Virtual socializing at academic conferences

Richard Parncutt 

2020 April

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The following is based on practical experience. I co-organized a multi-location semi-virtual conference in 2018 and a smaller one with high virtual content in 2019. What I am proposing here is different, but related.

Corona and climate

What a waste! The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancelation of many promising academic conferences. That is a real shame. Think of all those carefully planned research projects whose results will not be communicated and discussed. All those personal meetings and creative interactions that will not happen.  

But what an opportunity! At the same time, many people, both inside academia and outside of it, are saying that corona is a chance to try out new ways of doing things that could mitigate climate change. There are hundreds of good internet pages on this topic (e.g. this one). There is also strong academic support for virtual conferences (also called online conferences). Are conference organizers missing their chance to reform conference culture?

Misleading arguments? Conference organizers justify the decision to cancel in different ways. Some claim that a virtual conference would be too hard to organize. In fact, a virtual conference is easier to organize (see below). Another familiar argument is that networking and personal contact are a big part of conferences, especially for young scholars. That won't be possible at a virtual conference, they say. In fact, a virtual conference makes it easier for young researchers to make contacts! Read on: 

Virtual conferencing: Who benefits?

Lots of people, as it turns out.

1. Young researchers
 need exposure and contact with people doing similar research -- people with whom they could work in the future. In this regard, virtual conferences have several advantages:
2. Colleagues from non-rich countries may not be able to afford regular conferences either (flight, accommodation, registration). Their participation in virtual conferences will improve the cultural diversity of the conference. A virtual conference can expand disciplinary horizons by reaching out to colleagues in new geographic regions and new cultural spheres. It can also contribute to global development (cf. Sustainable Development Goals).

3. Colleagues with caring commitments may be too busy looking after small children and/or aging parents to attend a conventional conference. Despite decades of feminism, these colleagues are still more often women than men. Virtual conferencing is an interesting solution. If the baby cries, just turn off the sound.

4. Colleagues with disabilities are often excluded from conventional conferences. 
Imagine being confined to a wheelchair: what would a conventional conference be like? Even if you could travel, and even if all rooms were accessible, it would still be easier to meet the right people and have creative conversions at a virtual conference. Disabled colleagues can give virtual presentations and participate in virtual discussions on the same level as everyone else. 

In sum, conventional conferences
unintentionally discriminate against the young, the non-rich, the carers, and/or the disabled. The underrepresentation of these minorities reduces their visibility, which in turn reduces their influence -- creating a vicious circle that is hard to break out of. Virtual conferencing solves the problem at one stroke by allowing everyone to participate on an equal level. 

Is a virtual conference hard to organize?

No. It is the other way around: conventional conferences are hard to organize. Conventional conference organizers have to 
In a virtual conference, participants can be located anywhere, but most stay at home or go to their offices. Therefore, organizers don't have to do any of the things in the above list. They can instead focus on the main aims of the conference:
Here is what an organizer of a virtual conference really has to do. First, some things that happen at both conventional and virtual conferences: 
Second, some things that happen only at virtual conferences: That's it! Or did I forget something?

Technology

Options. Several two-way audiovisual communication systems are available. Skype is the best-known. Others include Zoom,
Jitsi, Skype for Business, WebEx, BlueJeans, Whereby. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Zoom has security issues (see below) but also the following advantages:
Upgrade. The free version of Zoom is limited to 40 minutes, which is enough if your timeslots are 30 minutes, although the number of participants is also limited. You will probably need the cheapest Zoom upgrade. At the time of writing (2020 April), it cost than 20 Euros a month. 

Rehearsal. Test the electronic connection with all confererence participants individually before the conference. Make sure they are wearing a reasonable headset (cheap mobile phone headphones may be good enough) and that they can turn the sound on and off. During the rehearsal, both you and they should be using the same computer, headset, and any other equipment that will be used for the conference. Both you and s/he should be in the same room, using the same internet connections. Insist on that! For these rehearsals, you can make a special program with 5-10 minutes per person. Everyone should participate including those with experience giving virtual talks, because during the conference there will be no time to address technical problems. 

