Participants and organizers were connected via a Slack workspace which acted as a program guide, Q&A forum, news bulletin, presentation and discussion rooms, and even social centers for chatting over a coffee. This streamlined the user experience, allowing for easy switching between mingling and learning. While this space was available at all hours, activities such as plenary talks and pre-organized social events (including a fun trivia night) were centered around two time slots which allowed for participants in any time zone to have at least one live session they could attend. This international accommodation made the conference incredibly accessible to all.
One of the great perks of conferences is the opportunity to network and meet other researchers in a similar field from other institutions. At in-person conferences, you can naturally introduce fellow lab-members to renowned colleagues during casual interactions. At virtual conferences, you must introduce yourself to someone in a direct message or join a random call with strangers who may have already been chatting for some time. You may find yourself overthinking when the right time is to join in a conversation, or how to smoothly contrive a new connection. These mildly awkward barriers seem to decrease the amount of mingling in “public” spaces.
Time also plays a role in mingling opportunities at virtual conferences. Because participants are spread out across multiple time zones, the people with whom you can chat in real time becomes skewed to those who share your time zone. For example, if you consistently attend the conference at 6pm AEST, you are unlikely to encounter many American researchers who are awake at 4am EST. However, with direct message chat features like those in Slack, you may still be able to reach out to someone with whom you’d like to speak. This feature nearly guarantees the opportunity to ask a question of almost any speaker during the conference, where you may not have gotten the chance to see them across a crowded room at an in-person conference.
I’ve always struggled with planning a schedule at conferences because there are often multiple talks I’d like to attend which occur at the same time or in opposite areas of the conference space. Virtual conferences are the best solution for this – allowing participants to switch easily between talks by simply clicking into a different video. At vISEC, participants were able to watch every talk as they were archived for viewing after the live session ended. This accommodated an international audience, allowing those who would normally be asleep during the live session to still hear it, or to just catch some extra information, at a more convenient time.
Many successes of this conference stemmed from an effective utilization of online services. This includes the “Slack Workspace” service - a website that allows teams to organize communication platforms into channels for different topics or groups. The video communication and streaming services Zoom and YouTube were also utilized for the presentation components. The vISEC organizers generated a virtual conference hub as well as a virtual stage that mirrored a near-normal conference experience for its participants around the globe.
While the virtual conference design format arose from the unprecedented circumstances of 2020’s global pandemic, many successful aspects of this virtual conference may – and probably should – be applied to future conferences. The connectivity, accessibility, and organization were of a high caliber, as were evidenced by the conference’s large attendance and positive reception. We can only guess where this will lead the future of international conferences, and how features of this conference will shape future experiences in science research networking and collaboration.