Lessons from moderating three virtual panels

I spoke at a conference Tuesday for the first time since February, and this time the dress code was a little different: no pants required.

That’s because my appearance at Futureproof IT came through my laptop’s webcam and the Zoom video-chat app, leaving nothing below my chest visible to the remote audience. That’s also how I moderated two more panels this week for the Collision conference that was originally set to run in Toronto in June but has since migrated to a digital format, with my appearances among those recorded in advance.

And that’s how I expect all of my conference speaking to happen for at least the next few months, thanks to the novel-coronavirus pandemic ruining everything.

I’ve learned a lot about successful panel moderation on a physical stage, but doing so in a virtual environment brings new challenges.

Start with picking and positioning a webcam. The camera in my aging iMac is at a good height relative to me when sitting, but it also delivers a subpar 720p resolution–and from that angle, I’d have natural light from the windows hitting only one side of my face. My HP laptop, meanwhile, has a 1080p webcam, and by parking it atop a stepladder and then a large tin topped by the thickest book I could find in my office (a hardcover of Dune), I could position it high enough while allowing myself to face my office’s windows.

(If I’d only bought the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam in the Before Times, I could have stuck the thing on a tripod and be done with it. As the song goes, there’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.)

The Collision panels added another complication: a request for a pale, blank backdrop. I managed that by hanging a white bedsheet from the ceiling with packing tape and binder clips–the tape stuck to the drywall, but I needed the clips to hold the tape to the sheet.

And then none of my other panelists showed up with pale, blank backgrounds. That’s one reassuring aspect of this: Not only can you expect somebody else to have audio or video hiccups, you can also expect somebody else to have a worse backdrop or camera angle.

Before kicking off a virtual panel, you must also silence every other device in the room, and my failure to think through “every other device” meant the Futureproof panel was not interruption-proof. As in, we were distracted by the one thing I didn’t think to put in do-not-disturb mode, an old Trimline land-line phone on my desk mainly for nostalgia purposes.

At least I didn’t have to change any settings on the laptop, thanks to Windows 10’s Focus Assist quashing interruptions from other apps once I switched Zoom to full-screen mode. But that also meant I had to look elsewhere for a timer: I couldn’t see the lock in the Windows taskbar, while Zoom’s option to show your connected time doesn’t account for minutes spent prepping on a call before a panel begins. I made do with the clock apps on my phone and iPad.

All three panels suffered from a certain latency as other speakers paused before answering my questions. You can’t point or nod to one as you would onstage to encourage them to jump in–and if one starts filibustering, it’s also harder to signal him to wrap things up. Simply reading the facial expressions of other panelists can be difficult if they use a lower-resolution webcam or neglect their lighting.

Reading the audience seems even harder in Zoom unless, I guess, you keep the chat pane open and have an audience that is exceptionally concise in their feedback. The way Facebook and Twitter let a live video audience respond with emoji and hearts ought to deliver easily-understood feedback at scale, and perhaps one of the many virtual-event apps now seeing escalating interest–see my friend Robin Raskin’s writeup of a handful at Techonomy–gets even closer to the real thing.

But I highly doubt any app will recreate how great it can feel to have a live audience tuned into the talk, laughing at your jokes and then applauding your work.

How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

Weekly output: Alexis Ohanian, Snapchat, fitness gadgets, Mac webcam

As I type this, I’m on my way to my 17th CES in a row. My laptop and phone have advanced a great deal since 1998, that’s for sure.

DisCo Ohanian interview

1/2/2014: Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian: Current IP Laws Aren’t Much Of A Friend to Startups, Disruptive Competition Project

My final contribution at DisCo was an interview with Reddit’s founder, who’s since become both an investor and activist on many tech-policy issues. We talked about how a balanced intellectual-property system helped make Reddit possible–and how the same system doesn’t always offer much help for small companies whose own IP has been infringed.

1/2/2014: Snapchat experienced a security breach, WTOP

I talked to D.C.’s news-radio station about Snapchat’s inexcusably lax approach to security and how it’s harder to change a compromised phone number than a password.

1/3/2014: New fitness gadgets, Fox 5 News

WTTG’s Sarah Simmons quizzed me on what activity-tracking gadgets like the Jawbone Up and the FitBit can do to help you track your exercise–and how they’re at risk of being made obsolete by tools built into smartphones.

1/4/2014: Q&A: How can I re-install my laptop’s webcam?, USA Today

The column recounts how resetting my MacBook Air’s System Management Controller cured it of an inability to see its own webcam… except that when I opened the laptop this morning, the problem had returned. Either I didn’t do the SMC reset correctly, or this Mac has a deeper ailment. Either way, I hope I don’t have to Skype or FaceTime from this machine this week.

On Sulia, I inventoried the memes I ignored on Twitter this year (“Duck Dynasty” should have been on that list too, as I’ve never watched the show, have no interest in watching it and don’t care who’s on it), wondered why Google Now’s estimate of my cycling mileage in December missed my Capital Bikeshare rides, whined about Chrome asking for saved passwords on every restart (and then updated that post to share a fix), endorsed a great little Mac plug-in called “WordService” that adds editing tools to just about every other app, and teed off on Snapchat for its arrogant refusal to apologize.