The Virtues of Virtual Conference Attendance
Apart from the excitement of traveling to new places, I've never really enjoyed attending conferences.
There are a few reasons for this, but foremost among them are social anxiety, introversion, and impostor syndrome. I've also got ADHD, which means that my ability to pay attention for periods of time longer than a couple of minutes is highly suspect. I'm often unable to retain information presented in the typical conference talk format; instead, for me to remember and understand new concepts, I need to actively engage with them.
Given this, paying hundreds of dollars to attend a conference hasn't always felt like a great value proposition.
But there’s been a shift in the tech conference landscape, primarily due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. Over the past couple of years, many conferences were postponed, delayed, or shifted to a virtual or hybrid format.
I found the concept of attending a conference virtually appealing, but I worried that hybrid conferences would treat virtual components as a second-class experience.
I also questioned whether sitting at home, alone, watching a livestream, would jive with my personal learning style - it seemed like the antithesis of interactive. And at that point, might as well just wait until session videos are released, right?
Except that conferences came and went, session videos were released, and guess who never followed up on them ….
Over the past year, I've been learning Ruby on Rails. I cut my teeth on native mobile app development, and learning Rails has been a new and different experience for me. Naturally, I thought attending RailsConf, the world’s largest Rails conference, could help bolster my skills in this new area.
Upon visiting the RailsConf website, I immediately noticed that this year, there would be an in-person event AND a separate virtual conference option at a later date.
The virtual event would be hosted on a platform called Hopin, and feature a live-streamed track of sessions from the in-person conference. It would have real-time Q&A with session presenters, live chat and break out discussions with other virtual attendees, and fun virtual experiences, such as learning to make chocolate.
In addition, attendees would have on-demand access to all session recordings from the in-person conference.
The cost of a virtual ticket was extremely reasonable, so I requested time and budget from Ten Forward to attend RailsConf 2022: Virtual Edition.
There is a small amount of irony in the fact that I tested positive for COVID the morning the virtual conference began, but thankfully my symptoms were extremely mild and I was able to keep up with live-streamed content without issue. I especially appreciated being able to pause, rewind, and rewatch portions of sessions that were of particular interest to me.
On the other hand, when a livestream session was not of interest to me, I had the whole library of in-person session recordings to choose from. The only downside to this was not having access to a live Q&A session with the presenter, but I found that to be more of a nice-to-have rather than a vital feature. Likewise, having access to networking tools like break-out discussions with other community features was nice, but these sessions didn't seem to be very well-attended, or they overlapped with other content that I was more interested in.
So. To virtually attend, or not to?
Personally, I found this flavor of virtual learning to be worthwhile and effective. If you're more introverted like me, and enjoy the presence of others but prefer a less social experience, a virtual conference in this format is a great option.
Alternatively, if you're a person who thrives on networking and the typical conference experience, the community-oriented features afforded by the Hopin platform (chat, break- out discussions, virtual experiences, etc.) may also make a virtual conference more palatable to you.
In a vacuum, I am unlikely to watch conference sessions on an ad-hoc basis. When given a dedicated block of time in which to participate in a virtual live event, however, I'm 100% more likely to actually watch sessions, learn new things, and possibly engage in social interaction with peers (should the mood strike).
As a final note, I'd like to extend my thanks to Rails Conf for putting together such a great virtual experience! My hope is that as we return to more in-person events that digital versions like this one are still offered. I know I will definitely be in attendance if that turns out to be the case.