What are the pros and cons of virtual events?

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The COVID-19 pandemic disturbed the work of event organizers everywhere. To slow the spread of this highly contagious virus, conferences that tend to host thousands in person faced a choice: Move entirely online, or cancel altogether. Many open source event organizers chose the latter, but not all of them.

Open Source 101 was due to be held in Austin, TX, on April 14. Instead, it hosted 1,000 attendees virtually. Later this month, the Linux Foundation will host the annual North American contingent of its Open Source Summit online. And rather than hosting DrupalCon around the world as planned, the Drupal Association will host DrupalCon Global online from July 14 - 17. 

If there's any group that could move events online without missing a beat, it's the open source community. Open source teams are used to meeting online and working asynchronously to support diverse time zones.

And moving community events online could make those communities more inclusive. That's because virtual events allow anyone, anywhere in the world to attend the summits and sessions that are most relevant to them, on their own schedules. 

This decreases the costs of time and money that prevent many from attending in person. Many virtual equivalents of in-person events are being offered at drastically reduced costs, if not for free. That cost reduction in tickets, coupled with not needing to spend money on flights and hotels, goes a long way towards increasing access.

Still, I can't help feeling like the lack of in-person events this year is a loss. I've worked on remote teams for more than five years, and on remote open source projects in my spare time. I am among the biggest advocates of remote work you'll find. That's the same reason why I look forward to my teams' in-person offsites each year.

That time to meet in person, celebrate achievements, decide on new visions for our projects, and socialize is crucial. It plays a key role in bridging the distance gap by helping us put names to faces and getting to know each other. 

On a personal note, I've shared before how I started contributing to open source after attending a huge conference where I met several community leaders. By meeting and making connections face to face, I got plugged in much faster than if I had stumbled onto GitHub and searched through random projects. I fully support public health efforts to keep people safe, and haven't found virtual events to be a strong substitute for the informal conversations in the "hallway track."

Have you attended a virtual open source event this spring? What were the pros and cons compared to their in-person counterparts?

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Photograph of Lauren, a white woman with long brown hair, standing in front of a tree wearing a grey coat.
Lauren Maffeo has reported on and worked within the global technology sector. She started her career as a freelance journalist covering tech trends for The Guardian and The Next Web from London. Today, she works as a service designer for Steampunk, a human-centered design firm building civic tech solutions for government agencies.

3 Comments

Having attended many in-person events over the years and a couple virtual events this year already, I think all the reasons listed above are valid. As much as I do like hanging out with people when live-attending these events, I find that there are plenty of advantages to virtual events.

I like not having to travel. This is partly about cost but it is also about the fact that travel is almost always a hassle when flying. I have always appreciated All Things Open because it is held in my home town, Raleigh, NC, and I can just drive downtown. Easy-peasy. Driving to Columbia, SC, for Open Source 101 was not too bad but still requires a few hours on the road.

The cost of some conferences like Open Source 101 and All Things Open are small and I don't mind paying for them Other conferences are significantly more expensive and when combined with other travel costs can be out of my financial range unless I can combine them with travel for pleasure.

I like being able to pick the presentations I want to see most and viewing them as they go live. I also like being able to view the other presentations in that same time slot at a later time or date. I don't need to miss anything I really want to see.

There is also some level of comfort in viewing sessions from my own favorite home office chair. And with my allergies I won't disturb others when I sniffle, sneeze, and cough. This can prevent a few unappreciative looks in public spaces. I also don't have to worry about sitting near an exit to ensure that I will get to the next session on time.

I miss seeing vendors and their demos and I miss talking to them. I miss seeing friends some of whom I have met up with quite regularly over the years. I miss the general ambience of a technical conference where we are all diverse in many physical and cultural respects and yet united in our interest in and love for open source.

As a speaker, I miss seeing the faces of the attendees and being able to tell from that when I need to see if there are any questions because I am not being clear enough. Sometimes just seeing a puzzled look on one person can tell me I need to do something different.

So mixed feeling for me overall but I like and can live with virtual conferences.

Virtual conference no have visa problem and no need airplane. Many conference in very distance place (expensive airplane ticket) or in arrogant rich country require visa, very hard get visa, visa is expensive.

Really important, often-overlooked point re: Visas. I know several large tech conferences have had issues with denied visas for attendees and possible speakers. I also know that the global political climate has become a larger factor in event organizations' choices of host countries.(i.e. The U.S. increasingly takes a backseat to Canada due in part to concerns about visa approvals.)

In reply to by Châu (not verified)

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