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Embracing econferences: a step toward limiting the negative effects of conference culture

How the traditional conference format has been reimagined in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns.


One of the largest gatherings of scholars in the country will be moving online this year. Thousands of Congress 2021 attendees will not be flying or driving across Canada to the University of Alberta. Instead, they’ll be gathering virtually.

It is a reminder of how the traditional conference format has been reimagined in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

Our reliance on in-person gatherings has been dramatically challenged in the past year, as academics (along with much of the world) were forced to isolate. While there have been major hurdles while transitioning to online, there have undoubtedly been benefits. One of those benefits has been the environmental impact.

Flying is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. A sustainability audit at University California Santa Barbara in 2014 found that about one third of the campus’s carbon footprint ( fifty-five million pounds to be exact) came from flying to conferences, talks and meetings. A 2018 case study at the University of British Columbia found similar results.

As we move into the post-pandemic future, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Once travel restrictions are lifted, will we return to face-to-face conferences and double-down on travel requirements? Or will we continue to explore more sustainable, virtual alternatives, like econferences?

Barriers to participation

Conference travel has costs beyond environmental. They also create financial and geographic barriers to participation.

Northern researchers, for instance, face unique challenges attending face-to-face events. One of the virtual presenters at the virtual 2018 Around the World conference was based in Nunavut. She estimated that if the conference was held in-person, travel and lodgings would have cost upwards of $4,000 for her.

Our reliance on the traditional, face-to-face conference format benefits established scholars from wealthy, centrally located institutes. Econferences can help bring more diverse voices to these events, which benefits us all.

But what is an econference?

There are several other terms currently in use, including web conference, online conference and virtual conference. However, econference is more nuanced, as the e invokes the dual electronic and environmental dynamics of the medium, and it seems likely that the term econference will enter common use in the future, similar to words like e-bookemaile-transfer and e-research.

Econferences can be synchronous, with participants gathering at the same time (e.g., a in a live stream), or asynchronous, spread out over different times (e.g., using pre-recorded video). Econferences are also not limited to a single format.

The first online conferences were email-based. Edmonton scholar Terry Anderson, one of the pathbreakers of the virtual format, experimented with using email distribution lists in 1992.

Today, online gatherings are not just a fringe phenomenon. Over 4.6 billion people use the web. The internet is where we regularly convene, like a seemingly borderless gathering unbound by time.

With many of us working from home, video calls have become the go-to mode of interaction, likely because they most closely resemble face-to-face conversations. However, attempts to replicate traditional conference events on the web are doomed to fail. Rather, the most successful online events embrace the contours (and quirks) of the medium.

With the invention of radio, theatre underwent a similarly awkward period of transition, as WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg has pointed out. The first radio dramas were just transmissions of live stage shows. With time, however, broadcasters learned to use music and sound effects, telling stories that were made to be experienced aurally rather than visually.

Likewise, as we continue to experiment with online gatherings, the econference format will evolve into its own genre. One of the more exciting recent developments of econferences, which is deserving of further study, has been the push to experiment with using unconventional platforms to create more open and informal conversation spaces. How can we create more vibrant hallway conversation spaces online?

Geoffrey Rockwell has proposed that, when possible, organizers should also make use of the technologies and tools that are already popular in their given field or discipline. For instance, the Replaying Japan 2020 game studies conference used the streaming and chat applications of Twitch and Discord, which are already massively popular conversation zones for gamers.

Game environments have themselves proved to be popular spaces for virtual events. There have been music festivals hosted on Minecraft, complete with “merch” tables and meet and greet sessions, and art installations on the Nintendo game Animal Crossing.

Likewise, hosting research gatherings online presents the opportunity to think outside the conventional hotel venue. Avatars can free up new possibilities for creative interaction, as does the potential to craft our own digital environments.

Finally, it is worth noting that econferences need not be fully virtual. Hybrid events combine both face-to-face and online components. Decades before the Internet, Marshall McLuhan introduced the concept of a global village in the electronic age, where ideas can be woven together at the speed of light. Dr. McLuhan also highlighted the importance and strength of hybrid innovations, and that the energy of merging two forms is what we need to snap out of narcissus narcosis, a kind of numbness brought on by technology

Future challenges

That said, online events are not without their own challenges. They require, for instance, access to technical supports and resources.

The pandemic has driven home how technology can exacerbate social and economic inequality. Not everyone has access to reliable connections or devices. Nor do they all have access to uncensored, unmonitored communication. Last year’s Human Rights Watch World Report pointed out that the world wide web is becoming less open and less worldly. More and more countries restrict what their citizens can and cannot access online and crack down on “online dissidence.”

Virtual gatherings have a relatively small carbon footprint in comparison to the impact of driving or flying to a face-to-face gathering. While often greener, econferences are also not without environmental impacts. An hour of video conferencing or streaming produces anywhere from 150 to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide. For perspective, the carbon emissions for major conferences, which attract participants from far away, can easily exceed two tons per attendee.

Still, the energy costs of computing are not insignificant. Econference organizers can do more to draw attention to the environmental impact of our internet usage and encourage participants to adopt eco-conscious computing habits. For instance, a recent study at Purdue University found that switching off your video saves 96 per cent of emissions, while streaming in standard definition instead of HD saves 86 per cent.

Call to action

Academics can influence change at many levels of conference culture: as participants, attendees, keynote speakers, funders and conference organizers. Funding agencies and academic associations have both an opportunity and a responsibility to increase the availability of sustainable conferencing through their personal and organizational choices.

Adopting a hybrid virtual/in-person format in future years would not only save carbon emissions, it would be a monumental step towards building a more inclusive, diverse and eco-conscious research community. As such, we call upon conference organizers to commit to allocating (at a minimum) 10 percent of conference funding to support virtual participation in the coming years. We invite the larger academic community, as well, to voice your support for virtual or hybrid conference initiatives by contacting your associations and local organizers.

Chelsea Miya is a graduate research assistant at the University of Alberta; Oliver Rossier is a senior officer in the faculty of arts at U of A; and Geoffrey Rockwell is a professor of philosophy and digital humanities at U of A. All three are co-editors of Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene, published May 2021.

This article originally appeared on the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences website. It has been reprinted with the authors’ permission.

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  1. Anne Barnfield / June 8, 2021 at 20:54

    One issue with e-conferences which I have heard mentioned by many is the lack of personal interaction, particularly “chance meetings” which occur at in-person conferences.

    Another major problem, which I myself am currently experiencing is that international conferences run online suffer from issues related to time differences. For a conference which I am currently “attending”, the in-person conference site is Seoul, South Korea. Seoul is 13 hours ahead of Ontario, Canada. The conference day beings at 9am Seoul time, which is 8pm the previous evening for my location. The conference is live broadcast and interactive (question and answer sessions), but runs through the late evening and early morning for me. As a colleague noted, “if you were there in person, at least everyone’s getting up at the same time!”; i.e., even if a bit jet-lagged, I’d still be working on the same timeframe as all the other attendees. As it is, I’m missing a lot of the conference as I simply can’t function at three in the morning!

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