Where Should Academic Conferences Go From Here?

This post functions as a personal brain dump about academic conferences as a format after a decade or so of regular in-person conference attendance followed by a year and a half of remote virtual conferences. I’m timing this brain dump both because of some related musings by people smarter than I am (e.g., Amy Ko’s trip report on CHI 2021 that asks why virtual conferences are so focused on “technical content” at the expense of other goals) but also because I feel we are at an inflection point in the future of the academic conference as a medium: what from virtual events do we take forward into the future? What should, could, or will change about conferences in the coming years? We are also approaching the second generation of pandemic virtual conferences where people have had the opportunity to breathe, plan, and learn from past mistakes.

Before I begin, I will make the following acknowledgments:

  1. My perspective comes mostly from HCI and information visualization conferences (with a smattering of experience of other kinds of conferences), so a good chunk of my claims about other types of conference are based on secondhand knowledge and should not be trusted on that basis.
  2. I am extremely lucky with respect to conference participation: few barriers for participation (I’ve never had to self-fund a conference trip or juggle conference attendance and child-care or teaching, or fight for accommodations for my physical or cognitive impairments) and no real personal horror stories.
  3. I have a vested personal and professional interest in continuing to attend my usual conferences, and am periodically trusted to do organizational work for these conferences in a way that (appears to?) have professional benefits for me. I’m a captive audience in a sense here, and so this document is unlikely to conclude with “burn the whole system down” even if that seems like a necessary or sufficient solution.

With all of that out of the way, I will use this post to very loosely lay out the following argument:

  1. We still haven’t figured out how to make virtual conferences do many of the things that traditional conferences do.
  2. But it’s not like traditional conferences are perfect either.
  3. Therefore we should, in the future, work collaboratively to build better hybrid models for conference participation.

What Are In-Person Conferences Good For?

This is a list of modalities of conference attendance that I have observed. I am trying to talk at a finer level of description than “networking” and “learning” here because I feel like people might still undertake those actions for dramatically different ends with differing ramifications for how conferences ought to be structured to support them. I also assume that people will, buffet-style, mix and match these modalities based on personal needs.

Publication Venue

The conference is valuable insofar as it generates conference proceedings. The just-so story I was always told about why computer science makes such a big deal about conferences is that the field was moving “too fast” to keep up with the slow journal publication model and so needed something with a faster cadence than waiting months or years for a paper to be published on dead trees somewhere. As a result, conference publications are now the primary research artifact that people care about in that field. There are various back-door shenanigans (like journal special issues devoted to conference proceedings) to make sure that these conference contributions “count” in the same way that journal articles do for the more hide-bound institutions, hiring committees, and tenure-granters. The conference by itself is less valuable than the proceedings that emerge from it (e.g., if you just stuck a warm body on stage to give your talk and then went back home, your c.v. wouldn’t care).

Field Safari

The conference serves as some sort of barometer for the “state of the field” or census of the field’s vast domains or some other attempt to conflate the map and the territory. You want this information to e.g. see what kinds of grants you should be writing, to see if you want to join, or remain a member of, the field, or to see how or how far certain ideas (say, your own research projects) have penetrated. Going to the conference is sort of like reading the newspapers: what’s going on in artificial intelligence this year, you might say.

Job Fair

The conference serves as a way of getting all of the people who want jobs and all of the organizations who want to hire people in the same building. Technical content functions as a signal of the form “ah, university X is interested in subject Y, I could pitch myself as an expert in Y and then be more hire-able” (as an audience member) or “look at what interesting work I do and how competent I am, please hire me” (as a presenter). A similar mode is that of the trade show, where you sell a very specific widget that is useful for only a small group of professionals, and well, here’s the convention center where all of those professionals will all be hanging out.

Classroom

The conference is a place to learn or be certified in specific skills, either directly through tutorials, or indirectly by noticing what all the cool kids are doing (in terms of software libraries, quantitative methods, etc.) and then making a note to look into those things once you get back. You might then be asked to share what you’ve learned with those people you left behind, in the form of trip reports or your own tutorials. This sort of professional development is a very common stated reason for attending conferences in places that are not academia.

