For the last year and a half, I have been co-hosting Homebrew Website Club London / Europe, a meetup where people interested in personal websites come together to chat, ask questions, and share on what they are working. I co-host the meetup with Mark.
I was thinking earlier today about some of the lessons I have learned running online meetups. I wanted to share what I have learned for anyone else who is interested in or who does run online meetups.
Being welcoming and starting events
The first tip I have is to make sure all new members feel welcome. For me, this means ensuring that I acknowledge as many people as possible as they come into the meetup. I try to ensure new members have an opportunity to speak as early as possible. I sometimes provide a prompt for an introduction, or begin with a topical question (i.e. "Do you have a website? Have you been to an IndieWeb event before?"). Such questions help break the ice.
I make sure that I introduce everyone to our note taking system, Etherpad, our Code of Conduct, and how to find these documents when there are new participants in the group. I will talk more about Etherpad soon.
If the group is small, I encourage everyone to do a quick introduction when a new member joins the meetup so that everyone can know each other a little better. This doesn't work as well in larger groups. When I am running a meetup with more participants, I begin with a topical question and steer conversations to include multiple people. This helps build a group feeling that I hope will encourage more people to join in discussions.
I have found that the first five minutes of meetups are often general conversations, whether about the weather or a random topic that is on the mind of a participant that we all want to talk about a bit more. I welcome random tangents but try to steer to the main topic of the meetup if we have new participants. I am wary that too many tangents may be difficult to navigate when you are new to a meetup.
I start meetups with a general prompt like "What has everyone been doing with their website over the last week or two?" This gives everyone something to talk about. There is sometimes an awkward period of silence, but inevitably someone says something. I like to give a few moments without prompting the discussion with a follow up because I know it can be the first person to share an idea or ask a question.
When new participants ask questions, I make sure they have enough floor time to ask their question and follow ups. The Homebrew Website Club meetups tend to attract a lot of curious people which means there are usually plenty of people who can answer questions that people have. We welcome, encourage, and celebrate questions about websites. Often, a question leads us down an interesting path that invovles multiple people in the group.
Moderating (technical) discussions
With that said, I am continually cognizant of questions that may only apply to two or three people in a group. I am now more comfortable with intervening if a discussion is going on for a while that may not interest many people in the group. This is particularly the case with more technical discussions, which often only interest a small subset of people. I sometimes intervene with a question to another member of the group, or a related topic that brings us back to a common ground in which more people can participate.
Knowing your group
Knowing your group is key to running an effective recurring online meetup. Over time, you will start to notice there are a few different personas of members:
- Regulars that come almost every time you run an event;
- People who come to most events;
- People who come every so often, but not on a predicable cadence;
- People who show up once.
If there is jargon used and I think someone might not understand it, I like to provide a short explanation. This is important both for new participants who may not be familiar with the jargon and existing participants who may not have heard the term. We can't assume everyone knows everything about all topics discussed in the group.
Last week, I experimented with asking someone else to introduce a topic. It took a bit of prompting, but I think this went well. As host, I want to be active in facilitating discussions but I don't want to take over discussions.
The cadence on which participants show up can change. Some people may show up for a long time and then life happens. Life happens is a phrase we use in the IndieWeb to refer to the fact that we all have lives outside of the community and often people need to take a break. Reasons can include because one is moving house, is going through personal difficulties, needs a break from technology, amomg many others. Many life happens situations are codified on the IndieWeb wiki.
Part of "knowing your group" also pertains to understanding how people like to participate. Some people like to sit in and listen to events rather than actively participate. I make a point of ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak, but acknowledge that some people prefer to listen.
There is a fine line to balance here. People change; someone may be shy the first time they attend an event and more open the next time. Above all, hosting involves making sure people who want to share something can and feel welcome doing so without putting any pressure on anyone to share their perspectives.
Indeed, some people write or code during our events, leaving the meetup in the background while they work. This is abundantly welcomed. The event may be the only time someone sits down to work on their website and having people around while you are working can be beneficial.
Taking notes with Etherpad
Homebrew Website Clubs have a long history of using Etherpad, collaborative note taking software, to take notes. As aforementioned, I make sure everyone knows how to find the Etherpad in which we take notes. The Etherpad is populated with a list where participants can optionally list that they attended and a notes section where we take notes.
The Etherpad is a great way to share links and notes during meetups. I regularly ask "can you put a link in the Etherpad?" so that both I and everyone else can find the webpage that a participant is taking about.
Throughout meetups, I take notes. My goal is not to codify everything, rather to note some key discussion points. Notes are later archived to the community wiki so other people can read about some of the topics that were discussed. Indeed, reviewing an Etherpad might evoke ideas in participants who didn't attend a particualr meetup or among those who did and were inspired by a topic of discussion.
This tip only applies to online meetups. In meetups, I like to share my screen when someone makes reference to a web page. This applies to everything from Wikipedia pages to personal websites. I extend invitations to share my screen when someone has something to share and can't share their screen, too.
I have taken a cue from Leo Laporte, a long-time radio host and owner of the This Week in Tech podcast network, with my approach. I open the part of a page most pertinent to the ongoing discussion. If the goal is to present a high-level overview of a page, I scroll through the page slowly and stop when relevant.
Organizing meetups brings me a lot of joy. I get excited when a discussion takes its own form that involves multiple members of the group. I enjoy seeing when someone gets excited by an idea someone has shared. I like seeing the discussions that go on after the meetup, often in blog posts. Bringing people together to talk about a common interest is a delight.
With every meetup I host, I am learning something new about how to host. I learn about how people like to participate in meetups. I learn about topics that the group enjoys talking about and that are less interesting to the majority of the group. I refine how I welcome new participants. What works to welcome one participant may be less effective with someone else.
This post was syndicated to IndieWeb News.
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