Beyond Zoom: Virtual Gathering Spaces for the Holidays and Beyond

Beyond Zoom: Virtual Gathering Spaces for the Holidays and Beyond

Note: This post was written by Van Truong and Jason H. Moore.

The holiday season is when we would typically gather with colleagues and friends to celebrate a year’s worth of accomplishments and hardships. But this year hits differently. Although we cannot gather in-person, it’s more crucial now than ever to still have these celebrations to feel connected and renewed for what 2021 will bring. But of course, the problem is that the pandemic is roaring again, and we are all digitally exhausted. Technology was meant to solve our physical isolation by connecting us instantaneously.

When the world stopped in its tracks during the Spring and many forms of work converted to an online format, we forgot about life outside of work. Technologies tend to have a precipitous rise and fall, but Zoom is a different case altogether. From work meetings to virtual happy hours and therapy sessions, online video chatting has pretty much all but consumed every aspect of our lives. We are now relying on video chat to make up for months without the real social interactions we crave. Unfortunately, spontaneous conversations between coworkers or friends are not captured well in Zoom. Long ago were the days when we could “bump” into someone and strike up a conversation in a non-structured space and time.

Although 2021 will likely see an end to the pandemic, how and where we work will be changed forever with more and more people permanently working from home. A key question raised during work-at-home planning meetings is how we will foster spontaneity and satisfy our inherent craving for the sensory stimulation provided by in-person meetings. The closest we might come to that experience is through a software-based metaverse able to provide virtual spaces for interaction, human-like avatars with sensory information exchange, and ease of communication. Unfortunately, software is not yet available for a complete metaverse experience. However, there are some promising new communication platforms that might provide an intermediate step between Zoom and a full-blown metaverse.

Gather Town, Here, High Fidelity, Minecraft, and Topia are all virtual communication platforms that take us a step or two in that direction. Many of these are free to use and some have commercial options. Gather Town, also known as Gather, is a pixelated virtual space where users can walk around select rooms and engage in video conversation based on their proximity to one another. As many academic departments and institutions consider how to approach programming for this holiday season and the new year, we implore them to take a good look at hosting events on the Gather platform or one of the others. Many anecdotes shared by peers and colleagues across several fields paint a telling story for Gather Town’s potential for re-creating the scientific community online.

Beyond Zoom: Virtual Gathering Spaces for the Holidays and Beyond

For professional development, numerous scientists have applauded Gather Town as one of the go-to online venues for poster sessions, including CogSci2020! Conference participants regaled the ease of wandering around the conference hall and “running into” other friends setting up their posters. Dr. Shayna Sparling for #CSRF2020 shared, “I just uploaded my poster for #CSRF2020 and this http://gather.town thing we’re using for the poster hall is amazing/hilarious!! I started wandering around the hall and ran into a few friends who were also setting up their posters and it was so fun video chatting!” For one participant of #AAPTSM20, he enjoyed the people, ideas, and wisdom from the conference while still getting to listen to the waves on the beach in Gather Town in-between talks. The Julia Language community fostered co-presence for their daylong hackathon event where people could work alongside each other and feel a sense of aligned productivity. Other folks noted the remarkable ability to have “some serious discussion” after research presentations in Gather without the lurking feeling that a handful of participants might monopolize the conversation as in Zoom calls.

Imagine a video call with 200 active participants and more than one person talking at once. It would be an utter nightmare. To support teaching and education, several college departments have re-invented office hours so students can swing by to get clarification from instructors or work together with peers. One noteworthy example is from the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer and Information Science department where they recreated Levine Hall, home to the Computer and Information Sciences department and the Weiss Tech House – all entirely on Gather. They created six virtual spaces for each of the building’s six floors, which can accommodate 200 students at any single time. Since small groups can branch off, and the platform can support multiple ongoing conversations simultaneously, it is no surprise why these virtual socialization platforms have become so popular for conference networking, poster sessions, and academic office hours.

Not all professionals miss the real experience of going to in-person conferences. Many agree that it takes a lot of emotional energy and can often be unpleasant for many people. It appears Gather Town can mimic more social interactions from real life than simply the serendipitous, feel-good ones. One person noted that it “has enabled all the awkward social hierarchies of a conference to be faithfully reproduced online, while looking like early Nintendo games.” Unfortunately, as in all community spaces: safe and inclusive spaces are created in practice by people intentionally embracing inclusive principles. A few Gather Towns have been closed down due to bad actors. This does not have to be an inevitability for our online communal spaces, though. Instead of waiting for the return to physical spaces, QueerinAI and other groups for minoritized individuals are creating safe spaces online to cultivate a sense of community amidst this period of physical isolation. There may be an upside to Gather Town for introverts too. Instead of feeling the pressure to shine your video camera, people have the option to express themselves and communicate more freely through an avatar in Gather, similar to Second Life, an online virtual world where users can create, connect, and chat with others from around the world. Ultimately, an online community must be built with intention and care, especially if we want to re-create a virtual place where all feel welcome.

And let’s not forget about the non-productive, non-work-related aspects that many professionals miss the most about being together in-person. For instance, the 1st year cohort in the University of Washington’s Molecular Cell Biology Program met for a Gather pub night to usher in the start of their Ph.D., albeit virtually. Outside of science, the first-ever worldwide Virtual Club Night was held in Gather Town featuring games, live DJ music, and more. Our own research lab gathers for coffee hours on the platform to chat about whatever is on our minds. We have begun to hear whispers that some departments are considering hosting their annual holiday party or upcoming graduate recruitment in Gather Town.

If you haven’t considered it yet, give Gather Town or one of the many virtual platforms a hearty try. Coupled with a low learning curve and a great free model, we believe one of these would be a great online venue for your next large group event. This difficult and monumental year cannot pass fast enough, but before it is gone, let us Gather for one last hurrah to send it packing. We should celebrate this milestone with our peers. Do not forget to take a moment to recognize how much each of us has gone through to arrive in 2021.

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