The virtual FAIR struggles after going over capacity, rescheduled for Sept. 30

The virtual FAIR replaced the in-person FAIR this year because of the pandemic, but on the first try, GatherTown, the virtual forum developed by two Carnegie Mellon alum, didn't work well. The second attempt at the virtual FAIR is on Sept. 30 at 5:30 p.m. (credit: Cole Skuse/) The virtual FAIR replaced the in-person FAIR this year because of the pandemic, but on the first try, GatherTown, the virtual forum developed by two Carnegie Mellon alum, didn't work well. The second attempt at the virtual FAIR is on Sept. 30 at 5:30 p.m. (credit: Cole Skuse/)

For a first-year student, joining a student organization can be an easy way to meet new people and make some friends, especially when students are spread throughout the globe due to the online-optional nature of this semester. Because many students are not able to travel to campus and social gatherings are limited, many clubs have turned to online calls to assist them in their recruiting efforts.

In previous years, organizations would have the opportunity to recruit new members through The FAIR, an event that Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement (SLICE) organizes every year. Student organizations would set up tables on The Cut, and students would visit them to learn more about the organizations. To host this event for all students, regardless of their location, The FAIR moved to an online space, marking the first virtual FAIR.

The virtual FAIR utilized the website GatherTown, a platform two Carnegie Mellon alumni helped develop, which allows users to create a character and walk around in virtual space, interacting with other people around them. For this event, students could explore a virtual copy of Carnegie Mellon’s campus, where 200 organizations had spots set up around the map so those interested in an organization could interact with them. If the student stood on one of the white stickers in front of an organization’s table, they would be able to sign up for that organization's mailing list.

“We expected the virtual FAIR to have at least 1,000 people in attendance at any given time. There were 200 organizations registered, and they were allowed two representatives per table, which would equal 400 students alone,” Coordinator of SLICE Andrew Greenwald told The Tartan. “The two-person tabling limit is the same restriction we have in place when the FAIR is inside the Cohon Center, as we watch capacity limits.”

When students entered the virtual FAIR at 5:30 p.m., they were met with a “500 Internal Service Error” or white screens that weren’t loading. If students managed to enter the room where the event was happening, it was rare for them to be able to move or interact with anything on their screen. The chat feature, however, did still work, so organizations posted links to Zoom calls or information for their respective organizations.

“We had concerns going into the virtual FAIR, however, GatherTown has successfully held events significantly larger than the virtual FAIR, so our concerns were mainly focused on internal logistics,” Greenwald said. “We had training sessions for SLICE staff to act as moderators and our last test/training a few hours before the FAIR all looked well, and to be honest, we were excited to showcase the work of some of our very own Tartans,” he said.

At one point, attendees joined the room to a warning on their screen, saying, “Room Limits Exceeded!,” as there were only 500 spots available in the room and more than 550 people trying to attend the virtual event.

SLICE ended up communicating that due to technical difficulties with GatherTown, the virtual FAIR will be postponed. They also asked organizations who were hosting Zoom meetings due to the GatherTown malfunction to post their links on The Bridge so interested students would still be able to learn more about them.

“We are very proud of our student leaders/organizations who smoothly managed to pivot the night of the virtual FAIR to alternative platforms,” Greenwald said, “Student organizations quickly created Zoom info sessions, posting them on social media interacting with the @SLICEatCMU Instagram, and also on The Bridge, which I have never seen as full of events before.”

After many students left GatherTown for other platforms, or because they were getting frustrated with the platform, some of the technical issues were resolved and students who were left were able to meet with some of the organizations that still had members on GatherTown and were able to watch some of the organizations’ videos.

SLICE will hold another virtual FAIR on Sept. 30th from 5:30-7:30 p.m., the same time that it was previously scheduled for. SLICE will invite registered organizations into GatherTown the day before the virtual FAIR so that they will have time to explore the platform. For the organizations that were registered for the previous event, more information will be emailed to them.

As SLICE plans to hold the rescheduled virtual FAIR on the same platform that had many technical problems for students, some may be less willing to use it to attend the rescheduled virtual FAIR. SLICE has had an extensive debriefing with the technical team at GatherTown, where the issues that were encountered with the event have been addressed and are unlikely to happen again. “We have tested GatherTown with many different community members and everyone who has participated believes there is undeniable value: it creatively addresses many of the communication difficulties with video calls in a way that no other platform has managed. We believe that value is so great, that it warrants a second chance for our Tartan family,” Greenwald said. “We will continue to work with GatherTown and act as a liaison for organization and departments on campus considering GatherTown as a platform.”