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Meetings, Conferences, Workshops: Do We Know How to Meet Digitally?

The interview was published in Polish in the 4th SpołTech Bulletin

‘It turns out, it’s possible. We’ve seen multiple instances where people do things that we previously considered impossible to organise’ – together with Anna Kuliberda, the co-organiser of Personal Democracy Forum Central and Eastern Europe, we discuss what this time of pandemic and quarantine has taught us about organising events in a digital world.

Personal Democracy Forum Central Eastern Europe is an international conference that has taken place in Poland since 2013. It is organised by Fundacja ePanstwo, and its goal is promoting the exchange of ideas and experiences amongst activists who work to increase civic engagement and transparency in societal and political infrastructure through the help of new technologies.

PDF CEE is not only a conference; first and foremost, it is a community. It is made up of over 500 activists, technology enthusiasts, media, business and university representatives and digital media specialists from Central and Eastern Europe – both from within the European Union and outside its borders (from places as far as the Balkans and Caucasus). For this community, physical meetings are an imperative.

How do you deal with transplanting this kind of event into an online sphere? It requires not only organising a series of webinars, but also recreating a sense of community and camaraderie. Karolina Szczepaniak, coordinator of SpołTech and editor of its Bulletin speaks with Anna Kuliberda, a programme curator and coach for Personal Democracy Forum CEE speakers.

Karolina Szczepaniak: Personal Democracy Forum CEE was supposed to take place halfway through April. On the 21st of March, Poland declared a state of epidemic. How far along in the planning process were you at the time of this announcement?

Anna Kuliberda: We had been observing what was going on for some time, which is why our decision that Personal Democracy Forum CEE was not taking place was announced halfway through March. At first, we didn’t want to organise an online version because we were convinced it wouldn’t be possible. Personal Democracy Forum CEE is an event centred on community – people who have known each other for eight years and are used to physical meetings – that is part of its value. We assumed that an online version would not have this communal aspect.

KS: And yet you chose to host the event online, under the title ‘Democracy: Can You Hear Me?’

AK: Because it turns out that it is possible. We’ve seen multiple instances where people do things that we previously considered impossible to organise. The pandemic was akin to a crash course in how to organise engaging online events. And we still felt a need for meetings and discussions about the things that, in our opinion, are not discussed enough. One of the important functions of PDF CEE is that underrepresented voices have an opportunity to discuss important matters and help steer the public discourse. We had the feeling that so many things were happening, it might as well be worthwhile to organise an online event.

KS: Were you at all concerned that so many other things were already happening online – an endless festival of webinars – that it may be difficult to draw people’s attention? Another week passes, people are sitting at their computer practically all day, and are exhausted from it.

AK: We were concerned, but we deeply wanted to do it, and with this maxim: whoever comes, comes, but we’ll do it anyway. We discussed and pondered when it would be best to do it. In the end we came to the idea that the pandemic’s been going on for two months and it’s impossible to tell what will come next. There was certainly a glut of bad meetings. We decided to organise an event as best as we could and expend our energies to create a meeting that doesn’t bore and doesn’t discourage from further organising. When we began reaching out to people, we were met with enthusiasm – especially from people within the community, which motivated us and proved we were on the right path.

KS: How long did it take to organise the conference?

AK: A little under five weeks, but much had already been done. We had strong partners and an experienced team that immediately jumped to work. We also had the necessary money, so it was quite a luxurious position to be in.

KS: You had the team, money, a receptive audience. What ended up being the biggest challenge?

AK: First it was choosing the right tool. On the one hand we were looking for something that will guarantee a necessary level of quality, on the other – that the quality will meet the expectations and abilities of our audience.

Every element of the production process had its own focal point and we had to be very open to finding a balance between quality, and creating the necessary environment for our audience – one that would encourage ease and the ability to speak freely.

KS: In 2019, all of PDF CEE’s sessions were translated simultaneously from English into Polish Sign Language and Polish. The same happened at the online sessions. Was it easier to do so online or in person?

AK: It was certainly more difficult online. Technical issues require greater coordination – coordinating additional audio-visual channels was a particular production challenge, and a rather complicated one. Likewise, many tools used to engage audiences are only available in English. Offline, there is an extensive amount of possible interactions, which naturally occur through multiple mediums. To put it simply – it’s easier to channel your energy, and you don’t require as many supplementary tools.

