IGF2014: Musings on Remote Participation

As the readers probably know, this week I’ve been participating in the IGF 2014 in Istanbul (Constantinople). Sadly, too often my “participation” has only been following and listening, and not really contributing to the discussion. Of course, sometimes the reason for this is intrinsic: I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been mentioned. But the problems with remote participation are partly to blame. Now, first of all, let me begin by stating that remote participation is a method for equality among stakeholders, and stakeholder equality at least in their ability to participate in the decision-shaping discussion is paramount to the multistakeholder (MS) process. Sure, sure, I know some of you are already sick with the constant MS babble.

But still, if we have this multistakeholder method, it is necessary for all stakeholders to be able to participate. I was unable to go to the venue and had to resort to remote participation. Remote participation was the only way for me to be a part of the IGF this year. So, let’s have a look on what methods of participation they have.

Sadly, most of the remote participation is only remote reception: there are live transcripts, webcast video streams (coupled with transcripts), Youtube live feeds. Transcripts and feeds are also saved for later use. But, as mentioned, these are only methods of remote reception or passive participation, and do not really enable active participation, i.e. sharing your comments and thoughts on the matters at hand.

There is only one two-way method of communication in use, and that is WebEx online meeting tool. Through it I’ve been able to have one comment gone through to the physical space in Istanbul. But, WebEx is limited: it is mainly for Windows and mobile devices and, for example, my own desktop environment (Linux/Ubuntu) is not supported at all. To my knowledge there is no tweetwall in Istanbul sessions – even though I’ve started hearing rumours (see twitter #IGFtweetWALL and #IGFtwitterWALL) about it. Not sure if it’s yet a reality, though.

Some speakers have mentioned the possibility of Facebook commenting, but I haven’t been able to find details on that method of communication.

Now, if there is a real method of two-way communication, remote participation is truly possible as participation and not only remote reception. Even with the limited nature of WebEx, this has been possible – except for the numerous problems with the connection in Istanbul side and cancelling of WebEx sessions and all that. Very annoying!

Suggestions for future

In future, I think several points should be taken into account:

Reception methods. A varying list of possible reception methods seems to be already quite good. There is text reception for slow speed connection and video reception for high speed connection. Different bandwidths of voice reception would be nice.

Communication methods: twitter. Twitter, even though very fast-paced and consisting of very short comments, should be integrated into the sessions. Tweetwalls, for example, create meaningful links between virtual and physical space. Tweetwalls are a minimum level of this integration – integration that is required of an Internet governance event.

Communication methods: longer text comments. Currently this has been possible via WebEx. However, that platform is not so accessible. Facebook can be utilized.  Even better platforms, especially dedicated for remote participation, can be created and used.

Communication methods: voice and video comments. This has been in use only for speakers that have been asked in advance to participate. This method should be taken into account.

New workshop type: remote session (concurrent with physical IGF). Why all workshops are primarily in the physical venue space? Why couldn’t they primarily be in the virtual space and the physical participants in Istanbul be the “remote” (in sense) participants? Restricting virtual sessions to IGF preparations give a mixed message, mainly that of remote participants being second-class participants. Bringing whole sessions mainly to the virtual realm would upgrade every participant – present in any way they are – to a first-class participant.

Problem of having multiple methods is the need for remote moderators and remote moderating experience. Of course there are experts working in the broadcasting side, making the reception relatively easy to use. The same kind of expertise should be also in remote moderation, who would – in the way I have suggested – follow Twitter, Facebook, dedicated programs (such as WebEx, Adobe Connect, some other new technologies yet to be created), and voice/video comment requests.

IN SUMMARY. Now that remote broadcasting is done – and rather well, even, despite some technological problems – tweetwall is the minimal next step for bringing comments from remote participants into the physical conference space. Also, other dedicated platforms should be used for a multitude of methods of participation, i.e. reception and communication.

They key question is linking these two spaces, the physical and virtual conference space, together into one whole, where all participants, both physical and virtual, can communicate together.

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