Previous posts on the Impact Blog have argued that academic conferences are bad for the environment and can present a barrier to increased diversity and inclusion within the research community. Digital communication media are often recommended as a potential solution to these issues. In this post, Nicholas Holm, Sy Taffel, Trisia Farrelly and Lisa Vonk describe how they organised the Feral Conference, a fully online conference. Showing how the online format can be used to reach new audiences and connect geographically disparate groups of researchers, they also discuss how adopting online media presents new challenges for conferences as a means of research communication.
There is a growing awareness of the limitations and costs of the traditional format of academic conferences. Not only do such events frequently involve substantial environmental costs as a consequence of international travel, but the financial costs associated with attendance also potentially hinder diversity and equity in research. Consequently, institutions around the world are increasingly experimenting with ways that digital technologies may enable alternative forms of academic exchange. Yet, while such online events can offset many of the problems raised by traditional formats, they also bring new sets of drawbacks that those seeking to communicate their research in this way should be aware of.
In late 2018, the Massey University Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC), in conjunction with the Wageningen University Centre for Space, Place and Society, hosted “Feral,” a nearly carbon neutral conference (the event is nearly neutral because it still relies upon the material infrastructures of the internet and the energy costs associated with it). This event sought to build on the lessons from PERC’s first conference in 2017: “Lives and Afterlives of Plastic”. The online-only conference format aligns with the values of PERC because it allows us to minimise the environmental cost of sharing academic research. In addition, due to Aotearoa New Zealand’s relative geographical isolation, this format also has the added benefit of potentially attracting a broader range of international delegates, who might not be able to cope with the financial, temporal, or physical burdens imposed by the long haul flights otherwise necessary to physically attend a conference at Massey University.
We considered the “Feral” event a success: it featured forty-three participants from eight countries who collectively produced over thirteen hours of open access video. The conference web pages received over 9,200 page views and over 150 comments were posted in the forums that acted in lieu of traditional question and answer sessions. However, there is a need to be aware of the limitations posed by the online format. While the sharing of online video is often discussed as a solution to questions of access, even as that format overcomes barriers, it introduces others.
For instance, whereas access to video-making tools and software is widespread, it is far from universal: digital divides persist, including access to an internet connection stable and fast enough to upload and stream high quality video. Potentially even more important in this instance, is who has the skills and confidence required to produce a video they believe is of sufficient quality to share with their academic peers? Video production is foreign to many academics, and this is particularly true for many older scholars.
Online conferences also have to negotiate time in a way that is quite different to place-based events; because participants are not located in the same time zone, having synchronous events becomes complex. Indeed, with presenters from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania, having a meeting where it wasn’t 3am for someone was impossible. Consequently, we chose an asynchronous format of video presentations and text-based questions and answers, but doing so meant that a certain amount of embodied connection was lost because nothing took place in ‘real-time’. The alternative would have meant choosing a time that effectively excluded some participants though, so neither option seems ideal.
Digital distribution also introduces new concerns regarding the dissemination of research, especially in a moment marked by concerns regarding online aggression. While we were optimistic about the increased accessibility to the general public afforded by the format—and promoted the event to a wider audience on Radio New Zealand—there was also apprehension regarding the potential for disruptive and hostile participation. This was especially relevant given the potentially controversial subject material which sought to re-evaluate assumptions about the correct and proper forms of the non-human world often assumed by conservation discourse. Notably, these concerns were shared by a high profile researcher, who declined our invitation to give a keynote presentation, because she was concerned about the negative feedback this exposure might prompt.
Indeed, in practice some of our presenters were subject to vitriol, not least because we suggested that they use YouTube as default mechanism for uploading videos. If the privacy settings on their videos were not set in a particular way, the videos were accessible to the wider YouTube audience, who are not always known for the respectfulness, nor the quality of their contributions. That said, this does also demonstrate that online conferences can reach wider audiences than their traditional counterparts. In addition to YouTube comments, the online conferences we’ve organized have had comments from artists, activists and members of the public who would not normally engage with an academic conference.
Finally, the other obvious aspect of the conference that is lost online, is the potential to form human connections with scholars working in the same area and everything that happens at a conference outside of the formal sessions by virtue of being in the same place as a group of your peers. This is not only a very important part of sharing research — especially for early career researchers, or those like ourselves whose location can make them feel detached from the Northern hemisphere-centred global community of scholars — but it is also one of the pleasures of conference attendance. All conferences rely upon the goodwill and free labour of presenters for their success, but this was even truer in the online format, where we were not able to compensate our delegates with any of the direct experiences and pleasure of visiting new places and getting to know new people.
While the online format offers many important benefits and we absolutely endorse the model as a way to address urgent global problems relevant to academic research, at the same time we need to be aware of the new problems that the online transition can present. Recognizing, meeting and mitigating such challenges is essential to establishing online conferences as a regular and productive aspect of twenty-first century academic life.
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About the authors
All the authors are based at Massey University. Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel are Senior Lecturers in the School of English and Media Studies, Trisia Farrelly is a Senior Lecturer in the School of People, Environment and Planning, and Lisa Vonk is a doctoral student in Media Studies. All are members of the Political Ecology Research Centre.