More serious analysis of online conferencing, please. It’s our future.

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?


  1. says

    Less sitting on airplanes and going through airport security theater (which Bruce Schneier mentioned years ago was a great magnifier for a flu) and less sitting in hotel bars. It means I can keep the bottle just out of sight of the camera, and fortify myself during boring moments, which is all of them. Virtual conferences give you an easy escape, “my bandwidth sucks out here.” or “Verizon internet.” Sexual harrassment is still a problem but booting an annoying creeper is easy. I’d say I’d miss the coffee but that’d be a lie; I’ve only had good hotel coffee at a conference once, and that was in the 1990s before starbucks took over and ruined coffee.

    What’s going to be interesting is how people eroticize this – because they will. Video chat has already been done, but there’s still room for group video sex chat. And a photographer buddy of mine is already shooting naughty pictures of people making out wearing tyvek overalls, gloves, and masks. Perhaps glove and mask fetish will be a big thing. Hmm, that reminds me of something I had forgotten ’till just now.

  2. wbindelaware says

    Regarding Convergence – some events are covered by insurance that only pays out in the event of “force majeure”. Until the organizer is forced to cancel for reasons outside the control of the organizer (like a mandatory shelter-in-place order) the insurance won’t pay out. So the organizer has to proceed as if the event will occur – premature cancellation on the organizer’s initiative means they are still liable for venue-associated expenses which can be significant. It would of course adversely affect next year’s con if they started out in a deep financial hole, too.

  3. says

    Oh, I agree — I think Convergence is doing the right thing, planning as if they’ll be able to go ahead in August (maybe they will, although I’m pessimistic), while working hard behind the scenes to develop contingency plans.

    Also, I think there’s an opportunity here: a new SF convention that is designed around online conferencing from the get-go. Somebody should be working on that, I think it would go big.

    Especially if they take advantage of Marcus’s mask-and-glove fetish idea.

  4. eddavies says

    Isn’t one of the advantages of being at a conference that you’re away from your home institution. If you’re attending a conference sitting in your own office surely you’ll finish up with all the normal interruptions, etc.

    Pandemics aside, I’ve previously wondered from the global warming and general avoidance of travel point of view whether distributed conferences where small groups gather in each of a largish number of small conference centres networked together might work better. It’d give a localized version of the social aspects too, particularly if there’s a small amount of longer-distance travel involved as well to mix people around, perhaps if they’re travelling in that direction anyway.

  5. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Personally, the thing I would miss at conferences is the serendipitous meeting with a colleague who has been working on something germane to my interests but hasn’t published yet. It’s how interesting partnerships get formed and how thinking gets changed. Without that, it is going to be very easy for research institutions to balkanize and develop entrenched ideologies and methodologies.

    I also agree that if I am not away from my home institution, I’m going to spend way more time getting interrupted than listening to talks.

  6. whheydt says

    The convention I’m involved in running really can’t be done on-line. Our focus is table-top gaming. We “dodged the bullet” this year, as we run over President’s Day weekend and –at least locally–lockdowns hadn’t started. Next year…we’re proceeding on the assumption that the ‘con will be held as usual. Fortunately, we’re financially sound. Should we have to cancel at the last minute, the only major expense we’d have that couldn’t be just rolled over a year, would be the program book. Pre-printed badge stock, for instance, has the number of the con on it (next con will be DunDraCon 45, no matter when it’s held).

    I know of one con that cancelled this year because the hotel cancelled, and that got them out of their contract with no penalties. WorldCon (CoNZealand) announced that they would be “virtual” over a month ago, so they have a fair bit of planning time to handle that. It’s a pity I can’t make it to SMoFcon this year, since–if it happens (early December)–the general conversations should be…interesting.

  7. leerudolph says

    @6: “really can’t be done on-line. Our focus is table-top gaming. ”

    Okay. I’ve never been to any sort of con (as contrasted with learnèd-society conferences in mathematics and in robotics, and a whole bunch of commercial-but-definitely-not-learnèd book fairs), and my last experiences with table-top gaming were 50+ years ago (various Avalon Hill products, owned by a friend, not by me). But could you expand on why a table-top-gaming-focused con “really can’t be done on line”, with enough application of the ingenuity that I am sure (still) characterizes table-top gamers, and on-line techology that can either be adapted or invented without huge obstacles? (E.g., and I’m sure this will just be another instance of the “why can’t you just?” fallacy to which mathematicians are particularly prone, but: could not multiplayer VR-game techniques be adapted?)

  8. says

    So, I agree that serendipitous meetings are important to conferences. Some of my best work connections were unplanned conference connections.

    But why not allow for individuals to create groups. Excuse me, why not ENCOURAGE individuals to create groups. If you have a chat box going on the side, there’s no reason someone can’t say, “I’m opening my own zoom chat right after this talk is over. My theme is Dolphins Drinking Tea. Then the 30 comments along, another person can announce, “I’m opening my own zoom chat right after this talk is over, and my theme is my Plug-In Hybrid Car cause I just got one 3.5 months ago and I still want to talk to everyone about it, it’s so cool.”