Oscar Night

The conference is a public celebration of the field, by the field, congratulating itself for being so good or important. And just like the Oscars, you get to hobnob with all the celebrities that you’ve only seen on paper bylines. There are other espirit de corps things that happen in this context as well, but it think of it as some combination of pep rally combined with people-watching. It might sound like I’m being flippant here but this sort of morale boosting really is useful, especially for labs or researchers that can feel isolated or unimportant in their own institutions or organizations.

Cohort Formation

The conference serves as a way of leaving your potentially isolated lab and finding like-minded souls to whom you can complain, on whom you can rely, or other forms of long-term solidarity building. Or, if you’ve got that social group already, maintaining and reinforcing those bonds. Note that this is a specific form of networking distinct from job fair activities above: here you are looking for peers and well-wishers as opposed to “leads” or “opportunities.” Here, the technical content is there as a source of conversation topics and icebreakers but can otherwise mostly be ignored.

Cocktail Shaker of Ideas

The conference is a way of getting you out of your academic rut where you often talk with the same people and have the same ideas and approaches. You are exposed to new people who think about things differently, or even just new terminology or problem domains. I say “cocktail shaker” because it’s a somewhat stochastic process: you may get inspired by a talk totally out of your area of expertise or meet someone who will be a long-time collaborator just randomly in the hallway between sessions. The general idea is that you get a bunch of smart people in a room, mix them up, and hope good ideas come out. This is often the stated goal of more targeted workshops or other subcomponents of bigger umbrella conferences.

Vacation

The conference is a celebration of your hard work with your friends who all share the same niche interests in an interesting place you might not have been to before. The technical content exists as a fig leaf for the beancounters back home or as a thing to look at if you’ve got nothing better to do but otherwise sessions (and especially morning sessions) might as well not exist in favor of doing the usual tourist activities. Again, while this might sound like a silly reason to go to a conference, I don’t think you should discount it: having a release valve, and especially one that you can justify (to your department or event just to yourself) as being “work related” is an important part of avoiding burnout and de-stressing.

Where Do Virtual Conferences Fail?

I was implicit about this through the ordering above, but I’ll be less coy now: I think virtual conferences have done okay at presenting and structuring technical content. Where I think they fail is doing all of the bits of building connections and solidarity and recharging that are in many cases the real (although often tacit) reasons to go to conferences in the first place. It’s hard for me to determine whether these failures are inherent to the virtual conference as a format or whether they are specific to virtual conferences being held for the first time under unprecedented situations, so I will merge these disappointments a bit in the themes I lay out below:

Isolation

My position in my community has often felt precarious, and my own work useless or irrelevant (these past years more than most). What has helped me push those feelings aside, when they have arisen in the past, is that over the years of my involvement I have been able to build out a support network of people to whom I can kvetch, who have given me encouragement or even just simple recognition. I met most of these people at conferences. Beyond the personal and into the professional, most of my external collaborations and job opportunities have come from contacts I made at conferences (and oftentimes our collaborations will have begun at conferences, springing from chats during coffee breaks).

I’m not sure this is necessarily inherent to virtual conferences, but so far they have been very poor substitutes for this kind of socialization and cohort formation, to the extent that I am worried about this rising generation of scholars (who were already on track to have it rougher than their forbears just based on the other systematic problems with postgraduate education and the PhD job market covered more ably by others elsewhere). I’m afraid that they will feel a long shadow of negative impacts from having only attended virtual conferences in the critical years of their studies. Having a community to rely on (to ground you or to buoy you, depending on what needs doing) is pretty important to your academic experience.

There are probably many reasons why building solidarity and connections has been hard at virtual events, beyond the easy and unhelpful (but still probably mostly true) answers of “there’s just something quintessential about in-person contact that is missing in virtual environments” and “everybody is stressed out from living through over a year of misery and horror and so we all have less time and energy to say nice things, chitchat, or make new friends.”

