Virtual Buffet LineThu 18 February 2021 by Moshe Zadka
Many people have written about the logistical challenges of food in a conference. You trade off not just, as Chris points out, expensive food versus terrible food, but also the challenges of serving the food to everyone at once.
One natural method of crowd control is the buffet line. People shuffling slowly through the line, picking food items, allows for a natural choke-point that avoids overwhelming table and staff availability. It is unpleasant to have to walk slowly, at the pace of the slowest decision maker, while hungry.
As humans do, one tries to make the best of a bad situation. All of the people in the conference share some common interests, and many of them have interesting tales besides. A common way of entertaining yourself in the line is to strike up a conversation with the random person before or ahead of you. Indeed, this has led me to hear some fascinating things: tales of incidents, new libraries, or just interesting perspectives.
With a global pandemic looming, responsible folks have either cancelled conferences or led virtual conferences. Virtual conferences, especially while a global pandemic ravages the world, are nowhere as good as the real thing.
One of my favorite things in conferences is the so-called hallway track, where we stand and chat about common interests. Friendly and inclusive people stand in the "pac-man" shape, so that people can join the conversation. I have learned a lot from these random conversations.
As humans do, one tries to make the best of a bad situation. While we are stuck at home, at least lunch time is easy. When you want to eat, order a delivery or step into the kitchen and food, chosen by you, is available. No shuffling. No waiting.
So far, no conference has tried to have a virtual buffet line, where people are forced to virtually wait in a line before eating. True, the random conversations are gone, but they have always been a coping mechanism, not the intent. If the pandemic continues, however, I am not sure this will remain true.
Conferences have already tried to "recreate" many of the constraints foisted upon physical conferences by the uncaring laws of physics in order to make them feel more "real". This rarely helps the "realism" but often creates new, unexpected problem.
One conference platform allows for "virtual coffee tables" where 2-10 people (depending on the table) can sit. Once the table is "full", nobody else can join the conversation. Table-mates can speak via text, video, or audio.
The reason real hallway tables are set for 2-10 people is because of physical constraints and avaialbility of furniture. There was no careful design of which combination of 2-10-sized tables makes for an "optimal" experience.
Further, this is not even a good recreation. With real tables, space is somewhat negotiable. An extra person can fit in if the seated people will let them. People can see the conversation. People can trade-off a subtle "how eaves-droppy" they want to be. You can stand next to the table for a long time, but possibly perceived as weird. You can pass by quickly, catch a whiff of the conversation. You can hear from afar, but only distorted highlights
These things mean, for example, someone seated at a table trying to harass a table-mate chances being seen and caught by random people. While we hope that this is not the only thing preventing people from harassing, this is a useful social enforcement tool. However, the "virtual tables" are more like "virtual isolation rooms". Stuck inside one with an unpleasant person means they can say and do what they will with no fear of witnesses.
How does Code of Conduct enforcement happens? How do vulnerable demographics feel about that?
Attempting to recreate a physical experience in a virtual world is doomed to failure, unless you have sophisticated science-fictional-level virtual reality and physics simulation. However, as a culture, we have adapted to video chats, video webinars, text chats and more. We figured out social conventions and norms, and how to enforce them.
When designing a virtual conference, concentrating on "physical fidelity" is a fool's errand. Instead, figure out what kind of pleasant virtual experiences you want to supply, how to enforce those norms you want to enforce, and how to communicate expected standards to the attendees.
Just like physical conferences can be different, virtual conferences can be different. Pre-recorded or live talks, video distribution platforms, chatting platforms, and more, need to be chosen carefully. Optimize for a good conference, not a conference that feels like an in-person conference.