Virtual conferences mean full access, except when they don’t

The conclusion of Apple’s big software party this week wraps up a month-long experiment in virtual tech conferences. The experiment is far from over, as the coronavirus pandemic shows no real signs of relief in the US, and most tech events from now until the end of 2020 are marketed as “virtual” events.

Typically, between the months of April and June of each year, tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple corner thousands of people in a massive space to preview the new software and enthuse app makers. to make applications. . This year, those exciting keynotes, coding sessions, hallway conversations, and after-hours meetings happened online.

Only some of those interactions didn’t happen at all. Events like Google I / O, Facebook F8, and Amazon re: MARS were canceled entirely. Microsoft and Apple followed through with carefully produced CEO keynotes and virtual coding labs, but were unable to replicate the chance encounters or casual meetings that are sometimes the most valuable part of conferences. Virtual assistants told me that online-only events have lowered barriers to entry; People no longer have to spend thousands on tickets and travel to access information that may be critical to their livelihoods. But the people who spoke to me were quite direct about what is still missing in virtual events: they miss the trick.

“The lectures are not just about what’s scheduled, but also the parallel conversations and other social aspects,” says Christina Warren, a former tech journalist and current podcast host who now works as a senior advocate for cloud developers at Microsoft. “I don’t think we have figured out as an entire industry what is the best way to attract some of those social interactions when an event is virtual.”

Warren points out that online-only events have some very real benefits for communities that are typically underrepresented in tech events. Virtual notes and coding lessons can be translated into a dozen different languages ​​for people watching at home, while in-person event translation usually involves audience members wearing headphones or struggling to see screens with Subtitle. During WWDC’s keynote address and 206 subsequent developer labs, where app makers get tutorials on how to build the latest software platforms, Apple offered captions and audio descriptions, a storytelling service that tries to describe what’s happening to members of the blind community. Microsoft went one step further during its Build event, offering not only subtitles but also ASL translators and offering them as a picture-in-picture option during lab sessions.

Still, there were no virtual events that were suitable substitutes for in-person meetings. Steven Aquino, a writer who identifies himself as disabled and who covers the topic of accessibility, points out that for the last few years Apple has organized a meeting focused on accessibility, where engineers and others interested in learning about the subject meet to to show off. New technological developments that could help the community. This year, Apple decided not to host an online version of this.

“It’s a bummer, not only because it’s fun, but for disabled people like me, it’s very nice to see all that representation and camaraderie,” says Aquino. “And the enthusiasm of others who want to learn from us.” (An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the record when WIRED inquired about this event.)

And at a time when systemic racism and assaults on the black community in particular are at the forefront of the public conversation, some black developers say that virtual conferences can weaken the sense of community and inclusion that they have built over time.

For one thing, Apple and Microsoft’s decision to give free, full-access passes to their conferences this year eliminated what several people described as a very real divide between people who can afford tickets (ranging from $ 1,600 to $ 2,400 last year) and people who couldn’t afford it, making them feel like “second-class citizens.” On the other hand, not being there in person literally means you can’t see other people in your community.