A few thoughts about virtual conferences

I attended the first virtual edition of TheWebConference last week. The conference was planned as a conference with physical attendance. The organizers decided to make it a virtual conference a few weeks before it began. I have to applaud the organizers who managed to make this change which is extremely challenging on many levels.

I attended several sessions and I have to say that my experience was not wholly positive (by no fault of the organizers), partly due to objective reasons and partly because of things that we might learn to do differently.

Objective problems: A virtual conference offers the possibility for many more people to attend. On the other hand, it also means that there are significant time zone problems. Owing to the location of Taiwan, I’m guessing that people from time zones of India and up to Australia could probably comfortably attend the entire conference. People in the west coast of the Americas likely attended the morning sessions and those in Europe the afternoon sessions. I’m not sure what people on the east coast of the Americas did… I don’t see how we can overcome this problem, but time zone differences mean that the conference audience is spread over multiple sessions. All the sessions I attended had fewer participants than what I would have expected in a physical conference.

Things we can do differently:

Questions and participation: For some reason, it felt as though people were less comfortable asking questions. This was true even at a virtual poster session which I participated in. Perhaps, just as we have a Session Chair, we should have a secret “session question asker”, who will ask the first questions to help others participate? (and no, the fact that the Chair asks a question didn’t prove to be a good solution)

Socializing: One of the main reasons I go to a conference is to have informal conversations with people. This didn’t happen in the virtual setting, and I don’t know how we can make it work. Perhaps hold virtual lunches?

Disconnect from other work: One advantage of going to a conference somewhere is that I (mostly) disconnect from other work and dedicate those few days to being immersed in the conference. Since I was home, it was much harder to disconnect. I felt as though the conference was the side show to my usual work. This is probably something I can learn to do…

Virtual conferences potentially have advantages over physical conferences, for example, in the fact that they open their (virtual) doors to more people, some of whom would not be able to travel to a physical conference. As more conferences will be moving to a virtual setting, at least for the next few months, we should give more thought to how we maintain the benefits of the physical conference as well as realize the benefits of being on a virtual conference.