I was one of those who asked for CHI to be fully remote. I intended to attend remotely. Due to my disability travel is difficult and attending the entire conference would not have been worth the cost physically. Additionally, I face higher personal and family risk with COVID; and caregiving responsibilities at home.
However, when I received the Social Impact award, I decided it was important to attend in person to make the most of the opportunity this represented to talk about social impact. I decided to avoid indoor meals if possible and limit overall exposure; did not attend any evening parties; attended most of the conference remotely even when I was in New Orleans and tried to socialize outside when possible (it was too warm some of the time).
I truly embraced the hybrid model for CHI as a result (and am very grateful to the organizers for working hard to make both virtual and in-person attendance possible). I spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning in person; the awards dinner in person; and everything else online, including some synchronous programming Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning and many hours watching talks asynchronously on Thursday and Friday. So far, I am still negative, but given recent events I attribute that as much to luck as my choices about what to attend.
It’s worth noting that others have already written excellent articles on this topic, including Michael Correll’s very thoughtful much more holistic commentary on the future of academic conferences; and Amy Ko’s detailed experiential trip report from CHI 2021, I encourage you to check those out as well if interested in this topic.
I attended two workshops. Both were at their heart about inclusion, and both worked hard to explore inclusion from multiple perspectives. One was focused on disability, the other on making. My main take away is the breadth of both of these communities and gratitude for my chance to get to know about researchers who I wasn’t aware of in both. I think workshops are particularly critical to networking in the era of remote participation because of the ways in which they bring people together with shared interests. Slack supported networking at both.
At the hybrid workshop we found ourselves in a “lunch break” with no virtual equivalent, we explicitly had a conversation about networking and what people were hoping to achieve. The sharing in this conversation was vulnerable and moving and highlighted how important it is to consciously make space for networking time when remote.
Virtual Only Events
My longest synchronous virtual-only segments were Wednesday after about 10:30am and all day Thursday. I attended from my hotel room. The town hall worked great virtually, as did the social justice event I attended, but being in person just before them highlighted how “dry” such events are in terms of interpersonal connection. I also struggle with remote question asking because it is so hard to change the contents of a question between when you ask it and it is read aloud (context can change in the interim).
One of the least dry/favorite events I attended was on data and design, where the session started out with an interactive multi-step Miro board activity. This is a screenshot showing a gestalt view of the thoughtful planning that went into this (names occluded for privacy). Over the course of an hour we worked our way through a combination of activities on this Miro board and breakout rooms.
One unique aspect of having traveled to New Orleans was the “physicality” of the virtual experience. In one extreme example, I accidentally left my phone in the NOLA sun by mistake when attending a session from my hotel’s roof deck, and my network connection went down due to the phone overheating! I could not reconnect until I wet it down and blew on it. It didn’t affect much as I just increased the speed of the livestream until I caught up. Overall, though, being in my hotel room, ordering local food, having the chance to connect with a friend 1:1 in between things, and having the time to center the conference, all made the experience much better than any prior virtual experience.
I also spent many hours on what I might term “asynchronous virtual events” on Thursday and Friday. I watched live sessions (such as award talks) that I had missed, and watched, coded and wrote up all of the relevant talks that I had missed during the week (such as Monday when I was traveling, or during parallel sessions). Whenever I watched a talk that I had a question about, I made an effort to email the first and last author with my question and a compliment, just as I might have approached them after the session. I am still answering emails about this three days later, and have even been offered collaboration opportunities. This effort has been significant, and included a sort of qualitative coding to do my trip report. I don’t usually take the time to synthesize a conference like this, and at CHI’s current size in terms of the variety of papers I could select from, I found it an incredibly relevant and fruitful experience.
My first hybrid session (I was in person) was an interesting opportunity to see some of the unique challenges to hybrid sessions, from a missing session chair (turns out they were virtual) to no presenter (the talk is recorded after all) to unclear understanding of the backup plan if delay becomes an issue. I participated in a hybrid session remotely twice (including one of my workshops) and experienced some awkwardness in not knowing when I was expected/able to speak up as a virtual attendee.
Overall, though, I experienced something very similar to what others have said to me: being virtual, or hybrid, feels like a whole different conference than in person. You, and other remote people, are in your own social space even if you are looking at the same talks as in-person people.
I have several takeaways from this mix of experiences. Networking is better in person (no surprise) but I think that can be improved by going out of ones way to send emails and/or discord/slack messages to folks about their work (just as you might approach them on stage after a talk); and by creating synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to connect about goals and networking needs. Community building needs more attention, especially longitudinally. Visibility requires explicit attention for remote presenters. And Redundancy is critical to an accessible and reliable experience. Finally, Synthesis helped bring CHI together for me. I enjoyed most of CHI’s content remotely (see the other half of my trip report for more on that) — and more than any recent virtual experience: the trip was a lesson in the value of truly creating space for conferencing, even when remote.
Networking is one of the aspects of in-person conferencing that translates worst to virtual. However, my experiences this week showed me that with a concrete plan in place, it is possible to do much better even in virtual/hybrid settings. I also learned from how diverse networking needs are and that I definitely am glad I asked what folks were looking for.
