Most Virtual Conferences Still Suck

I think we can do better

Jan 30 2022

What's the purpose of a scientific conference? I think its twofold. One is you want to learn new important things without having to read all those papers. And the second one is meeting other people, making connections, getting into discussions.

Almost two years into remote-first, I have the impression that most (but definitely not all!) online conferences still suck at getting these jobs done. Online environments obviously don't naturally lend themselves to fulfill the need for serendipitous encounters and social connections. But I think they are actually better suited than real life conferences to disperse knowledge. And for many conferences there is still a lot that could be done to make the experience better with respect to human interaction.

In the following I have lined out some ideas/things I'd love to see more of at future online conferences. I am certainly not an expert on this but writing this solely out of the perspective of a frustrated and bored participant. I also haven't talked to heaps amount of people about this, so expect things to be very opinionnated/subjective. If you do agree or don't agree I'd thus highly appreciate if you'd share your thoughts.

Knowledge Transfer

Aesthetics are for Lay(wo)men

Maybe this is only true for the specific conferences I have been to, but it seems like 80% of presenters use the same, dull slide decks that look like they are coming straight out of the 80s. And most often they are cluttered with formulas and/or big amounts of text. It almost feels like people make their slides ugly on purpose. It's a way to signal that research and formulas are all you care about. Scientists don't need beautfiul slides, afterall we're not going to confrences to be entertained, right?

I am giving in on that argument. A conference is not a pitch contest (although actually it kind of is?), you are not facing a venture capitalist who will either throw a couple of thousand bucks at you or not, depending if she likes your presentation or not. Nonetheless, I believe aesthetics are more important than we'd like to admit to ourselves. Might be that its just me - a gen Y individual with a drastically stunted attention span - but looking at white-blue-black slides with formulas scattered around them, I know my mind will start to wander of a few minutes into the talk at least 70% of the time.

So, my first wish for scientists is to put a little more thought into designing nice presentations. Things don't have to be perfect, I know not everyone likes dealing with these things. But I believe just a little effort can go a long way in making it easier for listeners to follow along, retain more information and enjoy the talk.

Can you see my screen?

The above is true for real life as well as online talks. What makes the experience online even worse is all the technical issues.

"I am sorry to interrupt, but we are not seeing the slides move. Are you moving them?"

Not sure how often I've heard this during the last year, but it was definitely way too often. I am not blaming the presenters here - having a good lighting, audio and maneuvering multiple screens is a challenge but why not make the presenters pre-record their talks?

I think this has only advantages.

  • No more tech issues (or at least less of them)- just press play. Also no need to worry about the presenters internet connection, camera or microphone. All these things can be checked upfront.
  • No problem with time constraints. No need for the session chair to do time keeping and worry about speakers taking too long. Also less stress for the presenters - they can just record and adjust their talk multiple times until it works within the given time limit.
  • Higher quality of talks. Everyone gets nervous when presenting in front of many people, even if they are only present through Zoom's current participant count. Pre-recording gives presenters the chance to deliver the best version of their talk.
  • Possibility to smoothly integrate animations & videos. Some presentations might benefit from e.g. graph animations or incorporating short video clips. Often, however, people don't do these things, because you always risk getting caught up in technical frictions if you dare to click away from your slides. Pre-recording alleviates this problem.
  • One screen for presenter & presentation. It's always nice to actually see the person who is presenting. Services like Loom (and I am sure many others as well) allow you to record videos that combine camera input and slides. This makes it easier for particpants to simultaneously have an eye on the presentation and the speaker.

Some people might now argue that you'll loose the possibility to interact and the feeling of listening to a talk together with others, when you let presenters pre-record. This is true if you just upload the talks somewhere. But you can still host a session. Just play the pre-recorded video, have the presenter in the call (she could even answer questions in the chat during the presentation without being interrupted!) and host a live Q&A in the end.

Knowledge Compounds

Obviously its much easier to participate in a conference when its online. You don't have to take a plane (better for the environment also!) and travel for hours just for spending two days listening to talks which might potentially be relevant for your research. This is definitely an advantage - it saves time and makes conferences much more accessible. However, I think this component could be leveraged much more.

