Becoming a Node: Distribute 2020
Node: from Latin nodus ‘knot’
Rachel Douglas-Jones, Marie Blønd, Caroline Salling, Ester Fritsch, and Marisa Cohn
In the ETHOS Lab, we have gathered to study data visualisations – their persuasiveness, power and contemporary prominence – for half a decade. As part of the Navigating Complexity course here at ITU, students learn to explore Gephi visualisations, identifying and labelling “nodes”, critically analysing their significance. But this Spring, we became a node ourselves, for Distribute2020 a distributed online conference, hosted by the Society for Cultural Anthropology and Visual Anthropology, both organizations based in the United States of America.
This Biennial meeting has, since 2018, happened online. In past years, organisers have encouraged groups to gather to participate in the online conference together. In their 2017 piece “Organizing a Node”, Abiral Bürge and Mac Skelton suggested that a node can ‘bring together human and nonhuman actors, materials, ideas and venues from inside and outside academia, promoting engagement with the themes of the conference across different institutions and social formations”. Their suggestions, along with Anand Pandian’s write up of #Displace18, made the idea of gathering around an online event familiar.
Prior to the pandemic, we had planned to gather for Distribute2020 in the Lab, watch the stream together, eat good food and discuss. Once universities began moving online, it became increasingly evident we would need to gather online too – to convene our existing network in Zoom and figure out ways to watch and discuss the conference together. Common or shared activity, captured locally in the Danish term “fælles”, is something we all miss while the University buildings are closed, and we live under conditions now known as “lockdown”.
Inspired by Michelle Bastian’s reflections on running a workshop online, and by Bürge and Skelton’s invitations for node participants to work imaginatively together, we – the organisers and hosts of the ETHOS Node – here make a collective reflection on our experiment of hosting a local node online as part of Distribute2020.
We include reflections from the organiser and coHead of ETHOSLab, Rachel Douglas-Jones, to technical setup, from our Lab Manager Marie Blønd, comments about the task of discussant from PhD students Caroline Salling and Ester Fritsch, and reflections from a participant, co-Head of ETHOSLab Marisa Cohn.
Since we’d been planning our Node before the lockdown, it was in our calendar. But the date and time weren’t set: when during the 3 days would we tune in? With university teaching, supervision and sociality all moving online, we were particularly conscious of not booking out whole days in peoples’ calendars: while we might have had an extended physical node, there was no way we were doing a day-long virtual node. Since the programme for Distribute came out about a week before the conference itself, we had to pick a day and time before we knew what we were going to get! It was more important to get invitations out than be too particular about the specifics of what we watched together.
In the end, our put-a-pin-in-the-map-of-time approach worked well. We allocated 3h. The second hour coincided with the opening panel of Day 2 “Performances of Public Anthropology”, which fitted with lots of the themes members of ETHOS engage with through method. We then slotted in a film of likely interest to those already signed up, and allocated an hour for discussion of both. We also scheduled in breaks.
The initial plan was for everyone individually to run both our Zoom meeting *and* stream the film/panel in a different window. However, after some testing, we decided to keep the whole thing “inside” Zoom. Using the “share screen” function, we turned off our cameras and microphones and watched the conference Livestream from one person’s shared screen. Our comments were synchronised in the chat. The film, “The End of an Era? A Story of Oil Workers”, worked without too much difficulty, although the frame rate was lower than the original. Following the Livestream was harder: the stream itself interrupted, and the host’s home network wasn’t up to the task, necessitating a data hotspot!
Welcome to our Node!
When we ran our Distribute Node, we had some experience with convening people on Zoom for events. On April 17th, the ETHOS Lab had hosted an online party to celebrate our 5th birthday (see here). It had been planned as a big, in-person event. But when the University closed, we had to re-think. Such was the yearning in the Lab group to create a sense of “being there” that, in the weeks coming up to the event, Veronika (one of our Lab Teaching Assistants) made an outing with her drone, flying it over the canal outside the University to record footage of the Lab from outside the window. As participants joined our online party, they were greeted with a screen share of this “live” footage, carefully doctored with a flashing red light to appear truly Live.
Zoom whiteboard creativity!