AV quality. This depends on internet speed at the sending and receiving end (not on the distance). It may also depend on the number of streams happening in parallel in your program, so you might need IT advice about that. I recently enjoyed a Zoom session with over 10 participants. I was in 
Europe and the others were in Australia and Thailand. Both sound and video were fine throughout. At other times I have had trouble communicating with Australia, perhaps because the internet is slower there than in Europe. Perhaps the internet is faster in some places within Australia than others, or there is more traffic at certain times.

Security. Zoom claims to be secure. In fact, there are serious security issues. For that reason, some universities are not allowing it to be used. If you use Zoom, remind all speakers to present as if their talk was public. That includes avoiding copyright issues with images and recorded sounds, and personal comments of any kind about anyone. But they should do that anyway, because in truth no publicly available AV communication system is completely secure. 

Live streams. If a participant from a country with especially slow internet chooses to send a YouTube live stream, they will have to do some extra work, but the organizer will not. Just rehearse in the usual way. 
They will set up the stream using OBS software as described hereIf they want the stream to be confidential, they will make it "unlisted" (but again, you can't be sure that it will be secure). You and other conference participants will simply watch the talk in a browser. Two-way acoustic communication will not be possible, but audience members can send written feedback and questions in real time. They can do that in the chat area on the right side of the YouTube screen provided they have a Google account. The speaker will reply to these written questions acoustically. There will be a time delay of 10 to 60 seconds.

Pre-recorded videos (more) can be useful for people in countries with slow internet. Videos can be followed by Q&A in Skype, perhaps using a telephone connection. Otherwise the discussion can be written only, or a mixture of written and AV. Every participant can be offered the option of creating a video instead of giving a zoom/skype talk. Perhaps videos should be submitted early so organizers can check quality and make suggestions. A mixture of different talk formats (live, delayed, recorded) makes for variety in the program. A conference that comprises only videos might also be interesting. After all, people attend festivals of short films, while others watch strings of videos in Facebook and comment on them. Requiring participants to make videos means the organisers don't have to rehearse the connections for live talks. The downside is that many will be either unwilling or unable to make a good video. The recordings will be big files but participants can upload them to DropBox. Organizers might decide to show them once only at a given time, two times for people on both sides of the globe, any time in a given period of days or weeks, or permanently on YouTube.

Cloud storage
. Ask your university IT office to help you set up a password-protected information-storage system such as Moodle or Microsoft Teams with a separate page for each conference presentation. Participants should be able to store information of any kind about themselves and their presentation, including links to their live presentation and video recording, plus contact details during the conference (email, mobile phone, skype). For smaller conferences, cloud storage may not be necessary: just send the information to the participants by email.

Technical assistance. It's always good to have a technical assistant. But if your conference is relatively small, you might not need one. Technologies like Zoom and Moodle are easy to use and the workload is manageable. 

Virtual socializing

Virtual socializing happens in coffee breaks at virtual and semi-virtual conferences. Any conference participant can contact any other participant. In open meetings, anyone can join any conversation. If people want private meetings, they can organize them themselves.

Technology. At a fully virtual conference in which participants are alone at home or in their office, virtual socializing is easy. Just use Skype or one of the alternatives. At a multi-hub conference that is spread across hubs in different regions, virtual socializing needs to be set up. It may involve a separate conference room with many computers at each hub, each with three sets of headphones and one microphone. 

Programming. Your conference program might include
It's a good idea to put someone in charge of virtual socializing. This person might ask all participants for confidential information that will help her or him match up people with similar interests. If people don't like that, publicly available information can be used.

Virtual poster sessions are another opportunity to socialize while at the same time getting to know new research. Here's how a virtual poster session can be organized:
Beer. The beer at the end of the day is one of the nicest things about a conventional conference. You can do it virtually, just as you can have virtual coffee breaks with actual coffee. Create an evening session called "Beer" and people will bring their beer. After a short silence, someone will explain why she prefers the beer from her region. Someone else will disagree, and after that the discussion will never stop. If someone starts smoking, no problem.

Excursion. Conventional conferences often have them. At a virtual conference, willing participants can present virtual tours of their local city or region, showing images and talking about them. 

Regional versus global conferences

Regional. A regional virtual conference happens in usual working hours in a given time zone. Participants from outside that zone have to adjust accordingly. For example, a North American conference could be organized relative to Central US Time. The Californians would get up early; New Yorkers could sleep in. A European conference could be organized relative to Central European Time; in that case, the British and Portuguese would have to start earlier. Depending on distance, participants in other time zones may find themselves working at odd hours. 

