MIT Researcher Wants to Master the Art of Online Partying

He's pooling ideas from people around the country about the best ways to have a good time—even when you're not in the same room.

When Nathan Matias arrives at this year’s Mozilla Festival in London, a weekend-long excursion that brings together innovative minds seeking to improve the future of the web, he will be on the hunt for something specific: finding better ways to party online.

Matias, a PhD student at the MIT Center for Civic Media and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, will lead a group discussion at the event, alongside fellow researcher Mariana Santos, that will focus on “having fun and sharing gratitude in distributed online communities.” The aim of the panel will be to crowd source ideas in order to find a perfect platform—or combination of platforms—to facilitate transcontinental interactions over the Internet that feel as close to a physical celebratory experience as possible.

“That’s the heart of [the discussion]. Right now, we can exchange calendar invites, create documents together, and there is collaboration software for specific tasks, but not so much for just hanging out together,” said Matias, noting that it’s simple to have high-quality conversations, but difficult to foster community engagement. “Hopefully we will be able to create a guide to partying on the Internet, sharing tools, and maybe making a few of our own to make it possible.”

Matias’ curiosity about “how to party online” was born from his experiences as a trustee of “Awesome Knowledge,” a global chapter of the Boston-based “Awesome Foundation” that gives out micro-grants once a month to projects bridging “the gap between research and real life” to create “awesomeness.”

“We were looking for something we could use to throw some sort of a party for the 14-year-olds we give $1,000 to, who are doing amazing work in things like DIY bio-hacking,” said Matias.

On September 13, Matias penned a lengthy piece on the Civic Media’s website titled, “how to party online.” In it, he clearly stated his goal based on his time as a working member of Awesome Knowledge:

Most chapters conclude each grant cycle with a party, where a wide community is invited to celebrate as the grantee receives a big cheque or bag of money. After weeks of grant reviews and hard decisions, it’s this party that often keeps the foundation awesome. Awesome Knowledge can’t easily party in one place, so we’re looking for ways to celebrate online.

That was the immediate goal, he said, but then it expanded as the discussion blossomed following the post. It’s since spiraled off into a broader search for a way to host “the next party,” so people from around the world can share social time in inventive ways by using the web.

“It’s a quest to find the perfect way to party,” he said, adding that he’s played around with existing programs, but is trying to find a balance that makes online interactions easy to join, free to the public, and “flexible enough for all of the craziness to happen that happens at a party”—minus the spilled drinks.

“The current software we are using is purposed and laser-focused on a particular task, which is why this question has been interesting to so many people,” said Matias. “Outside of software, spaces and structures are far more versatile, so whatever it is needs to be fun and playful. It needs to remind people how important it is to get together for no specific reason, and it’s hard to do that on the Internet right now.”

Matias doesn’t think that playing party host to online gatherings using systems like Google Hangout or Skype will replace the traditional, in-the-flesh get-togethers that people enjoy. He admitted it would be “a sad world indeed” if people starting sacrificing intimate face-to-face opportunities for exclusively online soirees. But he said there’s still a need to consider what else is available as technologies advance and connections continue to be made between strangers from across continents.

“I think people will still want to hang out in a physical space, and hang out with one another,” he said. “But there are some communities where that’s just not possible. And for those people, it will continue to be important to find alternatives. I’m excited to see how those efforts develop.”