Learning patterns/Facilitating social interaction at conferences
What problem does this solve?
Conferences often bring together people who have not met each other before and so it may be difficult for them to start interacting with other participants and contribute to the programmatic goals of the conference. Conferences are not only a place for presentations and talks, but also a perfect place to meet new people, exchange ideas and be inspired.
Creating moments of sharing for participants during breaks and in their spare time, apart from conference sessions, is desired because it fosters the feelings of understanding and trust between the participants. As a result participants are often more open, contribute more in the sessions and are motivated to continue engaging with people even after the conference. In the long run, people establish friendships which are the foundation of a good working movement.
What is the solution?
Wikimedia Deutschland organized the Wikimedia Conference 2016 with nearly 200 participants from movement affiliates all over the world. Communication between these participants during the conference was very important. The conference team designed opportunities for participants to talk to each other by providing them with supportive environments, communication tools, interactive activities, conversation starters and topics for discussion.
Even though we here at Wikimedia Deutschland found the following things to be very useful, these ideas are merely suggestions for creating supportive environments and social interactions. Depending on your conference, gathering or meeting, other activities might be better suited.
Put all participants in the same hotel
People are able to interact with other conference participants in the hotel lobby or bar. Additionally, people happened to be walking to the conference venue or back together which also helps participants to connect to each other. It provides time and space to talk about other topics of interest besides the conference itself. Additionally, you avoid any feeling of inequality.
Make sure you have enough coffee breaks
Coffee breaks are essential for participants to cool down their brain, breathe fresh air and digest new information between intense sessions. Drinking coffee side-by-side with someone tends to bring about casual conversations. Such conversations reflecting about previous sessions often add to participants’ experience and understanding of the sessions.
Wikimedia Deutschland organized dinner snacks for the conference participants in their office event space in the evenings, as part of/in addition to the regular conference program. Light dinner and drinks brings all the participants together to enjoy each other's company and talk about the state of the movement, their own experiences back home and possible a collaborations.
Organize a party on the last evening of the conference
On Saturday evening we organized a party in a nearby club with a DJ playing disco music. For participants, this can be a fun opportunity to dance and party together, deepening their connections with new and old friends and colleagues.
Organize a wikidojo
For those who do not like to party with loud music, participants or organizers can organize a Wikidojo session. Especially in Wiki-environments this brings participants together to work on what they most care for: creating free knowledge. Additionally, this is a great opportunity for participants who do not have much experience with editing to learn more.
Have people give city tours
A local Wikimedian volunteered to take interested people on tours in the city of Berlin where the conference took place. Enjoying and discussing sights and culture are known ways of making friends in the Wikimedia movement. Getting a better understanding of the places where people are staying also improves participants’ perception of their surroundings as being a safe space.
Provide spaces and opportunities for spontaneous meetings and activities
We made one meeting room at the conference venue available for smaller private or open meetings. The room could be booked at the registration table and it was very much in use for most of the conference’s duration. Different regional or thematic groups can meet spontaneously, and people can organize work meetings to put freshly exchanged ideas into action.
Create a group on your favorite mobile messenger [we liked Telegram!]
Over the years, many communication channels in the Wikimedia movement have been established. However it is difficult for participants of a conference to exchange messages quickly on all these channels while only using their phone. The established mailing list seems to be unpractical, Facebook and Twitter are not used by everyone, IRC is not mobile-friendly. So for the Wikimedia Conference we created a so-called Telegram “super group”. The advantages being that Telegram is a commonly used mobile messenger which is available for all platforms (desktop and mobile). Furthermore, a special invitation link can be created for “super groups”, so people are specifically invited, but not forced to join, and, additionally, don’t have to provide any personal data (like phone numbers) to the organizers.
The Telegram group was widely used, even after the conference itself. It also provides a good way for the organizers to reach a huge group of people for organizational messages.
Have a letter box wall
With around 200 participants, it’s hard for many participants to get an overview who’s who and who’s there at the conference. Therefore, we created a “letter box wall” where every participant got a small pocket with his/her name tag. We provided small papers and pens, so participants could use this easy way to send (offline) appreciative messages to other participants.
