Little Tech: Playground is Uniquely Cultivating the Virtual Events Universe

One curious paradox of the digital age, is that as we were sucked deeper and deeper into the virtual world—with the corresponding and worrying diminishment in human empathy—the live events business continued to swell. Every city worth traveling to now has some manner of music festival, film festival or art fair (still, don’t hold your breath for Art Basel Topeka), and a weird warp in the cultural fold actually saw hipsters rushing in droves to old biddy craft fairs.

Then…the pandemic. The insidious spreading of the coronavirus branded as COVID-19 required instituting serious lockdowns in March, that have veritably shut down the concert business since, and laid waste to the entire slate of 2020 art and film schmoozes as well. The culturati responded, as one does these days, by going virtual—with DJ sets, art exhibitions, TED Talks and beyond all taking on a new digital context.

Naturally, there was a lot of, “Hey, this is almost as good as the real thing,” going on, when really most of it wasn’t. But the efforts were heroic, at a time when we needed any kind of heroes. And a new app going by the name Playground quickly shifted strategy to cultivate this new technological phenomenon.

Though the word “curated” has been surely misapplied and flogged more mercilessly even than “bespoke” in the last several years of dubious journalism, in the case of Playground (download in App Store), it is actually accurately deployed. Via the use of playlists, one can create a personalized “schedule” of virtual events, catered specifically to taste. And for a deeper sense of zeitgeist immersion, they have engaged influential, particularly plugged-in people (though not celebrities) who will curate—there’s that word again—around specific interests…like Black Lives Matter Youth Chapter Founder Nupol Kiazulu, who focuses on BLM related virtual happenings.

Of course, with so many becoming exasperated with the intrusiveness of “Big Social Media,” the timing could not be more on. But to more decisively understand what it’s all about, we chatted with Playground Co-Founder and CEO Linda Yang.

What was the initial impetus for launching Playground?

Playground was inspired by our group of friends in Brooklyn, NYC.  Like any community, we related to one another through mutual passions and interests, getting closer by going to events. The experience of being together and belonging is the cornerstone of human connection and humanity. We dreamed up Playground, a next-gen event guide, so that experiencing this constant “discovery mode”, to try new things and form new communities, could be easier wherever you are.

Playground was inspired by our group of friends in Brooklyn.  Like any community, we related to one another through mutual passions and interests, getting closer by going to events. The experience of being together and belonging is the cornerstone of human connection and humanity. We dreamed up Playground, a next-gen event guide, so that experiencing this constant “discovery mode”, to try new things and form new communities, could be easier wherever you are.

It was already in progress before the coronavirus lockdowns?

Even before coronavirus, our team observed technology’s impact on creating a more socially distant society. More screen time led to more manufactured social connections that were passive, performative, fake or filtered. We wanted to create a more intentional platform with modern, positive values, that fostered genuine connection and community through experience. We found a small group of like-minded angels who helped us build our mobile app: an AI-Powered “Spotify of Events” which focused on in-person events. This became launch-ready right before lockdown. 

How did the pandemic situation shift the focus of Playground?

Playground has been focused on discovery and community since day one. 

With COVID canceling all events, and forcing the world into isolation, we quickly recognized the need to help people discover social and cultural opportunities. We immediately pivoted from a city-based launch with IRL events to an international launch focused on virtual events.

After our pivot, we were inundated with requests from independent artists and creators, wanting to be featured—which highlighted the opportunity on the other side of the virtual events space. For every individual that has a hard time finding an event, there is a creator that is struggling to attract an audience. So we’re building tools for them too.

Did it actually force you to sharpen the focus?

With virtual events, we saw an opportunity to connect people across borders. In a way, our focus on event discovery has broadened to a more inclusive worldwide audience, which has allowed us to pinpoint values—aligned micro communities to partner with from the start.

How would you describe the “mission” of Playground?

Playground’s mission is to help people discover the things that make them feel most alive. Because that’s what the world needs right now. More joy. More positivity. More interesting, diverse and unique characters sharing experiences. People, young and old, are starving for more meaningful memories, relationships, and experiences. We want to give them that.

And how would you describe the user experience?

We are building a platform with the intention of becoming the “Spotify of Events”. 

Much like Discover Weekly, our current app serves you a personalized “playlist” of events daily, which you can “swipe” through similar to other social apps. We think about event discovery holistically, so also include featured “playlists” by top culture curators. The same way that an artist has a page on Spotify that lists out their albums, singles, video interviews, etc.—virtual event creators can also have a profile on Playground where they post their live events.

