Thursday, September 16, 2021

Being there - that feeling we can't achieve online

Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash

No matter how many amazing new platforms and tools for online events we create, none of them really match the feeling of physically being there. The online event can actually be more flexible, more interactive, more inclusive and offer higher quality video and audio than sitting at the back of a hot and stuffy lecture theatre but it can't match that feeling of presence. It's the same with TV coverage of concerts and sporting events. You can sit at home and watch it all in super high-definition quality with surround sound, close-ups, slow motion replays, commentary and analysis but the sad truth is that you weren't really there. There are no credibility points for saying that you saw it on TV. I've been to many memorable events where I couldn't see or hear the action very well, was packed in a sweaty and noisy crowd, had great difficulty getting there and getting away afterwards (endless queues, pushing, noise, waiting) but I can always boast that I was there and that's what impresses people later on. That feeling of being part of something, an exclusive community, cannot be underestimated. That's why people will still pay extortionate amounts of money to attend events that are broadcast live. Feelings are worth more than quality. Even if there are billions of photos and films from all angles of, say, the Taj Mahal, I would still take at least a hundred more just to show that I have also been there.

If we think of academic conferences and events there are digital solutions for almost all the usual activities. You can mingle and network using platforms like SpatialChat, Wonder or Gather, use Zoom for plenary sessions and group discussions, create exciting virtual world conference or exhibition centres with Virbela or Virtway, go on virtual city tours, sightseeing with Google Streetview, have immersive virtual reality meetings in Spatial and so on. The list of platforms is impressive and is growing weekly so logically there should be no reason to return to on-site events. In addition, the environmental arguments against returning to large on-site conferences are overwhelming. 

But no matter how much we can achieve online we will still want to meet at a physical location. The need to be there is all about intangible factors: emotion, atmosphere, sense of belonging, sense of space. We can achieve a lot online but maybe we have to accept that some elements will always be missing.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Down the rabbit hole - in search of the unexpected

Photo by Victor Larracuente on Unsplash

Remember the days when everyone talked about surfing the net? You used to just search for something and then follow links that could take you almost anywhere - you just clicked where your fancy might take you. It was all so new and I loved just exploring what was out there. I used to enjoy playing with a tool called Stumbleupon that sadly disappeared in 2018. It was a non-search engine and the principle was simple: click and off you go to a completely random web page. Most results were useless, some downright bizarre and now and again you would stumble upon something really interesting. That was the fascination - the promise of serendipity, meeting the unexpected. A similar desire makes us scroll endlessly on today's social media - the best post ever is just a bit further down the feed. The difference is that in social media that feed is determined by algorithms and artificial intelligence rather than luck.

But in the past week I have discovered a couple of interesting sites that retain a sense of serendipity. Firstly there is a site called The Forest. It's just an almost empty screen with a link to press, Go for a walk, and off you go. Each time you click on the link you find a new page. Keep pressing until you discover something interesting. I hope that the search is indeed random but there is very little background information on the site except the simple mission statement.

What used to be a wild trip through stormy waters has now become a journey on a cruise ship where everything is planned and there's no longer place for craziness.
This site is our attempt try bring some of that unpredictability back.
The next rabbit hole can be just one click away so click that button, go for a walk and enjoy getting lost on the web.

My first trips down this rabbit hole led me to something interesting after only a few attempts and it was a site that also fits in with this retro theme. I discovered the Plain Text Project, a site promoting the benefits of plain text on the web. No fancy graphics, no pop-ups, no photos, no design, just plain text.

The Plain Text Project is here to help you figure out if working in plain text and living a plain text life is right for you. In this space, I share ideas, tips, and techniques. I explain how to meld plain text into your life. I try to share my love of working in plain text with you.

Another rabbit hole site that caught my eye this week was the product of the pandemic lockdown. WindowSwap was designed by a couple in Singapore during the lockdown to relieve the boredom of looking out of the same window day after day. People all over the world now send in videos taken from their windows showing a sample of everyday life. When you feel like a new view on your screen just click and you go to a random view. Keep clicking till you find one that interests you. Some are from exotic locations but most are very ordinary: someone's garden, the street outside, a patio, a lawn, trees. Some have lots of people or cars passing by, whilst in others absolutely nothing happens. I love it.

WindowSwap is a place on the internet where people from around the world share the view from their windows to help someone else relax, focus, meditate and travel without moving.
It’s here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else's window, somewhere in the world.

The joy of unexpected distractions.