Remote conference participation – results

Last week I set up a discussion around the changing nature of conferences and particularly how remote, vicarious participation was impacting upon them and our practice. There has been some excellent discussion over in Cloudworks, so please check that out if the subject interests you.

I also set up a quick 5 question survey on how people found remote participation. I had 53 responses (quite good I thought), so here are the results.

The first three questions asked about how remote participation compared with face to face attendance on some of the main functions of conferences, namely networking, content and socialising. Here are the results:


So for networking most people ranked it as between 25% and 50% as good as attending face to face, while for accessing the content, most people ranked it as around 75% as effective. Unsuprisingly, socialising didn't fare as well, with most people ranking it between 25% as good and no good at all.

The next question was a bit vague, but I wanted to get an impression of how 'green' people reckoned remote participation was compared with face to face attendance. This will obviously depend on lots of factors such as where the conference is, how they travel, what the facilities are like, how green their own energy supply is and how we interpret 'greenness' anyway. But to gauge an overall impression I thought it was worthwhile (of course people's impression could be wrong, this isn't based on actual CO2 emission data). Here are the results:


Perhaps no surprises here either, most people ranking it between 75% and 100% greener.

Lastly, I asked about how much time remote participation took compared with face to face attendance:


This came in around 25% as the most popular response.

I think this gives us an interesting starting point for a conversation about conferences. To put it simply the question we can ask goes something like "If you can achieve 50% networking, get 75% of the content for 25% of the time and it's 75% greener, then what are the real benefits of attending?". I don't want to say remote attendance is better, or that we should do away with traditional conferences, but we probably need to be clearer as to what we get from attending, and maybe trade some of our face to face attendance for remote participation. There is also an argument that institutions/managers could allocate specific time to allow people to 'attend' remotely, given the benefits it offers.

Over in the cloudworks discussion Alan Cann picked up on something more intangible – the manner in which attending 'real' conferences liberates us from much of the day to day work and provides us with thinking room or 'headspace'. I find this to be true for myself – many good ideas I have for research, projects, books, journal articles, blog posts, etc come when I'm at conferences. So we need to acknowledge that and cherish it I think.

The other issue is the way in which conferences themselves need to change to accommodate this, and we are seeing lots of examples of this, from streaming, designated live-bloggers, aggregators, hybrid approaches, satelitte conferences, etc.


  • Sarah Horrigan

    I agree with Alan. I think that a common problem with ‘attending’ online events is that if you do it anywhere within your normal working environment (and I guess I’m generally thinking office-based environment) getting proper time to participate is extremely difficult. What I get most from conferences tends to be the opportunity to meet people, to feel a sense of wider community and shared interest… to get some headspace and perhaps find one or two good ideas to think some more about. A lot of the presentations are… well… a bit crappy. Reducing a conference to its bare bones of ‘here’s a presentation… and another… and another’ and doing that online is missing the point of some of the f2f stuff, I think.
    That said, I like the fact that at f2f conferences with live blogging, twitter streams etc you can bring the outside in remotely and vice versa… and I think that adds a really healthy dimension to any event. I wonder if rather than this being an ‘either or’ choice, finding a better blend would be an option.

  • Martin

    Yes, I definitely don’t see it as an either/or – that applies to any given conference, but also to us as individuals. All the elements you mention are important, so we should really take advantage of them. But we do have options now, whereas attending or not attending was the only choice previously. It is possible I think to say ‘I’ll only go to 2 conferences, but attend 4 remotely’ or ‘I’ll physically go to Alt-C every other year’
    So I see the remote participation as giving us more choices and moving away from a binary don’t go/go choice.
    But I also think if we are to do this we need to build some time into workplans/schedules to actually pay attention to remote conferences

  • Nick Pearce

    I think it’s certainly interesting to think of remote participation as complimentary rather than a substitute for F2F participation.
    as sarah says the presentations *can* be a little dull (especially if you are already familiar with somebody’s work).
    perhaps an answer lies in seperating out the presentation (and questions/ comments) and the ‘getting away from it and networking, socialising, thinking’elements of conferences.
    You could end up with kind of cross institutional, interdisciplinary away-days around particular topics. is there any real need to present your work when everyone can find out all they want about it online?

  • Laura James

    I think that remote conferences with an active backchannel (particularly a real chat room, second life, although twitter is OK) can provide a good experience. I do try to attend online from outside my normal workspace to ensure I focus on the conference.
    Nick’s suggestion is very intriguing and I’d be more likely to take time to travel to something more engaging than a basic presentation production line.

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