Virtual Conferences

IMG_0404This year I won’t be able to attend the WHA because of a conflict with another academic conference, but I will be watching the twitterstream on the #WHA2011 hashtag to keep abreast of conference happenings–even though the 140-character soundbites will offer a small (and biased) view of what’s occurring in Oakland.  The conference I am attending this week, MobilityShifts, held a session last night that addressed the impracticalities of in-person conferences:  they’re terribly expensive, waste precious resources (i.e. jetfuel), and exclude those who can’t attend.  The speaker, Eric Kluitenberg, spoke of his attempt to create an all-online conference called “ElectroSmog:”

The ElectroSmog festival was both a practical and theoretical exploration of the idea of  ‘sustainable immobility’ – a response to global mobility out of control and the desire to use networked connections to counterbalance the exponential growth of global mobility. The aim was to investigate the possibility of staging a new type of international public gathering without the usual travel and mobility patterns attached. While the festival spurred a series of highly engaged debates, experimental projects, and remarkably few technical failures, it collided dramatically with audience dynamics. The outcomes raised serious questions about the importance of embodied encounter to galvanize public experience and exchange, and the limits of the tele-presence paradigm.

In a nutshell, what he found from staging this event was that no one attended ElectroSmog–there seemed to be a lack of commitment to an event that happened in an entirely virtual space, where “real” interactions wouldn’t occur.  Thus, he posited that for virtual events to be successful, they need to replicate the embodied experience of actually attending such an event, and the multitude of interactions that occur by virtue of being in the same space with like-minded attendees.  This hit home for me as I waited for the elevator after his talk–I struck up a lively conversation with a fellow attendee who rode down the seven floors alongside me, which extended into 15 minutes of further conversation after we stepped outside the metal doors on the ground floor.  How does one have those elevator conversations in a virtual venue?  It also brought to mind another similar experience at an art installation that I attended recently where the most meaningful interaction of the afternoon was in the bathroom line after the event.  Perhaps this could be replicated in a Second-Life-style environment, but I doubt that my avatar would tolerate a 20-minute line for the women’s bathroom (and that my avatar is gender-neutral is perhaps another barrier to such an occurrence).

Many academic conferences try to include podcasts or web-streaming to help those who can’t join in the event, but this is rarely an ideal way to attend a conference–there are often technical snafus that disrupt live-streaming, and if one is watching taped sessions of an event there’s no opportunity to engage with the material in an interactive way because you can’t join in a Q&A afterwards.  From my experience with podcasting the Past Tense seminars, I’ve found some satisfaction in seeing that there are thousands of listeners who download the podcasts even when there might only be a dozen or two who are actually seated around the table at the events–but I have little idea who’s doing the downloading of the files or what they think of the talks.  The one-sidedness of the podcasting experience often makes me wonder if it’s worth the investment of time in editing each of the recordings.

However, with the way the economy is headed, and because of the environmental toll of long-distance travel, it seems almost-necessary for organizations like the WHA to engage in some means of transmitting conference happenings to those who aren’t able to attend in-person.  In your opinion, what are the most effective means of doing so?  Are audio recordings of the sessions most helpful, or video recordings, or transcripts of the talks, or live-blogging/tweeting by attendees?

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About Jana

Jana is a PhD candidate in American History.
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