One suspicion I have is that the lack of cohort building is a direct response to the lack of serendipitous opportunities to chat or other bonding activities as a result of the strong focus on technical content. You log on to the website and fill up your schedule with links to streaming video, watch the videos (maybe with a chat box to type into that goes away when the video is done) and that’s more or less it. Your breaks are where you try to recover from Zoom fatigue, grab a quick cup of coffee away from your computer, or otherwise unplug from your device for a bit. It’s not really an environment that lends itself to going out to chat, and it’s almost impossible to randomly run into people. There have been technological attempts to solve this issue with things like gather.town or Zoom breakout rooms, but I have not been satisfied with any of them (more on this below).

Reinventing the Wheel

As big organizations had to abruptly cancel or adapt their conference plans to virtual environment, the more sensitive among us could hear a sound like trying to shift gears without a clutch, or an iceberg scraping against the hull of a cargo ship. The organizations involved (academic publishers, conference organizing committees, hotels, etc.) are not known for being agile and nimble forces that are quick to adapt, is what I’m saying.

The result was a lot of ad hoc decisions made very quickly and without precedent to rely on. I’m shocked things have mostly worked as well as they have, given those constraints. There’s the old saw (old canard?) that good organizers are like ducks in that they seem to glide effortlessly across the metaphorical water while all the time they are paddling their hearts out just below the surface: that is the level of sort of Herculean effort that has been required to get some of this events to work. But one side effect of this jerry-rigging is that each conference created unique solutions to the remote conference problem. We seem to have recurring issues just getting peoples’ slide decks to work at conferences, and now we are asking people to juggle some arbitrary combination of (say) Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Discord, and Slack and proprietary streaming infrastructures that changes from conference to conference or even from day to day.

I’m assuming a set of dominant genres of interaction will emerge, but that will take some time. But for each step there will be growing pains. Zoom bombing, gather.town’s iffy accessibility, lag and latency, and just generally learning how to create and operate virtual spaces takes time. I am worried that the current proliferation of tools will need some time to ramp up, and we will need some time to sort them based on their affordances rather than their claims or their “coolness” (just think of the alternate universe where we are having all of our conferences in VRML or Second Life right now…), which means that we are stuck in the unenviable position of being guinea pigs for a least a few more “generations” of virtual events.

Conference/Life Balance

Remote conferences, just like remote work, blur the barriers between work and the rest of your life. It seems to require inherent discipline, intentional habits, and other sort of cognitive tricks to reestablish those boundaries. It’s not something I’m good at, to be honest. But when I go to in-person conferences, there is a physical and mental separation from my “ordinary” work life and the conference. I can go to the conference and just sort of forget about things that aren’t the conference for a bit (n.b. that this is because of my particular life situation and would not be the case if I had a different job, family situation, or really any of a host of other factors that I lucked out on). What this means is that I usually leave a conference exhausted but still somehow recharged and energized. After virtual conferences I’m just exhausted. There is the ability (and so the temptation and/or expectation) to seamlessly switch from “conference mode” to “regular work mode,” meaning that I have tried to get my “regular” work done while still keeping up with conference events. After all, both things happen in the same room and while staring at the same screens.

It’s possible that this will be one of those things that gets “fixed” by the new norms about hybrid or virtual work that will stick around after the crisis of the pandemic is deemed to be over, some sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis thing. But so far I think the way people are dealing with it is by pushing through and running on crisis energy until they burn themselves out, and maybe we could look at designing some compassion into the new system now while it is still inchoate.

Where Do In-Person Conferences Fail?

Given the failures above, a natural reaction is to come to the thesis that we should treat the pandemic conferences as a temporary and regrettable aberration, and “return to normalcy” as quickly as possible. Before I bring you to a (spoiler alert) supremely unsatisfying synthesis, let’s explore the antithesis that “normalcy” wasn’t so great either.

Accessibility

The palace of Versailles, vanity project of a king obsessed with opulence and extravagance, a symbol of decadence and isolation from the common people that fueled revolutionary fires across continents, has wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, multilingual and multimodal tours, and costs about €20 to visit. By pretty much every metric, it is more welcoming and accessible than an allegedly egalitarian academic conference.

