A Summary of Discussions on Virtual Conferences

:: academia

After a successful virtual PLDI, some of us expressed support for more virtual conferences in the future, and some expressed dissent and concerns. The result was an interesting discussion on Twitter, which is essentially impossible to follow. I summarize the discussions here, and include some of my own editorializing.

Please forgive the typos; my fingers quickly get out of sync with my brain, especially at 1am while following multiple twitter discussions.

Changelog

  • 9:51PM PDT June 19, 2020, added “on the nature of networking” section
  • 12:10AM PDT June 20, 2020, enabled inline expansion of twitter links
  • 1:10AM PDT June 20, 2020, added time zone issue that I missed
  • 1:02PM PDT June 20, 2020, added summary and link to Neel’s post on barrier to conversion
  • 12:16PM PDT June 21, 2020, added additional section on addition barriers the came up in later discussion
  • 12:16PM PDT June 21, 2020, moved Neel’s post to new section
  • 12:47PM PDT June 21, 2020, added table of contents

Table of Contents

  1. Virtual Conferences Lower Barriers
  2. What about Networking
  3. Virtual Conferences Impose New Barriers
  4. On the Nature of Networking Community Building
  5. Additional Barriers in Virtual Conferences

1. Virtual Conferences Lower Barriers

Compared to physical conferences, virtual conferences:

  1. cost less in travel expenses;
  2. cost less in travel time;
  3. cost less in environmental impact;
  4. are more accessible to nations with visa requirements.

This is a huge win, but the first and fourth points are especially important for accessibility reasons. People from first-world nations with easy access to international travel (don’t require visas, e.g.) disproportionately benefit from physical conferences at the expense of people from all other nations.

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2. What about Networking

One of the biggest problems with virtual conferences is how it may affect junior academics who will not get the same networking experience the rest of us got. It’s unarguable that networking has affected on our careers, although it’s not clear exactly what those effects are, whether they are good or bad, or whether they could be replicated or improved by other mechanisms.

In essence, a shift to virtual conferences shifts a big risk on to junior academics who would be asked to play by a new set of rules, different from those the rest of us have been playing by.

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As it would be unfair to ask junior folks to bear that risk, we who want to support virtual conference oughts to donate our time to mitigating that risk:

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It seems that in-person networking is useful, but I ask: why? What is the exact thing, the purpose, the role, the benefit that in-person networking is providing? If we knew that, we could ideally replicate it.

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On the other hand, both junior and senior folks report more engagement than they’ve experience at physical conferences. This suggests that while the rules of networking in academia might change, it might be for the better.

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3. Virtual Conferences Impose New Barriers

One barrier is just relating to your fellow humans, which is easier for some when people are willing to open up and get personal, but not everyone does that online:

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Escaping obligations to attend the conference is harder when you’re at home and you can’t just say “Sorry, I’m in London I literally can’t do that”. Carving out time is no longer baked into the structure of the conference but is shifted into an individual responsibility for every attendee.

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Virtual attendance also presents barriers to people with disabilities, since it relies so heavily on single-mode information processing. A talk on Zoom is essentially audio-only, with no visual cues from the presenter, no ability to lip-read for many talks, and no captions (since Zoom lacks this support). Slack is visual/text-only.

This was also a problem in many physical conference, but is made worse in virtual.

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Finally, time zones make it particularly difficult for some to attend.

4. On the Nature of Networking Community-Building

After much discussion on the nature of “networking”, we approached some specific goals that it achieves and how some virtual mechanisms address it.

First, some argue that “networking” should be rephrased in terms of community and relationship building. The “professional” connotation of “networking” disguises its true function and brings with it ideas of nepotism.

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There several goals of community-building:

  1. help disseminate institutional knowledge;
  2. meet people outside your own community or circle relationships;
  3. help build a map of who works on what, who knows what, to facilitate future contact, questions, and collaboration;
  4. help disseminate your own work and receive feedback;
  5. make friends and build relationship.

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Arguably, point (1) should be a non-issue because our scientific process would preserve and disseminate this in our work. Alas, this isn’t the case.

In-person conference have at least three advantages in addressing the above goals.

First, the default behavior at a conference encourages random encounters. There is less individual action required; the system of the in-person conference makes it the default. This builds point (2) into the system by design, easily facilitating all the others. This low-effort randomness is extremely important for breaking out of your own existing circle and into others, and is not well-supported online.

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Second, in person, avoiding confrontations is simple. Like it or not, it is true that not everyone in our field is perfect. Some are actively hostile or hurtful. In-person, it’s easy to see them and avoid them. Online mechanisms like assigned break-out rooms do not support this as easily.

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Third, building relationships take unstructured time and communication. This time is easy to achieve in person over dinners, coffee, long talks in the hallway track. Online, this is not the case. Conversations are more structured, and shorter. We’re not eating together, spending time after dinner, etc—we meeting, maybe talk, then close the browser tab or video conferencing window. The online form of communication also makes communicating harder, and requires more effort than we may be willing to spend. Chatting over a coffee is hardly any effort at all and an extremely high bandwidth, multi-mode form of communication.

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Thankfully, there are some good online alternatives to address some of these goals. Disco rooms for adding random interaction to PLMW seem to have succeeded, and are being looked at to port to whole conferences. Several people find Twitter a great place for community building, extending random conversations, which serve to address some missing aspects of physical conferences.

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Additional Barriers in Virtual Conferences

As the conversation, several barriers not explicitly mentioned in Section 3 above came up.

In short:

  1. It’s harder to have intellectual conversations.
  2. Online, approaching others to talk may be further exclusionary by favoring the bold and confident.
  3. There are particular barrier for caregivers, which disproportionately affect women.
  4. There are barriers for faculty introducing their students into the community.

Neel wrote about his experience in which he argues that the whole point of a conference is talking to people, and this is more difficult in an virtual setting. The talks themselves are there to facilitate intellectual discussion, not merely to be consumed. Virtual conferences impose a huge barrier to this conversation, largely defeating the whole point. So far the only mitigation to this is intentional, individual action, which is not a good substitute for a design that encourages conversation by default as in a physical conference.

Neel’s post:

A private discussion pointed out that the focus on randomness in the above about benefits of physical conference can exclude those not bold enough to approach and open up a conversation. This made worse in an online setting when must initiate conversation.

A private discussion focused on the particular hardship caregivers, who are disproportionately women, have in attending virtual conferences. Our field is already predominately male, and without addressing this, virtual conferences could exacerbate the problem. This was already a problem in physical conferences, but may be worse in virtual conferences where individual action is required rather than a systemic solution.

One additional problem related to community-building is that advisors cannot easily introduce their students to the community. In physical conferences, this is pretty easy. An advisor may be looking out for their student, or a student may be shyly hanging around their advisor, and during any of the breaks you’re likely to run into someone and introduce them. Alternatively, an advisor may make a point of introducing their student to someone, and track each of them down during a break. The structure of a virtual conference makes the former impossible, and makes it easy to forget to or disengage too much to do the latter.

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