Global. Another option is a 24-hour, round-the-clock program, with participants or locations spread around the globe. The main conference program can be confined to the morning and late afternoon or evening at each location, with a long lunch break (siesta). Participants will communicate toward the East in the morning and toward the West in the afternoon/evening. That way, each participant can communicate with most of the world in real time.


Timeslot structure. In the following 24-hour program sketch, the day is divided into six 4-hour timeslots. The start of each time-slot is marked in UTC, which is the same as GMT. For example, the zero (0) in the top left corner represents a timeslot lasting from 000 to 400 UTC, which is 1am-5am in London if the conference happens in the Northern summer. The red timeslots are for the regular conference program. The blue timeslots are free time with no organized conference events. At each location, people are active in two of the three red timeslots.

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Working hours. The dark green timeslots are working hours at each location in local time. In this plan, participants in London work from 9am to 1pm and from 5pm to 9pm (17-21h) daily. From 1am to 5am, they miss the interesting things happening on the other side of the world, but if all presentations at the conference are recorded, they can watch that content at other times. In general, those who start at 7am will finish at 7pm, those who start at 8am will finish at 8pm, and so on.

Three zones. This approach divides the world into three broad time zones with the following working hours:

Timing ups and downs. Timing would be more convenient at some locations than others. In Mumbai and Buenos Aires, according to this plan, participants could choose between an early-rising schedule of 5-9am and 1-5pm daily or a lie-in schedule of 1-5pm and 9pm-1am daily. If it's any comfort, no location in the world would be worse than that, and the daily timeshift (whether forward or backward) would be less than jetlag after a typical long flight. Timing would be better, but still not terribly convenient, in New York (-4) and Honolulu (-10).

The Pacific rim. The location of these inconvenient local schedules is determined by the Pacific Ocean. It is very wide, so locations on the Pacific rim are crucial. The time difference between Sydney and Los Angeles is 7 hours in the summer (if we ignore the International Date Line), which approximately determines the entire program grid.

Another option. If the above program was shifted to the left by one hour (everything happening 1h earlier everywhere), colleagues in London would work 8-12h and 16-20h local time, while colleagues in New York would work 11-15h and 19-23h. That would be better for them, but all of China would now start at 7am. Chinese colleagues might nevertheless like the idea of finishing earlier, at 7pm. Taking everything into consideration, 1h earlier might be the best option, depending on where participants are located.

An early start? At a virtual conference, morning sessions can start earlier because people don't have to have breakfast or travel to the conference venue first. Similarly, evening sessions can end later because people don't have to go home afterwards. That allows for a bit more flexibility, and you don't have to worry about public transport stopping in the evening.

Summer time. I have assumed that the conference will happen in the summer in the Northern hemisphere. Times in the above figure have been adjusted for summer time using timeanddate.com. In the Northern winter, things look a bit different. Note also that the time in Mumbai is 30 minutes later than shown.

Breaks

There are two kinds of break at a virtual conference:
Within each four-hour block, both kinds can be scheduled simultaneously everywhere to maximize virtual contact time and encourage virtual socializing. Perhaps like this:
The 60 minutes of work could be:
A six-hour working day. The above plan is for two 4-hour blocks per day at each location. But each block would include two half-hour computer breaks, so we are talking about 6 hours per day sitting in front of a computer. That might seem like a lot, but many of us are doing more than that anyway. So it is a matter of putting other stuff on hold -- as one does at a regular conference. Those who still have energy left after those six hours can check out AV recordings of the interesting talks and other sessions they missed. The truly keen will get up in the middle of the night and explore what's happening on the other side of the world. 

Recording and electronic documentation

However the timetable is organized: If all talks are streamed and recorded, they can be watched either in real time or later on as videos. That will give participants more access to content than they have at a conventional conference.

This will change the way we think about academic literature and documentation. Traditionally, conference documentation is confined to the program, abstracts, and proceedings. In future, researchers will increasingly rely on recorded videos to learn about the research of others and interact with each other. Conference videos will also become an increasingly important resource for students. After that conference, participants will put their videos in the internet or link them to their homepages, increasing outreach.

Broader issues

Why should we change? And what if there are disagreements?

