In June 2020, Scott Huntley challenged this community to change his perspective on online conferences. Scott felt that online conferences are cold, empty experiences as they do not allow for true connection and networking. Since I couldn’t get out to play pick up hockey or hang out at a coffee a local shop, I decided to take up this challenge.
The best way to gather information about online conference social potential is to participate in a few, journal about the experience and arrive at a conclusion. Although I am no stranger to online conferences, the majority of my experience has been at face-to-face events. After the dust of the first wave settled in late July, I cobbled together a Fall 2020 conference schedule. I decided to submit session proposals to a few conferences. Luckily, I was accepted by four events and politely rejected by others.
At these fully online conferences, I would run a session and attend other sessions. Hopefully, there would be online social events such as virtual yoga, virtual coffee or virtual tours. This would allow me to determine if online conferences are worse than face-to-face conferences.
As the summer progressed, the conference I usually attend, posted request for interest for conference session moderators. Since this was the first year that the event was fully online, the organizers needed session moderators to assist the presenters and to mediate communication with the audience. I thought that this would be an interesting experience, so I applied and was accepted for this role. As a result, I was going to attended conference sessions as a participant, facilitate an online session and perform session moderator duties.
So, I thought this was a perfect example of fully participating in an online conference. However, an educational vendor rented a virtual table in conference vendor’s hall. They asked me to virtually sit at their table and answer questions about their services. My duties also included ensuring that the company video was looping, engaging anyone who entered the virtual space, and directing folks to digital pamphlets and other online resources. Most importantly, I was to record the names and comments of people who expressed interest in the project.
To summarize at one fully online conference, I was functioning as a:
- session facilitator/leader
- sessions participant
- session moderator
- exhibit hall table jockey
With four functions at this online conference, I was ready for the show. As a conference delegate/participants, I felt comfortable. Some of the session facilitators experienced technical issues at the onset of sessions, but these were not too distracting and their professionalism and the respect showed by the audience made most of the sessions worth the visit. As a participant, I could not turn on my camera or speak with a microphone. My interaction with the facilitators was limited to a question posting box that would be read to the facilitators during the Q and A period at the end of the session.
However, I did notice that the public chat was being used for folks to request technical assistance and greeting others who were noticed in the participants’ list. If participants wanted to have a private conversation they often opted for private chat room offered by the conference app. To be honest, most of the dialogue on the public chat was social. I connected with a few delegates but did not jump into the private chat as I was focused on the current session.
As a session facilitator, my focus was on delivering the information and ideas within the allotted time. Since the participants were not in direct communication with me as the facilitator, it felt like I was reading into an empty room. The only voice I could hear was the session moderator. There was no social interaction with delegates. A few emailed for information regarding the session content and hand outs after the conference, but there were no meaningful social exchanges.
As a session moderator, I felt like a juggler, managing the technology, the polls, the Q and A, redirecting technology concerns, ensure the video and audio were broadcasting, recording the session and keeping each session on time. There was no time for human contact during these sessions. However, as a moderator, I spent a few hours with each session facilitator before the conference. In these meetings we sorted out technology, presentation and timing issues. It was during these informal session that I was able to meet very impressive personalities from our field. I made a few connections in this role.
My final function, as a virtual desk jockey, was by far the most social. I could see who was looking at the vendor’s space and reached out to each one of them. Some of them I had met at previous conferences or worked on contracts with in the past. I was able to reconnect with some folks which felt great. I did have some interesting conversations with new people just as in a face-to-face conference.
One of the benefits of the conference’s online format was the delegates came from a wider region, so I encountered folks that never would have come to the conference due to budgets, commitments and time were present throughout the conference. I enjoyed exchanging ideas with folks from across the country and beyond.
I was busy at this conference and did interact with scores of delegates and presenters. I found that my schedule and roles did not promote social engagement during the conference hours with the exception of the virtual exhibitor table. Virtual conferences are an efficient venue for generating contact lists as names, connected affiliations and emails were instantly accessible. Emails do not make a genuine relationship, but they can be a starting point. I agree with Scott that it is easier to make a connection and join others in a post-day activity such as a coffee, dinner or a walk around the area. Limited by rigid online schedules, the lack of potentially bumping into a peer in a hallway or joining an informal group at a cafe at virtual conference, make forming genuine relationships less possible – not impossible.
Just to be sure…
I attended three additional conferences this past term, as well as a dozen webinars. Some offered virtual yoga, Zoom socials and virtual tours. These did offer opportunities for engagement and interaction between delegates, however I agree with Scott’s impression that online conferences do not have the same human connection as face-to-face conferences and I am going to patiently wait with everyone else until we can experience them in the future.