Knowledge is a non-rival good. You don't loose anything if more people have it. In fact, I would even argue the opposite. Knowledge compounds. The more people have it, the more progress we'll make. If you are publishing a paper and only a handful people understand it, the impact of your findings will be limited to what these, highly specialized experts do with their newly gained insights. On the contrary, if many people understand (or at least grasp the implications) of what you are looking at, probability is much higher that others will build upon your work.

Actual costs for having an additional attendee at a conference are close to zero. Of course, conference organisors need to finance themselves somehow and all the scientists anyways have budgets to spend on these things. But what about students? Or citizen scientists? Hobby-nerds? Wouldn't it be great if they too would get access to science's newest discoveries?

Or look at it the other way round. What's the worst thing that could happen (unless you give away the secret to reproducing a deadly virus)?

Meaningful Encounters

When it comes to social connections and exchange of thoughts, real life conferences admittedly still do have an advantage that I believe will be hard to come by. Still, I am convinced there is quite some things that can be done to make it easiert to connect via screens.

The Sweet Spot

I am pretty sure, anyone who has been in a zoom call with 10 strangers (or more) can confirm that it feels intimidating to speak up in such a setting. Some conferences try to counter this with arranging 1-on-1 calls, mostly arranged by an algorithm thats based on a lenghty survey that participants have to fill in upfront. However, these pairwise meetings are often awkward and tend to get repetitive. At least judging from my own experience you mostly end up repeating your professional life story all over again, listening to other people's CV and trying to somehow overcome uncomfortable silence. It's small talk at it's worst.

I think something in between is what works best. Small groups of 3-5 people with a clear topic. Video calls don't give rise to interactions as naturally as physical encounters do, thus I vouch for more guidance to get conversations flowing. These could be small break out rooms to discuss papers or drop-in sessions with a dedicated topic.

Some small things that I believe could enhance these experiences:

  • Have moderators. Nothing is worse than a networking session without anyone in charge. Online interactions still do feel odd for most of us and we need someone to take over responsibility and guide participants.
  • Let participants prepare a 2 sentence pitch about themselves. While its annoying to tell your personal history over and over again, its also a strange feeling to have no clue at all to whom you are talking to. If everyone gets tasked to write down two sentences that describe themselves and reads these out loud at the start of breakout rooms, you can hopefully get a quick impression of who is in the room without spending too much time.
  • Do icebreaker questions. I believe also in a professional environment there is big value to sharing something off-topic. It just gets you to a whole new level of familiarity. You could ask simple questions like 'What do you see when you look outside the window?' or more interest-focused like 'What's the last thing you geeked out about?'
  • Switch things up. Change groups from time to time. Maybe even get everyone together in a bigger group setting and let people share some of their insights from the small groups in the bigger round.
  • Make the purpose clear. What's the desired outcome? What's the question you are trying to answer? What topic are you discussing? Make sure everyone got a clear understanding of these things.

Bottom Up

One thing that makes in-person conferences really valuable is that you can just walk up to a speaker or another participant and decide to have a conversation about a topic you're both interested in. That's a lot harder online but if conference programs wouldn't be read only, things like this could be facilitated. Thus, my wish to all future conference organizers: Set up a mechanism that allows for self-organized sessions. This could just be via a simple form where you fill in a title and 2-3 sentences of description. Organizers then provide a meeting link and add it to the conference schedule. Obviously, you'd probably need a person from the organisation team to join each of these sessions to make sure people don't say anything inappropriate, but apart from that not much effort is needed to encourage some more interaction between participants.

Topics could be anything. From discussing highly scientific questions to sharing cat pictures. It could be fireside-chat like talks with speakers or early career fellows sharing their experiences. Everything is allowed.

Apart But Still Together

If the conference is big and international, organizers could connect participants from the same country upfront and facilitate local hubs by arranging e.g. an afternoon where all participants from nearby are invited to watch talks together and have dinner together. This is a bit more experimental, as I haven't heard of anything like this, but my hope is that it could be one way to combine the best of both worlds once social distancing is not an issue anymore. Cause I believe (and hope) that many conferences will decide to stay (primarily) online longterm.

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