The first ever Digital Writers’ Festival has finished, and the dozens of brilliant writers, speakers and thinkers who contributed have retreated from our computer screens back to their real worlds.
The willingness of dozens of festival artists and participants to engage with a totally new and unfamiliar discussion format was extraordinary. Each day of the festival, panel after panel threw themselves at the mercy of the invisible audience who watched and listened to the live-streamed events. The two sessions I participated in (an interview and a book club), began with brief moments of panic and uncertainty, as the stream powered up and we realised our faces and voices were live. Of course this immediacy of contact was the whole point of the festival, but somehow it didn’t seem real until an event had commenced. Once the initial distraction of our own faces streaming back at us in real time wore off, the other panellists and I quickly settled into the conversations we were there to have. The live video chat format is at once familiar to all users of online technology, and an intensely strange subversion of actual face-to-face contact. Somewhere along the way it evens out into a natural communication medium, and one that proved to be perfectly suited to the festival format.
The theme of enabling otherwise impossible or improbable communication ran strong throughout DWF. The breadth of diversity represented at festival events was exceptional. There’s a huge difference between inclusivity and tokenism, but the Digital Writers’ Festival leant towards the former without ever straying into the dangerous territory of representation for representation’s sake. If DWF participants ticked a range of diversity boxes – deaf, Indigenous, teenagers, gender parity, people with mental health issues – the presence of these people on festival panels was never an expression of tokenistic programming, but rather evidence that their experiences and perspectives provoked interesting and varied conversations. Also central to the festival’s prioritisation of accessibility and inclusivity were the Twitter discussions that ran concurrently with each event. Here was a democratisation of writers’ festival question time – Q&As which were no longer dominated by the likes of @WritersFestQuestions! Anyone with a Twitter account could ask questions which were relayed to the participants during the panel, rather than being relegated to the final 15 minutes of the session.
One of the DWF’s greatest strengths was the avenues of communication it opened up between physically distant places within the space of one panel, whether these were via remote and interstate discussions (regional literary collectives); international cultural immersion residencies (the WrICE postcard from Singapore); or unprecedented multi-international forums (the UNESCO Cities of Literature global meetup). It’s difficult to reconcile the live-stream format of the DWF sessions, which seems so obvious now it has been established, with the reality that nothing similar with the wide scope and capability of the DWF had ever been staged before.
One consistent thread connects the many novel innovations and achievements of the Digital Writers’ Festival: the notion of connectivity. This presented itself in many ways – via ease of audience participation; enabling surprising and unexpected engagement between physically distant writers; or creating the opportunity for a diversity of voices from often marginalised or silenced groups to be widely heard. It all traces back to individual writers sitting tongue-tied and nervy in front of their computers, then speaking passionately as the live-stream commenced and they connected with each other and their audience.
Veronica Sullivan is an Associate Producer at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival and appeared in the Digital Writers’ Festival events Oscar Schwarz and the Literary Turing Test and DWF/KYD Book Club: Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man.