Creating a sense of place in digital spaces, as this footage did, matters. We didn’t use our drone footage again – most people attending our Node had already seen that trick – but we did use a whiteboard as a welcome mat. In their Material Life of Time workshops, the group led by Bastian used Zoom’s whiteboards, as an annotation ‘icebreaker’. In our case, people wrote messages – to themselves, to one another, and – mirroring the classroom – took notes for collaborative brainstorming. Caroline, one of our participant discussants reflected on the “rules of use” of the whiteboard instrument: “completely changes in this virtual setting.” In contrast with classroom whiteboards, where usually only one person draws at a time, all participants had a pen, and access to fonts, colours and stamps. “In our Zoom call several people started drawing as soon as they learned this was a function available to them. Was it because it was the first time for everyone using this feature? Would it also have happened if we did not have one/several particular comfortable people (in this format) that started it and made everyone else comfortable with drawing (that in some settings might be deemed unserious)?” This lack of artistry and “seriousness” arguably created more of an atmosphere than a powerpoint slide, indeed, the local aspect of our node meant that people did know one another, and felt at ease marking this collective space.
Another place-making device was the chat. We actively encouraged people to make comments in the chat as the film and panel played, creating a back channel, question asking, joke based meta-commentary that ranged from academic references to clarifications, jokes, puns and a collective discussion of gender representations in what we were seeing. Again, Caroline reflected on how this was a new experience for an academic format: “Usually, everyone will keep their thoughts and questions as notes and some will articulate them in the end. Some people will have the feeling of having these piled up, being all ready to finally not just listen but discuss this pressing thought in the collective. Being able to chat during the sessions created a very informal way of engaging with the film and the panel, a way of engaging with each other that can sometimes be difficult to establish in an academic conference setting. Was this because of the chat feature? Was it also because we were somehow detached from the sessions by only viewing them and not engaging with the filmmakers and panelists?”
Once the collective watching of the video and panel was done, we moved to discussion mode. This meant turning our cameras and microphones back on. A discussion chair acted as the timekeeper, to keep an eye on the split between discussing the film and the panel. Those allocated as discussants lead the group, pulling points from the chat and from their own reflections. Their reflections on this experience continue below.
Being a discussant
Leading discussion on Zoom is, as many teachers have found out this semester, not the same thing as igniting it in person. One has to learn be at ease with the silence that folllows a question, and to think about how one is asking for a response in the absence of eye contact. The brief to our PhD student first-time discussants was to take some themes from the chat, and from their own interests, and use this to pose a question or two to kick start the conversation.
However, as Caroline noted, “a very informal way of engaging with each other was established in the chat during the panel, jokes were made and so on, but as soon as it was my turn to discuss the panel, it was as though this kind of atmosphere changed”. Zoom had gone from being a Netflix Party style forum to heads, faces and voices again – albeit with microphones muted. The experience was differently intimidating from merely continuing with the same group of people, although Caroline noted “It was difficult to tell whether having a role of summarising and discussing the panel was intimidating because it was my first time with this kind of role or if it was because of the virtual format.” Ester, who was also a first time discussant, also found the dual attention to the chat and film challenging:
“Being a discussant was very exciting and slightly overwhelming in the virtual conference space. The online chat was moving in all kinds of directions continuously while the film was also playing and keeping an eye on both tracks was a lot of fun and a little bit overstimulating at times. Luckily there was a break and another session before I had to enter the role as discussant to what I did was to print the chat reflections and read them through in an analogue version to gain an overview of themes running through the thread. So merging the physical and the digital might be a beneficial piece of discussant advice.”
Caroline reflected that the role of discussant in virtual format might also create another responsibility:
Since people are holding back with saying something (possibly due to politeness, a daunting general silence, the feeling of being far away from everyone else), the discussant might have to be even more pushy and creative in deciding on what they articulate to have other people joining them. For conferencing in the virtual format, it might be good to decide whether the primary role of the discussant is to summarise the session (orchestrated speak might work better virtually, but will possibly be more boring than if many people are engaged) or spark conversation/discussion (definitely difficult, but more interesting to hear many different points of view).
Being a node participant
So how was all this experienced by our participants? What was it like to enter a “node”, itself already an excerpt from the larger stream? While we had 15 participants from within the Lab network at the IT University of Copenhagen, we had also invited a recent guest of the Lab living in Vienna, and were joined by two people unknown to us, since we had posted our Zoom information on the Distribute platform (hi Mehdi and Daniel!).
Marisa, co-Head of the ETHOS Lab opened her thoughts on participation with a reflection on the current situation: In this time of remote work in isolation in our homes, it was a special privilege to have the opportunity to participate in a conference that was remote-by-design. The challenges we faced to “be a node together” when we are in fact each alone on screens, were balanced out by the ease of having a conference that is already built for both asynchronous and synchronous participation.
