Online Conferences… the new normal?

It seems that even if we get out of lockdown, social distancing measures will be around for a while. It makes it hard to plan anything, especially events that involve socialising and networking. And, to be honest, what are conferences? They are social events with an aim to present our research and exchange ideas and experiences with other researchers. Only there’s more to it than just that. In a time in which everything has been moved online, how will we cope with the new normal? Our editor shares her experience and her thoughts on Online Conferences.

You never think it will happen to you, until it does: you’ve been invited to an Online Conference. The email starts the same way “I hope this finds you well”, only this time the words “unprecedented”, “COVID”, and “current situation” are thrown in for good measure, and as a warm-up to what’s about to come: an invitation to an Online Conference over Zoom, Skype, Teams, or any other new conferencing tool that rose from the ashes of internet obscurity to aid us all in feeling a bit more normal. But this isn’t normal. We want it to be, but let’s be honest: nothing in this situation can be anywhere close to normal. I admire those who want to keep on and who try their best to make the best out of a bad situation, but can we just talk a little bit about this weird collective experience we are going through? Can we talk about how odd, annoying and depressing it can be? Well, I know I need to, so I don’t feel like I am alone in that.

Ah, do you remember those PRECEDENTED times? Those were the times! Going to conferences for the coffee break, the wine reception, the excuse to travel a bit and, more importantly, to feel like you are not so crazy and you are not talking to a wall. If you’re stuck in a lab, in the library, in the archives, seeing people and talking to them is a breath of fresh air. Otherwise you might be talking to a wall, literally. In any case, in my experience, there are some lessons to be learnt.

Grieving normal life

Recently I read a piece which helped me understand the sadness that encompasses me everytime we start an online call. It is like grief, we are mourning the time before this pandemic, because even if things do go back to ‘normal’, we are all changed by this collective experience. Everytime you click on ‘Join a Meeting’ you are reminded of the fact that you would be actually joining that group of people, you would be able to see them properly, without any freezed frames, lags and the like. 

I’ve been to online quizzes, reading groups, lectures, conferences, translation clubs, workshops, etc. It makes me sad that I am not with those people. Don’t get me wrong, I join all of these events, they help me feel less alone, so there’s definitely great things to be said about them, but if I am being totally honest, I don’t feel excited about any of them. I also don’t like the assumption that, because we are all at home, we have all the time in the world. Joining an online conference takes up a substantial part of your mental energy, as well as your social one. Introverts need some time alone more than the usual, and the amount of socialising going on online at the moment can be overwhelming and can make us feel drained anyway. 

On the spot!

When you are in a conference or a talk or a group chat, if you have a comment to make you can usually say it to them, there are many parallel conversations, but what I noticed is that in online conferences, if you want to say something, everyone has to listen, and that puts you on the spot, which can be bad if you are shy and don’t feel comfortable asking questions. There is a feature, however, that in-person conferences don’t have: the chat. In the majority of events I joined so far, the chat was a welcome tool to organise questions, comments, share resources, or anything you feel like you don’t want to or need to say. This also opens up the possibility for people to think of questions and write them down beforehand, and for the person being asked to think more about their response and send them later on. I am wondering if there is a way to keep that feature somehow when we are back to ‘normal’…

There are good things we can learn about this to apply it to conferences IRL: if you have nothing useful to say and don’t want to bother the speaker, mute your microphones (be quiet), if you have a question but couldn’t think of it on the spot, message them later on and maybe you’ll create new connections. 

That being said, I like to know that we are able to adapt, I am also privileged in that I have time, resources, a proper internet connection, etc. I think we have learnt something from this, and I hope we take some of it into our post-pandemic life, but I sincerely hope we get to go back to seeing people in vivo again, not only through our screens. As an international student, I already have to see my family and close friends through a screen, if I have to do that in all areas of my life I might as well become a machine.

And what about you, did you join an online conference, reading group, or any other online social event during this quarantine? What did you think? Can you imagine what that would be like? Let us know! Comment below, tweet us at @warwicklibrary or email us at!

by Lúcia

Lúcia Collischonn is a second-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the Warwick Writing Programme. She is the editor of the library blogs, Study Blog and PhD Life. Lúcia is an award-losing literary translator, writer and language nerd. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published last year in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli. 

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