Attending a conference in your PJs

We can’t hold public gatherings anymore. So conferences and meetings are moving to virtual, which is… interesting?

Last month, I attended Science Talk 2020 (#SciTalk20), an annual conference about everything that’s science communication that’s usually held in Portland, OR. Not this year. This year is was on the internet.

I’ve never been – it’s passed on my radar the past few years, especially because Portland isn’t that far, but the combination of no longer being a student (so no student attendance fees) and the time/effort/cost of travelling (let’s face it, sometimes I’m just lazy), meant I never made the trip down.

This year however, there was no trip required, and I knew I’d probably have the time to attend (two afternoons), so why not? I love the scicomm community on Twitter and this could be a new way to connect.

With no in-person attendees, the SciTalkOrg had to improvise to make a group picture. Where is Waldo challenge: can you find me?
(Image from SciTalkOrg’s twitter post)

You can read a blog post from one of the organizers on how the event went, but here are some of my thoughts as an attendee.

Conferencing at your own pace

I like attending conferences, but sometimes I’m just so tired at the end of the day from always being on. I enjoyed going to the #AAAS2020* meeting partially because I could just go home straight after. Sure, part of conferences – and I might argue perhaps one of the most important parts – is networking, those coffee breaks and meet-ups in bars and connecting over drinks, but attending a conference from your lazy desk chair has some perks:

  • You can get up and grab a coffee or go to the bathroom whenever you want without feeling like you’re bothering the speaker by getting up.
  • You can shamelessly doodle, knit, cross-stitch, … whatever type of “mindless” activity you like without feeling self-conscious. I particularly like this, because even during the most interesting of talks, I have the tendency to fall asleep, and doing something with my hands helps me stay awake.
  • You don’t have to dress up. Well, attend a conference in your PJs. Super comfy. You don’t even need to pack!
  • The catering is as amazing as you make it!

Running chat

One of my favorite things of the conference was the chat room, similar to the chat in a live-streamed YouTube video: constantly running in the background. It was pretty amazing to talk (mostly about the ongoing session but sure, there were also jokes) without bothering the speaker, at another conference, whispering in the back row would be frowned upon.

The chat room gave attendees the opportunity to network and provide resources directly. A lot of questions came up live, discussions got started, etc. It was like having a live tweet feed but a bit faster. In addition to the live-streamed speaker sessions, coffee breaks (with a chat open) gave people to opportunity to connect, discuss, and joke around.

Me during a flash talk, clearly in my leisure clothes. You can see the chat on the right.

So should all conferences go virtual?

Nah, of course not. There are aspects to in-person conferences that would be very difficult to implement virtually, such as networking events, (some) interactive workshops, and exhibition halls. But live-streaming can definitely make conferences more interactive, and accessible. Rethinking how conferences are organized can potentially increase their impact: can some conferences completely or partially be held online to reach more people? Do we really always have to travel halfway across the world for a meeting?

The organizers of #SciTalk20 showed that moving a meeting online in a matter of weeks is possible, with great speakers, wonderful attendees, and a disco party to end with.

* The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can read some of my session reports here, here, and here.

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