Virtual hang-out experiments: Notes on AnyMeeting

We did the first virtual hang-out experiment with Google Hangout, since… well, virtual hangout, right, so it makes sense. Google Hangout limited interaction to the first 10 people. Since more than 10 people wanted to join that, the rest ended up just watching the video stream, which is less fun, and they didn’t have a way to participate in the embedded text chat either. (If you’re paying for Google Apps for business, government, or school, you can have up to 15 people interacting.)

AnyMeeting has the advantage of letting more than 15 people join and interact (up to 200, actually, which is not a huge deal because I’m not that popular anyway). I don’t like turning people away at the (virtual) door, so it was worth a try. Besides, the ad-supported version is free.

Video worked okay, but audio conferencing was a little laggy for us, and some people’s microphones didn’t work (maybe Linux is not fully supported?). We switched to text chat instead, making do with the small chat box in the lower right corner. The chat box couldn’t be resized or undocked, but it was enough for interesting conversations. People swapped tips, I picked up a couple of good ideas, and all of that worked out.

I wasn’t sure if I could get the chat transcript afterwards and the chat box wouldn’t let me select all the text, so I copied everything one by one just in case. It turns out that you can get a copy of the chat log from the Past Meetings tab, so that’s convenient. It does say that the chat log is only available if the meeting was recorded, so that might go away if I’m actually on a limited trial and my account reverts to the regular free account after a week or a month or so.

I tried GotoWebinar with someone else and that didn’t work for what I had in mind either, since people couldn’t chat with each other unless you made everyone panelists. Maybe GotoMeeting someday? It’s pricey, though.

Here’s what I want for the hangouts:

  • At minimum, a text chat where people can freely talk to other people, so that we don’t worry about interrupting each other.
  • Video and audio conferencing would be nice. I like the way Google Hangout shows the video of whoever’s talking.

So, probably Google Hangout for general hangouts (first come first served!), streamed and recorded, with AnyMeeting for structured webinars with one or two presenters that more people might be interested in.

  • IF we regularly hit the limit of Google Hangout with active participants
  • AND I build the habit of having these regularly
  • AND we do something with these conversations (blog posts? questions? tips? lessons learned? webinars? workshops?),
  • THEN it might make sense to spring for a premium solution, and I’ll mentally account for it as equivalent to the cost of taking a few people out for lunch each month. (The connection fund!)

Wild success would look like:

  • We’ve got several of these scheduled, so people can sign up for whenever they want.
  • The hangouts alternate timezones so that it’s easier for people to get to them.
  • I don’t feel awkward or nervous whether I’m chatting with just one person or chatting with nine other people; I accept what is in the moment.
  • People feel like they know me better (not just words on a page or an RSS feed), and I feel like I know them better too. I think video and audio are very useful for this, which is why I want to keep those options open.
  • We have more ongoing conversations through blogs, comments, social networks, or e-mail.
  • For the unstructured hangouts, people feel comfortable dropping by with something they want to teach me or ask me (or ask other people, too).
  • For the structured presentations, I regularly present something that can help people save time or do awesome things, and people’s questions help me refine it further. We harvest the recordings as screencasts and blog posts.
  • People don’t think it’s a waste of time. =) Maybe they’re learning cool things, maybe they’re glad about being able to share something that will turn into a blog post even if they don’t do the writing, maybe they’re experimenting with social interaction too.
  • We have a smooth and nonconfusing flow – people know how to join the hangout and what to do if it’s full.
  • There’s a way for people to find out about upcoming chats – Google Calendar? a mailing list? Google Plus? http://sach.ac/hangout ?

Here’s the chat transcript from the July 3 chat, if you’re curious or want to follow up:

https://gist.github.com/sachac/5918573

Next steps: I’ll set up a Google Hangout on Air for the upcoming hangout, and I’ll also work on setting up an “editorial calendar” for more structured webinars.