On Being: #ConferenceBuddy at HASTAC2015

Yesterday, on the final day of HASTAC 2015, I joined an online hangout as a “conference buddy” facilitating discussion between two other HASTAC participants, Mia Zamora and Ana Salter, and a number of online friends, Maha Bali, Rebecca Hogue, and others. (View the hangout here.) I’d participated in this kind of informal virtual conference chat once before, at #et4online, but this time I acted as the convener, bringing together the conference attendees in a quiet space so that we could chat with those participating from elsewhere.

It was fun! And, beyond fun, this kind of informal, small group chat between live and virtual attendees has the potential to transform conferences in dramatic ways, I think. Already, many conferences are offering opportunities to attend virtually. (See HASTAC’s live stream  here. Wouldn’t it be great if all conferences offered this freely?). Often not all sessions are available in this format, though, and, of course, virtual attendance yields reduced participation options. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Alex Galarza, Janet Simmons, Bill Pannapacker, and Jacob Heil. You can see our panel stream here:

Even without the ability to watch a live stream, I often follow conferences by surfing their hashtags. I LOVE it when speakers share their slides via Twitter (sorry, folks, I didn’t make slides for this presentation, but search #diglibarts for a great Twitter stream from the panel). With the slides and a couple active tweeters in the audience, following a session on Twitter can be almost as good as being there in person. I have even asked questions through tweeps in the session audience.

The aspect of conferences that I most value is these informal conversations, the connections that begin as shared interest during a talk, followed by a hallway chat and exchange of Twitter handles. Often this will mean meeting someone whose article I’ve recently read, or want to read. I love these opportunities to talk with others who are deeply engaged with the same questions that occupy my attention–or new questions that I should be thinking about!

And this finally explains why @bali_Maha and @rjhogue’s concept of virtual “conference buddies” seems so very valuable to me. While access to live streams of formal talks is wonderful, I learn and grow much more from interactive discussions rather than from listening to a lecture, no matter how brilliant. Being a virtual conference buddy means that even when I stay home, I can have the opportunity to interact with presenters in smaller, intimate settings that foster lively discussion.

Interacting online is never quite the same as chatting over cups of tea. But when the virtual discussion includes 6 or 7 engaged, fascinating people, talking about things they really care about, relaxing in a quiet corner in the midst of a busy workday or a frenetic session schedule, then it’s pretty darn close. All we need now is the ability to enjoy virtual tea.

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