KS: What did this edition of Personal Democracy Forum CEE teach you about collaboration?

AK: It’s definitely necessary to communicate what you want clearly. If you’re coming up with something new, it’s difficult to explain, because no one reads all their emails with the necessary depth. It’s much better to meet for 10 minutes and explain what you want rather than expect that everything will be clear just because ‘it was in the email’. It’s something I learned whilst preparing a session that was causing us the most concern – the idea behind it was that invited guests were expected to fill out a slide with four questions ahead of time, and then to expand on what they considered an important aspect of the session topic for three minutes. For half of the participants, this proved difficult to understand, even though everything was written clearly through email. We chatted with them on the phone and explaining everything took us three minutes. Thanks to that, this session, which related to risk-taking and innovation, was a success and garnered plenty of positive feedback.

I learned that when we try to include innovative ideas, it’s not enough to write a descriptive page of text; you have to introduce the matter in the correct form, and convince people that it is a worthwhile course of action.

KS: How do you create a sense of community through the Internet? That we’re truly together, even when apart?

AK: You have to be convinced that it’s something you want. I was personally very excited. It was meaningful to me that during the event I received plenty of direct signs that people are attending, watching, happy to see us. It’s important not to expect too much – this is part of a larger process, not its peak but just a segment of what we hope to achieve, tailored to fit a time when we can’t do anything else. It’s important to set an intention as to why we’re creating this event, and carry out that intention into the production and coordination process. We could have created sessions with the intent of proving that PDF CEE discusses complicated, intellectually demanding topics. That would have yielded a completely different conference, even if the agenda itself wouldn’t have changed much. Our intention was to create a meeting space that fostered community and conversation.

Another imperative point is the understanding of what our community is like; without it, it would be difficult to create a sense of cohesion amongst our guests. For us, we also cared that each presenter knew what others would be saying during their sessions – this way we made sure no one repeated previous points, so as to create a group that respected each others’ time.

KS: Let’s return to the idea of quality. Is it possible to organise an online event and avoid technical issues and delays?

AK: With three attendees, yes, but when you reach 130 it’s impossible due to the scale. Problems with sound, connections and so on can be avoided when we can call each person and test their equipment. We went through complicated technical rehearsals, hiring on a professional broadcasting firm. When you organise something through Google or Zoom, your odds of preparing for all eventualities are low. On the other hand, we have a sense that people have become used to webinars, online meetings and Zoom calls. And that makes it easier to plan further events.

KS: So perhaps it’s worth it to resign from in-person conferences? After all, there are costs – not only in the financial sense, but environmental as well. When conferences and flights shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, the thought came up: perhaps we no longer need those things?

AK: There are plenty of events that don’t need to take place, offline or online. First you have to look at the event’s purpose. There are many that have no substantive value but serve other purposes, such as building an organisation’s prestige. To be fair, there are considerable events that could be done online, such as debates and conferences whose main purpose is listening to speakers rather than fostering conversations.

Yet it’s important that marginalised or repressed groups have the ability to meet physically. And certainly, they come to conferences to speak and listen, but the physical element helps strengthen connections. The Internet has done a lot to amplify and strengthen individuals, but physical isolation can deepen oppression. And I understand the environmental arguments for decreasing in-person conferences. But I don’t believe that privileged groups should use this excuse to exert their influence and have marginalised groups bear the brunt of this cost.

KS: It seems that what you’re saying is that thanks to the fact that so many conferences have moved to the digital sphere, we witnessed a certain verification process – what makes sense, what doesn’t. What’s worthwhile, independent of format. What else have we gained?

AK: The belief that it can be done. Many people were under the impression that an engaging workshop, whose purpose is teaching and learning, cannot take place online. Yet it turns out that it can, and that people do manage to learn. I co-led a two-day workshop about change, peer advocacy and civic participation for a 12-person youth group. In teams, they had to create a campaign based on an assigned subject. They had to think through potential slogans and approaches. I was convinced that they would be tired and discouraged from participating in an online space. And yet each group came up with brilliant ideas and created detailed plans that they presented digitally and discussed with each other in an engaged manner. I was completely surprised that they managed to collaborate, create substantive work and that I and my co-trainer managed to translate this workshop from its original physical form. Of course, a certain amount of adaptation was necessary to fit the forms and requirements of online work – we also had to work harder to open people up. But it turned out to be something worthwhile, and something that had begun as an offline event proved itself in the digital world.

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