Virtual Conferences, Virtual Rewards

For obvious reasons there basically haven’t been conventions or conferences this year which has, for many many reasons, really sucked. In a good year I go to about three software development conferences and five or six wargaming conventions around the UK and so on top of the ways in which 2020 has sucked it’s also taken most of these from me (although I did manage to go to two wargaming conventions before everything kicked off).

In their stead, lots of events have moved online. And as far as I’m concerned, they miss the point almost entirely. With a conference, I attend partly for the talks but mostly for the people. It’s an amazing opportunity to get into the same place as a whole load of clever, motivated people and be given a bunch of talking points to talk about. Lots of people joke about the hallway track and some conferences even make it a specific part of the conference (I am a big fan of the Software Practitioners Advancement conference generally held in London each by the BCS which is entirely workshops and discussion tracks). Most online conferences I’ve seen so far fail to replicate this in any meaningful fashion, and several have taken the otherwise laudable approach of losing their temporal-geographic bounds and scheduling talks across multiple time zones to broaden their potential audience.

But if all a conference is reduced to is a handful of twitch streams and a discord server, I’ve already got the discord servers and slack organisations and whatever else I care about and there’s already more talks from existing conferences like DEFCON, Blenderconf, Pycon and GDC that I’ve not gotten around to watching on YouTube than I can probably ever watch. And those were filmed in the best possible circumstances with a receptive audience and actual camera and sound technicians (hopefully). I am not currently convinced that someone sat talking into an awful laptop webcam whilst they share their slide deck on zoom is anywhere near a viable alternative.

And then there’s the community. One of the major issues with online discussion spaces is the fact that we’ve not really figured out a good way of having to conversations at once online in the same space in the same way as you can in real life. I have no idea if stuff like VRChat fixes this but VR headsets are expensive and the idea of having a business-casual VR avatar is something that fills me with a specific kind of existential dread for reasons I don’t fully understand. But many of the most valuable conversations I’ve had at conferences were the ones no-one had planned where someone’s offhand comment drew the right person’s attention and got them involved and there’s a real element of serendipity to it that’s functionally impossible in a group video chat and borderline impossible in a busy text chat.

Add to all of this that many conferences are still expecting delegates to pay pretty huge fees from what I’m seeing. At least a physical conference has a physical space that needs to be paid for, and usually they provide at least lunch if not an evening meal on the days of the conference. I get that they’re generally businesses and they’ve got to make some money to keep the events going (and the infrastructure to keep a conference running isn’t free even if there’s no events) but Europython was charging €175 for what is effectively a two day zoom call, although at least they have the good grace not to charge the people giving the talks (or at least they have the good grace to offer to refund speakers but that’s a topic for another post, as I feel quite strongly that conferences should pay their speakers as a matter of course).

As for conventions, I’ve attended conventions in the past both as an exhibitor, as a trader and as a regular attendee and all three have different desires for what you want to get out of it, basically none of which are adequately served by the online conventions I’ve seen so far.

Lets start with my experience as a trader. I’m going to a convention to sell things, or otherwise advertise my wares to the attendees of the convention. They are generally very receptive to such advertising, as they’ve travelled some distance and paid a small fee to be there and whilst many of the conventions I attend are on the smaller side there’s still a reasonable hope of making the cost back plus some on top of the advertising value.

In theory, paying for visibility in an online convention is similar except for the fact that you don’t have a captive audience and you can’t talk to them. It’s like those old “one million pixel homepage” scams from the early 2000s except we called it Gencon Online or whatever. Most conventions already had an online catalogue of vendors beforehand, and now that’s all you’re getting. If the conference is nice, they might let you jazz up your bit, but whereas in real life I can compete with a fancy stand and a nice temperament, online I’m at a real disadvantage towards larger venders who will just pay for more space.

As an exhibitor, the primary value is in the captive audience. You want people to see the thing you’re exhibiting and you want to talk to them about it. Virtual conventions can get you a bit of the audience part through streams or whatnot but many of the kinds of things that are exhibited at the conventions I go to are hard to share online because they’re big 3D objects that often don’t photograph too well and the people who make them, no offence, often aren’t the greatest at recording their own work. Which is fair because it’s very, very hard.

And as a punter, again, there’s no serendipity to a big list of vendors and I’ve got no real taste for watching some kind of video stream of stuff half of which I’ve probably got no interest in. The wonder of a physical convention hall is I can spent my time on what I want. If I want to spend half an hour admiring a particularly nice game table or talking to a cosplayer about how they made a prop I can and I can pay the things I’m not interested no heed.

Now, I get that a lot of these things had to be built from whole cloth with basically zero notice and had to use existing infrastructure to do so, whilst everyone was also trying to deal with the rest of society upending itself so take my criticisms with a grain of socially distanced salt. I just pray to the old gods and new that we’ve got some sense of normality back by convention and conference season 2021, or that someone figures out a better way of handling all of this by then if we’re both not back to some kind of normal and there’s a society in which to hold said conferences.