Online events remind me a lot of ecommerce in about 1996. The software is raw and rough around the edges, and often doesn’t work very well, though that can get fixed. But more importantly, no-one quite knows what they should be building.
A conference, or an ‘event’, is a bundle. There is content from a stage, with people talking or presenting or doing panels and maybe taking questions. Then, everyone talks to each other in the hallways and over coffee and lunch and drinks. Separately, there may be a trade fair of dozens or thousands of booths and stands, where you go to see all of the products in the industry at once, and talk to the engineers and salespeople. And then, there are all of the meetings that you schedule because everyone is there. At a really big ‘conference’ many people don’t even go to the actual event itself. At CES or MWC, a lot of the people who go never actually make it to the conference or the show floor - they spend their days in hotel suites in Las Vegas or Barcelona meeting clients and partners. Everyone goes because everyone goes.
The only part of that bundle that obviously works online today is the content. It’s really straightforward to turn a conference presentation or a panel into a video stream, but none of the rest is straightforward at all.
First, we haven’t worked out good online tools for many of the reasons people go to these events. Most obviously, we don’t have any software tool for bumping into people in the same field by random chance and having a great conversation. No-one has ever really managed to take a networking event and put it online. You certainly can’t just make a text chat channel for everyone watching the video stream and claim that’s as the same as a cocktail party. Equally, I can go up to a booth on the Qualcomm or Ericsson stand at MWC, wait my turn and then ask an engineer lots of questions, but how do we do that online? I could book a sales call, but that’s not the same at all.
In other words, some conferences are built around creating a network in the hallways. If you take them online, there are no hallways.
Second, even where you can do something online, it doesn’t follow that it’s still connected to the event. You can probably convert those scheduled meetings in hotel rooms to video calls - but if you’re going to do a video call, it doesn’t matter where you are or when it is. There isn’t going to be a huge surge in Zoom calls in the first week of January when everyone does their CES meetings - ‘but by video’. That might seem obvious put that way, but I’ve seen a whole bunch of online events that really do seem to think that people will book those one hour video calls on their conference platform, and that they can charge a fee for this. The same would apply if you could work out a good online networking tool - why would you build one that you could only use for four days each February? A physical event is a bundle of different kinds of interaction, but it’s also a bundle of people at a certain place at a certain date - as soon as you take these things online, that bundle has no meaning.
Hence, I understand why events organisers and events platforms want to try to put all of these things into one website on one date, but the results generally remind me of ‘virtual malls’ in the 1990s. A mall aggregates people and retailers, and that has value for both sides. Then the web came along, and clearly people would shop online, but how? Should retailers have their own websites, or should there be landlords who would aggregate that traffic? And should there be lots and lots of different ‘virtual shopping malls'? No. That aggregation model makes no sense online. Today, of course, we do have aggregators, in Google or Instagram, but they don’t work anything like a shopping mall. Going online breaks the bundle, and conferences will be the same.
I suspect part of the answer to this is actually that a lot of physical events will come back in some form as we emerge from lockdown. But this also makes me think that there will be new tools with much more radically new approaches, and some new behaviours and habits.
In particular, it’s often struck me that networking events are pretty random and inefficient. If you’re going to spend an hour or two in a room with 50 or 500 people, then you could take that as a purely social occasion and enjoy yourself. But if your purpose is to have professionally useful conversations, then what proportion of the people in the room can you talk to in an hour and how likely is it that they’ll be the right ones? Who’s there? I sometimes suggest it would be helpful if we all wore banners, as in the image at the top, so that you could look across the room and see who to talk to. (First Tuesday did something like this in 1999, with different coloured badges.)
This might just be that I’m an introvert asking for a machine to manage human connections for me (and I am), but there is also clearly an opportunity to scale the networking that happens around events in ways that don’t rely on random chance and alcohol tolerance. A long time ago Twitter took some of that role, and the explosion of online dating also shows how changing the way you think about pools and sample sets changes outcomes. In 2017, 40% of new relationships in the USA started online.
Next, before lockdown, you would often have planned to schedule a non-urgent meeting with a partner or client or connection ‘when we’re in the same city’. That might be at some specific event, but it might also just be for some ad hoc trip - ‘next time I’m in the Bay Area’ or ‘next time you’re in New York’. In January most people would never actually have thought of making that a video call, but today every meeting is a video call, so all of those meetings can be a video call too, and can happen this week rather than ‘next time I fly to that city’ - or ‘at CES/NAB/MIPCOM’. In the last few months video calls have broke through that habit. I wonder what happens if we accelerate all of those meetings in that way.
To argue against some of this, James Turrell has said that part of the value of Roden Crater’s remoteness is that you have to really care to go there. Getting a plane and a hotel and a ticket, and taking days of time, has some of the same effect for a conference - it gives a selection filter for people who care. There is value in aggregating people around a professional interest graph, and in doing that in a focused way, perhaps even around a particular time. (There are also, of course, exclusionary effects to this.)
But every time we get a new tool, we start by forcing it to fit the old way of working, and then one day we realise that it lets us do the work differently, and indeed change what the work is. I do expect to get on planes to conferences again in the future, but I also hope to have completely different ways to communicate ideas, and completely different ways to make connections, that don’t rely on us all being in the same city at the same time, or pretending that we are.