Gathering Goes Virtual in the Time of Uncertainty

Looking for the “laugh track”of digital live events

by Itamar Kubovy

Assembling at live events reinforces our place in a larger professional or social context. When we are in a group we can calibrate with others, realign our internal compasses, articulate shared values, share efforts to move group goals forward, and hear how others have done the same. Whether this feeling comes from family, church, summer camp, a music concert, workmates, friends, politics, war-buddies, a corporate brand, or fellow sports fans, it always involves the feeling of belonging to something bigger than we are and feeling ourselves inside a larger collective experience.

In face-to-face “live” gatherings we experience the group with all of our senses. We see that we are in a room with others; we hear the crowd murmur in the tone of the room; we smell a cloud of perfume or a delicious tray as it passes us by; even our sense of touch is activated as we feel our clothing brush up against our skin as we pass someone on their way to the bar. Working together, our senses envelop us in the experience of the gathering.

Just as being together in a group changes our experience of the world, it also influences our behavior in the world. Certain behaviors might feel awkward in public; other behaviors are only fun if we do them in a group. Laughter, for example, happens much less often if someone is alone than if someone is in a crowd. In fact, when people are together anxiety is reduced, and learning is improved. It should come as no surprise then, that as we find ourselves looking to preserve our communities in a virtual world, feeling part of a group is a huge priority of the service we must deliver.

In the early days of television, more than half a century ago, it became expensive and inefficient to shoot situation comedies in front of a live studio audience. To compensate, the industry came up with the innovation of the laugh track -- pre-recorded audio of a variety of audience laughs and reactions. After the show was taped, the “canned” laughter was mixed into the audio track after the punch line of every joke, creating a virtual audience that never existed. For the viewer, the laugh track replaced the live audience. By inserting the pre-recorded laughter at the right moment, the show allowed people to feel they were not laughing alone. It was a massively successful tool used in broadcast television for decades. A simple, achievable, inexpensive idea that made a large dispersed audience feel part of a group at scale, even as individual viewers sat alone in their rooms. Actors hated it because it talked down to the audience by telling them when to laugh. But the laugh track made America feel the whole country was together, keeping us all company and enabling us to laugh along.

What is the equivalent of the laugh track for a virtual live event? What are the tools at our disposal that will make the virtual participant feel less alone and more part of the group? How do we turn virtual participants into a virtual audience?

Whether it's Teams, Zoom, a Discord server, Facebook hearts, or new technologies that will offer a virtual immersive venue where avatars can meet and communicate with each other, in real time, we find ourselves in a race not only to translate live content to a broadcast medium, but to make the ineffable feeling of being face to face with others in a group translate to the digital "live" experience as well.

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