I attended RubyConf 2021 last month virtually. Trying to make the most of the experience left me with a few reflections on the positives and negatives (avoidable and unavoidable) of virtual conferences.
The official virtual features of the conference were:
- a synchronised virtual track with pre-recorded talks, any of which could be watched at any other time separately
- two of the venues were live-streamed
- a Discord where people could react and ask questions of each other during, and channels where the speakers participated after their talks
Being able to pause and rewind on talks allowed my distracted brain to catch up over and over. I’m really (medically diagnosed) bad at following conversation and lectures IRL, but this improved my understanding of many talks from muddy and mostly useless into inspiring lightbulb moments.
The format also allowed for better Q&A. My usual post-talk attitude is: “nah, I won’t bother the speaker, I’ll figure it out later”, and promptly forgetting. Virtually, I wasn’t embarrassed to ask questions and follow-ups in the conference Discord until I understood.
I got the impression that most speakers were grateful for the attention in the Discord, which is a much safer space to hear feedback than on a stage with lights and a camera.
Conference organisers (especially in an inclusive community like RubyConf) work hard to keep prices down, but venues and catering are expensive, so the prices are what they are. Crucially, virtual attendees add almost nothing per-person to the expenses. There’s a big up front tech investment, but that can be covered by the many virtual tickets for attendees who wouldn’t be able to make it otherwise.
To demonstrate the difference this could make: I live in London currently, but I lived most of my life in South Africa. Ambitious tech companies there might send two people a year to an international conference, but could happily send ten at a time to a local conference. Tiny startups might send one or two people to a local conference, and never conceive of attending an international conference.
RubyConf virtual tickets cost less than in-person admission to a local conference, and we can forget about prohibitive inter-continental flights and hotel. Suddenly, the biggest international events are accessible to a global audience.
I find myself regretting not having hyped the virtual tickets to people back home who would probably not have considered attending RubyConf as a possibility.
Infection rates in Colorado were really high during the conference. Being remote, I didn’t have to think about this aspect at all.
I noticed that some in-person attendees spent some of their conference time watching remotely. If something else was going on or there was a need to retreat to a private space temporarily, they didn’t have to lose out on the conference while they did so.
Virtual conferences are new, and hybrids are even trickier. There were some teething issues:
The virtual track on day one was started at the same time as the IRL conference, but I started my day several hours before that. On day one the programme ended at 4am UK time.
We’re not going to get away from time differences when attending virtually. On subsequent days everything was available from the previous day, so I could catch up. This led to a gruelling schedule: start listening to the previous day’s talks at 9 or 10AM, then get to the real programme for the day from 4pm to 11pm and still miss some talks.
This made me wonder if staggering my attendance would have been better: maybe only join in on day two, keep a normal schedule with the talks from the previous day, and take an extra day at the end.
Audio syncing on some live talks was really bad. I still need a rewatch of Aaron Patterson’s fun JIT talk, which I ended up listening to like a podcast and missing references to slides that were many points behind. This did improve as the conference went on.
Really excellent-sounding workshops were not livestreamed at all (and I understand the format of a workshop is harder to replicate virtually than a one-way talk), which left a hole in the programme on day one. Recordings will apparently be released later.
This does mean that to get the full conference experience we’d really have to schedule things for weeks later once all the talks are available online. That would mean losing out on the benefits of being able to ask questions immediately after the talk, when the speakers are paying attention.
I missed just meeting people. Unfortunately, the more general discord channels seemed empty at the times I was online. One colleague resorted to unsolicited direct messages, and had some interesting conversations as a result.
Natural gathering spaces might include online board games at a time suitable for other continents, but even that is quite constrained to purpose. To really get this right, it might be necessary to experiment with some forms of virtual interaction other than just text chat.
For example, at thoughtbot we’ve used gather.town for a virtual summit (pre-pandemic this would have been in-person). I found a real buzz seeing 50+ avatars gathered around a campfire listening to a speaker, two avatars conversing on a couch, or even just exploring the virtual outdoors constructed by the organisers. I would have loved that sort of setting for meeting people other than my co-workers.
Alternatively, geographic-specific in-person venues might be fun. This would lose some of the benefits listed above, but watching talks and eating/socialising together would have been great.
All of that said, I experienced the organisers as sympathetic to the remote attendees. The virtual track had some of the best talks at the conference; they were not just also-rans. Many of the speakers produced really high quality recordings.
The Discord was excellent for experiencing something of the in-person atmosphere. Being part of the rush of comments and questions and emojis after a talk was almost as exhilarating as in-person crowd chatter. Aaron Patterson’s banter with the Discord during his talk was hilarious.
I think conferences that can do virtual well will be able to reach a far larger and more diverse audience. I’ll check my privilege by noting that I am more familiar and willing than most to engage in digital platforms, but this still feels like an improvement over the gap between the can-travel and can-nots.
I loved this conference enough to want to go in-person and I’ll certainly plan around that next year. I’ll be hyping virtual attendance to people for whom I know in-person attendance will never be a reality.
This post is also available on my personal blog at iftheshoefritz.com.