Major technical difficulties arose during the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s virtual Activities Night on Sept. 13, leaving the approximately 2,000 registered student participants confused. The online event platform Gather.Town crashed due to the high volume of participants, though organizers have since suggested that there is more to the story.
The w platform malfunctioned and experienced a system overload when it opened its doors to the thousands of participants. The system also experienced several glitches—room hosts would frequently freeze and participants struggled to access the different booths.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Karla Heisele Cubilla, SSMU vice president (VP) student life, explained that her team chose Gather.Town—as opposed to Zoom or Eventus, which were used for last year’s activities night—to host the event in hopes of delivering a more engaging online experience.
“We need to have a platform that is going to engage students, because really, Eventus did not work,” Heisele Cubilla said. “It was an expensive platform and it did not connect the groups with the students. [An] in-person fair was just not possible. In June, I reached out to McGill, hotels, and the Bell Centre, and everyone said no. [I heard from some of my staff that] Gather.Town was perfect and super interactive.”
Despite discussing capacity limits with Gather.Town executives, who recommended purchasing two spaces for the event, the platform was overwhelmed within minutes of the event’s start.
“We had around 1,200 registrants two days before the event, but two hours before the event we had a total of 2,267 students registered,” Heisele Cubilla explained. “[Our understanding was that] once capacity was reached in one of the worlds, there would not be a failure of the system, students just have to wait in a waiting room. The day of the event, at 4 p.m., 1,500 people signed in at the same time, we saw major lag, and [the first space] collapsed.”
SSMU organizers immediately began exploring troubleshooting options. Some club executives took matters into their own hands, coming up with alternatives on the fly, to connect via alternative means.
“After talking to many peers and executives from other clubs, I realized that the technical difficulties I faced using the platform were widespread,” said Liam Lynch, McGill Pre-Law Students’ Society Mock Trial president. “Once we realized that we were not able to get to our booth, we quickly set up a Zoom meeting open to all students and shared the meeting invitation through our social media channels.”
According to Heisele Cubilla, SSMU is currently planning a second activities night to make up for the first one’s shortcomings.
“We refunded all the community groups that paid,” Heisele Cubilla said. “I communicated to all the student groups what was happening, and I emailed all the students apologizing. Although there were technical difficulties outside our reach, we are still responsible to make sure that student life thrives. I have partnered with Campus Life & Engagement, and we have a team of six people working on Activities Night 2.0 for mid-October.”
The reaction to the event among student group leaders varied. Some, like Lea Baroud, vice president media and communications of the Arab Students’ Network, attributed the failure to uncontrollable technical circumstances.
“We found that the initiative of having a virtual […] booth to interact with students was a really creative one that could have replicated the experience of an ‘ordinary’ activities night,” wrote Baroud in a message to the Tribune.
Others worried about the impact that a failed Activities Night will have on club recruitment and outreach.
“I’m worried that not every SSMU club had sufficient means to connect with new students or make their name known on campus,” Lynch wrote to the Tribune. “As a result, some new or smaller organizations may have missed their chance to gain valuable new members.”