Using Gather for Virtual Facilitation: Canning the Brain Jam

My first experience with Gather was at a conference for experiential educators in November. The conference was using it as an in-between-sessions hangout space, and after five minutes in the space, I already knew I wanted to host a Brain Jam on the platform.

Gather is a video-conferencing platform where you can video chat in a shared virtual world. The graphics give you the impression of being in a ’90s video game; it feels worlds different than being on Zoom.

In the February Brain Jams we explored Gather and discovered so many ways to use the shared virtual space, and we realized how many things we’d missed from in-person facilitations that we can re-create using this platform. In this post, I’ll share these aha moments with you and provide tips for learning to use and facilitate on Gather. But first, let’s talk about what Gather is and do a quick recap of the Brain Jam.

What Is Gather?

You might have heard of other virtual-world platforms like Remo (more expensive and restrictive than Gather) or Topia (more artsy and dreamy feeling) and there are sure to be others I don’t know about yet. The biggest thing with these platforms is that they increase the level of independence and autonomy that participants have over their experiences and re-create the feeling of being in a real (non-Zoom) room together.

This is what our Brain Jammers saw when they first arrived in the Brain Jam:

They appeared as little avatars in a courtyard. As you can see here, when you walk up to someone in Gather), their video/audio comes online and you can chat. When one of you walks away, the video/audio connection between you disappears. This proximity interaction feature and the ability for anyone in the space to be able to control their own movements are what makes this type of shared virtual world so powerful for us facilitators.

When people showed up in the Gather space, I was able to see them pop up and then could walk over and say hi, introduce myself, and welcome them to the session. The one-on-one moment of connection was so much nicer than the flood of faces from opening the waiting room in Zoom. It felt like a more personal start to the Jam. Before the Brain Jam even officially started, I was already having experiences that felt more reminiscent of in-person facilitation than anything I had had in the last year.

Brain Jam Recap

We did three Brain Jams on Gather. The recording below is of the second Brain Jam. While we invite you to watch the recording of the Brain Jam, the best way to understand the platform is to experience it. And to do that, you can hop into the Gather Brain Jam space right now and navigate around to see what it’s like.

If you’re looking for a more guided experience, follow along with the video while you explore the map. Here is what you’ll see in the video:

  1. A welcome to the Brain Jam, followed by an invitation for everyone to freely explore the space for 10 minutes, to connect with each other, and to get used to being in and moving around in Gather.
  2. A debrief of our exploration time, including initial reflections on how different the space feels.
  3. Next we head “indoors” for a guided tour of many of the integrations and features, like private spaces (similar to breakout rooms), document embedding, whiteboards (!), and more.
  4. After the tour, we jump into a bit of Q&A before breaking into small groups for conversations about what new ways of facilitation are possible in this space.
  5. After connecting in our small groups, we come back together for a final debrief before wrapping up the Brain Jam.

The video is just the February 4 Brain Jam, with the experiment time in the beginning chopped out because I was mostly just helping someone with a mic issue and wanted to spare you the static.

Solving Problems We Didn’t Know We Had

When I was planning the Brain Jams, I was excited to test out activities that I had all but given up facilitating online, like Concentric Circles. I just thought this was going to be a cool way to do activities that I love and have missed facilitating. This is why Brain Jams are magical, because we all saw Gather improve our experience of facilitation in many different ways.

Aha #1: The Importance of Informal Space

When I used to run multi-day facilitations in person, the time in between sessions was essential for the success of the event. Participants who would arrive early would inevitably share some essential tidbit (like, “The CEO quit yesterday, so everyone’s a little bit on edge this morning”) that would help me get ready for how the group would show up.

This happened in the Brain Jams. Participants showed up early and asked questions that totally helped orient the rest of the session.

One Brain Jammer reflected that even though they didn’t see themselves using Gather for the bulk of their facilitations, they did see themselves using a platform like this as a break space or a place to connect with others during lunch. Some of my favorite parts of facilitations are the lingering conversations that happen after a session.Spaces like this feel more casual and therefore these interactions become more likely.

Aha #2: Interactions Feel (More) Normal

Hopping into a Zoom breakout room as a facilitator has always felt intrusive to me, like I’m crashing a conversation. There is that moment where people are disoriented because they didn’t see you coming and it can throw off their groove.

In Gather you can walk your avatar over to a group and fade into their conversation. Sam (my Facilitator Cards co-founder) noted how different it felt to have a facilitator walk over to join their conversation rather than appear out of nowhere. He said,

When Meg came over to our small group and checked in on us it felt so much more like a normal small group. I could see the facilitator coming over, I knew we were about to get checked in on, Meg popped in and said hello and then popped out. With Zoom I feel like when someone pops in it means our time is up. I could see Meg going to the other groups first and I was like, this is cool, this feels like a small group that is still part of the big group and I really like that.

As a facilitator, I felt less intrusive when I checked in on groups, and it was also easier to see when I might need to. When you’re not actively in a conversation with someone in Gather but they are talking, little speech bubbles appear over their head. This means you can tell when a small group’s conversation is lively and when one is slowing down or falling flat.

FYI: The speech bubble feature is a very recent update in Gather, so you won’t see this in the recording. But this is what it looks like:

Aha #3: We Can Build Physical Places in Virtual Spaces

During the Brain Jams we talked about how when we facilitate in person, we might use different spaces throughout the day for different purposes. We might have people check in in the lobby, have lunch in one room, and do the morning session in another. This change of spaces can often mark a change of pace and can help re-energize folks or put them into a particular headspace.

We can do the same thing in Gather by building portals and creating different spaces for different functions.

