A Review By Darshana Narayanan, PDF18 Online Community Manager
At PDF this year we experimented with two new tools: Discourse, the online forum software we used for setting up PDF Online, and Slido, the live Q&A tool we used for sourcing questions after keynote talks. In the weeks since PDF we have been approached with requests for our thoughts on the tools—why we chose these two in particular, what our expectations were, lessons learned, that sort of thing—so here goes.
Our aim this year has been to create a space for all of us to combine forces as a community, and tackle the daunting problems that face us. There is, of course, only so much that two days of conferencing can accomplish, and the work ahead of us requires sustained effort. Last fall, PDF co-curator Micah Sifry saw a Facebook post by Howard Rheingold, offering pro bono advising in building online communities, especially around events like conferences. Howard, if you do not know him already, coined the very term ‘virtual communities’. They chatted and Howard graciously agreed to help with our experiment of extending and augmenting the PDF in-person gathering with an online component that would start before the actual event and continue afterwards.
We briefly flirted with using communication tools like Slack and event app Whova but settled on Discourse, a tool used by many organizations for running internal and external online forums. For example—Discourse is being used by Center for Humane Technology, the ethical tech movement spearheaded by Tristan Harris and also by image sharing community Imgur. In both cases, as a space for their communities to engage in discussions and share content of mutual interest. The tool seemed like a natural choice for our experiment.
Discourse is open source and dockerized; getting our own instance up and running was a relatively painless affair (if you decide to give the tool a try, we strongly suggest you follow the recommended route and avoid choosing your own adventure). Once up, the degree of freedom provided by the platform—in everything from UI, to privacy, to settings for email updates—is extensive. We found this to be both the best and most challenging part about the software. In the end we chose to have a heavily nested design for our forum—the front page showing only the main categories, with many levels of sub-categories and topics in the layers beneath.
To give you more insight into our process, we did a few rounds of user testing and refining, ran training sessions for PDF facilitators and, provided navigation instructions on the platform itself.
Our hope was that the platform would be used for introductions among attendees and speakers, to share information pertinent to workshops, and to engage in discussions with fellow attendees and speakers. In actuality, it did seem to serve as a great place for introductions and some groups really took the time to populate their workshop pages; however, two-way engagement seemed difficult.
Looking through the usage statistics for the month and a half we have had the online forum open, many attendees signed on (292, ~66% of total PDF attendees) and many read at least one post (228, ~78% of people who signed on), the majority of them reading upwards of 10. However, far fewer users performed any kind of public action, such as posting or liking a post (102, ~35% of those who signed on). Granted, it is easier to read a post than formulate one; however, we feel it is very possible that our elaborate design invited more browsing than it did participation. If you think otherwise, please let us know!
It is also possible that an online forum like this one works best when there are concrete tasks to be accomplished. Discourse is often used by tech companies as their help forum tool (e.g. the help boards of Twitter and Discourse itself, (aptly named) meta.discourse). Maybe if we used our forum for getting community help on ongoing projects, it might work better.
With these thoughts in mind, soon after PDF we archived all the forum content and opened up space for participatory design. If the forum could be of any use to you, don’t hesitate to jump in and steer. That said, there is no lack of platforms to connect on these days so it could also be that you are accomplishing all the tasks we set out to do with Discourse, using Facebook, Twitter or Slack.
The nice thing that has come out of using Discourse, instead of Slack, is that we now have a repository of content, in the wide array of topics we covered at PDF, curated by experts in the field. We are thinking of ways to put this to good use, we invite you to do the same. Additionally, we have been debating after the conference on how to post the notes our volunteers took at the workshops; mostly revolving around the questions: Did we get adequate consent for people’s names and ideas to be recorded in this capacity? How to make sure that this is the case? How best do we put the notes up online? We have not yet resolved this matter. A little more planning, communication, and consent ahead of the conference would have been valuable, but our tiny team was in crunch mode.
And Now for Something Completely Different. Slido. The tool is a favorite with Taiwan’s civic tech community, g0v. We had seen it in use by them and thought that it would be useful for PDF. What we have to say about Slido is: all the feedback we have received on it’s use at PDF has been incredibly positive. To us it now feels like the only civilized way to run a live Q&A session. The tool is here to stay! Check out some of the fun statistics that came out of our use of Slido.