So, with large gatherings temporarily banned, conventions and conferences are moving online. I finally had the chance to attend a virtualized convention.
We decided it was “junk food” — tasty, but not very satisfying, and nowhere near a substitute for the real thing. Some things worked very well, others did not. I’m going to go through the elements of a typical science fiction con and say what worked and what didn’t.
Presentations and Panels
We used Zoom Webinar for presentations and panels. This worked very well indeed. One downside was that panelists and presenters were unable to see the audience. I expect this was worse for solo presenters. The talking into a void thing is not ideal.
After the con, we discussed allowing attendees to be visible. I came down against it for a couple of reasons:
- We did have a panelist put up an ill thought out virtual background. If attendees were visible then policing that kind of thing would be hard.
- The moderator would not have an easy way to distinguish panelists from the audience.
The second issue could likely be fixed by updates to Zoom or other tools, which are scrambling to fulfill this new need.
It worked well enough that if we tweak the technology, remote participation may become feasible, especially for presenters. This would allow smaller conferences to bring in guests who can’t afford to go, allow for remote participation by presenters who are sick or quarantined, and allow for demonstrations of things which simply can’t be demonstrated on site (one con did mounted combat and I would love to sit down a bunch of fantasy writers and have a master falconer do a proper demo. Ahem).
Virtual panels could also be considered for online events between conventions. The real thing is still slightly better, but it’s not that much better.
The one advantage of the format we used (Zoom for panels and Discord for random socialization) was that you could be in a panel and the bar At The Same Time.
Discord video, a new feature, collapsed when we tried to have any significant number of people in a room. Zoom works better for room parties, especially if you set up the “breakout room” option. This worked very well for room parties.
That said, there’s no substitute for the shared food, passing around bottles… I even found myself missing overpriced hotel cocktails.
It was also a bit harder to randomly socialize (We toyed with the idea of Chat Roulette to pair people with random attendees).
The Dealer Room
Sales were abysmal for everyone. Many dealers felt that they were ignored the entire con. It was hard for them to show stuff and Discord sorted channels in a way that meant that the voice chat for dealer tables was never used.
As dealers are the lifeblood of a convention, either major technology will be needed or…
…or we’ll just have to hope that we can go back to physical cons ASAP. True, it’s cheaper for dealers when they don’t have to travel, get a hotel room, ship inventory, etc.
But these are people who need the profit they get from conventions.
So, the tl;dr.
Virtual cons have the huge advantage of allowing global participation. I was able to talk to fans in Scotland, New Zealand, and other places. A few well-run virtual cons would add to the convention circuit beautifully.
But we have learned from this exercise that virtual cons will not replace the real thing and there is likely to be significant pent up demand for “Get me to a con” once it’s safe to gather again.