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Conference-ing in a Virtual World

This blog was written by Nancy Beam, Senior Editor, PLOS ONE

AIDS 2020: Virtual, the 23rd International AIDS Conference hosted by the International AIDS Society, may portend the future of international conferences regardless of when the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. AIDS 2020 was originally planned to take place in San Francisco and Oakland, California from July 6-10. This two-city format, itself a revolutionary innovation, was meant to highlight the health disparities and innovative responses to HIV/AIDS of these two iconic cities. The organizers then switched to a completely virtual format in late March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virtual conference provided many advantages. The conference registration fees were greatly reduced. Travel, lodging, and poster-printing costs were eliminated. Travel hassles and jetlag did not decrease attendees’ ability to focus. Although the International AIDS Conference has always provided a platform for people living with HIV, community organizers, providers, and researchers to contribute, this conference seemed particularly suited to weaving different perspectives together. For example, Prime Sessions combined presentations by scientific experts on a topic with talks by community advocates about their work and lived experiences. Up-to-date findings were easily integrated into the conference program, and a free COVID-19 conference was added to the AIDS 2020 conference only two months before it was scheduled to begin.

Conversely, I missed the excitement of travel, meeting new people, and the atmosphere of exhilaration created by being in the same room with a large group of people. I missed running into old colleagues from the HIV/AIDS community and serendipitous conversations struck up while waiting in line or for presentations to start, or while gathered around a poster. While there were public chat forums meant to encourage these types of conversations, I didn’t find any substantive conversations going on there. Finally, I opted out of browsing through the exhibitions. Without the smell of fresh popcorn, the lure of free lattes, and the possibility of stocking up on the ubiquitous free pens, so beloved at last year’s conference, I didn’t wander through the exhibit booths on my way to somewhere else. I saw pop-up invites to talks and gatherings at booths, so I may have missed out on some engagement opportunities. Even at a virtual conference, there is still too much to do

Predictably, technical problems occurred and while travel barriers were eased, internet access remained a barrier for some participants especially for those who could not access their offices. In addition, because they weren’t traveling, some attendees reported that they were expected to continue working, making it difficult to attend sessions. While conference sessions will be available online for a month after the conference, the expectation that participants continue adding webinar viewing to their workday is a heavy burden. My expectation was that virtual attendance would increase the diversity of attendance as travel and cost barriers were decreased, but without seeing the data, I am not able to judge whether this occurred, or if work and internet access presented too great a barrier. I look forward to hearing what IAS reports about the impact on diversity.

I personally found the tech support to be quick and helpful. However, some website features were surprisingly unsophisticated. For example, the search function only allowed searching for one keyword at a time. So, searching for posters with the keyword “transgender” was quite specific, but “drug delivery systems” produced far too many false positives. Also, searches couldn’t be saved, so after viewing one poster or presentation on a topic, the search had to be rerun. I would have also liked to have been able to click on links in the conference program to go directly to sessions rather than having to navigate to sessions through a separate listings.

As with working remotely, having learned from this forced experiment the pros and cons of a virtual conference, the conferences of the future are likely to be different, and better, than before. A blend or virtual and in-person participation will make for a richer, more diverse, more accessible experience for all.

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