The pandemic gave rise to many novel ideas for virtual social gatherings, from tiny virtual campfires to meeting New Zealander sheep online. The primary characteristic these digital get-togethers shared was that they were at least a little awkward. But they had another thing in common: They were all called events.
The word event was once reserved for more special occasions, like weddings or New Year’s celebrations. But now Zoom is doing to the word event what Facebook did to the word friend; Just as most people you come across can instantly become a friend on Facebook, most gatherings that take place online can become an event. And with that shift, our events have gotten smaller, increasingly automated and, quite frankly, more.
Historically, events have been vital community-building tools and catalysts for action. Every culture, including the most ancient and obscure, has its repertoire of events that marks various milestones, commemorates the past, and molds community while serving as an outlet for emotions. Still, what we have seen in the last three years is another generation of events—not entirely created, but certainly ushered in, by the pandemic and our use of virtual event platforms. This new breed of events that includes virtual cooking classes is a turn from the extraordinary to the mundane, often accompanied by a downsizing. In essence, we have seen a the eventification of daily life, facilitated by a slew of private corporations—a switch we now seem to be stuck with. Despite global indications that the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic is abating, the virtual event business remains largely immune, albeit with some tweaks like the introduction of hybrid offerings. Just look at the number of online workout “events” your local gym is offering at a price close to the in-person membership.
Now, the word event seems elastic to the point of loss recognition. The letters are still there, but the substance seems to have gone missing. Or, at least, to have migrated, which itself is telling of our times.
The pandemic brought with it a mandate for physical distancing and the mass adoption of virtual event products, which led to the creation of some new media experiences.
For example, the production logistics behind virtual events like Fortnite’s Ariana Grande and Travis Scott concerts resembled a unique blend of cinematic production, gaming, and video conferencing. In fact, this broader shift toward virtual events also meant new or renewed forms of business—perhaps even a new industry altogether—at the demise of others.
The actual companies behind virtual events, like Hopin, the world’s fastest-growing startup, reaching a $7 billion valuation after only two years in business, were also breaking ground. (Disclosure: One of us, Vincent, works at a VC firm that has invested in Hopin; the two of us met after he wrote an article about virtual events.) Hopin provides a customizable virtual platform for hosting “Any-Kind-of Event,” and its somewhat atypical CEO has, according to the company, never been to Silicon Valley. The company still has no physical office. In turn, this novelty in production can be seen as a precursor to the corporate shift in terminology. And of course, there’s also the point that calling something an event is far more appealing than calling it a work meeting. Subsequently, many companies like Hopin and Zoom gained large user bases by espousing an indiscriminate event branding, all from the convenience of one platform.
There’s also another notable parallel to this corporate shift in 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 tech engineers. In computational logic, event has a very specific meaning: It describes any small action by a user (like a click of a mouse over a hyperlink) that creates a change of state and is recognizable by a program.
Events, in the computational context, are preprogrammed and largely predictable in order to be recognizable; they also do not matter in and of themselves, but become socially significant only when there is a pattern, a glitch, or they occur en masse.
In truth, it doesn’t matter to Zoom or Hopin how many people attend your virtual event, previously known as a yoga class, so long as no big platform hiccups occurred. The marginal cost for virtual event platforms for an additional attendee is close to zero. In short, what matters is not so much what happens during a given event but that the events themselves keep happening. Quantity over quality.
By participating in virtual limbo lessons, perhaps we are becoming more mechanical and moving closer to this computational understanding of events. In that shift, we may be losing some of the significance that makes these social gatherings so important to begin with.
Of course, the shift in narrative can’t be entirely explained by the pandemic or Zoom’s corporate ambitions. The recipe for the colossal rise of virtual events and platforms also consisted of the onslaught of COVID-19 with an array of micro and macro social dynamics that had been brewing for a while. We were already conditioned for a context collapse by social media, a blurring of our personal and professional lives in mediated spaces like Facebook. Virtual events simply added an abstraction to our physical dimensions. As our cameras show our carefully curated—or not—living rooms and bedrooms, we now invite events and their participants into our homes. We also enter new virtual places without leaving our chairs, and so many of the physical, contextual cues—the sights, smells, the push of a crowd—that may previously have signaled that something was an event fade away.
While using virtual event platforms has been the only viable option for many people during the pandemic, and one that has certainly made a number of events more accessible than before, it does come with its own set of issues. As companies search for further cost-efficiency by now turning to virtual reality tools for trainings and events, will this simply become a new hierarchical stratification for event-goers with those in live attendance as a privileged few? With the cost of living thinning our fortunes, the price of hopping on a plane for a concert is just too high for many wallets (not to mention for the environment). Discount airlines such as Ryanair have announced the end of cheap flights, which have been driving demand for festivals, concerts, and all sorts of events in Europe for the past 20 years. This instability of the new era, coupled with inflation spikes and high interest rates, means that virtual events will likely continue to prosper. But then, what happens when our public events migrate to private platforms?
Perhaps this is all just a phase. Maybe all of these small events don’t really matter.
It could be that they’re just temporary fixtures and reverberations of the bigger event we’re still figuring out how to navigate our way out of: the pandemic. Or, perhaps, we have some politically motivated reasons to keep tuning into Zoom; maybe our deep suspicion of grand narratives has finally seeped into the social space of events and we will only increasingly attribute value to smaller and more individualistic pursuits. After having lived through an era where all social gatherings were temporarily suspended, perhaps having the opportunity to regain some of our collective sense-making space, even if was just a virtual class, was welcome and felt akin to attending an event.
Or perhaps some talented marketeers are driving a shift in narrative. After all, the more events, the merrier.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.