I think asking about networking needs more often, and earlier, could better guide networking planning. Much more structure for this is needed than in person (though one might argue that even in person structure helps folks who are more marginalized within the community). For example, my best virtual networking experience last year was at an event that was clearly labeled in terms of purpose, and thus drew people who could support that purpose and/or sought it. It is possible to create small intimate gatherings even online, and we should try to find more opportunities to do so.
I also found myself regretting not planning ahead more. Several of us were in Seattle during one of my workshops — we could have made the effort to all be in the same room. I hope we can experiment more with such models for the next (small) conference I attend virtually. I think smaller conferences (workshops may be too small to have much co-location?) are the easier place to start with such efforts.
A word of advice to students: It really helps to have a web page of your own that describes your interests and highlights the most relevant work you do. One advantage of virtual networking is that I could google everyone I came in contact with to find common interests. Yet many of the people I googled only had a linked in page. You can use off the shelf blogging platforms for free to make a website and still have a nice look and feel (I use WordPress for my group, for example, and some of my students use their page on my site, while others have their own websites).
Building Lasting Communities.
I am by no means an expert on community building (for that, see Kraut & Resnick) However, one thing that occurs to me is that we can be more strategic about building virtual networks that last, and we especially need to do that in this era. For example, there is already a slack for the maker community in HCI++. Why not have a fabrication-related workshop invite people into a channel in that space rather than an entirely new slack that is likely to be shut down or die off shortly after the conference ends? I have the same thoughts about the CHI 22 specific discord. Are we doing these things to gatekeep access, and what do we gain (and lose) from those choices? How can we better ensure that people know about, and build on, existing virtual communities?
An important loss for remote presenters in particular is the visibility of giving a talk to a bunch of like minded folks and then engaging with them right afterwords. I’m not sure how to solve all of that, but I think small things help, like making sure that your face is visible throughout your recorded talk. I gained a lot from taking the time to send an email to a student or their advisor when I saw a talk I loved, this feedback is missing for many online presenters, and also resulted in conversations that were valuable to me.
Relatedly, I think that recorded talks create new opportunities for visibility (what Michael Correll calls history). I would love to see more of this freedom of access. For example, it would be interesting to consider a new model that allows more people to participate in workshops than submit position papers — more like a SIG model — so more people can benefit from the networking opportunity of even just knowing about each other. I understand that submitting something is an important way of showing interest, and I think this requires more thought, but I believe there are ways to work through these challenges (for example who presents versus who attends).
When technology failed, having redundant forms of access was really helpful. Discord & Hubb complemented each other; as did Zoom and Youtube. This was a prescient choice by the organizers as it was needed multiple times over. It also contributes to overall accessibility.
One area of redundancy that I only partly engaged with was timing. Being able to attend things asynchronously is part of this, but I had the advantage of always being in a time zone that worked for synchronous participation if I wanted / was healthy enough for it. I would love to see more of the multiple touchpoints that CHI introduced in 2021 in the future, to add networking redundancy to the existing emphasis on content redundancy.
CHI is a firehose, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Even more so when working from home and just “sampling” parts of CHI now and then. By traveling and/or canceling other activities (I did both), I was able to get much more out of the conference. Watching things I had missed, and synthesizing what I learned, really helped me to take lasting value from the non-networking aspects of it. It also helped with networking, as I connected with people by email, and even introduced my students to authors (by email) and content (by sending students links of interest).
In the end, was it worth attending in person? I absolutely benefited from the time away and the networking opportunities. Depending on whether I test positive, the scales may tip the other way, though. Even if I do not get COVID, my body has required 2 full days of rest after the travel home to be semi-functional today (3 days after my flight). This is a cost I can afford to bear on a sabbatical year, but it becomes increasingly less appealing as my career matures.
Regardless, my belief that CHI should not have been in person stands firm. My opposition to an in-person CHI was never about my personal gain, it was about equity for all of the people who would like to attend, and the risk to attendees. Both of those continue to be concerns. Particularly so if we move away from innovations that convey the benefits of in-person conferencing for remote attendees. I fear that the extra effort necessary to create an equitable experience online, due to current state of our technology and knowledge about how to effectively support remote networking, will suppress innovation in this space when it already takes so much out of those organizing events.
My best hope is that the experience of attending in person can be of value in guiding us toward a better future. I believe that the future must include virtual only events that center community and connection. I also see room for innovation. I’ll end with some questions and ideas rather than answers. Answers will only come with time.
What if every journal paper was released with the same 8 minute videos as CHI talks? Could we organize safe regional in-person networking events that coincide with conferences? Could we form a truly active discord community that featured topical office hours and networking events similar to the equity talks the EC organized in structure, advertising, and participation? How could SIGCHI benefit from and foster community around speaker series such as the Future of Work conversations and the Web Series on Computational Fabrication? Could the SIGCHI EC financially sponsor young faculty invested in and in need of innovation in this space, to do experiments this year in ways that would meaningfully create space for them to organize and try out satellite and networking events? Will the CHI SC commit now to adding a virtual conference to their sequence, as an experiment if not as a promised ongoing event?