Currently, we’re also building a web-based platform with registration, ticketing, and support tools that will allow digital content creators to support themselves from their virtual events—whether hosted through Instagram, Zoom, or Twitch—and to better manage their communities.

What is unique about Playground in terms of connecting people to events around the world?

Traditional event listings are often static, and overloaded with low-quality events, leaving you overwhelmed and uninspired. They also weren’t built to satisfy both the in-person and virtual event market.

Playground is designed to incite discovery—both online and offline. To open your eyes to new people, places and experiences. We use tech to personalize recommendations.  And we use our background in design to curate and build better experiences for both users and creators.

And ease of use was a focus?

For the user, we want to make sure they don’t get caught up in any algorithmic bubbles, where things start to feel the same. By thinking about event discovery holistically, with powerful tools like search, featured communities (from all the world) and save-able playlists (curated by cultural influencers), we are laser focused on being the place people check to explore cultural happenings.

While we are focused on discovery, we don’t think we can give users the best experience unless we form a relationship with the event creators themselves. So we’re building tools for event creators to deepen current engagement while reaching new audiences. 

This makes us a very community driven, next-gen product that thinks about how people connect before, during and after an event. And how that can be used to improve recommendations.

Who is your ultimate target audience?

The pockets of Millennials and GenZ who spend more on experiences than material things. Individuals who recognize the divisive and isolating nature of the “social” platforms out there, who want to explore—to do more. For the continuous learner, the explorer, and the activist.

And, of course, event creators. We’re seeing an explosion of culture across the web, and with it, event hosts are expressing the pain and difficulty of bringing new attendees to their events. We’re developing event management and community building tools for small and large venues alike so that their important programming doesn’t get lost in the swipe-and-scroll culture of today’s web.

So you’re working with notable people to “curate” lists of related events?

We are working with world-class curators to bring the best events on the web. From top cultural institutions to grassroots activism movements, our curators represent a diverse mix of backgrounds and nationalities. They each curate events through their unique perspective, mixing high and low—from can’t-miss festivals to super niche and hard-to-discover popups.

Currently, our curator board includes Jessica Hodin Levy (Head Art Curator, Frieze Art Fair), Mikala Knezevich (Comedy Producer, Comedy Central, Comedy Cellar, Soho House), Guillaume Gee (Head of Music, Wonderfruit Festival), Sah D’Simone (Wellness Influencer, Author, Alo Moves), and Nupol Kiazolu (Former Founder, Black Lives Matter Youth Chapter, Founder Vote2000).

How do you see the rise of virtual events playing out? 

The ease of creating virtual events has ushered in a whole new wave of digital content creators, artists, brands, and even agencies are seeing the benefits of using livestreaming to bring people into their world. It’s safe to say that virtual events have become a mainstay of content marketing for many creators.

Beyond livestream, these experiences will also become more and more sophisticated with the arrival of AR/VR and 5G technologies that will transform them into something more immersive, real-time and connected.

With the proliferation of all this new content, our take on this is that nailing event curation and discovery will be more important than before. And that this kind of data will be used to empower event organizers to grow their audiences, and design even more fulfilling in-person experiences.

And what happens to that when we do get back to having a regular schedule of live events? 

Virtual events allow for the possibility of creating experiences that were not possible before, such as a performance with DJs from all over the world. We think creators appreciate this, and will find new ways to bring virtual and live audiences together through some sort of hybrid experience in the future. Even as IRL events return or take new post-COVID shapes.

And how will live in-person events be permanently altered by the pandemic?

The appetite for virtual events has attracted new audiences to creators from around the world. We see a livestream component becoming a mainstay for in-person events as creators are now seeing the reach they can attain by broadcasting their content globally. Since in-person events are expensive and time consuming to produce, we also believe virtual events will be a steady complement to in-person events, keeping communities engaged and connected virtually anytime.

Will Playground be creating its own branded virtual events?

We’re all about building community in real-life and virtually around the platform. Besides growing our network of diverse creators and curators, we hosted a live, virtual festival called “Play On.” A cast of eight creators from opera singers to Burning Man DJs performed and brought people together in the first few months of quarantine. The event-series will definitely be ongoing.

How do you hope Playground will better the everyday lives of those who are using it?

Technology is supposed to bring people together. We are building a platform that exposes users to new creators and experiences. In an era of algorithms that put users’ interests in a bubble, we aim to break that feedback loop and broaden perspectives. Eventually, we think we’ll be connecting people in new ways, helping creators grow their communities, and users connect based on their passions and interests.  

We hope the more people use Playground, the more ways they find to meaningfully spend their precious time. 

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