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….