Things I Learned Organising an Online Conference

Organising events is an art in itself. Because it deals with people and logistics, it means that you have to be flexible, agile, and attentive. It is also very stressful, but incredibly rewarding. Now, organising online events is a different beast altogether. Our blog editor Lúcia reflects on her experience organising a big online conference and what she took away from it.

There comes a moment in every researcher’s life (in a pandemic), in which you read those dreadful words: “Unfortunately, due to the current restrictions, the conference will have to take place online.” Oh boy. Even though the current setting means that we can attend events that we wouldn’t be able to were they in person, the last twelve months of everything-online-under-the-sun caused some serious screen fatigue and, in my case at least, an understandable lack of excitement. Having to organise an online event where the good part — the networking and the coffee breaks — are virtually non-existent, means that a lot of what’s at stake is just sending links, putting out fires and asking people to PLEASE MUTE THEMSELVES. Here are a few things I learnt while organising an online conference.

A thousand people sign up, only about fifty actually show up

Okay, you may argue this is true of any conference, be it online or in person, but the overwhelming amount of online events popping up in the last year or so streaming from literally all corners of the globe usually meant that people were excited they would get to attend events they normally wouldn’t be able to and they end up overestimating their time and availability to actually attend the conference. This happened in literally all online events I’ve organised so far. Some people, including friends, sign up as a sign of support, but that means that sometimes you also expect more people to join your event and you end up with a dozen loyal attendees.

Good internet connection is a privilege

Did you think you had a good internet connection? Think again. Sharing your wifi with your five housemates, all of them streaming (either Netflix, a lecture, a conference, a chat with friends) takes its toll on our poor little bandwidths. So many people, including myself, found out throughout this pandemic that their internet connection is not the best, or that there are places in their homes that, even though they provide a good professional background, don’t get proper connection. These black holes of network connection have been properly identified and avoided in this past year. A good thing to take out of this is that you can always pretend your connection is faulty and drop out in an emergency! (Being bored is an emergency, okay??). During a live stream on instagram, famous Brazilian singer Anitta, who was doing a series of conversations with experts on topics she wanted to learn more about (and teach her millions of followers too), while being taught by an academic on politics and economics, pretended to freeze (due to connection issues), so that she wouldn’t have to answer a question. RELATABLE.

There’s power in messy backgrounds

hello here’s me and my messy background

Worried about your messy bookshelves, piles of paper, etc? Don’t be. For starters, we all had to adapt, some had to juggle parenting, caring for others, living with noisy neighbours or housemates, and there are several examples of gaffes that happened with people, from academics to celebrities, whose backgrounds were less than perfect. From naked spouses walking behind them to screaming children to pets demanding attention, this last year provided a glimpse into everyone’s chaotic lives and made us sympathise with each other more. You don’t need to have a perfectly curated and colour coordinated bookshelf behind you to make a good point on an online conference. I’ve seen my fair share of keynote speakers giving amazing lectures with towering piles of books, tea cups, coffee mugs, papers all dangerously threatening to fall on top of their heads. And, let’s be honest, we are all curious and we love to see how others live, don’t we? I know I do.

People never check their spam folder

While preparing for an online conference, you will inevitably get emails from registered attendees from the week before well into the first panel asking about links to join the event. What we did was reply asking them to check their spam folder. 90% of the time they opened the folder and, voilà, there it was. The remaining 10% of cases were people who hadn’t signed up but thought they had. Just be prepared for people needing guidance in reassurance throughout this very simple task. 

No more ‘this is more of a comment than a question’ questions

This is a big advantage of this new modality. Because there is rarely any time for questions, and most times the questions are typed in the comments/chat section, there is less of a chance of people waffling with ‘this is more of a comment than a question’-type questions, and everyone is happier for it. Unfortunately, this also means there are fewer opportunities to exchange ideas, recommendations, etc. You win some, you lose some.

Our houses are noisy and housemates inconsiderate

You thought your home was quiet? Think again. Your housemate will decide to blend gravel right when you are starting your presentation. Your upstairs neighbour will decide to change their floorboards, carpets or even start a complicated plumbing work right when you are chairing an event. The building next door will have an alarm set off and continue for 11 hours while you try to head a reading group or online lecture. It is just part of life. Doors bang open and close, people scream randomly, it’s easier to just accept it and move on with your life. I luckily had a very considerate flatmate when I had to organise and chair a conference on a saturday, in our living room, which meant that her and her partner were tiptoeing around the whole day, trying to cook quietly, pee quietly, breathe quietly, while also serving me tea and coffee on command. Bless them. 

Worried about public speaking? Don’t 

It’s not like you actually see the audience, right? I never had fear of public speaking properly (taking part in a drama club throughout my school years helps immensely with that), but I understand the fear, I do. The thing is, in most online conferences we cannot see the attendees, which makes the experience easier on the one hand, and very very weird on the other. It is a bit like talking to the void, only to realise at the end that the void has listened and has questions for you. Eery. But at least you don’t have to picture your audience naked. Well, maybe they are, their cameras are off, after all.

Everyone asks for a recording of the papers/keynotes

Yes. I’ve lost count of how many people have e-mailed, tweeted, sent a pigeon, you name it, asking for a recording of the papers, or the keynotes. This is a dicey one, because it involves copyright, it involves someone’s images that they might not be happy to share beyond the context of the conference. Funnily enough, this does not happen when the conference is in person, right? So many people genuinely think that because they were unable to attend on the day they are entitled to a recording of it. I don’t remember a similar thing happening in the in-person events I’ve organised. You missed it? That’s a shame, but even if it is online it is also a contextualised, specific moment that some might not feel comfortable having a recording of for posterity. We are well aware that things are taken out of context on the internet and academics genuinely worry about their words being twisted and not getting a chance of creating a conversation about it in the moment, within the context. We could have asked all our presenters for permission, but we thought it was best not to. It is ultimately your choice, but know that you do not have to. 

You will probably need a template for certificates of attendance or presentation

Oh yeah, this last one is short and sweet. Some academic cultures do ask for certificates or proof of any attendance an academic claims, so be prepared to provide certificates of attendance/presentation to at least a dozen.

How about you? What were your experience with online conferences so far? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.

by Lúcia

Lúcia Collischonn is a third-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 in 2019 in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli. 

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