Attending an in-person conference requires money (often thousands of dollars), the ability to travel long (occasionally international) distances on relatively short notice, and a sufficient store of free time (often 10 hour days even if you eschew receptions and parties). That’s just to attend! Once you’re at the conference, you’ll want a certain amount of energy and extroversion and personal connections and so on to best accomplish your goals.

Costs of Hosting

If it’s expensive to go to an in-person conference, imagine how expensive it is to host one. Booking venues, hotel contracts, A/V support, down to catering and coffee means that hosting a conference requires a great deal of time, energy, and effort. It’s a lot of person-hours and surprisingly big budgets, which in turn means that conferences often feel that they have no choice but to partner with some combination of industry, academic publishing, or government (with all of the associated ethical concerns that come along with those partnerships). And of course it means that the number of potential hosts of interesting conferences is often limited to a small set of people with existing resources and entrenched power. Entrenched power, unless periodically prodded by new blood, tends to calcify.

And those costs aren’t all just monetary — conferences often have the goal of having everybody in the field across the world get together, and/or to take place somewhere interesting. That means lots of international plane trips and a lot of carbon to be offset just so some people can sit in a room and listen to talks for a few hours.

Insecurity and Danger

Hopefully you can tell that I’ve been skirting around/building up to this one, mostly because I feel so inadequate at speaking to the severity and scale of this issue. But, at the highest, most bloodless level, conferences are where people from many stages of their academic career and different levels of perceived or actual organizational and institutional power mingle. These people have to navigate an environment filled with unclear social boundaries and social contexts (is this a social hangout at a bar among friends, or a tacit pre-interview for a position?), potentially isolated from their support structures and peers.

This environment of insecurity, inequality, and uncertainty is where predators, monsters, or just your garden variety jerks can thrive (or fester unpunished). There are lots of ways that the in-person conference environment can make people feel unsafe, and cultural entropy can make people accept all sort of unsafe environments. E.g., I think I audibly gasped when I heard that it’s common at certain humanities conferences for people to interview you for jobs in hotel rooms (sometimes even your actual personal hotel room). And things like the drinking culture at conferences can provide the sorts of opportunities, uncertainties, and “excuses” that predators use as cover.

I naturally drift to thinking about the worst sorts of repercussions of the in-person environment, but there are of course other outcomes that are less severe but nonetheless discouraging, disheartening, or anxiety-provoking: from cliquishness, rudeness, homesicknesses, or any of a whole host of bad feelings and experiences that can arise from attending a conference of mostly strangers in a distant location.

Virtual conferences do not prevent bad behavior, of course. I’ve now either directly seen or been told about a whole rogue’s gallery of harassment arising from purely virtual conferences (including some that are aided and abetted by the ability to harass anonymously and/or to wide audiences). But in-person events have special dangers and anxieties; some people have reported a sense of almost tangible relief at not having to navigate some of those dangers during the pandemic.

Hybrid Challenges

So if virtual conferences don’t work for cohort building, and in-person conferences don’t work for accessibility and safety, then it seems to me that we are building towards a sort of hybrid model as the expectation of how to run a conference, where there is a mixture of in-person and virtual ways of attending. If so, just from the experience of attending virtual conferences, here are the places where we have opportunities (even if it’s just a curb cutting effect from finally being forced to support remote attendance after years of dragging our feet) and challenges (even if they are just issues that would have arisen anyway as conferences became more enmeshed with social media and wider digital publics):

Streaming

I like being in an era where closed captioning is expected, and I love being able to scrub video to see things that I missed. I like not having to worry if the room will be too full to get in to see a popular talk, or annoying everybody if I get to the talk late or leave early. I like that I can watch a talk while I make tea or eat lunch or write without annoying anybody. I would hope future conferences would stream at least their keynote talks as a matter of course.

That being said, I am less of a fan of solutions that give me the drawbacks of streaming (potential lag and latency issues, having to get things to work across setups and devices, having to have very good internet and peripherals to participate) but don’t give me these benefits (e.g., gather.town requires pretty active attention to navigate and doesn’t really support closed captioning or scrubbing). I also think we are in the middle of a weird place where conferences are trying to keep their position as rent-seekers by trying to hide content behind paywalls or proprietary apps instead of giving in and just posting things on real usable websites. I think they probably will have to give up on that (but that’s also what I thought about things like streaming music and television and that didn’t seem to stop capitalism much).

