Thursday, April 30, 2020

Need a Conference Venue? There's No Place Like 127.0.0.1

As I write this, the world is on Day We-Have-Lost-Track of quarantine due to COVID-19. Although the infection curve is finally beginning to flatten, countless highly-anticipated conferences and conventions have already been forced to reschedule or cancel altogether to align with social distancing measures.

But a savvy few have taken Option 3: go online.

And I'm not going to pretend otherwise -- I could get used to this.

Before the 2020 pandemic, I averaged a whopping two tech conferences per year and maybe a couple of local meet-ups. We're only four months into this year and already I've attended easily double that. My calendar is littered with reminders for more conferences and meetups yet to come, some based nearby, some coming from a continent away. I can join friends from Amsterdam in their local meetups, or show up to my Indiana-based employer's weekly Google Developer's Group meetups with the rest of my team. At this very moment, I have Deserted Island DevOps streaming live in another tab.

It isn't just me. Nearly everyone I know who hosts a meetup or helps to organize a conference has been overjoyed to see their attendance doubling or sometimes even tripling since moving to an online format. The extra attendees aren't bots or trolls poised to cause trouble; they're people like myself, who have desperately wanted to attend more events, but been largely unable to.

In my case, the main thing that holds me back from in-person attendance is my health. I'm susceptible to illness, and when I do pick up even a simple cold, my body overreacts in grand fashion. We're talking two miserable months of symptoms and associated agony on average. The severity of those symptoms can easily send me to the emergency room. For me, "con crud" isn't a rite of passage. It's a straight-up deterrent, because as much as I may love the events themselves, none of them are worth months of being unable to function.

Getting around with fibromyalgia and *SHINY NEW DIAGNOSIS ALERT* hypermobile-type Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome sucks even within my house, which for some reason has entirely too many stairs. I've previously had to attend conferences in a wheelchair just to make sure that I could last a full day without being taken down by severe pain and exhaustion, which required extra help from others because older venues hosting these events are not necessarily accessible for folks with disabilities. I'm fortunate enough to be able to make do with a cane these days thanks to physical therapy and an updated medication regimen, but it still doesn't completely eliminate pain and fatigue, only lessens it. I move a bit more slowly and can't walk longer distances, so I end up isolated from friends who can easily walk a mile each way for lunch or socializing opportunities. Morning blocks are out of the question, because I can't reliably get out of bed for an 8 a.m. keynote; evening blocks are always a "maybe" because they depend entirely on how worn out I am from struggling my way through the venue and its host city.

Then there's the severe social anxiety. Crowds freak me out in a very real way. I'm aware of my general awkwardness thanks to a lifetime of regular bullying, so every time I talk to someone, an undercurrent of "OH MY GOD THEY HATE YOU, SHUT UP, THEY'RE JUDGING YOU, THEY'RE GOING TO YELL AT YOU" is running through my brain. Last year I had this fear of mine realized at a conference I attended when somebody inserted themselves into a group of friends I was talking to at the pre-registration event and began to pick every single thing that came out of my mouth apart without provocation, until I ended up fleeing the area in tears and calling for a ride home. I skipped a couple of days of the conference as a result and when I was finally convinced to come back, spent the rest of my time there looking over my shoulder in case that person returned for Round 2.

For any event that requires traveling, amplify all of these issues by a very high power of 10 and add in Financial Strain. I can't drive due to witnessing a suicide-by-traffic during my childhood and a history of absence seizures, and I'm a 20 to 30 minute drive from the major city center, so every meetup I attend by myself costs $60 per day for travel (the nearest bus stop is also not walkable and requires some sort of car service to reach). My almost non-existent executive function makes managing travel schedules and Important Adult Things Involved With Traveling almost impossible for me to do without help, so I either have to pay for another person to go with me, or if that's not an option, spend extra money on things like more expensive hotels closer to the venue to be sure that a.) I can physically make the walk to it and b.) I don't get lost in the process. Also, TSA has some kind of proverbial hate-boner for me, resulting in highly stressful body searches and extra screening because they claim I have "something in my pocket" despite the fact that I'm wearing leggings on a solid 95% of the flights I take. Thanks, security theater and racism!

So let's compare and contrast to Right Now: I'm sitting comfortably wrapped in my burrito blanket, wearing PJs, watching a slew of fabulous talks and knowing that if I want to join a conversation, I can wander over to the conference's Discord server and do that. If I need to take a break, I can rewind the stream. I can play with any fidget toy I want to help maintain my focus without worrying about other people being distracted or thinking I'm being rude. I missed the first two hours today because of my inability to wake up early, but since the online format means that talks are available on-demand almost instantaneously, it's not a problem at all to get caught up. No pressure. Total cost: $0, unless I decide to order lunch, and then maybe like $15. No fears of "but what if I can't make it the whole day?" or "what if somebody's a jerk?" And maybe most importantly, no TSA agent patting down my delicate lady garden.

Now guess which event attendance option I'm going to aim for 100% of the time!

Smaller conferences, especially, can benefit greatly from an online format. Imagine being able to run a successful event with no overhead for catering or venue rental, no contracts to sign with local hotels, no having to worry about sponsoring travel and accommodations for speakers and staff... and yet, being able to expand the pool of potential attendees to Literally Anybody With Internet Access.

It is true that networking in-person, especially for job-related stuff, is a big part of the conference experience that can't be fully replicated through a Slack channel. It's cool, I get it, and in a way I do agree, even with my anxiety surrounding talking to other people. But hear me out -- what if, instead of being fully on-site or fully online, events started offering an online component in addition to their usual venue?

When I worked at Blizzard, one of the projects I worked on was the Virtual Ticket stream for BlizzCon. For those who aren't gamers, BlizzCon is the massive annual convention in Anaheim, CA specifically for Blizzard games. Fans wait anxiously all year for tickets to go on sale and scrimp and save and do whatever is necessary to be able to attend. But those who can't make it to the convention center for whatever reason have the option of purchasing a much cheaper Virtual Ticket, which gives them access to live and on-demand video of the majority of the panels, contests, etc. from the comfort of their couch. They can still buy commemorative swag from the online shop. If proof is needed that you can run an event in both the real world and online and do so successfully, I'm going to go ahead and point to the 50k in-person attendees and probably equal or more online attendees of BlizzCon 2019 and let you draw your own conclusions.

Deserted Island DevOps has just concluded with over 7,000 individual viewers to the stream.

Why hasn't this become a mainstream option for hosting an event? It may be tempting to blame laziness or apathy from the organizers, but I'd wager the more likely reason is that they don't know how to set it up. We have folks who consult on nearly every aspect of tech and those who consult on event planning, but I have yet to stumble across anyone offering online event planning consultation. Figuring out how to do it well requires a team of organizers with experience in streaming platforms, software, and graphic design at the very least -- that's not even factoring in having the ability to manage and flag accounts for folks who register to attend online, which will require some measure of development work.

As someone who's helped organize livestreamed charity gaming events and used to do personal streams on a regular basis, I'm inspired to put together some resources on how to get started. I want to do whatever I can to make the concept of online events like these a reality for myself and folks like me. Who else is with me? And conference organizers -- who among you is willing to learn?