The work done by Distribute panellists – preparing, recording, uploading their panels, meant that we could just tune in (and even watch again if we wanted, 8h later). There was a fleeting academic synchronicity. Marisa also noted the new affordances for participation that the format offered: As a participant, I wanted to attend more, but having a newborn at home disrupted the flow of the event for me as I could not sustain several hours. Still, the ease of being able to dip in and out of the flow of a conference, if a bit discontinuous, felt like a gift. I imagine the corresponding experience of bringing a child to a live in-person conference (which I have seen colleagues do). Having to exit the room of a speaker when the baby cries, and thereby immediately leave the conversation. Having to manage one’s own disruptiveness to others’ experience of the conference. Having to choose between child care and watching a film with my colleagues. So while it was not the intent of the conference to replace fully colocated gatherings, in the end, I had such a unique experience of being *at* a conference, while in a darkened room whispering a child to sleep. It kept me rather silent on the call.
Like the discussants, Marisa noted the different threads – being at one’s own computer, the stream itself and its loops, the timezones we were crossing, our digital real-time commentary, and our discussion session. The temporalities of these sometimes didn’t work:
(I kept trying to type something out into the chat but was so slow pecking out words on the keyboard and the chat went so fast in its microblogging way I was way too out of synch) but I enjoyed being a lurking participant of a node very much.
But sometimes they did: as Marisa observes here, “double processing” is in service of those one is attending “with”, creating a written dialogue and shared conversation, rather than an additional version of the conference on Twitter for people elsewhere:
It also reminds me of how much microblogging and double processing we often do at conferences to create a real-time virtual version of the conference on twitter that corresponds to the real one (for those not attending). That to me always feels like a double pressure to attend in person and multitask to attend the virtual version of the conference. This form of attendance differed from that experience because the virtual and analog participation were not in competition with each other, and did not need to be layered on top of each other to maximize participation. Instead, there was a sense of co-presence in the blurred virtual/real space of the distributed conference.
- A collaborative ‘exercise’ makes connection. For us it was the whiteboard annotations, but it could also be the zoom eye-relief exercise.
- Acknowledge the setting, and potential strain of online gatherings
- Welcome everyone and be clear about the overview – we scheduled 15 minutes arrival time before our first event.
- Ask newcomers to introduce themselves if they drop in.
- “Being (un)comfortable”: The virtual conference call format makes the whole dance/sensing of who wants to take the lead, who is going to talk and when lot more difficult. Is this because we are not as familiar with this format? We are definitely getting there now.
- Be explicit about how discussion will run: Have a discussant, a facilitator. Make use of the “raised hand” or “question in chat” format – we can’t tell as many things from each when we are not in the same physical space. A facilitator can keep an eye on the ‘hosting window’ giving an overview of people, muteness and also raising a hand!!
- Get used to being awkward: a virtual conference call has empty silences, especially in a group that doesn’t know each other entirely.
We could have all watched Distribute2020 alone on our computers, participating in the togetherness of the global conference through the hashtag and the Virtual Hallways and Plazas. Indeed, the ETHOSLab group might have made more use of these latter features had we been physically together for the online conference. It’s less scary to enter a virtual hallway together than alone. But for a virtual node of a virtual conference, we made our own channel, to be together before dispersing for the rest of the programme’s feast.
Returning to our epigram – that “node” borrows from Latin’s knot – we might reach a little further into the so-called Proto-Indo-European root from which Latin gets its knot: *ned, “to bind, or tie”. The current circumstances show us the knots of academic life: they show us the tight knots and the loose ones, the rapid un-thinking of those gargantuan, unsustainable knots known as annual conferences, and the small, newly valued everyday ties of shared humour and common enquiry. As one of our participants noted as she left the chat, “It was fun (!!!) to do this and to have a collective analytical experience which is something I really miss these days”.
The #Distribute2020 Conference invited us into a stream, a stream into which one could (in fact) step twice. But it also allowed us to convene online in our “local” group, to share in the conference’s commonality together. We were more distributed than the makers of Distribute ever imagined when they made Distribute both their analytic and their ethic (Distribute 2020). Yet along with them, we all saw a slice of imagining another anthropology into existence. And for that experience, we raise a glass to the whole online conference team. Skål!
Abiral, Bürge and Skelton, Mac. “Organizing a Node.” SCA Meetings, Cultural Anthropology website, November 27, 2017.
Bastian, Michelle. 2020. Reflections on our online pilot workshop. Temporal Belongings Network, 1 May 2020 http://www.temporalbelongings.org/home/reflections-on-our-pilot-online-workshop
Pandian, Anand. 2020. Redesigning the Annual Conference. Fieldsights, Cultural Anthropology https://culanth.org/fieldsights/redesigning-the-annual-conference-contagion-carbon-access-equity