Conferences in Times of Covid-19
With the world on lockdown and universities scrambling for solutions to implement online classes, some important aspects of the academic world seem to have fallen short – one of them being academic conferences. During the first months, physical meetings had to be cancelled, with the hopes of maybe postponing these important opportunities for academic exchange and networking. But the longer the crisis continues the less feasible this strategy seems.
By now, many conferences have shifted to online formats, substituting physical events step by step with video sessions, gathering people in virtual rooms instead, but still adhering to the conventional structures of face-to-face conferences with often 20-minute papers followed by q&a sessions, attempting to shift what we know from ‘real life’ into the digital realm without any loss. As relatable as these endeavors might be, such a ‘lossless’ transference is simple not realistic, especially in times where many of us are spending hours on end in video conferences and, by now, experience a certain Zoom fatigue. The challenge, when faced with a move to digital is that online and material conferences are different medial situations, that audience attention works differently, that other tools can be implemented. Despite all difficulties that a change from a familiar model of conferencing in person might pose, new formats can also help balance out some its disadvantages, for example for those struggling with funding or with more introverted personalities. On top of that, we are currently experiencing a crisis that is affecting us all differently but adding stress, nonetheless. Thus, I propose that a new model needs to be found for what conferences in digital format can and should do.
At the beginning of July 2020, I had the chance to organize a digital-only conference with roughly 35 presenters and 120 participants with which I attempted to rethink academic conferences for the digital realm – and judging from the evaluation forms I received afterwards, the CyberPunk Culture Conference 2020 was a success. I would like to share a few thoughts on how I set up the conference as an example of the challenges and opportunities that come with moving a conference online. In terms of preliminaries, I would like to point out that such a conference topic as ‘cyberpunk culture’, of course, already brings with it a certain proclivity for online presentation and that some participants were therefore quite familiar with digital tools, granting me the opportunity to experiment a bit more freely. Nonetheless, the model is worth taking a closer look, as not all cyberculture scholars participating were themselves early- or easy-adopters of digital technology and a general outlook towards a wide accessibility was aimed for.
The general planning of the conference was done similar to what one would expect for a physical conference. I set up a website with a simple WordPress theme (Event) to publish the call for papers, announcements of keynote speakers and guests, registration, and guidelines for presenters. To automatically handle registration, there are plugins (The Events Calendar) that deal with the backend of sending out emails and creating lists with registered attendees. The call was then published with listservs and websites, but I also want to highlight using social media. An active twitter account helped spread the news of the conference beyond the scope of academic fields. This has made the conference more inclusive in terms of non-academic participants.
Generally speaking, an online conference is low in cost and maintenance (after the initial set-up), so that I was able to handle all relevant work myself without institutional support. In terms of finances, none of the high-budget aspects are relevant as no travel cost for guests, no catering, and no rent for a venue are required. To cover hosting, software licenses, and fees for visuals, I set up a donation account via Ko-Fi.com, where participants could donate according to their ability. This allowed those with precarious job situations to participate free of cost and others with support to donate the sum of a coffee ($3) on voluntary basis—no one was excluded due to financial reasons.
Some challenges need to be addressed when deciding on how to handle presentations.
One is the high technological barrier of synchronous events via Zoom, Skype, or similar conferencing tools. All of these tools assume that both presenters and audience have a stable high bandwidth access which to use for a relatively long time. With home schooling, care work, and domestic and professional crisis management needed in current times, this assumption sets a high barrier to accessibility. In addition, given that the conference was aimed at international audiences covering effectively more than 12 hours’ worth of time zones, a fully synchronized delivery of the presentations would have excluded large parts of the audience either on the US Pacific coast or in Central/Eastern Europe. The solution to this was separating the delivery of presentations from their q&a discussion. Presentations were released before the official start of the conference, allowing a whole week of asynchronous viewing. The q&a for each presentation was then scheduled as a live session on the two official days of the conference so as to allow personal contact and direct interaction between audience and presenters.
