There has been a surge in discussion that recent social media aspects of the society has driven humans closer virtually, but physically further. In the modern world it is easy for anyone to find a job, house, study course or even simple daily life activities just by “looking up” online and connecting with relevant material and people in the place of interest. This has been very prominent during the last couple of years due to restrictions on travel in connection with the the global COVID pandemic.
A significant impact, especially on a personal level, has been the conversion of the technical conferences to virtual mode compared to traditional in-person discussions. So, let me share some of my thoughts and experiences of an in-person vs virtual conference. As a disclaimer, I attended two virtual conferences and two in-person ones during the last two years. Therefore, I have gotten a feel of both sides. Let me explain it to you step by step.
The biggest advantage of attending conferences has always been the ability to travel to different places (which Marie Curie Funding encourages to do) and experiencing different cultures, tastes and lifestyles. Personally, I am a foodie, so being able to travel and experience different cuisines and foods is a dream of mine. This is why I was incredibly disappointed when the first supposed conference, which I was planning to attend back in 2020, was squashed due to the pandemic. Instead, I attended my first ever conference online, which meant that I had to record everything in a video format and then be in the zoom call during the time slot of my presentation. To put it mildly, it was bit of a downer. There was very limited interaction between the participants as everyone was slightly awkward to talk openly (owing to everyone’s first time experience in an online conference). Fortunately, the experience in my second virtual conference was slightly better, owing to the fact that I got to present live instead of a video presentation. But still, similar aspects of virtual interactions persisted during that conference as well. This made me abstain from going to conferences, as it felt as a glorified office presentation with no real experiences and memories to be made.
So, as the pandemic started to fade worldwide, the conferences started to become hybrid/in-person. This basically meant that I was able to travel to the actual conference which is what I did. The first one was the International Conference for Communication (ICC) in Seoul, Republic of Korea.
Now, flipping the script from the previous online conferences, I got to travel across half of the globe from Italy to South Korea along with four of my colleagues. This meant, it was going to be a “Trip to Remember”. It took a gruesome 22 hour flight with layovers to get to Korea, but it was worth it. The city is absolutely buzzing with life and coming from an Asian country (India specifically), I felt extremely familiar with the hustle and bustle of a big city. On top of that, being a foodie, I got to try multiple different Korean dishes, specifically Korean Barbecue, Bibimbap, Hotpot and many more.
Along with the delicious food, we also got to roam the city and learn about different cultures and traditions. We also has the opportunity to view a Korean wedding ceremony which was a treat in itself. Anyway, the entire experience, even without counting the conference, was extremely memorable, and it will definitely remain in my memories as the first conference that I ever attended.
Immediately after the first one, I attended the second conference, Mediterranean Communication and Computer Networking Conference in Paphos, Cyprus. Even though this was considerably closer than the travel to Seoul, it was still a total of 8 hours of travel to get to Cyprus from Italy. But again, it was worth it, as the place, albeit a small one compared to Seoul, was still bustling with people enjoying the nice, hot, tropical/sub-tropical weather. Even there, I was with some of other colleagues and we enjoyed a nice archaic Greek and Roman culture. I also had a chance to enjoy some nice Greek food like Moussaka and Cyprus style Roast Lamb, along with some nice seafood such as Octopus.
This made the conference incredibly fun and unique, as I would have never imagined to visit Cyprus on my own account. So, I got to visit a completely unknown country from a personal perspective and got to try different types of cuisines there.
But as you must have observed, all of these experiences are something that makes attending conferences in person quite memorable compared to a virtual environment. However, I haven’t even talked about the conference itself, so lets talk about that aspect.
Being able to visit a different country and getting to experience different cultures, traditions and, most importantly for me, cuisines, is only one part of a conference. The main aspect that possibly favors in-person conference with respect to virtual conferences is the networking and discussions that you can participate in, which is very difficult in a virtual conference (although not impossible as shown by some new applications such as gather.town which mimics an entire virtual conference in a form of a minigame, where you can approach people and talk about their work). This makes the ideas and the possible collaborations easier to achieve compared to a virtual conference. Generally, in virtual conferences you might have a personal chat (in case of zoom/teams) or a personal call (in case of gather.town). But that does not mean that everything is bad with virtual conferences. It is a great tool for when the circumstances are not ideal for travel.
Based on my personal experience, I enjoyed presenting my work in person to the audience and having discussion with other researchers regarding ideas for work and potential collaborations that can be realized. Lastly, I would like to conclude, that it is a matter of a personal preference whether someone prefers a virtual or in-person conference. Personally, I enjoy travelling, meeting and interacting in-person compared to online meetups. Also, I am slightly biased as I like to travel to enjoy some different cuisines. So, it is up to you, and what you prefer/want.