It has been over two years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seismic shifts have occurred in the world, including unprecedented global lockdowns that had us taking to our computers in new ways. Through Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Meet, we socialised, taught, held meetings, and — for us at Progressive Connexions — held conferences.
This new era of online communication has brought a whole new set of tools to the table. Online conferences have several significant advantages over traditional in-person models. They can flatten inequalities by being equally accessible to anyone with a stable internet connection, no matter where they are in the world (with some time-zone considerations). They are less expensive than in-person events, both for the organisers and for the attendees. They can be organised on shorter notice, in response to world events or just with more flexibility.
At Progressive Connexions, we care deeply about equality, accessibility, and flexibility. Throughout 2021, we ran online conferences with overall very positive feedback from people who appreciated how we brought the dynamic conversations and sense of community from Progressive Connexions conferences into the Zoom space.
So why do we still care about meeting in person?
While the world of online conferencing has clear advantages, in-person conferences have their own set of special, significant qualities. Bringing people into a room together — literally sharing space — forges a connection that is challenging to capture even in the most engaging zoom room, where everyone (especially those who do not have dedicated offices in their space) is balancing between the conversation and the demands of their home space. Internet interruptions, the lack of designated quiet offices, and household caring responsibilities, can all introduce stresses in the conference experience, as well as inequalities in access that may fly under the radar.
Besides that, no matter how hard we’ve tried, Zoom is simply not built for the kind of casual interaction that happens when you reach over someone’s arm to pour a cup of weak coffee between panels. The space in between conference panels was one of the original and integral concepts behind Progressive Connexions: the ability to speak to people who are not from your conference, in a casual setting. Without the array of small talk topics (the food, the coffee, the venue, the weather) that present themselves when in a shared space, and with the Zoom restriction that allows only one person to talk at time, these conversations are functionally impossible online.
Then there’s the function of conversation. The Zoom revolution has proliferated livestreams, recordings, and sharing that make information more accessible to new audiences. However, we think conferences serve a different function. To make information accessible, we can and should share blog posts, record podcasts, and publish in open-access venues in order to share information with the world. But we also believe in the importance of safe, respectful, non-public spaces in which people can carefully think through at times challenging ideas, and have the respect and support to develop their thoughts. Not only is this not possible in spaces that are broadcast or recorded, but it is also highly challenging when everyone feels the camera on them at all times.
Finally, in times of global isolation and unprecedented levels of loneliness, many people simply need good old-fashioned in-person contact. At the in-person conferences we have run, the overwhelming feedback has been relief to finally be able to share space with other people. This is something we do not want to lose.
For these reasons, we are continuing to try our hardest — as much as is possible to do safely for all involved — to meet in person. This does not need to mean the disappearance of online events, but rather understanding that they serve a different role and cannot be a true replacement for everything we value about meeting in-person.
We hope we’ll see you there.