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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Virtual Conference Cocktail Party

After hearing of a fifteen-foot-high Cass Sunstein being stationed on a screen behind the other participants at a recent conference panel, I started to wonder whether virtual attendance at professional events might soon become the norm. Between our awakening guilt over climate change, the astronomic rise in fuel prices, and the economic and operational woes of the airlines (sidebar vent: US Airways recently cancelled my flight, failed to rebook me, and told me the best option was “ground transportation”), it seems like Skype and other forms of remote convening could become increasingly appealing. The NY Times even reported a recent boom in student enrollment in online classes due to the increased costs of physically commuting to a university venue.

If the incidence of online conferencing does indeed increase, will these events include a cocktail hour? With Skype-like technology, it seems plausible that most aspects of the conference as currently conceived could be fairly easily transmuted into a virtual form. Speakers could continue to deliver their talks or papers and audience members could chime in with questions. At flesh-and-blood conferences, however, social events and the informal conversations that arise are sometimes as important for participants as the official presentations. How, exactly, would the coffee break and the conference reception be adapted for online enjoyment?

I’ve never graduated to a “Second Life,” but even I can imagine a virtual cocktail hour, one that might almost be preferable to its traditional counterpart. We’ve all been caught in The Awkward Conversation at such events, hoping for a friend or acquaintance to intervene heroically. Perhaps, the shoe on the other foot, we’ve had the discomforting suspicion that our interlocutor didn’t really have to go to the bathroom. The online cocktail conversation market could be quite a bit more efficient. Conference attendees might be asked to identify their preferences for kinds of conversations—short or long; in their field or not; centered around a particular issue; and so on. They could then arrange themselves in pairs or groups with separate videoconferencing “rooms.” Perhaps on the main conference screen, attendees would be able to see the arrangements of individuals as they shifted about, and opt to move to another conversation or ask a particular person a question if so inclined.

As with any kind of online interaction, this model of the conference cocktail party might cut down on productive forms of chaos and partake of some of the other downsides of online social interaction. And would the conference budget have to extend to reimbursing participants’ home beverages and snacks? That’s more than the airlines would do….

Posted by Bernie Meyler on July 18, 2008 at 10:50 AM | Permalink


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It seems to me that the "productive chaos" of unexpected interaction is a large part of the point of conferences. After all, a more productive scholarly exchange regarding specific papers would probably result from posting the paper on SSRN and opening up an old-fashioned usenet-type bulletin board devoted to discussing it -- this would give commenters more time to think about their comments and authors more time to come up with their best replies. In that sense, moving to virtual conferences, using technology far less sophisticated than Skype, would be a gain. The loss, I think, would come when the cocktail party "attendee" with the express preference for only having short conversations in his/her field missed out on the insights that come from unplanned interactions with unknown people in unrelated or only tangentially related fields.

Posted by: Josh Chafetz | Jul 18, 2008 11:27:26 AM

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