History

I like that I can give a talk and it doesn’t disappear into the ether after I give it, and that I can point people to it in the future without having to remember what I was thinking when I made my slide deck several months or years ago. People often talk about FOMO at in-person conferences and it turns out that you can fix some of those issues just by recording things and putting them on a website, who knew.

Although I do think we are cruising for a bruising with respect to things like context collapse and privacy if, for instance, your future employer and/or worst enemies can look at all the talks you have ever given, even your first talk where you were really nervous and had an ugly powerpoint deck. Or (and this is already becoming an issue) if you are doing research on sensitive or controversial issues and it gets shared to the wrong audiences.

I was also a little surprised by a sort of reverse-FOMO that I felt: at in-person conferences I will often tell myself a nice reassuring lie (foma?) where if I’ve missed something through conflict or inattention and then say “I’ll add the paper to my stack to check out later.” But when you can actually open up a tab with the talk that you’ve missed it’s a little harder to use that excuse or accept that you just can’t catch everything. You can watch videos on 1.5x speed or 2x speed or add them to a queue to watch in a row. You can sacrifice a coffee break or downtime to get “caught up.” I’ve even heard of people watching multiple talks at once. One consequence of all of this content is that we will need new ways to manage and organize and triage conference content; we are past the age of running a highlighter through the talks in the proceedings that sounded interesting and ignoring the rest.

Access

I like not having to pay lots of money to attend a conference. I like that I can “sample” a conference (say, by checking out the keynote or just a few papers) without feeling like I have wasted a bunch of money and time. I like that I don’t have to worry about geopolitical idiocy when thinking about conferences, like the year that a U.S. government shutdown happened right before our conference and all the people with U.S. government jobs or funding had to bail at the last minute, or hearing horror story after horror story about people acquiring or not acquiring visas to attend conferences pretty much every time anybody has to go anywhere. So I like that we are moving towards a model where remote access is assumed and integral to conference planning.

Although, I am a little bit worried that people will use the fact that talks are available online as an excuse to quit trying to make conferences more accessible. For instance we might rely on automatic captioning (aka “craptions”) and proclaim “well, now all of our talks have closed captioning, guess we are good,” or limit our notions of accessibility to just accessing the technical content (instead of all the other parts of the conferences that are important, see above). A related issue (and this was already an issue for conferences that offered virtual attendance options in the past) is the risk of creating a two-tiered system where virtual attendees are an afterthought or very firmly second-class attendees. Solutions to this problem might include such things as local satellite events (“viewing parties”), standardizing things like conference interviews or recruiting to be “virtual first” experiences, or just generally being less eager to go “back to normal” at the expense of all the new people we have begun to include in our communities.

Wrap Up

I did warn you this was a bit of a brain dump. Sorry about that. But as a reward for sticking with me, here’s a set of points that I think reflects most of that navel gazing:

  1. Conferences have important functions that are more than just a collection of talks, and virtual conferences often reduce down to just the technical content at the expense of the (in some cases more important) goals of building networks and solidarity and morale.
  2. Virtual conferences give us an opportunity to reform or replace the things that don’t work. We can make conferences that are safer, more accessible, and more influential. We can establish new norms right now, and that’s pretty cool.
  3. It is still very easy and likely that we will screw things up. We’ll be quick to discard the nice bits as no longer necessary in the post-pandemic world, chase perfect revolutionary technological solutions rather than evolutionarily improving on what we have, and ignore the people who have been advocating for change or access for decades.

I think the ways that we will make progress and avoid disaster (not just in conferences, but pretty much every area of human endeavor) are through mutual cooperation and organizing. Each new virtual conference is another datapoint about what worked and what didn’t work. We should be collecting, sharing, and using this information (and collecting it not just from the usual attendees or organizers, but from those who have been left out or excluded from past events) and building something better together.

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Information Visualization, Data Ethics, Graphical Perception.

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Michael Correll

Michael Correll

Information Visualization, Data Ethics, Graphical Perception.

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