WebSci’20 – an online event by Ian Coombs and Justyna Lisinska

Back in July, the University hosted the WebSci’20 international conference. This was an opportunity for academics from across the world to descend on Southampton to share their research, discuss topics of common interest, network and otherwise socialise. WebSci’20 brought together researchers from various disciplines including computer and information science, economy, communication and health science. The community engaged in novel topics to understand the Web, its impact on society, and how society affected its development. Of course, in the event, as with so much else in 2020, the pandemic forced the event online. So everyone stayed at home, but the weeklong rich conference programme proceeded as planned.

Rather than have each presenter try to run the video conferencing independently, the organisers saw a need for a tech support team. In much the same that physical conferences have a team to set up rooms, guide speakers around the campus, and generally smooth the event’s running, a virtual conference needs the same. Thus, our tech support team was created whose tasks included contacting and training all the presenters whether they were to be found in Bitterne, Brisbane, Boston or Beijing. The team were the tech hosts for each session. We chased missing participants, monitored audio, advised on backgrounds, monitored online chat, and then after the session edited and uploaded the videos to the conference website.

Our team, skilfully led by Tim O’Riordan and Manuel León Urruti, gathered every morning for a couple of weeks prior to the conference to plan and learn some of Zoom’s dark arts. The ubiquitous software has over 100 settings available and to ensure each event be it, meet the author, keynote, paper session, or workshop had the appropriate functionality, settings were tweaked. Back in July 2020, hosting significant conferences on Zoom’s platform were as much new to us as to Zoom’s company itself in terms of technological solutions. Interestingly, since then the technical team supported other online events hosted by Web Science Institute, and we have seen a lot of improvements. This goes without saying that we were not facing the same challenges again.

The tech support team never met face to face – we still have not. We were not permitted to come onto campus, so we worked from living rooms, bedrooms and garages across Southampton while the likes of Ruby Wax, Tim Berners Lee, Gabriele Kotsis, Vint Cerf and Anni Rowland-Campbell shared their wisdom, wit and humanity.

What did we gain? First, it was terrific to attend the conference, albeit in a working capacity. As such you do not get to choose which sessions you attend, but each one, without exception, was thought-provoking. Second, teamwork and team spirit are something which exists, even in a virtual world. It may take longer to form, but it was genuine. I hope one day we will gather in the same physical space to share that pint in celebration of a job well done.

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