It’s easy to see why people don’t like the idea of virtual conferences. Sitting for hours behind a computer screen, listening to a floating head, is not exactly an exciting prospect. You can’t bask in the exotic surroundings of a tropical island or other international location. And virtual conferences do not allow researchers to get out of their daily routine and fully immerse themselves in knowledge sharing. Lack of in-person interaction is also a problem. It’s no exaggeration to say that many successful collaborations and career developments can be attributed to a long queue for the conference lunch. Even being invited to participate in a virtual conference can ring a little hollow. Alone in the office, speakers have to struggle not only with technological demands, but also with connecting with their distant audience.
There is no doubt that virtual conferences at the present time of COVID-19 pose challenges for organizers, attendees and speakers. However, a number of surprising positives show how virtual conferences not only overcome these obstacles, but also trigger a paradigm shift in the appearance of conferences of the future.
A GREENER WAY
The environment is arguably one of the biggest beneficiaries of online conference migration. A recent study estimated that the amount of carbon dioxide generated by each researcher on conference trips ranges from 0.5 to 2 metric tons. Surprisingly, the total carbon footprint of some 7.8 million researchers worldwide each attending a conference per year is equivalent to that of some small countries. In contrast, the organizers of two fully virtual conferences in the United States estimated their total carbon emissions to be less than 1% of a traditional “fly-in” event.
The relocation of online conferences has also made them accessible to a larger and more diverse audience. Travel and prolonged absences from home have long posed problems for people with children and people with disabilities. Likewise, financial and visa restrictions prevent many people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and certain countries from attending international meetings. Removing these barriers associated with travel instantly made many conferences more inclusive. While the 2019 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna attracted just over 16,200 attendees, the 2020 online General Assembly registered over 26,000 individual users. Since virtual conferences scale much better than their in-person counterparts, it was relatively easy to accommodate all those additional participants.
To spark social interactions between participants scattered across continents and time zones, conferences bring new applications into play. “Braindate” and “Brella” correspond to profiles uploaded by participants and suggest private videoconferences to discuss common interests. Such matchmaking apps not only reintroduce the networking opportunities sought by conference attendees, but can even reduce the barrier for more introverted or junior members to reach the superstars in their field. Other conference planners have used the ability of online platforms to randomly divide attendees into groups to promote more mixing, rather than watching attendees automatically gravitate to famous names.
IN THE WINGS
Conference moderators are also finding other benefits in the virtual format, which has opened up new possibilities in group discussions and question-and-answer sessions. At the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting, held online this year in April, attendees were invited to vote in real time on questions submitted through a discussion. This “resulted in a better quality of question,” noted Emily Costa, a Ph.D. student at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In addition to improving the formulation and dissemination of more relevant questions, it also brought a larger audience to actively participate throughout the discussion sessions.
Group chats can also be better controlled in online conferences. Professor Russ Altman, one of the chairs of the COVID-19 and AI virtual conference hosted by Stanford University in April, revealed that messaging between moderators on a separate channel helps refine discussions in real time. “For example, we had a panelist who we thought was contributing a little too much,” he said. Through a “behind-the-scenes conversation,” the moderators jointly decided to ask questions that would engage the other, less vocal panelists.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Ultimately, in-person and virtual conferencing are not interchangeable. However, the two formats do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, and future conferences should aim to capture the main strengths of both. An informal survey of Nature showed that 80 percent of 486 respondents believe that certain meetings should continue to stand virtually, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a recent participant in a virtual conference thoughtfully observed, “snacks at break time were nothing new, while washroom lines were shorter and receptions were BYOB.”