    And maybe you aren’t captured by the whimsy of Dolphins Drinking Tea, and maybe the mundanity of someone excited to yak about their own new car doesn’t do it for you either, but a LOT of conference talk mixes completely off-topic stuff into the social, getting-to-know people part of the conference. After you start to figure out that you don’t like someone, you drift off to another room or another talk is starting, but after you start to figure out that you do like someone, you start to ask, “So what brought you to this conference?” and if you’re at the same conference and you like each other, you can ALWAYS find some kind of connection of interest.

    Not everyone mentions this, but good research collaborations aren’t always born out of suddenly realizing that the intersection of two researchers’ individual studies is fertile ground for new research. Sometimes they’re born out of a determination to make the most of two researchers’ small field of overlap just so that they have an excuse to work with someone else who is friendly and interesting and smart. In two fifteen minute chats and then one longer meal-based conversation you can decide you want to work with someone without knowing the staggering academic implications or whatever. You just decide you want to work with them and then the research questions you ask are actually restricted to those that legitimately touch on the expertise of both parties.

    In fact, sometimes it takes quite a bit of creativity just to come up with the right research question to justify working together. But once you’ve got it, you’ll be more motivated to follow up on this research than on some other things you might do that seemed, abstractly, like logical next steps given your previous career path. Matching people up based on previously published research is just a fancy way of saying the computer is facilitating you taking the obvious net step based on your previous career path. And that’s fine. But if it’s obvious, well, you might have e-mailed that person doing related research anyway and asked for help on those obvious next questions that are obviously part of two researcher’s shared expertise.

    But that has nothing to do with serendipity. Serendipity is something altogether different, and I think I’m much more likely to find it in a between-session zoom chat spontaneously organized by a nuisance-torts geek who names their chatroom I Like Frogs! than I am being shuffled into a room with the theme “Specialists in Section 1 Exceptions to Gender Rights Protection in Canadian Constitutional Law”.

  9. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    CD@8, I am sure that in part, it is my old fartness showing. However, in-person interaction conveys information that just isn’t there with a video chat–and the more folks involved in a video chat, often the less information conveyed.

    I am sure that video chat also offers some advantages you might not get in an in-person interaction, but it is a new medium, and I don’t think anyone completely has its message down quite yet. All I know is that I emerge from a in-person conference feeling invigorated and having new ideas, but I emerge from a video meeting/chat feeling tired and relieved it’s over.

  10. jrkrideau says

    Not a conference but the Canadian House of Commons is planning on virtual sittings this week. Technically, they are not actual sessions as they are to be held as a committee of the whole but it should be interesting.

    `Actual live sittings are also being held with some stripped-down numbers.

    Grack! According to tho HOUSE OF COMMONS PROCEDURE AND PRACTICE Third Edition, 2017 “Under the Constitution Act, 1867, a quorum of 20 Members (including the Speaker) is required “to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers”, a requirement reiterated in the Standing Orders”

  11. says


    Oh, I’m not saying that we should always prefer video-conferencing.

    I’m just saying that if you start from the premise that particular conference X is going to be a videoconference rather than an in-person, in-hotel gathering of humans, that it doesn’t make sense to use algorithms to tell people where they’re going to go between formal sessions. That side-bar chat they’re talking about during the main session can be used for all the productive things they’re talking about, but they can also be used to ask people if they want to engage in random discussion Y between then end of one session and the beginning of the next.

    I think that’s productive because the titles of the formal sessions are already going to bring together all the people who have common professional, career-path interests. The video conferences are always going to suffer (even more!) in comparison if you don’t foster that spontaneous and non-linear grouping that happens at conferences when two people end up at the bagel table instead of the waffle-iron at the breakfast bar and it’s an appreciation for bagels, rather than identical CVs, that gets those folks talking.

    There are so many opportunities for random meetings at a conference. To take the randomness out of the between-session times would be to penalize video-cons even more.

  12. whheydt says

    Re: leerudolh @ #7…
    While the DunDraCon is on table-top gaming, it does include other things, as well. Bear in mind that “table-top” includes miniatures war gaming (both historical and fantasy). That aspect needs to have the–sometimes quite large “miniatures”–made by multiple different people on the same table for the simulation to work. Card games (Magic the Gathering and similar) need the ability to mix decks and exchange (if only by capture) cards from multiple decks. Hard to to in a video conference environment. Even plain old D&D being played on a common battle mat is going to suffer markedly from trying to do it by video chat.

    The dealers room…sure. In theory one could have an organized, on-line marketplace. It would suffer from a lack of immediacy and the usual difficulties of browsing through or examining the actual products. Doing it without the physical space…one might as well just go do on-line ordering. The results would be conceptually much the same, but the human dynamics would be far different.

    That just covers the organized part of the activities. We also provide space set aside for pick up games.

