On building online communities

I grew up in the age of AIM, chatrooms, and message boards. The internet was a new exciting place to not only find information but it was also a place I could find people like me. It was liberating, finding people who shared the same interests regardless of where they were on the globe. For me the internet has always been a place to build communities.

Now more than ever the line between real life and our digital lives is blurred and it has exponentially built momentum over the past two years.. We were all forced to fully immerse ourselves in video calls, webinars, and constant Slack messages. In many ways this was the dream of the early internet. We have all the high fidelity tools to connect but somehow have found ourselves less connected and feeling more isolated than ever. 

We have all felt the effects of “zoom fatigue” or “screen fatigue” in the past couple of years. Whatever you want to call it, there seems to be a resounding feeling of doneness with this half-hearted attempt by big tech to replicate in person gatherings and relationships. 

When we started Jumbo we had been doing livestreams and “hybrid” events for close to a decade for clients and our other businesses. We were well equipped to transition that expertise into a product built to transition clients into a digital-only world. The tough part was that everyone was telling us they wanted it to feel just like it was in person. Sitting people at tables next to each other, hosting “virtual happy hours” to recreate the in-person experience of unwinding after work, they wanted an analog experience in a digital world. If you want a surefire way to ruin an employee’s afternoon, make them sit on zoom for an extra hour after work in a fun shirt making forced conversation and playing virtual jeopardy.

We quickly realized that people weren’t looking for digital versions of in-person events. They really wanted the community these events created. We all love the serendipitous moments of connections and being around real humans allowing us to truly connect with one another. Trying to recreate those moments by putting together virtual tables of your fundraiser using Zoom breakout rooms just doesn’t cut it. I have to admit we followed those trends at first (for a short time) and realized something, virtual events suck.

That was our mantra and our manifesto, Virtual Events Suck. But why do they suck? As you are reading this I am sure you are thinking about cringe moments over the past couple years of forced team-building or feigned excitement. The reason these events don’t live up to the in-person experience is because they simply can’t. 

It is our firmly held belief that virtual events are just different than in-person events and that it takes a different kind of thinking to build communities online. When you go to a virtual event platform and they are offering you virtual tables where you can “sit” next to someone or they have hastily developed “speed dating” style of networking, they are trying to recreate something that is always going to be better in person. At their best they will only be half as good. 

Our approach at Jumbo is to embrace the idea that we can’t be the same as an in-person event and to embrace the tools we have on the web to turn the tables. What if we made events (virtual and hybrid) that you can’t recreate in person? What if we expanded the reach of communities instead of trying to fit them into virtual tables? This means using the same tools and technologies I had when I was a teenager to give you experiences that foster connections and build communities. 

I think about some of the great events we have done over the past year with partners like Blue Cross Blue Shield and local non-profit organizations like Roof Above. We were able to not only make their events memorable but in Roof Above’s case they were able to raise more money and awareness than they have in years past. Using the tools that we have at our disposal it’s totally possible to foster lasting connections and build a strong virtual community.

Embrace the difference and leave behind the idea that virtual events are something that needs to be just like what they were before. We at Jumbo are excited that we can wake up everyday and help people create something that is so different that they actually outperform their own in-person events. We want our clients to exceed donation goals and reach communities they were never able to find before. I want people to see technology in the way I viewed it as a kid, liberating with a future full of endless possibilities. We start each project with the goal of making our clients and their guests think, “Wow I am glad this experience wasn’t in person because I got so much more out of it.”