Academic privilege.
Academics can and should be social leaders, inspiring others to try out new perspectives and new ways of thinking. But many of us are still stubbornly insisting on our “need” to meet face-to-face over coffee, pretending that we are doing it for “young scholars” when in fact we are talking about academic privilege. Our real motivation, if we are honest about it, is the enjoyment we get out of flying to conferences ourselves.

I certainly enjoy flying to conferences, or at least I used to until I gave up in 2016 for environmental reasons. Since then I have attended all kinds of interesting conferences by train and bus. At those conferences I am still enjoying chatting over coffee.

There is nothing wrong with fun. But fun is not the main goal here. The main goal is to do good research, and do it together. Still, it certainly helps to have fun, and there is no reason why it can't be fun to communicate virtually. We have to be creative and try out new approaches.

Environmental ethics. Global politics seem to be going downhill. Are academic standards also slipping? Are we academics justifying our conference-culture conservatism with logical fallacies and climate denial? Are we willfully ignoring the devastating environmental consequences of our carbon emissions for young people?

To anyone who has read the main academic literature on climate change, or at least the main IPCC summaries, or perhaps merely an everyday independent newspaper, the answers to these questions are obvious. It is obvious that climate change is an unprecedented global crisis and that fundamental changes are urgently needed. It is obvious that regular academic conferences are not important enough to justify the amount of CO2 they generate. It is obvious that drastic changes in conference culture are urgently necessary. Anyone who disagrees with these claims is not expressing an opinion. He or she either uninformed or lying. That, too, is obvious.

The fact is: we can only afford to use fossil fuels to the extent that we can extract the CO2 from the air. But first the CO2 concentration has to fall back in the direction of 350 parts per million -- from the current level of over 410. This is the biggest challenge that humanity every faced, which is why it is also the most urgent.

From an ethical viewpoint we may ask if we have a “right” to chat with international colleagues at conferences. If so, is that “right” more important than the right to life of children in developing countries? Is it more important than the survival of humanity? We might also ask if anyone has the right to cause the death of anyone else, except in urgent self-defence. Those might sound like extreme comparisons, but they are no surprise to climate scientists, or those who read the findings of climate science and take them seriously. Carbon emissions really are a matter of life and death for a billion people. And the answers to questions of this kind really are blatantly obvious.

Life expectancies in developing countries are much shorter than in industrialized countries. That is a polite way of saying that even in the absence of climate change most children in developing countries will die early due to poverty. Every year, three million children die of hunger. Climate change means most children now living in developing countries will die even earlier. We may be reluctant to talk about this for fear of exposing our guilt. But if we care about human rights, it is the main problem. Lest we forget.

Two billion children in developing countries will be existentially affected if we academics fail to
Why should we academics do that? I can think of several reasons: It's time to turn this around. Virtual conferences during the pandemic may be just what the doctor ordered. So let's take advantage of the opportunity.

Academic democracy.
Conference organizers may be confronted with a tough choice between canceling a conference and going virtual. But they are seldom in a position to decide alone. Instead, they have to negotiate with other colleagues involved in the conference. Often this includes the executive committee of the academic society presenting the conference.

Decisions by committees tend to be conservative. The average committee member is naturally cautious when it comes to trying out new things. Conference organizers who are convinced that a virtual conference is the right path to follow may have to patiently and respectfully talk to colleagues -- again and again, if necessary. With the best of intentions, those colleagues will often seem to be ignoring the facts or pretending not to understand.

A famous person once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Often responsibility for the success of a conference rests heavily on the shoulders of one person who has volunteered or been appointed to organize it. When that person plausibility takes responsibility for a decision to go virtual, it may be possible to do so even if a majority of responsible committee members disagree. Those who disagree may consent to an "experiment" provided the organizer takes responsibility for the outcome.

Progressive organizers can always advance the following arguments:

Incidentally, conference organizers can be sure of getting long-term support from these four groups. When they experience the advantages of virtual conferencing and ask for more, there will be no turning back.

Examples of virtual conferences in music research

Check these out:
Royal Music Association
MedRen
Timbre
Brain, Cognition, Emotion, and Music

Further information

Climate change and academic conference culture 
is a big topic. I have only scratched the surface here. For further information, check out the large and growing literature in Google Scholar. I recently published two papers. There are also campaigns for academics to fly less.


The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage