Virtual technical conferences always seemed to make perfect sense. Who better than a bunch of technologists to find a way to deliver the content and conversations of a traditional professional conference, without the difficulty of travel or the overhead of seating and feeding thousands of attendees? And yet, for years tech conferences were primarily in-person events.
When the pandemic triggered worldwide lockdowns in March of 2020, the tech industry was challenged to determine if it had a viable model for virtual conferences and if an appetite for them existed. This meant an explosion of conference platforms, and the emergence of competing schools of thought about things few people had even considered before. It meant we could try and hold our tech communities together at times when we couldn't even see our families, and it meant learning what parts of tech conferences we genuinely value.
As someone who's been attending and speaking at tech conferences for over a decade, I was curious what the pandemic had taught us about virtual events. I solicited others' impressions, and the lack of response I got was my first lesson.
It's pretty understandable that a pandemic (and all the other major events of the past two years) distracted people. It may be that attending a tech conference just felt too much like pretending things were normal. Whatever the reason, I didn't hear a lot about people attending conferences. The conferences I took part in had low participation. Overall, my impression is that the move online wasn't a success.
However, I think it would be a mistake to believe that's the end of the story. Nothing seems inherently bad about virtual conferences. What seems questionable is that people would benefit from a virtual conference in the same way they benefit from in-person ones.
Other platforms that host learning content and conversation are thriving. Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok aren't restrained by not being able to replicate the experience of in-person learning. People regularly post tutorials on those platforms that are so different from a tech conference talk in their intent and find not only interest, but engagement.
Most virtual conferences I've attended seemed to start with the assumption that they should mimic an in-person conference. Can we do better if we pull apart the idea of a conference and consider how to make the most of a virtual venue?
A lot of what goes into a traditional conference isn't needed when it's virtual. If you're on the organizing end, it might be tempting to write off catering, hotels, or afterparties as logistical overhead. But I think the past two years have shown that not having the secondary elements that provide a conference's atmosphere puts a lot of pressure on the remaining pieces of the experience.
There are so many ways that talks at a virtual conference need to meet a higher bar. They need to be fascinating topics. They need to be well-practiced and impeccably delivered. Better yet, they need to be prerecorded and meet the same standard as a video course for purchase (because that's essentially what they are). If you doubt the bar is high, consider how easy it is to switch to another tab "just to do one thing" and come back to find it's been 90 minutes and the conference is on a lunch break.
Holding a conference online is like holding it in Times Square. The competing demands on participants' attention are unrelenting. If people have come for the talks, my experience is that "Local Web Dev Introduces React Hooks" won't cut it as a topic. If the talks are the primary focus of a virtual conference, the names need to be big, the projects need to be life-altering, or the technology needs to be bleeding edge.
As with all the rest of this, I think the pressure on talk quality begs the question: did this ever really work? Was anything besides the keynotes always just filler?
There are a few clear lessons about talks. First, prerecorded talks are so much safer. The speaker isn't going to be able to participate in any meaningful way while giving a live talk, and trying to gauge the audience's reaction in real time is likely to trip them up. Prerecorded talks don't experience connectivity issues or screen sharing hiccups. They have the added advantage of allowing simultaneous Q&A, truly taking advantage of the medium.
Talks given online also benefit from being more dynamic. If there are slides, it's great to have lots of them and change them frequently, so there's a reward for staying focused on the conference. Speakers can use their voice and narrative devices within their talk to make it more exciting. Those aren't cheap tricks. In addition to helping the audience stay focused, they improve memory retention.
One last thing to consider about talks is how many a conference really needs. Conference venues aren't often rented on an hourly basis, so it makes sense to fill the schedule on every day the space is booked. An online conference can be much more curated.
Online, it can be a struggle to feel you're interacting with people who aren't speaking at or organizing the conference. And as an attendee, passively watching a conference online is lonelier than attending one in person.
This pain point has highlighted for me one of the things that makes conferences so great: the people. Not the big names you get to rub shoulders with or the famous speakers, but the diverse and fascinating people attending the conference alongside you. Being in Developer Relations, those people are actually the biggest draw for me. Other developers' perspectives and experiences are invaluable.
Without the constraints of (event) space and time, there are additional ways to get conference participants more actively involved. The unconference model adapts well to online events. To make it more collaborative, attendees could volunteer to moderate discussions on hyper-specific topics.
User profiles in most conference platforms seem to be underutilized. Although it's only possible to surface a small amount of information in the context of a conversation–in a chat or a networking space–a full profile could host all kinds of additional information. A name, photo, title, and socials are a great start. Conferences could also ask attendees what platforms or languages they work with, what they're learning about currently, which talks they're most excited to see, or which ones they really want to discuss with the speaker.
Of course, you can have the most fascinating group of attendees ever assembled in one place, but it means nothing if you don't get them talking. This is the area I've seen conference platforms struggle with most. The pattern I've seen is that everyone begins in a general purpose area with a single chat, as well as the possibility of booths or other breakout areas. Then an additional chat exists for people viewing a talk, and the chat specific to a talk doesn't necessarily live on in its own space once the talk has ended. There are echoes of the in-person experience, like limited spaces to join a given chat or a complete separation between the audience viewing a talk and everyone else.
The biggest area for improvement I see is that you almost always have to click somewhere else to attend a talk. It feels like forcing people to declare an allegiance, or suggesting they're only capable of doing one thing at a time. A conference may have put a lot of effort into talks, sponsor areas, icebreakers, and engaging participants, but the cumulative effect is rarely visible all at once.
I've never seen a conference platform that allowed the spontaneous creation of chats. Several conferences I've attended used Discord, but it wasn't integrated directly into the conference. A feature I'd love to see is the ability to create a new chat space branching off a comment in an existing chat. A way to continue discussions in their own spaces feels like a great use of the technology available and a more authentic duplication of the in-person experience.
Voice chat is another thing I haven't seen at many conferences. I've seen a few using video with audio, but that's a different experience. If I'm giving a talk I've probably adjusted my lighting and my grooming so I'm a little closer to camera-ready, but if I'm not, I'd hope to feel comfortable attending in my pajamas. Especially if I'm taking advantage of an online conference to meet a community on the other side of the planet. Voice chat has lots of potential to make online conference interactions feel more natural. It has an advantage over in-person conferences. Online, if I ask you what the speaker just said and we get into a conversation about it, the person on the other side of me can choose to whisper along with us or mute all audio except the stage.
Overall, I hope to see online conferences evolve in such a way that they feel more open-ended. As an attendee, I want to see all the things I can do on a single screen, and have it assumed that I can listen and chat simultaneously. As a speaker, I want to know that my audience isn't held captive, getting antsy wondering about the other aspects of the conference, prone to leave at any time and never come back. It seems like online conferences should feel more online. We should be encouraged to click and play, with no danger of finding ourselves separated from everyone else or being thrust into a surprise interaction.
As in-person conferences come back, it will be interesting to see what happens to virtual events. I think conference platforms will be under less pressure but will need to offer experiences that differentiate them from in-person events, not mimic them. Some very exciting ways of attending conferences could start appearing in a couple more versions.
If you've been attending conferences online, it would be great to hear what's worked and what disappointed you in our Vonage community Slack. If you've avoided them this long, would you consider attending or speaking at one, now that there are other options again?
If you're thinking of building your own conference platform, our Video and Conversation APIs have a lot of the pieces you need to get started. To do something smaller-scale, check out the Meetings API. There are lots of ways Vonage can help. We're probably attending a conference near you (or your IP address) if you want to talk about it!