital!

Mainly the hallway track was built around Discord which is a text chat app for communities with great voice and video. Here’s a review: there are text channels, which are for regular group text chat, and then there are… Voice Channels. This is where things get interesting - you can set your microphone to ‘always on’ when you join a voice channel and then go about your business - e.g., sharing your screen.

So… !!Con:

For one, they set up a channel for each speaker’s talk, ordered by the schedule. As the day and the talks progressed, you would move from channel to channel, down on the list. This proved to be a brilliant idea: it was easy to keep track of the conversations, they were not in one big batch, and you could always go back to a given channel if you wanted to talk about a specific talk. More conferences should adopt this.

And with voice:

They also had a bot that could match random people up to hang out. You would go to a channel and say “match me”, and if other people did the same in the next 60 (or later, 90) seconds, it’d create a Discord voice room and send everyone an invite.

And you could jump to video in a bunch of different places:

Besides Discord and the thoughtful organization of the channels, there were virtual Zoom rooms you could join throughout the conference. You were given a map with all the rooms, and it showed you who was in the given room

Takeaway: the hallway track works best when it’s about multi-tasking, and you can move up and down levels of engagement with the presentations and the conversations.

People used to be obsessed with multi-tasking in the heyday of desktop computing. Screens were big enough to have something to focus on and ALSO peripheral awareness, so we got menu bar indicators and taskbar news tickers, etc.

I think, with phones, we’ve kinda forgotten about it… perhaps because people are already multi-tasking when they’re using their phones because we’re simultaneously watching TV, or walking down the street, making team and so on. Phone have small screens and so they’re naturally focus devices.

BUT, we’re multi-tasking animals. I pay attention better when I’m doodling and making notes.

Personal theory: as we’re at home more, and smartphones ebb, the technology that succeeds will be the technology that facilitates multi-tasking.

So ONLY staring at a conference talk just doesn’t make sense.

INSTEAD let me watch a conference talk AND ALSO have a text conversation about it, perhaps even with the speaker who may have pre-recorded their talk in order to participate in the simultaneous text channel.

Can virtual conferences be designed for multi-tasking?

SEE ALSO: Nudgestock which was 14 hours long and ran last Friday. I caught this on Twitter and what I found fascinating was the number of people watching the stream on their TV. People hacking their own two screen experience: TV for the talks, 6 feet away, a continuous stream; laptops and tablets (1 foot away) for tweeting, notes, and falling down wikiholes…

Can virtual conferences be designed for the two screen experience?


!!Con (pronounced: bang bang con) also featured a spreadsheet party. Spreadsheet parties are legit my favourite lockdown trend.

Here’s how a spreadsheet party works, from Marie Foulston (this is the earliest reference I can find):

What is worse than being alone on a Saturday night? Being alone in a spreadsheet, that is what. Being alone in a spreadsheet that you’ve half-decorated for a party, and sent invites out for, one in which you made a special “coat room” tab and drew a dance floor.

“If I organized a party in a shared Google doc who would come?” I asked the Twitter DM group.

I’m in love with this sentiment:

Social video calls exhaust me. Face to face, voice to voice, with nothing in between. Communication so literally and abstractly boiled down to staring at and talking at each other’s faces.

Basically, tons of people show up in this shared online spreadsheet at the appointed time, and…

…some snippets from the telling:

  • A flurry of coloured cursors dart from cell to cell announcing names
  • Coats are cut and pasted into the coatroom tab
  • A new sheet is made, it briefly has no purpose. Someone paints every cell blue, and it becomes ‘the blue room.’
  • Some people make bonfires in the garden and start toasting s’mores. Others race each other to the bottom of ‘Sheet 14.’
  • I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea whether they are a close friend or a total stranger.
  • I’m tired and wonder what on earth the correct etiquette is for closing down a spreadsheet party.
  • In the blank cells beneath I serendipitously stumble upon two friends who had each sought space away from the hubbub. They are quietly chatting.

Foulston is a curator, and this deft curation of social experience with only the lightest of touches has left me awed. Thank you, just reading about it I can see you have invented something magical.


Back in the 2005, Jyri Engeström translated the concept of social objects from sociology to the world of social media: Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.

What he recognised what that social networks and socialising happen around objects and activities: sharing photos and commenting on them; playing video games together; googling for funny pictures on a theme and pasting them into a tab on a shared spreadsheet…

When I’m thinking about unbundling conferences, it was never that case that - in old-school, physical conferences - there were

  1. the talks,
  2. and also, separately, the hallway track.

In actuality, the talks feed the hallway conversations.

I remember talking to the folks at O’Reilly about the ETech conferences, my favourite and most formative conference series, and they told me they would deliberately put simular talks opposite one-another making it difficult to choose… and giving people something to talk about in the hallway afterward.

I started so many conversations with strangers with, so, what did you just go to?

What I’m coming to feel is that you need these two activities to happen simultaneously: the talk and the hallway; the doodling and the socialising.

You need the equiv of the talk you’ve just stepped out of to be an excuse to start a conversation; the trade show stands to wander round so you don’t feel awkward being on your own; the figure and the ground.

Taking it back to where we came in: the talks and the hallway track not only belong bundled together, but they should be as close and muddled together as possible.


Having conference calls in Red Dead Dedemption 2: Zoom sucks, we started having editorial meetings in Red Dead Redemption instead. It’s nice to sit at the campfire and discuss projects, with the wolves howling out in the night.


And, regarding an NPC (computer-generated character) who keeps interrupting the meeting: But to be honest, he’s a really good stand-in for the distractions we would have when meeting in a cafe usually, and he can be useful in breaking things up when we’ve lost focus.

Some fascinating behaviours being illuminated in these weird times.

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