You’d think that after a long period of isolation I’d be looking forward to a return to normality and the opportunity to mingle with others at a conference again. Strangely, I am not. There are great things about real-life conferences, but also great awkwardnesses. I stopped attending the annual Society for Neuroscience conference many years ago as attendance soared past 20,000, which made the face-to-face appeal diminish as we became a faceless mob…and also as it became obvious that a subject as complex and diverse as neuroscience couldn’t be appropriately managed in a one-size-fits-all event.
So I thought this article about organizing scientific conferences online was somewhat informative. I’ve been involved in running a social justice conference online, once upon a time, so I’m familiar with some of the compromises, but it’s good to see some new ideas. Zoom has all kinds of potential, and they used Crowdcast, but I thought the way they applied it was a good mix of traditional and novel uses.
Even the traditional elements were improved.
We largely retained the legacy conference format of a single track for invited talks (30 minutes plus 15 minutes for questions) from established scientists, and contributed talks (18 minutes plus 4 minutes for questions) selected from the submitted abstracts to highlight work from up-and-coming researchers. However, the online platform used – Crowdcast – allowed for some significant innovations. First, everyone was able to see the speaker more clearly than in a lecture theatre. Second, Crowdcast allows anyone to submit a question to ask the speaker at the end, and viewers can vote on those questions. This led to a question and answer session that was considerably more lively and democratic than in a typical legacy conference, where participants often note that the same established professors are asking the same questions at every talk. As in the case of the short talks, it may be better to extend the questions even more to capitalize on the quality of the questions asked in the safer and more democratic online format. The third innovation is the chat window that appears alongside the talk. We did not anticipate how significant this would be. Students and others were able to ask basic questions about definitions or ask for links to papers while the talk was going on. Other participants could answer them in real-time without disrupting the presentation, thereby allowing a deeper level of engagement by the audience than is possible in legacy conferences. Moreover, since recordings of these talk were available immediately after the session, it would be possible to go back and revisit portions of the talk that may have been missed or were presented too quickly.
Right, you’ve got to keep the talks limited to familiar blocks of time. We do a lot of training and practice to maximize information in small specified chunks of time. They didn’t do one hour talks, though? I’m used to conferences with plenary sessions with hour-long time slots for bigwigs in the field…they usually don’t live up to their billing, though. An hour is a long time to fill.
The other thing you need for a conference is the schmoozing. They had a way of doing that that seemed to me to be trying too hard. Typical nerds.
One feature of a legacy conference that would appear to be impossible to replicate online is the social aspect: chance encounters during the coffee breaks, social events or banquets. In place of this aspect, neuromatch algorithmically matched attendees to other like-minded scientists for individual 15-minute chats. We use a combination of topic modeling techniques and linear programming to solve the matching problem based on a sample of their research abstracts (Achakulvisut et al., 2018). The matching part was based on a highly popular experiment carried out at the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience, but it is particularly well-suited to an online format. There remains considerable scope for further innovations in replicating or improving on the social experience of legacy conferences, especially as the online format may be less socially intimidating.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just randomly put people into small break-out groups? This sounds too planned — one of the benefits ought to be serendipitous encounters using a simple algorithm that assumes every participant is equally interesting with unique attributes that anyone might find productive. One useful parameter I wanted to know is what is the optimal group size for these chats. Was it one-on-one? Half a dozen in a group? Small classroom size with 30 participants?
I suspect that one good thing that will emerge from this pandemic is more online conferences. It vastly reduces the expense, gets rid of the bother of air travel, and helps participants manage their time better. I currently try to attend one conference a year because it’s such a huge investment of time and effort — and this year the one I’d planned on got cancelled, of course. But if they were online, I’d be able to schedule that arachnology conference, the Society for Developmental Biology annual meeting, and SICB every year without killing myself with constant travel to the airport, while still learning new things and engaging with new people. Make it so, scientific societies!
Also, if you’re interested, Skepticon is going online this year. I’ve long wanted to attend Dragon*Con, but it’s been impossible because it always falls during the first few weeks of classes, when I can’t possibly just take off. Of course, if it went online, what would happen to all the cosplay events? And now I want to attend even less, because it’s held in a state where Brian Kemp is the Republican governor who is mismanaging the pandemic, and we’ll probably see another wave about the time Dragon*Con opens for business as a big bustling petri dish. Many Shubs and Zulls will know what it is to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!
I wonder if they’re even considering alternatives — I get the idea that our regional SF con, Convergence, is going ahead with the idea that they’ll be doing business as usual in late August, while developing contingency plans. I’m not so confident. Getting crammed into a single building with thousands of other attendees, many of whom need to be reminded about the basics of hygiene, seems to regularly lead to icky cases of con-crud. Only this con-crud can kill you!
P.S. I’ve only just noticed that searching for “online conferences” produces strange images of people sitting around a conference table staring at a screen on the wall, or the always-popular image of two people shaking hands through a pair of computer screens. I really don’t think they get it. That’s not how it’s going to work, or can work. And shaking hands? Is anyone else feeling repulsed at the idea of physical contact with some stranger’s filthy hands?