Authors’ Corner: A place for online authors’ Q/A
The Authors’ Corner was the brainchild of a SIGCSE TS 2022’s chairs meeting. By the time we articulated the idea, I didn’t know who contributed what to create it. The event aimed to enable authors to answer questions about their work online. The Authors’ Corner was primarily for online attendees and authors.
However, once we decided to do it, I said it had to be something where no one was left alone in a video call, “sitting in a black void,” waiting for someone to appear. The in-person equivalent event was presenters at posters or tables; if someone was interested in the project, they could talk to the presenter. However, the online versions of this I’ve participated in as a presenter and attendee put presenters in a video call alone, where they sat in a “black hole,” hoping someone would come and talk to them. Such events often make presenters feel insignificant and “unpopular” if no one comes, or maybe that’s just me. I refused to put our presenters through that. That setup focuses on the structure of things like poster sessions, but not the social/networking goal and what people actually get out of those sessions, such as serendipitous interactions, some of which spawn valuable discussions.
This post will describe what we did for the Authors’ Corner and a reflection on the first attempt.
How We Did It
Regarding logistics, the online attendees were the priority for the Authors’ Corner, but we advertised to everyone. We had five sessions over the 2.5 days of the symposium. 2 sessions for each full day and one session on the half-day. The sessions were at lunchtime (around noon) and 9 PM to maximize the time zones we covered because we are an international conference. I even had a spreadsheet to help calculate what time zone’s “waking hours” a given time covered. Authors signed up for a specific time. We required papers not presented in person to have an author sign up for a time, and all other authors were welcome. Some papers were presented both in-person and in the Authors’ Corner by having different authors do each option.
The Authors’ Corner happened on Zoom using break-out rooms. Before the sessions, authors signed up for specific timeslots. Then I sat down and “put my best wedding planner hat on” and clustered the papers into groups of 2–4. I clustered based on whether I thought the papers were similar or would foster an interesting discussion. I, of course, did not always succeed. These papers were then in the same break-out room. The goal was to increase the odds the group would have a valuable serendipitous discussion. And at minimum, the authors would at least have someone to talk to during their session, just like at a poster session where your neighbors are nearby to talk to as you wait for people to approach your poster.
During each session, I kicked things off in the main room. I greeted the authors, explained what would happen, and then sent them to their breakout rooms. I then spent the first 15 minutes or so greeting attendees as they came and explained what was happening. After, I usually peeked into each group to see how things were going and then left. A student volunteer stayed in the main room the entire time to greet any late arrivals and be the primary connection back to me if something needed my attention, which didn’t happen. Tech support from our production team was also present just in case.
For full details, the SIGCSE TS 2022 website still has the text for the authors and attendees. Rereading some of that text now, it looks like we never went back and updated it from what actually happened, such as using a spreadsheet to map authors to breakout rooms rather than changing the breakout room names. But otherwise, it’s reasonably consistent.
Not many attendees came. Reflecting on what I’ve seen of poster sessions, I’m honestly not surprised. However, I still think this was an experiment worth trying, and the evaluations tell me that we should keep iterating on this idea rather than throw it out the window. In terms of the numbers, the first session had the most authors and the best author-to-attendee ratio. 31 authors and 41 attendees went to the Zoom session. Some caveats to the attendee number include: that count includes me, the student volunteer, and tech support. Moreover, some authors had co-authors in attendance that appeared to be attendees. However, I see that ratio as evidence of why it was a good thing I clustered the authors into breakout rooms, so no one was alone during their session.
Zoom breakout rooms are not designed for people to “move around” and socialize. Once someone had picked a room, they were unlikely to leave and go to another breakout room. The social norms of “drifting off” or “going to get a drink” are not present, so it feels rude to leave to go somewhere else.
What I Want
I want to create a space where everyone happily discusses the authors’ work.
One idea is an online platform that more closely simulates a “cocktail party” where:
- It’s easy to join a video chat with one or more people.
- It feels okay to wander from group to group without feeling rude for leaving a group.
- It feels okay to join a group without an explicit invitation, or the default is you may join with some obvious indicator when to not join a group.
- There is a non-verbal way to indicate an interest in someone’s work/paper/poster.
- There is a low barrier to entry to understanding how to use the platform and the social rules.
Of the few platforms I am aware of, Gatherly.io or Gather.town might work. Though I like the more modern look of Gatherly, and it doesn’t require creating a character to signal identity. Then we could do the following:
- The map has designated spots for each paper/poster.
- Someone can indicate interest in a particular work by standing near that spot. Alternatively, they can directly message the author(s) or use the platform to find the author and “walk up to them.”
- Authors should try to be near their spot, but they do not need to silo themselves waiting for someone. It should be clear they are welcome to talk to anyone they like while waiting for someone to be interested in their work.
Things that I’m contemplating for any of our online events:
- An online poster session could have designated spots for each poster. And if it was legible, we could even write it on the “floor” so that people could easily see where to go. That way, someone’s presence at a poster’s spot indicates interest in talking about that poster.
- Gather.town has these areas made up of chairs and couches where anyone in that “lounge area” can hear each other, but anyone outside hears it only vaguely (the best way I can think to describe it is that it’s like the video and audio are at opacity 50%). These could be like private conversation areas, but unfortunately, I can’t think of the online equivalent of saying in body language, “may I join you.”
A different idea that still fulfills what I want most is a much more structured experience. Such an experience could be like ICER’s round table discussions after each talk or the Lean Coffee’s I described in my ITiCSE 2021 Reflection. However, the round tables require critical mass and the lean coffee process trained facilitators. Considering the attendance numbers from 2022, I don’t know if either of the ideas would be good right now.
So I hope that was interesting or helpful. I think we will continue doing something like an Authors’ Corner both for the authors’ sake and to create an online social event with a clear reason why people are there. The how is the bigger question I hope to innovate on with my team.
What about you all? Did you attend an Authors’ Corner? What was your experience? And if you didn’t, what are your thoughts or comments? Anything that I left out that you’d like to learn more about?