3 hard lessons learned during the ICSW/Virtual webinar series

Organising our webinar series was a joy met with a few challenges like dealing with Internet trolls. Check out what difficult lessons we learned in the last months.

  1. Webinar overload and video call fatigue are challenging online engagements

We conceived the ICSW/Virtual webinar series last year, in a pre-COVID-19 world. People seemed to have a little bit more time and excitement for joining online events, and we knew that there was a strong interest in the topics we planned to cover. Then the pandemic happened and all human interactions moved online. The number of Zoom’s daily meeting participants grew from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020. The web also became flooded with webinars - webinar platforms reported hosting from 330% to 500% more webinars compared to last year. In the meantime, people started experiencing online and ‘video call fatigue.’

In March, we realised that we would have to compete harder for space, resources and attention to organise, promote and deliver our webinars. We had to reconsider our planned content because people had new worries and priorities. The pandemic had serious implications for civil society and we wanted to provide relevant information. We tried to adapt quickly and to keep the events relevant and engaging, considering that people are increasingly overwhelmed by webinars and are tired of being on video calls all day. But in the end, we had to accept that things like attendance or the time people could stay in our events could drop, and sometimes did. We are still learning how to adjust to these circumstances to keep providing valuable online engagements for civil society.

  1. Prepare to avoid but also to face Internet trolls and Zoombombings

Our first ICSW/virtual webinar, ‘Supporting Youth-led Movements and Groups as Key Drivers of People Power,’ was very successful in attendance and engagement, but it was also the first time that we had to deal with an Internet troll. We were very aware of all the Zoombombings happening with the increased use of videoconferencing platforms due to the pandemic and we took precautions to avoid having our sessions hijacked. However, we kept the chat enabled to allow webinar participants to engage with comments during the conversation, and that is how the troll posted insulting comments directed to a speaker. We removed the troll immediately, but it was technically impossible to remove the comments.

Luckily, we did not have any security issues in our six remaining events. We became much more alert and are regularly improving our security practices to provide safe and inclusive spaces for conversation. But we know that there is always the risk of facing something similar and we must be prepared to deal with it. An interesting fact is that we considered disabling the chat during public webinars, but attendees request having this space to interact, share their name, post a comment (most of the time positive and enriching), and say thanks and goodbye. People crave some interaction; it gives online events a soul! We continue looking for ways to keep our online events safe without having to sacrifice human connection.

  1. We need to get better at hosting inclusive events

The CIVICUS alliance has 10,000 members from all around the world, who speak many languages and have different needs in terms of accessibility to content. During the ICSW/virtual series, we made sure to have speakers from several countries, contexts, ages, areas of work, etc. We promoted the events in English, French and Spanish (the three main languages spoken by our audiences), and provided simultaneous interpretation in these languages during the events – once we had eight interpreters! That took a great deal of coordination, effort and investment. But we acknowledge that we were not inclusive enough.

We know that a good number of people have limited access to the Internet and joining online events is not an option, or their attendee experience is not the best. We are aware that part of our target audience speaks other languages that we are not providing interpretation for or need captions or other supports that we were not able to provide. Sometimes our interpreters had technical issues and attendees could not hear them, or people joined from devices that did not allow them to access the interpretation feature. In a way, we learned that online events can’t be 100% inclusive, but we took notes and are committed to improving our strategies and practices to make sure that more people have quality access to online spaces and conversations.