    Pretty much unless you’ve actually been to (let alone helped run) an SF or gaming convention, you may not appreciate how much of it is driven by one-the-spot interactions between people.

  13. DanDare says

    New functionality is needed.
    Consider the suggestion of organising between session chats. If someone proposes a chat it should probably pop out from the main conversation stream to linger in a slower moving list to the side, otherwise too few people may see it pass.
    Then add a quick way for people to join and an auto start function when the current session ends.

  14. leerudolph says

    @12: Thanks for the detailed reply! But, for instance, where you describe the need “to have the–sometimes quite large ‘miniatures’–made by multiple different people on the same table for the simulation to work”, I imagine, with enough mutual trust and lead time, (A) a location with one or a few socially-distanced caretakers entrusted with the (actual, physical) miniatures, and a large, “smart” table-top to put them on, and remotely-player-controlled manipulators with which to move them around, all under the watchful eyes of multiple webcams; or (B) virtual-reality ‘miniatures’ (very good VR realizations of the physical ones and/or VR-from-the-get-go creations) on a VR tabletop, and each of the multiple different people present in the form of a VR avatar, all this remotely controlled and experienced from each person’s home space. It would be a different kind of convention, and I am sure that the practical difficulties are enormous (though not insuperable); but people are ingenious, and needs must when the devil drives, etc., etc.

  15. nomdeplume says

    As a young scientist I eagerly went to conferences, thinking I would meet the big guns, learn something, start to establish myself. But I quickly discovered the Conference Stare, the action of the person you are speaking to looking over your shoulder until they see someone more important than you and can scurry away.

  16. says

    I’ve played several online RPGs.

    I’ve NEVER used a battlemat-type visualization. At most, we’re e-mailed a pic of the map of the space where the battle is occurring right at the beginning, once or twice the pic even included notations for where NPCs/opponents were standing at that starting moment.

    From there on, the DM manages a map, sometimes gaming it out carefully using miniatures and sometimes just saying, “Eh, close enough”. People just say, “I advance on the Owlbear-human baby hybrid and roll for a hug if I get close enough.” Then the DM says, “You got there,” or “You’ll get there next round,” or “It took a double move, but you got there and can roll to hug on your next turn.”

    In a good role-playing game, there really isn’t the need to make things so precise. The drama is far more important to the fun than the math. And, frankly, if you’re too aware of the math, you can start to min/max a bit too much. This allows you to focus on the real question, “What does my character really want in this situation,” and then the game master facilitates it.

  17. John Morales says


    “In a good role-playing game, there really isn’t the need to make things so precise. The drama is far more important to the fun than the math. And, frankly, if you’re too aware of the math, you can start to min/max a bit too much. This allows you to focus on the real question, “What does my character really want in this situation,” and then the game master facilitates it.”\

    If you just want to roleplay only, fine. But if you want to roleplay a strategy game, then there is every need. Thus the rules.

  18. John Morales says

    BTW, discussion threads such as this one are a form of online conference. Asynchronous, of course.

  19. unclefrogy says

    I can not speak to any conferences specifically but I am finding the increase use of video meetings interesting. it has been in the background for some time I looks like we needed some external push to adopt more broadly this technological use,. It may not be the answer for all circumstances but it clearly has a place, there is a lot of innovating going on some will stick some not.
    I myself “went” to a birthday party online the other day, not as good as being there but fun none the less.
    uncle frogy

  20. MadHatter says

    Personally, I dislike conferences, most especially the social part. If you aren’t already part of a known group those serendipitous connections don’t really happen. If it’s a big conference you’re lost in the shuffle unless you already know someone, but you could’ve talked to that person anytime. If it’s a smaller conference you might get a chance for a chat, but as a woman in a male-dominated field I find that the male cliques form up quickly. They all know each other and chat to each other and it’s difficult to break into unless you have a stunning bit of science to present that makes them want to chat to you.

    The few times I feel like I’ve “connected” with some of these people, I have not found to be at all useful for new collaborations when I got home. They just go up in smoke. Who you know matters, but as an early stage researcher (can’t really call myself young) I can’t say it does anything for my connections.

  21. says

    @1 Marku Ranum
    No worries, video group sex chats exist since the Internet became strong enough to support it. I myself am part of a community since 2017, the community exists for nearly a decade now and was not the first by a long shot.
    It could lead to greater
    mainstream appeal, which would be nice.

  22. bryanfeir says

    There are tools specifically for table-top gaming remotely.

    Many of them have their own apps and servers for it; Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride both have online servers so you can play that way.

    For role-playing games, there’s roll20, which will do character sheets and maps for many different games, though D&D and Pathfinder are the best supported. It will keep track of stats and adjustments for everybody. One group I was in actually used that in face to face gaming for the maps, and players could use their tablets to handle their own characters and rolls.

    More generally, there’s Tabletop Simulator, which is pretty much a generic physics engine that can have modules for many other games. Somebody has already ported over most of SPI’s old wargames to run on it, and that’s all on Steam.