Online Conference Chat

I’ve attended a few online conferences recently and one of the most important features, the group chat, is arguably the least functional of the features of the web infrastructure. The reason I attend conferences rather than just watching content on Youtube is the interaction with the rest of the audience. Since we can’t do that in person these days, the group chat in the conference is often the closest thing and I’ve not seen an online conference that does this well yet. That’s not a fault of the conference, it’s that there’s not a group chat that is actually built for conferences that I’ve seen yet.

I’ve spent some time researching this feature set and haven’t found anything that actually does what I believe that a conference chat should do. There are some things that are close but nothing that I’ve seen that actually fulfills all the requirements.

I’m posting here on my blog because I would love input, argument, additions to, … the features that I think are important and if there is a viable solution in the market at the moment. If there is, fantastic. Otherwise, I might start a project to fill this niche in the community. More on the possible project at the end.

  • As a conference organizer, I want to easily embed a seamless chat experience into my conference website
  • As an attendee, I want to be able to comment to the other attendees of the conference in the large group chat
  • As an attendee, I want to have the chat switch to a track specific chat when I’m watching a specific chat
  • As an attendee, I want the ability to declare a “hallway discussion topic” and invite have other attendees join me in that side conversation and have that hallway discussion close once people have left.
  • As a conference organizer, I want the ability to easily spot issues and moderate content, both in an automated fashion and manual fashion, in all those forums
    • Auto-moderation around words, phrases, …
    • Turn on and off links and other such features
    • Ability to boot and ban attendees if needed
  • As a conference organizer, I want to be able to pin an important message to the top of the chat
  • As an attendee, I want to log into the conference web site and have that log into all parts of the website including the chat
    • This one is tough because all kinds of authentication could be happening and we’d need to figure out what the min set of authentication schemes we’d need to support. And likely make this very modular so that it’s easy enough to add another scheme later.
  • As a conference organizer, I need to be able to control all the data to adhere to privacy laws in various geos
  • As a speaker, I’d like to be able to run simple polls in the chat during my talk
  • As an attendee, I would like the navigation at least localized in my preferred language
  • As an attendee, I would like to have the content of the chat translated to my preferred language
  • As a conference organizer, I want the chat to be brandable with conference coloring and logos

I’m sure that there are other features that are important and I’d love it people could suggest them here until such point as we get a github repo going and we can just put things in issues there. I’m holding off on the github repo at the moment though as I’d love to find an existing solution to the features above.

So far, there’s a bunch of things that do subsets of these features but they are typically company chats, not conference chats, that we are trying to bend to our use case but they definitely don’t actually do everything we need as conference organizers and attendees. I’m not going to drain all of these options such as Slack, Discord, Microsoft Teams, … as it does them a disservice. They are awesome products but not purpose built for conferences.

I’d LOVE for this to be a solved problem. 🙂

What I’m thinking about doing is starting with Kiwi IRC. It has a ton of the right functionality already so a large part of the heavy lifting would be creating UI around the existing features to make it easily usable for people who are not intimately knowledgeable with IRC.

  • The backend is node.js and flat files so it’s not expensive to run, fairly easy to deploy and will run on whatever server the conference is already hosting their conference website on. This gives the conference the control over the data that they need.
  • It already has the main chat obviously.
  • It’s easy and programmatic to add additional topics which is how we do tracks.
  • It’s got a fair amount of moderation tools built in already.
  • It has an embeddable web client already.
  • It is already localized into a large number of languages.
  • It already has theming support.
  • It does not integrate into your authentication scheme easily
  • While you can have multiple tracks, we’d have to add UI to make it really simple, through the embedded front end, to add a hallway track and be able to navigate back when done.
  • Some investigation would be needed into automated moderation
  • I don’t believe you can do polls at the moment
  • bonus is that anyone could connect to it with their favorite IRC client and interact that way rather than through the website if that’s desired.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this and would love some thoughts and opinions.

Also, feel free to tell me that while this is not a solved issue, that I’m the only one stressing about it so I should move on. 🙂

Looking forward to the discussion.

One thought on “Online Conference Chat”

  1. This is 100% the list I had been thinking about over the past few conferences.

    As someone who streams live for the intractability between myself + watchers is the exact experience I want to give when giving a conference talk, there is a reason that Twitch streaming is incredibly popular in gaming, tech and IRL.

    – Throw up a poll at a click of a button.
    – mods, auto mods, ability to see questions live with minimal delay.
    – Single out a posted question or chat on screen to be able to answer and show a conference goers.

    I have used KiwiIRC previously and its incredibly flexible especially when you get into the nitty gritty of Node development.

    – Polls are possible in the KiwiIRC framework and has been done in a few worlds but no one has created a plugin. I suppose because polls are pretty simple to write in JS that the plugin isn’t worth the trouble for most.

    Overall I think this solution is holistic in nature and would create a better experience as a Speaker and attendee.

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