I attended the CHI conference this year. Well, sort of, since I was a virtual attendee. It ran as a hybrid event, a mix of in-person attendees at New Orleans and a dispersed group of us from around the world logging in to watch or give Zoom presentations. This is the second mixed format conference I’ve been at in the last six months and I have to say, the hybrid style just does not work for me. At ASIST 2021, which I attended in-person, I was on a panel that seemed to attract more people on remote screens than were in the room with us. So we all looked at the camera or a screen and had precious little real interaction. The physical absence of those joining us remotely made for a particularly odd experience at other sessions, it spilled over into the poster and awards events, even the lunches and breaks, all staring a sense of disconnectedness or absence.
At CHI, the remote experience was even more disturbing. Other than the session I presented in, where everyone was on Zoom, it felt very difficult to have any sense of actually being at a conference. When you’re working online all the time, such a conference is just one more disturbable event, colleagues consider you ‘available’ and the distractions of the office or classroom are hard to park. Worse, when a session ends, you have no connection with the conference community because you are not really ‘there’, you are at home, with your laptop, through which virtual chit-chat around a coffee break is unnatural or unwelcome.
Shout out to the HCI Across Borders group who made the session I spoke at valuable and informative (I made a pitch for greater respect of human experience and augmentation in design) but the rest of the conference as a whole felt like a waste of time to me (and I object to having register for it all in order to attend the one session at which I spoke). That it also became a super-spreader event for those who went to New Orleans might also tell us that we need to rethink how we view conferences from here. Online can work but it should not and cannot replicate in-person gatherings. Perhaps it’s time to rethink more radically how we share research and engage as a community. Anyone listening?