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The Problem with Online Events

(A follow-up to “Online hackathons usually suck”.)

Part of why online hackathons usually suck is the same reason most online translations of physical events suck: the online version is a less engaging distillation of only the core essence of an event, not a reimagining of the whole experience.

A class is distilled into only the words of the teacher, without the seeing/talking to friends, being in a different place, engaging physically. A conference is reduced to the words of the speakers, which are usually of mixed quality, with none of the being in another city, meeting people for dinner, staying somewhere novel. A hackathon is distilled into only the opening ceremony & the prizes, with none of the staying up with strangers, having conversations with people you’ll never see again, food at all hours, learning something new from the team next to you. The hackathon becomes the same thing you’re doing at home (sitting at your desk hacking), but with prizes, & the rest of it is usually boring Zooms, which we’re all tired of anyway at this point.

This is part of why so many online events feel so dead: they’re worse incarnations of only the core essence, without considering everything else that’s part of the experience. To solve this, we need to consider more than simply uploading the core experience.

I met my closest friends at NYU all during the first few days, what they dubbed “Welcome Week,” during which several hundred events happen across campus in an effort to get new students to meet one another & explore. This year? Welcome Week is just canceled.

They’re reducing the entire college experience to simply the classes you take, and the classes you take to simply the words the teacher says. In the grand scheme of what college is, that’s only a small chunk, and usually a minority of the formative life experiences. (Relatedly, I’m taking a leave of absence.)

What NYU should have spent the summer doing is experimenting, iterating, & exploring what online school could be: How can we reimagine club meetings on Zoom? How do we remake the feeling of walking around buildings & between events? What would a new social network look like made for these students in this moment? What makes a really great online class, and how do we help professors teach those? Instead, they seem to be busy trying to get a portion of students back onto campus, for whatever limited version of the college experience is possible amid the chaos. It’s not unexpected, but it is disappointing. Schools with the creativity, talent, money, and resources like NYU should be paving the way, but instead they’re stuck in the default tracks of prior wisdom.

I think we still haven’t really figured out what amazing, online-native events look like. Certain instances stick out: HQ Trivia, in its heyday, attracted massive crowds to a real-time, mobile-native experience. I’m very disconnected from it, but Fortnite seems to manage it. Livestreams of big cultural moments, like the recent SpaceX astronaut launch, are watched by many, but that’s more of a TV experience than internet.

Interestingly, after all the efforts of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, Twitter/Periscope, Microsoft/Mixer, and other companies have poured into livestreaming, livestreams are still a small fraction of the time I & most people spend watching video. There’s reasons for this; there’s a much lower quality ceiling, it’s difficult to produce, it’s incredibly difficult to make engaging outside of specific genres (gaming, broadcasts of calls like AMAs). But it doesn’t make any sense that synchronous, life-defining events rarely happen on the most remarkable distributed, accessible, real-time, interactive platform humans have ever had, the internet.

To really answer the question of online events, we need to figure out how to not just upload the core essence of an event, but reinvent all parts of it to be native to the internet. Schools like NYU should be doing it, companies should be doing it, communities like Hack Club are trying. I can’t wait to attend an online event that feels really real, and feels better online than it would have in-person. There’s so much potential & not nearly enough iteration & experimentation right now.