What makes a digital conference remarkable?

Benedict Evans wrote a great article recently and it’s been bumping around in my brain quite a bit: Solving online events. Nothing in here is particularly brilliant. He’s just saying out loud what most companies ignore as they continue to schedule multi-day “virtual conferences”. Conferences are a “bundle” of networking, sessions, and meetings that happen in a certain location at a certain time. When you remove location from that equation, the bundle aspect becomes meaningless.

He closes the article asking:

But every time we get a new tool, we start by forcing it to fit the old way of working, and then one day we realise that it lets us do the work differently, and indeed change what the work is. I do expect to get on planes to conferences again in the future, but I also hope to have completely different ways to communicate ideas, and completely different ways to make connections, that don’t rely on us all being in the same city at the same time — or pretending that we are.

So, I have been working on an imaginative effort, perhaps you’ll join me :) Imagine that for as long as people have been business-ing we have only been able to meet online. There is a robust and vibrant industry that exists around creating wonderful ways to facilitate these interactions. In March of 2020, there is a security glitch that makes all of this online meeting/event software not only useless, but for some unknown reason, dangerous!

Your team is forced to move all of your online meetings to in-person interactions. You are appalled! Nothing is the same! How do you manage this transition? What a disaster?! Now, ask yourself, what would you view as an enormous loss?

Some things that come to mind for me…

  • Ease of sharing
    Something that we found as we moved our training program online is that pair programming became an easier and more valuable aspect of the event. And most of this just comes down to vision. It’s easier to see when everyone has their own screen so looking at details: screens, demos, small type, becomes a better experience.
  • Inclusivity
    If we were shifting from online events to offline events for the first time we would be appalled by how exclusive they are. They are largely off-limits to anyone who can’t afford the price tag, speaks a different language, is deaf or hard of hearing. Events are challenging to attend to for folks who are disabled or have even mild forms of social anxiety.
  • Asynchronicity
    In person events require you to be in the room. There is no ability to ask the speaker a question later or contribute to a lunchtime discussion after that discussion has ended. What a loss!
  • Micro-communities
    Evans touches on this in his article, in-person events suffer from wildly inaccurate connections. Everyone says networking is the most valuable part, yet finding the right people is a crapshoot. Surely, if we were accustomed to online meetings, we would have some kind of networking “Tinder” that makes it very easy for people to opt-in to meeting with each other or perhaps a better way of helping like-minded people group into micro-communities.

Twisting my thinking in this way has led to some new thoughts. For example:

  • In-person events combine presentations + networking because conferences used to be the primary way people learned from other practitioners in their field. Today there are loads of online learning opportunities. If we were recreating in-person events today, would we still lean so heavily on presentations as the main value-add?
  • In-person events exclude people for all kinds of bad reasons, but there is still a valuable exclusivity. (Ex: creating exclusivity around role or industry would result in more targeted, higher-value content)
  • Creating exclusive events (both online and offline) also improves the accuracy of connections. You know that someone attending that event is more likely to be a valuable connection for you. Why do we always thinking online events need to be big and all-inclusive when exclusivity often creates value?
  • I imagine that if we were designing an in-person event for the first time today we would think carefully about how to preserve some asynchronicity. We would feel terrible about all the people being excluded and the online/asych experience of the watchers would be considered with the same care as the live experience for attendees.

That’s my download of thoughts, what do you think?

Reader // Writer // Editor