Wednesday, March 10, 2021

11 takeaways from a year of online conferences

I love going to conferences. It's how I learn, meet people, get inspiration, share my work, and have fun. The last conference I went to physically was FOSS Backstage in March 2020. It was great. I talked about Inner Source, met great people, had great discussions.

That was one year ago. Conferences got cancelled or went virtual. I have been to a lot of virtual conferences since then. It's great, attending doesn't require travel, fees went down, with a few clicks you could join any conference on the planet. Sometimes it was attending one session and realizing that it wasn't for me, sometimes it meant spending days in a different time zone.

Of course it's not the same, it's different. So what have I taken away from a year of online conferences?

Ease of access makes a huge difference - I have been to huge conferences who would have been in the US such as KubeCon but also to small local ones I probably wouldn't even have noticed such as the OpenBike conference. If they would have been physical events I wouldn't have been there. They all gave me something of value.

Emulating a physical conference is meh - There are so many systems which try to stick close to the format of a physical conference, with virtual lobbies, virtual booths, virtual conference rooms. In the end they all felt hollow. You visit booths and get all the emails but none of the stickers and no real social interaction.

Live talks are ace - You might think it doesn't matter if a talk is recorded or live. You just watch a video, aren't you? But it's noticeable if somebody is speaking live, there is a different level of energy. For a speaker it might be nice to answer questions during their own talk but it is a distraction and these side talks would be impolite during a physical talk for a reason.

You need more time - It's tempting, back to back talks, only seconds to switch rooms. But there needs to be chatter, there needs to be space to relax. And without the energy you get from a physical group of people it's more exhausting to focus on a conference hours in a row. So while in theory you could do more in an online format, in practice you should aim for less.

Treat talks as broadcasts - Without the limits of physical spaces you can go bigger, you can broadcast. No need to impose artificial limits. And broadcasting videos of people speaking is a well understood art. It's what TV is doing all the time, it's what YouTubers and streamers are doing. Embrace it, tap into the tools and the experience of people who are doing this already. re:publica 2020 did that in a very interesting way.

Manage chat - You need a way for people to chat, but it can quickly get our of control. Big rooms with hundreds of participants amplify the signal of individuals too much. So the best conferences were those who managed that carefully, providing extra sessions for tracks or individual talks, providing breakout rooms, have moderators to guide people around, have a quick way to create your own channels for specific conversations in a natural way. Also give room to the introverts, who might not want to chat with many people at the same time.

Have fun going down the technology rabbit hole - Naturally you need some technology to participate in online conferences. It should not be required to go crazy on that, but some good equipment is really helpful, and it can be fun to go deep on some of that. So have fun exploring fancy microphones, green screens, OBS, light and camera arrangements, DIY teleprompters, etc. And learn from the streamers, they have figured out a lot of that.

Don't save on moderators - Online formats need more guidance. That can't come from the speakers alone. It's worth a lot to have good and present moderators. They keep conversations going, handle technical issues, create atmosphere and much more. You probably need more of that then you assume.

Continue experimenting with the social bits - The stuff which is going on besides the talks, that's what usually makes or breaks a conference. The social bits. These are harder to replicate in an online format than anything else, and they need most creativity as direct translation from offline formats doesn't work well. So keep experimenting. Do things such as a pub quiz, a virtual hallway track, a cocktail challenge, spreadsheet parties, speed dating, music tracks, walk & talk etc. A special shout-out to Work Adventure here. This has been one of the most effective tools I have seen to give some social feeling to a virtual conference.

Authenticity beats perfection -  Polished videos of speakers who rehearsed and cut their videos. That's marketing. It results in these videos which get you 23 clicks on YouTube. They look like you have seen them before. A speaker who has their roommate walking by, or who are struggling with the video situation etc, that's reality. People who have something to say will still bring across their point and engage the audience. Authenticity is a big part of this.

Support the organizers - It's tough. Business broke away for many conference organizers. It's fantastic that many took up the challenge to deal with the situation and become creative. But they need support. Organizing conferences is hard and if you are constrained in the way we have been during the last year it's particular hard. Support the organizers by participating, speaking, sponsoring, and what else you can do.

So a few weeks ago it was FOSS Backstage time again. This time as a virtual event. It was a great experience again. A fantastic lineup of speakers which probably wouldn't have come together at a physical event. Some creative ways to get people together and inspired such as the pirate themed track or the virtual lounge. And lots of insights, conversations, and things to learn.

I'm looking forward to what still is to come in terms of virtual events. I'm sure we haven't seen all what is possible there. Keep on experimenting.

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