The internet has allowed the internet governance community to stumble forward when everybody had to stay at home. Still despite ever more sophisticated tools to gather online, the effects of only working remotely are showing. This blogpost looks into the effects, potential reasons and proposals to go forward.
I thought we had a pretty good meeting despite it again being online, RIPE Chair Mirjam Kühne wrote in an email to CENTR after the RIPE83 virtual meeting in November. At the same time Kühne agreed that not being able to meet in person over a long period has started to take its toll on the community.
“A lot of the collaboration in the technical community is based on personal contacts and trust. We who know each other for many years have a foundation we can now use, but it is hard for new people to enter the community”, the long-time RIPE NCC staff member and now Chair of the community of operators says.
Less new work, fewer new people
Similar observations were made just three weeks earlier at the IETF 112 meeting. Like their colleagues in the IP-address management the engineers developing new technical standards that drive the internet have been reduced to the very network they have created. The once chic and nerdy greeting “see you on the net stream” has turned from a promise to sheer necessity.
During their plenary meeting the Chair of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), Mirja Kühlewind, noted a decline in new standards proposals being brought to the body. “Just looking at the plain numbers we see 10-20 percent fewer so called 00-Internet Drafts compared to the year before COVID”, Kühlewind explained to CENTR. The standards body stewards are monitoring the situation, they explained to their members.
While the IETF has been working like perhaps no other standards body for decades, using mailing lists and more recently using online collaborative tools like Gitlab, “in-person meetings are catalysts for new ideas and new collaboration”, Kühlewind notes. “They allow the community to work through difficult issues more efficiently and effectively, and provide much of the social glue that makes us a community”, she says.
RIPE Chair Kühne concurs and explains that one negative effect is the difficulty to bring new people into the community and find new Chairs for the Working Groups (WG). Having said that, getting busy operators to commit to stepping up and running a WG has never been easy, she writes, commenting on the observation that people have been very silent in recent WG Chair selection procedures. “It’s usually been a matter of approaching individuals who might fit the role best. It was just so much easier to talk to people during the coffee breaks, explain particular roles and answer questions. It is harder to do that online”.
Tools, tools, tools – and their limitations
Both RIPE and IETF have been working on a tool set for the new all-virtual environment, trying to mimic the coffee break hallway chat environment. RIPE uses the relatively new software SpacialChat for it. Self-marketed as an attempt to get around Zoom fatigue, it allows RIPE members to go to rooms with up to 50 virtual participants, from the Registration Desk to the Think Tank room where new ideas can be shared to the elevator.
The IETF has chosen Gather.Town which simulates the hall where developers meet in between WG sessions. Normally there would be ice-cream and a chance to chat. Now you move around your little avatar and when you are close to a group of people chatting you can see their video and hear them, allowing you to listen in and say hello.
Yet there are clear limitations to these tools. For one, conference participants yearn for real coffee between slots. Other issues are that happenstance meet-ups between WG sessions get lost.
Anthropologists have shown that losing that peripheral communication and also a great deal of nonverbal communication is difficult to make up for. US researcher Elisabeth Keaton wrote: “I can see why people today are remarking, with some irony, that in spite of the enormous promises of technology to keep people connected while staying safely out of harm’s way, they are experiencing the unexpected disappointments of isolation, exhaustion, feeling out of the loop, and a lack of community”.
Resuming face-to-face meetings is what all those approached yearn for and hope to see despite some companies having signalled that they have cut their travel budgets going forward.
At the IETF, IAB Chair Kühlewind believes that some people have been holding out to present their new 00-drafts until they can present and discuss them in person. “If we are forced to remain fully online for a longer time our assumption is that such work would be brought to the community sooner or later. But we are all hoping that we can resume meetings in 2022 where at least a sizable fraction of the community can participate in person”.
A mixture of presence and virtual meetings over the year, regional gatherings of IETF participants during meeting weeks or beyond and naturally hybrid meetings are topics discussed by the IETF’s
“Stay Home Meet Only Online” WG at the IETF. The SHMOO WG had started to consider how to move some meetings online just before Covid struck. The original reason was to reduce their carbon footprint, not a global home office construction.
There has been a feeling that a mixture of online and offline, plenary and interim WG meetings might make sense – independently of Covid.
Hybrid during Covid
Now there has been a first exploration of how a hybrid meeting might look, feel and function: this was done at the 16th IGF which opened its door to 2700 in person participants, according to the Polish government. While many people attended the main opening with the Polish President in particular, for many of the 250 plus workshops, online speakers were in the majority. For the main session on security and trust for example one brave Interpol agent sat on the podium in Katowice all by himself discussing with people in five continents.
Did it work well? It was the biggest IGF ever, thanks to over 10,000 online participants. It is not easy to knit together an online and offline audience, and this was a tough task for the moderators. Some managed pretty well. But certainly hybrid needs to be developed by the internet governance communities going forward.
A brilliant idea in the opinion of this author coming from RIPE was definitely the online child care for those working from home. 66 of the around 1100 participants signed up for it, RIPE Chair Kühne said, and there were even adults dropping in for the playful programming sessions .
It is yet to be seen if the event will become the first super spreader event for Omicron, one participant wrote after the event. Tracking infections after IGF closed its doors was not foreseen. For future hybrid meetings – at least under Corona – this is something the internet governance communities might want to come up with.