|Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash
No matter how many amazing new platforms and tools for online events we create, none of them really match the feeling of physically being there. The online event can actually be more flexible, more interactive, more inclusive and offer higher quality video and audio than sitting at the back of a hot and stuffy lecture theatre but it can't match that feeling of presence. It's the same with TV coverage of concerts and sporting events. You can sit at home and watch it all in super high-definition quality with surround sound, close-ups, slow motion replays, commentary and analysis but the sad truth is that you weren't really there. There are no credibility points for saying that you saw it on TV. I've been to many memorable events where I couldn't see or hear the action very well, was packed in a sweaty and noisy crowd, had great difficulty getting there and getting away afterwards (endless queues, pushing, noise, waiting) but I can always boast that I was there and that's what impresses people later on. That feeling of being part of something, an exclusive community, cannot be underestimated. That's why people will still pay extortionate amounts of money to attend events that are broadcast live. Feelings are worth more than quality. Even if there are billions of photos and films from all angles of, say, the Taj Mahal, I would still take at least a hundred more just to show that I have also been there.
If we think of academic conferences and events there are digital solutions for almost all the usual activities. You can mingle and network using platforms like SpatialChat, Wonder or Gather, use Zoom for plenary sessions and group discussions, create exciting virtual world conference or exhibition centres with Virbela or Virtway, go on virtual city tours, sightseeing with Google Streetview, have immersive virtual reality meetings in Spatial and so on. The list of platforms is impressive and is growing weekly so logically there should be no reason to return to on-site events. In addition, the environmental arguments against returning to large on-site conferences are overwhelming.
But no matter how much we can achieve online we will still want to meet at a physical location. The need to be there is all about intangible factors: emotion, atmosphere, sense of belonging, sense of space. We can achieve a lot online but maybe we have to accept that some elements will always be missing.