When did everything online become an event?

The pandemic has spawned many novel ideas for virtual social gatherings, from tiny virtual campfires to meeting New Zealand sheep online. The main feature of these digital gatherings was that they were at least a little awkward. But they had something else in common: they were all called events.

The word event used to be reserved for special occasions such as weddings or New Year’s Eve celebrations. But now Zoom does to the word “event” what Facebook did to the word “friend”; Just as most people you meet can become instant friends on Facebook, most meetings that happen online can become events. And with this shift, our events have gotten smaller, increasingly automated and, quite frankly, more.

Historically, events have been important community-building tools and catalysts for action. Every culture, including the oldest and most obscure, has its repertoire of events that mark various milestones, commemorate the past, and shape community while serving as an outlet for emotions. However, what we have seen in the last three years is a different generation of events – not fully created but certainly ushered in by the pandemic and our use of virtual event platforms. This new breed of events, which include virtual cooking classes, is a shift from the extraordinary to the mundane, often accompanied by downsizing. In essence, we have seen an eventification of daily life facilitated by a slew of private enterprise – a shift we seem to be sticking to now. Despite global signs that emergency measures against the COVID-19 pandemic are easing, the virtual events business remains largely immune, albeit with some improvements such as the introduction of hybrid offerings. Just look at the number of online workout “events” your local gym offers at a price close to in-person membership.

Now the word event seems to be elastic until loss detection. The letters are still there, but the substance seems to have disappeared. Or at least to have migrated, which speaks for our time.

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The pandemic brought with it an imperative for physical distancing and the mass adoption of virtual event products, leading to the creation of some new media experiences.
For example, the production logistics behind virtual events like the Ariana Grande and Travis Scott concerts in Fortnight resembled a unique blend of film production, gaming, and video conferencing. In fact, this broader shift towards virtual events also meant new or renewed forms of business – perhaps even a whole new industry – in the demise of others.

The actual companies behind virtual events like Hopin, the world’s fastest-growing startup that reached a $7 billion valuation after just two years in business, were also groundbreaking. (Disclosure: One of us, Vincent, works at a VC firm that has invested in Hopin; we both met after he wrote an article on virtual events.) Hopin provides a customizable virtual platform for hosting a ” any kind of event”, and its somewhat atypical CEO says he has never been to Silicon Valley. The company still doesn’t have a physical office. This novelty in production, in turn, can be seen as a precursor to the shift in terminology within companies. And, of course, calling something an event is much more appealing than calling it a work meeting. As a result, many companies like Hopin and Zoom gained large user bases by championing indiscriminate event branding, all from the convenience of one platform.

There is also another notable parallel to this corporate shift in the narrative. As many of our interactions with the world become app and platform dependent (think virtual wallets, Uber, and Google Maps), the people increasingly responsible for designing the back ends of our lives are technical engineers. In computer logic, an event has a very specific meaning: it describes any small action by a user (like clicking a mouse on a hyperlink) that causes a change of state and is recognizable by a program.

Events in the computer context are pre-programmed and largely predictable in order to be recognizable; they are not important in and of themselves, but only become socially significant when there is a pattern, a disruption, or when they occur en masse.

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In truth, it doesn’t matter to Zoom or Hopin how many people attend your virtual event, formerly known as a yoga class, as long as there aren’t major platform issues. The marginal cost of virtual event platforms for an additional attendee is close to zero. In short, what matters is not so much what is happening during a particular event as that the events themselves continue to take place. quantity before quality.

By participating in virtual limbo lessons, we may become more mechanical and approach this computational understanding of events. With this shift, we may lose some of the meaning that made these social gatherings so important from the start.

Of course, the shift in narrative can’t be fully explained by the pandemic or Zoom’s corporate ambitions. The recipe for the colossal rise of virtual events and platforms has also been the onslaught of COVID-19, with a range of social micro and macro dynamics brewing for some time. We have already been conditioned by social media to a breakdown of context, a blurring of our personal and professional lives in mediated spaces like Facebook. Virtual events simply added an abstraction to our physical dimensions. While our cameras show our carefully curated – or not – living rooms and bedrooms, we now invite events and their attendees into our homes. We also enter new virtual locations without leaving our chairs, and so many of the physical, contextual cues—the sights, smells, the throng of a crowd—that might previously have signaled that something was an event, fade away.

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While using virtual event platforms has been the only viable option for many people during the pandemic and has certainly made a number of events more accessible than before, it comes with its own problems. If companies look for further cost efficiencies by now turning to virtual reality tools for training and events, will this simply become a new hierarchical stratification for event attendees with those attending live as the privileged few? With the cost of living diluting our wealth, the price of boarding a plane for a concert is simply too high for many wallets (not to mention the environment). Low-cost airlines like Ryanair have announced the end of the low-cost flights that have been driving demand for festivals, concerts and events of all kinds in Europe for the last 20 years. This new era instability, coupled with spikes in inflation and high interest rates, means virtual events are likely to continue to thrive. But what happens when our public events migrate to private platforms?

Maybe this is all just a phase. Maybe all those little events don’t really matter.
It could be that they are just passing components and echoes of the larger event we are still figuring out how to extricate ourselves from: the pandemic. Or maybe we have some politically motivated reasons to continue tuning into Zoom; Perhaps our deep distrust of grand narratives has finally seeped into the social space of events, and we will only value even smaller and more individualistic endeavors. Having lived through an era where all social gatherings were temporarily suspended, it was welcome and felt like attending an event.

Or maybe some talented marketers are driving a change in narrative. Because the more events, the better.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society.