I recently attended POPL 2022 in Philadelphia, which is an academic conference on the principles of programming languages – in my field of research as a PhD student. This was the first academic conference I attended in person (I have attended several online conferences previously), and from my experience there I have refined many ideas I’ve been developing about the purpose and effectiveness of conferences.
One reason this experience was unique was that it was a hybrid conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic – that is, the conference was hosted with full online support in mind.
- every talk was facilitated with a live video feed streamed to online participants
- the stream was equipped with live transcription (very high quality)
- the majority of talks were given by online speakers
- online participants could ask questions during talks
But for physical participants, everything was conducted pretty much as normal except for the mandatory mask-wearing at all times of course.
The main goals of a conference, it appears to me, are:
- provide a research for researchers to perform their results as broadly-consumable talks
- curate a selection of results to present to researchers in related fields that they wouldn’t have easily found normally
- host workshops where senior researchers pass on wisdom to junior researchers
- gather researchers from many different institutions so they can make connections and exchange developing ideas
How do real conferences live up to these ideals?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all academic conferences were converted to online events, and only recently have they started to be hosted in a hybrid model like POPL 2022 that I attended physically. This provided a unique opportunity to see how much of the “conference experience” could be translated into an online and often asynchronous experience when it was forced to.
Online conferences have exactly 1 worthwhile feature, which is providing the opportunity to ask speakers questions right after they give their talk (though, often the talk itself was pre-recorded). But even this feature is not very good, because most times the audience doesn’t have any good questions to ask, and then they are pressured to come up with sub-par questions to ask just to show respect to the speaker.
Other than this 1 feature, online conferences provide pretty much nothing else worthwhile in terms of a conference experience, these non-worthwhile features being:
- talks. If you don’t make use of the Q&A section after the talk, this is a strictly worse experience than just watching the recorded talk later, since the recorded talk can be watched at any time, paused, and with modified playback-speed.
- social events. It is very difficult to get that to work out well with a large collection of strangers, or more likely a very small collection of strangers because most people would rather spend time with the people that are actually near them physically.
- virtual “hallways”. It’s a cool idea, but apparently we don’t have the technology for this yet. VR chat work better. In practice, a virtual hallway is just a list of people that are willing to chat with anyone who wants to click on them. And not many people are interested in that. A real conference hallway works by you wandering around until you hear an interesting conversation or are introduced to someone by a mutual connection.
Of course, I’m sure that on the backend there are still significances to conferences that we unchanged by being hosted online, such as financials and curating research results. But I’m not focussing on those factors here.
What online conference attendees discovered was that the talks are not a very important aspect of why they attend conferences. They are more of a background ambiance for the hallways discussions and social gatherings.