The Streaming Industry Turns the Camera on Itself

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I've spent more than 20 years producing webcasts, promoting streaming technology, and speaking, moderating, and running industry events, but 2020 was the first year I focused on attending conferences—virtually, of course. And while I come to the end of the year with some criticisms, I've mostly been satisfied with my experiences.

I chair Streaming Media's Content Delivery Summit, and back in March we were facing the prospect of taking the event online. I researched online virtual conference and webcasting platforms, but in the end decided the best fit was the simplest—a Zoom meeting. Not only did it work, but in some ways it worked better than an in-person event. It was much easier for speakers to participate, and we could reach a far more disparate audience, who came in droves and contributed a fantastic energy.  

After that, I started signing up for literally every online event I could, and there were plenty, especially once IBC time rolled around in September. A few were produced by conference companies, but most were put on by vendors. Content-wise, I couldn't be more satisfied—you are all such an interesting, intelligent, and engaging bunch! Technology-wise, it's been a mixed bag. In addition to the minor glitches you'll find at any conference—speakers not having their mics on, or not turning them off when they should—some of the virtual event platforms struggle with the foundational tech, and I encountered far too many instances of buffering and video quality issues. 

To be honest, that's because many of these platforms (I won't name names, but contact me directly if you want me to dish!) focus on replicating real-world events with virtual exhibit stands or breakout rooms, which ultimately distract and detract from the main event. As a reasonably seasoned webcaster, I know how much effort gets put into the production of a live stream of engaging speakers and content. It seems counterintuitive to put all that effort into getting an audience to tune in, only to tell them to tune out and connect to content elsewhere.

While we are all finding our feet in this new era, streaming event platforms are still essentially trying to replicate "meatspace events," and we need to think differently. Virtual events need not be constrained to three days' availability of a hotel theatre, nor are they limited to having to have seminars, tracks, networking, and exhibitions. Ultimately many ideas have evolved in virtual space in themed Slack channels, the IRC chatrooms of yesteryear, and the perennial email Virtual event platforms can do best by simplifying and distilling the best elements of these and real-world events, rather than simply adding feature creep. And I expect significant innovation and usability optimization over the coming months before the constraints on physical movement are eased.

We must practice what we preach, and while for many decades we have ducked that challenge ourselves, this year has turned every streaming company into a "customer" of our own capabilities. And the good news is we are doing it very well. This last couple of months the steady stream of programming about our own industry is turning into something akin to a business news channel!

When I think back to the Streaming Media Advanced Forum email listserv, a very early online community of streaming engineers and enthusiasts, I think how exciting it was when the few dozen people (or so) from around the world who were streaming in the early 2000s were all actively engaged in some fierce debate on the forum’s threads. Now, nearly 20 years later, those discussions have become "TV-like" programmes, and the audiences have swelled: There are today many hundreds if not thousands of people involved in all the different adjacent sectors that have become reliant on streaming in so many ways.

But while by and large things are working, I do have a few slightly cautionary observations about virtual events before we get carried away or miss a trick. 

First of all, a full-day online event needs to be much like a lean-back TV experience. I need to be able to leave it running while I attend to other matters on my screen. A good MC or host is critical to keep my attention and avoid silences. Indeed, black, slate, silence or "please wait 15 minutes for the next presentation" just provides a reason for me to lean forward and close the stream.

Additionally, all the interactivity and extra features that try to make the experience lean-forward detract from the core content in the central live video stream. Beyond a public text chat, those features should be avoided. Nothing should compete with my participation in the core live seminars.

The solution? Now that we are not going to in-person events, there are no time constraints. So I suggest doing these exhibit breakout sessions and extra features in the days around the main event. For those interested in digging deeper, offer roundtables, but in the days after the event - not DURING the event. And keep it all very simple.

As for the serendipity of ‘accidental happenstance’ that business grows from in the wings of traditional events: With a little effort, a good moderator in a small open roundtable video conference can facilitate this. It is not up to technology at this point: - it is up to people to use the tools.

And as we in the industry have increasingly turned the cameras on ourselves, we must realise we have the duty to show many other industries "how it's done" by doing it well ourselves.

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