We also discussed how the movement between spaces often creates meaningful and spontaneous moments for interaction between participants. So many times the best part of my conference experiences is talking to other people before and after the session or running into people as I walk down the hall between sessions. In a platform where you can build multiple spaces that you have to move between, that all becomes possible again.

Aha #4: We Can Do So Many Activities We Love!

There are so many activities we use as facilitators that require the ability to move around in a shared space. For some activities it’s because we are inviting people to respond to a statement by a particular location, like Spectrum Questions. With Gallery Exhibit we need to be able to decorate a room, and people need to move around at their own pace. And activities where we ask our participants to group according to shared characteristics, “find everyone else who an only child,” you need to be able to rapidly change who we are talking to or partnered with.

While there are creative workarounds for all these things on our more traditional video-conferencing platforms, Brain Jammers were so excited about being able to facilitate these activities so similarly to how we would in person. One Brain Jammer said,

I was not so gung-ho about this experience until someone shared the privilege walk piece and that is a game changer. And then I started realizing all the activities that I could do, like Four Corners, where you can find a partner there and chat, or the spectrum work, and suddenly I was like, “Okay now I get it.”

And these types of activities totally work in Gather. In the experimentation hour of the third Brain Jam, we tested out Concentric Circles and it worked like a charm! We all changed our avatar settings to “quiet mode” so that we could only interact with someone if they were one square away. This allowed us to have one-on-one conversations without having to move far away from each other, which allowed for easy switching of partners. And when we broke off into pairs, there wasn’t that disorienting feeling that happens in Zoom breakout rooms as the screen goes black. Instead it felt pretty normal to walk up to someone to have a conversation and then walk away at the end.

Aha #5: Virtual Spaces Can Be Fun

Fun isn’t the first word (or the 15th) that a lot of people would use to describe virtual sessions. As facilitators, we’re often the exceptions, but our participants are not, and many often dread “another Zoom call” even if it’s a good one.

The video-game-like visuals of Gather transform the feeling of being online into a fun and somewhat nostalgic game experience. Brain Jammers kept calling it a game throughout the Brain Jam. “This is just FUN. This brings so much levity and lightheartedness to a virtual meeting. I didn’t even think that was possible,” said one participant after 10 minutes of being in the Brain Jam.

We even tried out some group games where we made shapes on the carpet which worked okay. Making a Birthday Line Up worked well and I suspect would be even more fun with more people.

Remembering that our sessions can and should be fun is important for any of us who are feeling burnt out after a year of facilitating virtually.

Learning and Building in Gather

So if you’re feeling excited and wondering how to get set up so you can start using Gather for your virtual facilitations here is what I would recommend.

Do the Gather Demo

If you go to Gather’s home page you’ll find a link to a demo room that will walk you through a ton of different features in Gather. Doing this solo is totally fine, but again, if you can wrangle a buddy and experience what it’s like to interact with another person in Gather, even better.

Explore Gather’s Pre-Built Spaces

Gather has a ton of pre-built templates that you can try out. I’ve learned a lot just from seeing how they set up their spaces. This classroom space, for example, helped me see that private areas don’t always have to be grouped together.

If you don’t want to create a million spaces to explore all the Gather maps, check out this bit on how to manage spaces in our Brain Jam Encore.

Read the Gather Help Center

This Help Center is brand new as of February 28 and has a ton of useful information and quick answers for those getting started on Gather. I imagine it will continue to get better with time.

Watch the Brain Jam Encore: Builder’s Session

We hosted an Encore to our Brain jam where we focused on how to build rooms and spaces in Gather. Whether you’re just starting out and want to know how to copy elements you see on the Gather maps, how to erase special squares, or how to share spaces with others, we get into lots of questions on there.

Scan the Changelog Before You Facilitate

Gather is updating all the time and often in substantial ways. I have taken to reading the Changelog (#nerd) before my facilitations to see if anything important has been updated. Between Brain Jams, for instance, Gather added active speaker detection, which totally changed how I facilitated. Reading the Changelog may be nerdy, but it also has prevented me from being disoriented myself, as I orient my participants to a new platform.

A Game Changer for Virtual Facilitation

Gather is not perfect, nor is it the only platform in this space. There’s definitely some tech glitches to beware of—and that we ran into during the Brain Jams—that made for a less than ideal experience, for both me as a facilitator and for participants. Not being able to hear or see someone (even while others can) makes for a weird set of interactions, let me tell you. And there are other things to consider:

  • Low-quality video
  • Screen share isn’t as good as Zoom’s
  • Security questions
  • The chat is unsavable
  • The CPU load: Gather takes a ton of computing power, making it hard to run other apps concurrently

The connection problems we experienced would likely be improved if we had used the paid version of the platform. But none of this would stop me from recommending Gather, including recommending the free version, and didn’t stop us from running more Brain Jams. Many of the glitches are navigable, and some are fixable just by refreshing the browser.

For all the glitches, the experience of being in a room with my participants was 100% worth the hiccups.

I and many others in the Brain Jam got immersed in a shared virtual world. We got to have moments of connection that felt just like they do when we meet in person. And we rediscovered so many things we had loved about facilitating in person.

It was easy to tell how immersive the experience had become when, at the end of the Brain Jams, people asked, “How do I leave this place?” They had forgotten they were just in a tab in their browser. Instead of just clicking to close the window, they were asking me to show them the door.

Btw this Brain Jam / blog post was not sponsored by or affiliated with Gather in any way. Gather is simply a cool platform we were excited to learn about and felt our facilitator community could benefit from exploring.

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