In many respects I have a moderate carbon footprint. I drive a very fuel-efficient car, and I don’t drive it much. Despite all my electronic toys, my power bills are always fairly low. And my heating bills aren’t as bad as they could be. But there’s one respect in which I use a lot of fuel, and it overwhelms the rest. That’s air travel. Now part of that travel is for fun, but much of it is for conferencing. So I’ve been wondering how much of the benefits of conferencing could be obtained without the travel. Some of the benefits, getting to see wonderful parts of the world, go drinking with friends from around the world etc, could not be had. But some benefits, arguably, could.
It should be possible, that is, to run virtual conferences. I don’t mean conferences done through emails or blogs, which have their benefits but don’t provide the same level of interactivity as actual conferences do. I mean something where the participants, from around the world, get to all be talking just about a single paper for an extended period of time.
The main point of this post is to ask whether anyone has any experiences with such conferences, and if so how they have worked. Below the fold I have some thoughts for a few models for how to run such a conference.
The geekiest option would be to have all the conference participants join some virtual world, like Second Life, and have the meeting in virtual space. The downsides are a) many people aren’t going to be interested in joining, b) it would be a pain to set everything up, and c) some computers (like, er, mine) simply aren’t strong enough to run things like Second Life. So this is probably out.
Another option would be to use conference calling facilities. But these are prohibitively expensive, probably more expensive than flying to conferences. Online calling services, such as Skype, don’t seem to have built in large-scale conference facilities. Skype itself only allows conference calls with up to four people, and Google Talk seems to not have any conference calling facility at all.
Most video conferencing packages I know of are set up to connect people at two, and just two, locations. But conferences typically bring together people from many many different locations. I’m sure there are some web-based packages that allow this kind of meeting, but I don’t know what they are.
The most practical option seems to me to have everyone chat using instant messaging software. There are some downsides to this, notably that the contributions have to be typed rather than spoken. (But maybe that would have upsides too.) And of course different chat programs have different costs and benefits associated. But this kind of thing might just work.
Anyway, I was mostly interested in hearing whatever thoughts people had about virtual academic conferences of this kind, ones that involved the kind of instant feedback and interaction that you get at a physical conference, and what experiences they had had with such conferences. Obviously this kind of thing won’t replace traveling to conferences, but it might replace some of the more needless travels.