I’m a big fan of conferences. And not necessarily for the sessions, which are usually recorded and available online afterwards. But more for meeting other people who do the same thing as I do. For that huge amount of creative energy you get afterwards. For the chance of meeting your heroes.
The first part of 2020 (and let’s hope it’s only the first part) is marked by the Coronavirus outbreak, a worldwide pandemic that has a huge impact on - among others - public gatherings. Thus making it impossible to have conferences as we used to know them. Out of the 31 conferences I’m following for this year, 3 have already happened in-person, 1 has been postponed to September, 16 have been cancelled, 5 have switched to an online format and 6 are unsure (either expected but not officially announced nor cancelled, or announced, but no ticket sales yet). A detailed situation can be found here.
Attending a conference from your living room
So what do those conferences do? Either cancel, postpone or try a new format, online. I’ve “attended” one such online conference in April this year. My experience wasn’t probably everyone’s experience, and the conference was on a topic that’s of interest to me, but not my main interest. The talks were streamed online. There was a Slack workspace, channels for asking questions to the speakers after their talks, channels to get to know each other, channels to discuss specific themes, a general “conference room” channel, where people would add claps 👏 after each live-streamed talk was finished, there were opportunities to get to know other people, it really was incredible how the organizers tried to think of everything and they did their best.
Even so, I enjoyed much more the experience of an in-person conference. The interaction on Slack seemed a bit forced, and, as an introvert, I found it hard and even intimidating to write something on Slack. At an in-person conference, it’s easier, even for introverts. There are groups already formed of people talking, you find a smaller one with only 3 people who stand in a semi-open position (not a full closed circle) and join. Can’t really do that on slack. Either you write to everyone, which is probably an introvert’s nightmare, or to only one person you don’t know, which might be even worse. However, the biggest issue I found was actually committing to the conference.
It’s hard to focus 100% on a conference when you’re attending from your living room.
As I’ve written before, almost all of the conferences record the talks and post them online afterwards. Some even offer live streaming. So why do people still pay a lot of money to travel to a different city and attend a conference? For what’s become known as the “hallway track”: they want to meet, talk to and connect in person with other people who do the same thing as they do. And that’s hard to obtain if the conference is all online.
More details about WWDC have been announced a few days ago, but for something that’s in 1.5 months, we still know surprisingly little. And I’m guessing that’s because Apple is still working on the format. So far, we know it’s going to start on June 22, it will have, as usual, the keynote, Platforms State of the Union, sessions and labs . But it probably won’t also have a way of queueing with other developers the night before the keynote. Or Curtis Herbert’s WWDC running or climbing events. Or the Bash, the WWDC Hike, the parties, or the night of Dim Sum, or #PicsWithDave, or any other social activity that made WWDC an unforgettable experience for most of the developers who got the chance to attend it. All the events that created that FOMO during WWDC. Dave Verwer has an interesting analysis of what a virtual WWDC could mean.
Is this good or bad? I like conferences. But not everyone does. Most developers don’t go to conferences. It could be because of cost reasons, because attending an in-person conference doesn’t bring them that much value, because they don’t want to travel that much or travel to the US, or for any other reason. I don’t go to WWDC because I find it hard to justify to myself spending that much money on a conference. So won’t it actually be better, in the grand scheme of things, that WWDC is online? Instead of a randomly selected elite of devs who get to go to WWDC and make all the rest of us jealous? Time will tell. But I, for one, am looking forward to WWDC 2020.