Sometimes community technology is so freaking cool, you can’t help but share it! This time around, we’re chatting with Andy Baio, creator of Skittish, a playful, audio-first virtual space for hosting events and gatherings online. Let’s get into the conversation and learn more!
Tell us a little bit about who you are.
Hi, I’m Andy Baio (@waxpancake). I’m a writer, coder, and the co-organizer/curator of XOXO, an experimental festival in Portland, Oregon about artists and creators who live and work on the internet, currently on hiatus due to the pandemic.
For the last two decades, I’ve written about internet culture and creative technology on my site, Waxy.org. I also built and rebuilt the Upcoming.org event calendar, helped get Kickstarter off the ground as a long-time advisor to the company and its first CTO, and made a bunch of other weird stuff like Belong.io, Playfic, and Supercut.org.
What drew you to invest in the events/community space?
Since the BBS era, I’ve been drawn to the ways technology can bring people together, online and off. I originally built Upcoming to help connect people at events, and after my involvement with Kickstarter, co-founded XOXO to bring together creators using the internet to make a living and put them all in one room to talk about the uniquely hard things that come out of it.
But then the pandemic canceled our festival (twice!) and I started playing around with virtual event platforms, realizing that there wasn’t anything out there that felt quite right to me, so I started building Skittish.
For those who don’t know, what is Skittish?
Skittish is a playful space for online events, letting you explore a colorful and easily customizable world as a cute animal avatar, using spatial audio from your microphone to talk to others near you. It’s all browser-based, built in a 3D engine with a simple but powerful collaborative editor.
Techcrunch described it recently as “what you’d get if you crossed Animal Crossing with Clubhouse,” which is as good a description as any.
As a conference leader, how has the pandemic changed community and events from your perspective?
Well, it pretty much destroyed the in-person events industry, at least for now. Here in Oregon, we’re facing the biggest surge of the pandemic so far, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to run large gatherings like XOXO again.
I think, by necessity, it opened a lot of people up to the benefits of virtual events — convenient, accessible, affordable — but also the huge drawbacks. Whether it’s a Zoom-style wall of faces or a glorified webinar, the interaction between attendees is so awkward or lackluster, if it exists at all.
What gap does Skittish fill in the online community/gathering space?
I’ve tried to focus on building a space that lets people interact with each other in a way that’s much more playful and natural: talking to the people near you as you explore the world, watch talks, or listen to others. You’re never on camera and can use the 3D positional audio to hear a mesh of conversation around you as you explore, deciding when and how to engage.
Many of the design decisions — no camera, spatial audio, animal avatars, the visual look of the space — were designed to get people comfortable interacting with others. From the moment you join, it’s clear this isn’t a meeting or conference call.
We also built Skittish in a 3D engine, which allows for a level of customization and immersion that’s hard to recreate from a 2D environment alone.
That said, there’s a lot of amazing experimentation in this space right now with tons of interesting and inspiring projects. We’re far from alone here in recognizing the need for innovative social event spaces.
What kinds of gatherings did you design Skittish for? What uses do you hope to see in the future?
I’ve tried to keep an open mind about that! I initially designed it for events like XOXO: large-scale social gatherings with multiple tracks of programming across multiple rooms, and ample space for people to interact with each other and make new friends.
I also hoped that artists and creators use it to bring their communities together, whether it’s authors doing a book reading, podcasters doing a live episode, musicians doing a concert livestream or listening party, or YouTubers debuting new work with their supporters.
But I’ve found that there’s interest far beyond that, particularly from educators who want to use it for schools and companies like Discourse who want to use it for their own internal meetups. It’s also worked very well for more casual unstructured meetups without programming. I know I’m biased, but it’s just pretty fun to hang out in.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen done in Skittish so far?
A creative coding event I love called !!Con (pronounced “Bang Bang Con”) used Skittish for its viewing parties and social space during its virtual conference, building out a theater that doubled as a dance hall at night, holding impromptu animal races during the day, and hiding all sorts of delightful things around the world for people to find.
And literally as I write this, it’s being used for a game design camp for 10-13 year olds, where they meet in Skittish and use its world editor to craft simple social games. It’s chaotic and adorable.
What does the future hold for Skittish?
Our next big milestone is opening publicly. We’ve been running events of all kinds for the last few months, making improvements and adding features as we go, and have slowly been rolling out invites to people on our waitlist.
Beyond that, I’m excited to start incorporating more tools and interactive objects to let event organizers and attendees design game-like experiences in Skittish. I’m a big fan of immersive theater, escape rooms, adventure games, and social gaming, and it feels like there’s enormous potential to extend what we’ve built so far for deeper social experiences.
The inspiration for Skittish came out of the pandemic, but these days, I’m much more excited to see how it can be used for experiences that could never be done in the real world than trying to replicate real-world events.
Where can people find out more if they’re interested?
We’re currently rolling out invites, so you can sign up for the notification list on our homepage to get notified. We’re posting periodic major updates to our blog, and you can follow us on Twitter at @SkittishHQ. Thanks for checking it out!