Presenting around the world: new spaces for virtual conferences

Michael Greenhough, Social Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine, Lancaster University, (2019 Cohort)

Amidst the pandemic, conference organisers have been tasked with reconfiguring the format of the academic conference to move into the virtual sphere. I have been lucky enough to present at two international conferences virtually over the past 12 months with RTSG funds. One in particular stands out when I presented at the 2nd annual Temporal Belongings conference. The conference was originally planned for 2019, however it was delayed in order to consider how the event could take place as ‘carbon neutral’ as possible. Moving the conference online was the logical solution, and the unfortunate effects of the pandemic resulted in plans not being disrupted as the online format was already being developed.

The conference focus was on the ‘material life of time’- a topic particularly important in relation to my PhD research on seasonality, and the changing timing of energy supply and demand. What was unique about this conference, and what I hope to share in this blog piece, is how reimagining conferences for the virtual sphere has facilitated similar networking opportunities and discussions usually found within the in-person conference event.

The conference hosted timetabled sessions within different ‘rooms’ on a virtual space called Qiqochat, an event hosting website that embeds Zoom into its operation. This space held the conference information, and links to all the rooms, which were named after key figures who have developed understandings of time and temporalities. With tech support available over live chat and frequent communication from the conference organisers, the conference format facilitated a friendly, welcoming environment with an emphasis on socialising outside of timetabled sessions. The ‘Café’ was a popular location at the conference, where you could enter and meet other attendees by moving yourself to different spots around the café. This was the place to meet other attendees after a session to discuss research further. There was also the ‘Cinema’, which streamed films and short videos relevant for the conference, and a ‘Gamesroom’ where you could finish a jigsaw with other attendees. With my presentation not being until the third and final day of the conference, being able to move around different rooms and network with others in less formal settings was a welcome opportunity, and never felt too intimidating.

The unique setting of the conference was how it was global in its approach. This entailed sessions taking place over the course of three days, across multiple time zones. Being based in the UK, there was something fascinating, and slightly strange, that sessions were staggered as the earth moves through night and day. I could watch a live synchronous presentation from someone based in Australia at 11pm GMT, then they could watch presentations from the UK during the Australian evening and the British morning.  The online format broke temporal boundaries in order to catch different time zones, and this thoughtful planning created opportunities for conversation with people from across the world.

With this considered, the online format is not perfect, and it won’t be for everyone’s tastes. Technical issues still occurred at times (especially with the use of Zoom), but on the whole I had a positive conference experience, and the format made the entire process slightly less daunting. My presentation was warmly received, and I welcomed the opportunity to speak further about my work in the social locations embedded within the conference platform.

At Lancaster, I am a member of the Intellectual Party/Summer Conference organising committee, and we decided to host our event online this year for the first time. Having already experienced how other conferences have adapted to the pandemic, my experience at the Temporal Belongings conference provided welcome insights into hosting conferences virtually, and making the most of the opportunities provided for networking worldwide in the virtual sphere. With an awareness of the issues surrounding climate change and flying across the world to attend events, virtual conferences can provide the academic conversations and debates desired from attendees, through a process of recognising the different types of spaces, formal and social, to replicate the in-person conference experience.  

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