"In person next year?"

I’ve heard this question a lot this past year with regard to community tech conferences. I think most people who’ve asked me this question expected or hoped for a response of “yes”. My short answer is “it’s not our call to make”. Read below for my longer answer.

Two notes first:

  1. I’m not speaking on behalf of any conferences in this post, i.e. this isn’t some announcement for a conference I help with.

  2. I’m not a medical professional, just a volunteer who finds joy in creating spaces for people to gather and share their work.

Probably not

For the readers that don’t know me: I’ve been organizing conferences for the better part of a decade now. I’m core staff for one, I volunteer with a few others, and I attend at least several more every year. I can attribute many of my closest personal relationships and professional opportunities to community events. I’m leading with this context so you know that I take this seriously and am not just plucking an answer out of thin air. I’d like us to return to in-person conferences as much or more than most other people.

With that said, I’m not optimistic about primarily in-person events in 2022, and I’m certain things won’t “just go back to normal”. Even before the current pandemic started, people got sick at conferences all the time. It’s normal for otherwise-healthy people to get sick after interacting with hundreds or thousands of people in a confined space. Most just don’t think about this and feel crummy for a couple of days after the fact, but large events may not be an option for some even pre-pandemic. The population that cannot or will not attend in-person events remains significant, and putting them on anyway will result in some combination of cancelled-event-disappointment and real, physical harm to vulnerable people.

Complicating factors

The decision to cancel an already-scheduled event is not an easy one, even when everyone knows it’s the right thing to do. Once vendor and venue contracts are in place, an organization (or in the case of some smaller conferences, individual) may face financial penalties for calling off an event. I encourage you to read PyCon US’s blog post from 2020 for more details on this topic.

What do we do instead?

Fully remote / online conferences

I’ve helped run a couple of these, and I’ve attended several others. There are great organizing teams behind each of them. These events have allowed for some interesting talk formats that would be difficult on stage, which is great. They’ve also generally left something to be desired from both a social interaction and a sponsor / exhibit hall point of view. Many of the people I know that are now running remote events are taking years of experience with in-person events and translating that to a different format with its own challenges. We’re improving, but I expect that it’ll take some time to get to a playbook that really works.

“Hybrid” conferences

I take some issue with most events that use this term so far. In many cases, the only hybrid aspect is a live stream with a camera pointed at the speaker and slides. I’ve watched plenty of conference talks this way in the past, and they were always just “conferences with a live feed” until 2020. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this setup, and I’ve appreciated being able to tune into a live event from my desk in the past. However, promising anything more without foundational changes to events’ structures sets everyone up for disappointment. Let’s be honest about what an event is and not pretend that adding a live stream of the talks makes it accessible to everyone. There’s much more to a conference than just presentations, and we need build full conference experiences for every audience we invite.

Distributed conferences

This is a kind of event that I haven’t seen formally held yet, but I’d like to. It brings with it many of the same challenges as hybrid events, but in a way that prioritizes small groups over a large, common meeting space. The ingredients for these events already exist: it’s common for local meetup groups to host preview and recap events around major conferences, usually with local speakers giving their conference talks to a smaller audience. Expanding this concept to put on a full conference via cross-meetup partnerships is an interesting prospect.

Closing note

I don’t know what the right answer for community events in 2022 is, or that there is one. But I don’t expect conferences will return to their old formats next year, nor am I sure that they should do so long-term. If you’d like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, feel free to contact me.