Give out event-specific business cards
Business cards are useful and common at conferences. However, as Wikimedia conferences, gatherings and meet-ups involve many volunteers and user groups, many may not have business cards. To avoid any feelings of inequality, we have created event-specific business cards, which have space for a name, contact details and the topics people talked about. Also, event-specific business cards strengthen the identity of the conference and participants remember even better who and where they met.
Have at least one icebreaker (warm-up) in your program!
For every Wikimedia Conference we have created a special warm-up / icebreaker session in the beginning of the conference. A well done icebreaker session sets the right tone for the conference and gives participants a better feeling. Over the years, we have done most different icebreaking sessions, like drawing each other while only looking at each other’s eyes (2016) and a kind of speed-dating (2015). There are many different ways to design such a warm-up session. While designing them, keep in mind that certain ways of icebreaking / interaction might be culturally sensitive, like touching each other’s head or hair, or talking about issues that some people consider to be too personal.
For the Wikimedia Conference we prepared a social game for participants at the Saturday night party. When entering the party venue, each person got a card with the game rules on one side and a question or an answer on the other side. The objective for the participants was to find the other person who had the corresponding answer to their question or the corresponding question to their answer written on their card. People have to look and ask around to find their “partners”, and then collectively claim a little reward from the organizers. The reception of the game was very positive: People were excited to find their “partners” and pose for a photo together, even helping others find their “partners”.
Sometimes, it’s hard to start a new conversation, especially when participants don’t know each other. There are many different ways to foster conversations and fruitful discussions:
For lunch, we put simple “conversation starter lines” on all tables with Wikimedia-related questions such as “how did you celebrate Wikipedia’s 15th birthday?” or “what was the best Wikimedia project last year?”. These questions are simple, but answers might spark interesting conversations thanks to the participants’ diversity.
Have participants bring candy
For the Wikimedia Conference, all participants were asked to bring some candies from their home countries – and it worked! Candies and sweets are good conversations starter, especially if candies have unusual tastes or shapes.
Create organizational profiles to be filled out prior to the conference
Before 2013, every Wikimedia Conference started with a “state of the chapters” presentations, where every chapter presented itself in a few minutes. With the growth of the movement and the conference itself, these presentations were not manageable anymore in recent years. Instead, we created the so-called “organizational profiles”: simple templates that affiliates filled in before the conference. Questions were like “What are your three milestones of the last year?”, “What are your challenges?” and “What do you want to talk about?”. These organizational profiles gave a great overview which organizations were present at the conference, and gave an idea of the milestones, challenges and favourite topics of the organizations. Participants could easily see which organizations worked on the same topics.
Provide room for hosting regional/thematic/language-specific meetups
On Friday evening after the day’s sessions, the rooms and spaces at the conference venue are generally free to host meetups of various groups. These meetups can be listed in advance on the Meta page of the conference and be based on regional, thematic or language-specific interests, for example Central and Eastern European affiliates meetup or French-speaking participants meetup. Often, people of affiliates meet only once or twice a year – at the Wikimedia Conference and/or Wikimania. Therefore, regional meet-ups are helpful to foster regional links and cooperations.
Organize thematic tables in the evening
How do you gather people to discuss thematic issues in a more relaxed atmosphere? An idea we have realized for the Wikimedia Conference 2016 were the so-called “thematic tables”. During the dinner snack several tables were thematically branded (like “grants”, “education”, “public policy”) and had a host who guided the conversations. Especially, if participants have always had the wish to discuss an issue but did not know who to approach, “thematic tables” are a good start to bring people together. Alternatives, such as having “thematic bars” (if you have a bar evening at your conference), are also possible.
- I have tested some of the suggestions earlier and strongly suggest to use them at events. Don't hesitate! People love or avoid it. But don't miss the chance. Search for "Ice breaking at conferences" and "Ice breaking at meetups" in order to find more suggestions. Sebastian Wallroth (talk) 09:55, 12 September 2016 (UTC)
- All of that put together was an awesome expérience :) Schiste (talk) 10:17, 12 September 2016 (UTC)