Second, the level of technological expertise expected of those presenting is usually overestimated, as not everyone has access to tech support or the ability to create videos. In order to allow presenters to deliver their paper without having to meet such challenges, two different options were given. Presenters could opt to either pre-record a video and upload it to their own YouTube or Vimeo channel or they could opt to send in a text file with accompanying images. The level of technological expertise needed could thus vary, and in effect, I received presentations ranging from PowerPoint slides with text to fully animated and artistically cut videos. All presentations were then embedded on the conference website—the videos hosted individually to circumvent upload limits and issues of rights management, as each presenter remains the ‘owner’ of their video—and released prior to the conference.
Lastly, keeping up attention online is a challenge and watching several hours of video can become tiresome. The usual format of a 20-minute paper and following discussion that has been currently adopted by many online conferences seems to ignore the benefits and challenges of the new medium. To allow for easier reception, presenters were asked to limit themselves to 10-minute presentations. This allows audiences to engage with a greater number of presentations, as the shorter pieces can be better fit into their daily schedule. Further, having pre-recorded presentations allows audiences to stop and go back to specific thoughts when complex concepts are described. The time limit was seen as challenging by presenters as they had to reconceptualize what their paper could do, but it also unlocked the potential to reduce talks to their essential points and refocus their theses. In an evaluation among the participants, the reduced length was generally praised as a good choice.
With questions of accessibility in mind, the discussions were similarly approached with a need for asynchronous engagement. I opted against a video tool (Zoom etc.) and for a text-based chat server with individual channels for each presentation. The conference provided the q&a sessions on a dedicated Discord server, a chat tool that is free to use, supports all operating systems, and can even be opened via browser (no installation needed). The text-based chat has several advantages. It allows audiences to easily engage with low bandwidth, on their mobile devices, and at any given time. To grant more direct contact, each presenter was given a fixed time slot of 30 minutes in which to “be in the room” for a synchronous chat. This was the main anchor of the q&a, but many channels experienced discussions before and after the synchronous time slot, extending up to several days after the event. This also allowed participants to engage that could not attend during the official conference days. Since the q&a is text-based, and therefore offers asynchronous access, the differences in time zones did not prove to be a barrier as questions could be asked and answered even after the allotted time slots for the respective discussions.
The concentration on discussions during the two days of conference and the long time dedicated to each channel was seen as a benefit by both presenters and audience, as discourses naturally evolved, academic and casual forms mixed and created an overall open and engaging atmosphere. The only challenge with this is the cognitive ability to navigate several discussion strands at once, a matter of concentration, as the text-chat can be chaotic and feel overwhelming in its non-linearity. On the one hand, inexperienced users will need support and a guideline as to how to operate in this format. On the other hand, the social situation of a chat server is different to navigating a physical room full of people. Text removes barriers in terms of physical/vocal dominance and allows all messages to be delivered at the same level of hierarchy. If you are afraid that Discord might not work for your audience, then switching the discussions to a tool such as Zoom, might be an option.
Another benefit of the text-based q&a sessions, though, is that they can be easily transferred to the website and published with the presentations. After some editing, the discussions after a presentation will become part of the proceeding publication itself, showing how a community of scholars engages with a presentation and enhances its theoretical concepts. Since all materials are digitally present, gathering them in a coherent form on the website is fairly easy and gives a much broader view of the academic work that evolves from a conference presentation. In the context of younger scholars and PhD candidates still learning how to present and connect with a specific discipline, this might prove helpful to better understand the dynamics surrounding a conference.
As any experiment in form, not all things went right, and I have used evaluations to tease out some of the problems with the above-mentioned format. For example, I want to stress the need for breaks and communal events—the conference did provide voice chats to engage with each other outside of the presentation channels and yet, without specific times set out for leisure, they were seldomly used. We still need to find good tools to digitally replace the more social breaks and informal dinner meetings and other such community events.
Also, no matter how advanced you think that your presenters or audience might be in terms of digital technology and the tools you choose, there will always be some that need support. Thinking ahead and providing step-by-step manuals and helpful advice on how to use these tools will be a necessity to guide colleagues to see digital conferences as a benefit and not a hazard.
In general, I would stress that no format will be ideal for all kinds of events and I would suggest trying things out. The more we challenge old ideas of how conferences work, the better events we will create. I hope that this report has given you some ideas, and I welcome any suggestions for tools and concepts as to how conferences can change in the future.