Online Events Just Are Not For Me

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Since the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus appeared in our lives, many things have changed. Among them, the disappearance of face-to-face events and their transformation into online substitutes.

So far this year I have been able to attend several of these events: WordCamp Spain, WordCamp Europe and, the AWS Summit. The first two, online versions of the face-to-face WordCamps. The third, on cloud computing with Amazon Web Services, an official Amazon event that takes place annually in several cities but this time was done online for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Below, I will give you my personal opinion on the online format of these events and why I think that, although they have many positive things, they are not what I expect from a technological event. Online events, as they are currently defined, are not for me. Let’s see why…

The Online Format as a Mere Copy of The Face-to-face Format

In recent years, thanks to Nelio, I have been able to go to different WordCamps both as a speaker and as an attendant. One in Santander, WC Europe in Seville, WC Europe in Paris, WC Nordic in Helsinki, another one in Lisbon, WC Europe in Berlin, those we organized in Barcelona, and I’m sure I forget some more… If you ask me for a memory of any of these WordCamps, many come to my mind. But if you ask me which talk I liked the most about each of these events, I am sorry to say that I do not remember.

To me the talks are a mere excuse to attend a WordCamp. The best thing about this type of WordPress events is everything that revolves around the talks, but not the talks themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I skip the talks when I go to a WordCamp—in fact, I attend as many as I can and prepare in advance the schedule of the tracks I want to go to to try not to miss anything!

However, a WordCamp is much more than its talks. A WordCamp is meeting new people at Contributor Day and getting to work with them. A WordCamp is to meet again with friends whom you see little due to distance—it is the perfect excuse to see them again in person. A WordCamp is the chats in the hallways, at coffee breaks or at lunchtime. And many more situations that, unfortunately, online WordCamps do not replicate.

There are many reasons to attend to a WordCamp. The talks are only a small part of what you will take away from these events. It is a pity that in the online format they have so much weight when engagement and interactivity is minimal.

With this I do not want to underestimate the work of the organizers of online WordCamps. Far from it. The quality of the streamings, the transitions in the videos, and ultimately, that everything works perfectly when the team is distributed, both in the last WordCamp Spain and in WordCamp Europe this year, is simply awesome.

The problem, for me, is not that. The problem with online WordCamps is that they focus too much on bringing the same face-to-face format to the online world. This is reduced to having a set of talks at a specific time, one after another. The incentive to see these talks on the WordCamp day at the specific moment in which they take place is very poor. I have the possibility to see only the ones that interest me after the event, and sometimes even at 1.5x speed, by having the links to YouTube or even WordPress.tv without having to wait. I believe that in the era of Netflix and video-on-demand, making attendees to an online WordCamp have to be present at a specific time, is something that does not appeal me.

Online Interaction is Not The Same as Face-to-face Interaction

In online WordCamps, the talks take the main relevance of the event. Attendee interaction is very low. Yes, it is true that you can put comments in the streaming, but it is not the best solution to engage attendees.

I remember the presentation by Néstor Angulo de Ugarte on hacking in which he used Kahoot.com to ask questions to the audience. In real time you could participate and see the answers, something that seemed right to me and a good bet to increase the engagement with attendees.

La ponencia de Nestor en la WordCamp Europe intentó ser más participativa.

Another aspect that could perhaps be improved is the visibility you give to the sponsors. In these online WordCamps, you had the possibility to join Zoom rooms to interact with them. I don’t know if this was a success or not, because I didn’t participate.

In a “real” WordCamp it is always interesting to go to the sponsors area to see what they have set up, what novelties they present, what they explain to you, and, I will not deny it, to get cool swag. In the online version, going through a Zoom room seems very cold to me… Perhaps it is me and my way of being, but it is something that could be improved in some way. Even more given the importance of sponsors in any event.

The Perfect Platform Does Not Exist

We can discuss whether or not YouTube is the best platform to host your online event, as in the case of the online WordCamps that I attended this year. But the existing alternatives are not perfect either.

In the case of the AWS Summit, the experience was not ideal. They used Intrado for the entire event, and the truth is that the large display of available options was overwhelming at first:

AWS Summit Online event main screen, with plenty of options available.
Main screen for the AWS Summit Online event, with plenty of options available.

I remember that I was able to access the schedule only a few hours before the event. And I found nothing more and nothing less than 11 different tracks, classified by the type of attendant. However, this does not prevent you from being interested in presentations from different tracks. Reviewing the 55 talks, with their 55 descriptions, was a harsh job.

In addition to this, I do not know if the problem was the platform or how they use it, but often, when I looked at the schedule and selected the next talk I wanted to attend to, I found it has already started (even though, according to the schedule, it shouldn’t). I missed the start of most talks because of this. And the truth is I don’t understand why it happened…

AWS Summit Online agenda, with 55 talks and 11 tracks.
AWS Summit Online agenda, with 55 talks and 11 tracks.

I also think there were too many options available in the event interface, many being redundant. This can be confusing for those who don’t know the tool. Having to learn a new tool when you attend to an online event is not the best expected user experience. Even more taking into account the failures I found.

Could Online Events Be Better?

Honestly, I have no idea. It is true that I would like as an assistant to be more a participant in the event and not a mere spectator. But I understand that it is risky to make such drastic changes in a format as established as that of tracks filled with speaker presentations.

Organizations are doing everything they can to quickly adapt to the global situation in which we are to be able to continue holding events, even online. And that needs to be appreciated, without a doubt. Also, thanks to online events, many attendees who were previously unable to travel due to economic or political issues (I still remember the number of people who could not go to WordCamp Europe in Berlin due to living in countries where obtaining a visa is impossible) now have the opportunity to participate. It is true that the experience in online events is not the same (far from it) than attending a face-to-face event. But it’s something.

As for the WordCamps, perhaps we could, with adequate time and resources, develop something that transforms a WordCamp website into a platform that engages attendees and sponsors. A place where you can interact with everybody, with gamification in mind. Can you imagine a game-like interaction where you have to go through different riddles whose clues you get by attending the talks, visiting the websites of the sponsors, carrying out promotional actions, etc, all in pre-established teams to promote that the attendees get to know each other, with a final prize? I would love to attend an online WordCamp like this.

While virtual reality technology is no longer widespread in all our homes or we cannot attend events in person, online events as they are organized today are unattractive for me. However, I have faith that this will evolve and improve over time so that the difference between online and face-to-face events is smaller.

What about you? What do you think about online events? Do you like them or would you change something about them? Let us know your opinion in the comments below.

Featured image by Samantha Borges on Unsplash.

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