I’m preparing for another online conference and going through the new set of rituals this now entails. No longer do I have to hunt for my passport in its ‘secure’ hiding place or scrub last conference’s mayonnaise stains from my presentation blouse. Now it is:
Step 1: Log-in to yet another new platform (why does every event seem to use something different?), cut and paste a biography, join discussion groups and upload a reasonably cheery profile photo from pre-corona times.
Step 2: Negotiate school pick-ups/dinners/office space usage to accommodate for the international time zone-friendly timetables now stretching from morning to night.
Step 3: Assemble desktop conference kit – mine includes variously tangled power cords and knitting projects.
Online conferencing has received a lot of attention since the abrupt move to this format last year, recent examples being opinion pieces in Nature and a conference (on conferences) co-organised by FASoS researchers. While conferences were already being rethought - un-conferences in the tech industry for example - it was only really with the pandemic that the format was reconsidered to such a radical extent. As many disability groups have pointed out, it is amazing what resources can be mobilised for digital meetings when those not living with disabilities are prevented from meeting in person!
We will move gradually from digital to hybrid formats in the coming months and years. I sincerely hope that we can find energy to come up with creative and inspiring ways, and tools, for gathering differently in the future; making inclusive, low carbon-footprint events that learn from these strange times. Let’s hope this is a jolt for organisers of any meeting, whether the department monthly meet-up or a large international conference, to consider more carefully why, when and where we meet, who is around the table and the most meaningful form for that gathering’s purpose.
Anna Harris, associate professor department of Society Studies; Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences