Why online meetings work but not online conferences

Sitting through a “slip fielding meeting” this morning, I had an epiphany – on why office work and meetings have adjusted fairly well to online formats, but not conferences. It has to do with backchannel conversations.

In meetings where everyone is in the same room, there is naturally just one conversation. Everyone is speaking to everyone else at the same time. Unless the meeting is humongously large, it is considered rude for people to “cross talk” in the meeting, and hence there is just one conversation. Of course, in the last decade or so, people have taken to texting at meetings and stuff, but that is still small.

The advantage with moving this kind of a meeting online is that now crosstalk is fully legit, as long as you are doing it using text only. Anyway, everyone is sitting with their computers. All it takes is one simple alt-tab or command-tab, and you can chat away with others present in the meeting. In fact, this makes online meetings MORE efficient by increasing the information flow (since the main channel of large meetings are usually low throughput).

It is the other way round with conferences and events. In conferences and events, the whole point is backchannel conversation. Pretty much nobody is there to listen to the lectures or panel discussions anyways – all that most attendees want to do is to meet other attendees.

And off-line conferences are conveniently structured to enable such interaction. By having multiple parallel sessions, for example, it becomes legit to just stay out and talk to others. There is always a buzz in the corridors (one conference which was single-session-at-a-time only turned out to be bloody boring).

The other thing is that most backchannel and side channel conversations at conferences are between people who don’t yet know each other, and who are there for discovery. So you need to physically bump into someone to talk to them – you can’t randomly start a conversation with someone.

And this translates horribly to online. Online is great for backchannel and side channel conversations with people you already know well – like colleagues. When you don’t know most other people, side channel conversation is awkward. And the main channel content in conferences is largely useless anyway.

This is why it is important that conferences and seminars and other such events move to an offline format asap. For large work meetings we can continue online even after we’re all back at office.

PS: I’m firmly in the DJ D-Sol camp in terms of calling people back to work, at least to make them live in or close to the “home locations”. This way, you have the optionality to meet at short notice without planning, something that fully remote work makes it really hard.