Nice to meet you – is the future of the conference physical or virtual?


physVvirt1Today’s virtual, digital world usually creates a comfortable distance for users.  This is a comfortable distance that suddenly disappears when you’re actually in a conference room with other people.  If you fall into a conversation and grow bored, you can’t click or swipe for them to go away.

Well, you could. But that would be quite rude.


You can of course do this as the attendee of a webinar, a popular form of the online conference.  You can also do it most days in more casual social playgrounds of Facebook and Twitter.  It can be both a blessing and a curse, the ease with which we can be distracted by ephemeral, cute fluffy content, thanks to our goldfish-like attention spans.

Physical presence at a conference forces you to engage and attempt to extract value.  With a growing population of freelancers needing to make networking pay, or at least suggest potential value, this is incredibly important.

There might be those to whom it isn’t as important: young professionals happy to tick their company’s CPD box, grab a chicken drumstick and run off straight after the main talk. But most recognise the effort of the organisers, the speakers and the other attendees.  They want to be part of something in a way they can’t by sitting at home and passively watching.

Virtual pros and cons

There certainly are things the virtual, online world can deliver, and increasingly so in a world of sophisticated augmented reality apps and Google Glass.  The continued blending of the physical and virtual conference is fascinating.  It feels inevitable that, at some point we’ll be able to read profiles and statistics while they virtually hover over individuals in a room.

Everybody knows the virtues of uniting physically disparate people across the world, and not many would dispute that this is a universally good thing. The web can also allow you to research and plan an approach before entering a busy conference room to meet the most relevant people.

But many subscribe to the idea that in-person communication is the richest form of communication.  It gives you the most information: dress, tone of voice, non-verbal gestures, the feeling that somebody is fully listening to you.

The ‘online psychologist’ is likely not an unprecedented idea – indeed many use social media channels for related purposes – but as yet I’m unaware of it as a flourishing service market.

That’s because the richest communication is physically experienced, the most meaningful relationships are forged in-person.  Peripheral considerations of any virtual communication – phone signal, internet connection, edges of a screen: they all get in the way.

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In the same way you might remember how a film, a piece of music or a book made you feel – rather than the intricacies of its plot, lyrics or characters, in a physical space you have the opportunity to leave a deeper impression than is possible online.  People will usually remember how they felt in a relative stranger’s company for a period of time.  Good, bad, bored or indifferent, it’s part of human nature to make judgements.

In-person you have significantly more chance of making yourself memorable to those with whom you are speaking.  You are not just another block of text and another profile picture.  You’re standing right there, making an impression.

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Developing behaviours

Despite these physical virtues, more than a little anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of young professionals prefer to email rather than pick up the telephone, especially if the communication is sensitive, political or likely to be tricky.  ‘Awkward’ and ‘weird’ tend to be oft used embarrassment concealers for many younger people.

In the digital age, the immediacy of the telephone as a medium can frighten; and even more, the immediacy of the physical conference.  People are more used to conversing with strangers through the internet than not, leading to weakened interpersonal skills or in extreme cases, a social paralysis.

For all the aforementioned benefits, this could ultimately signal the death knell for particularly small physical seminars as we now know them.  They can be awkward and weird.  Although some might argue that’s part of their pleasure.  Unpredictability can be good.

How these preferences and behaviours will develop is almost impossible to predict, and we can only speculate about how the next generation will feel about old, new and emerging media.

The short term future of the conference is not virtual.  It’s a blend of the two that we’re already seeing through the integration of Twitter, hashtagging and video-streaming.   This blend will evolve further with developments in faster and better video conferencing, gestural interfaces, biometrics and wearable technology. But for now, the ever evolving blend of physical and virtual conferencing is likely to stick around.

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