Having just returned from Dublin and the SMACC conference, and a few weeks earlier having travelled to the wonderful IFEM conference in Cape Town it’s time to reflect on the worth of the travel, expense and family disruption that ensues. Our work families too have to pull extra shifts and adapt to those of us lucky enough to get away for a few days away from the department.
In an era of web based technologies, podcasts, vodcasts and associated social media it’s questionable whether we need conferences at all. There are surely cheaper, less expensive and more convenient ways of communicating and in an era of social media it is ever easier to make those connections across the planet.
We should of course not forget the enormous environmental impact of many conferences, notably those large international conferences where 100s of tons of jet fuel are burned into the atmosphere to fuel knowledge dissemination that might so easily have been delivered online.
This is a theme we touched on in the EMJ in a paper looking at the future of conferences where the case for future more environmentally aware and better disseminated conferences was explored.
So are conferences dead?
My experience last week and in South Africa would suggest not. Take the SMACC conference which has gained a bit of a reputation for blending social media, education and entertainment. The participants are almost all involved in online learning and so might be expected to shun the traditional travel to meet and great type affair. Yet it is precisely this audience of online engaged clinicians who seek out the ability to meet, to network, to share, to laugh, cry and share together. This year the conference sold out in a matter of hours with competitions being held for the remaining tickets. The interest and anticipation to meet with like minded enthusiasts from across the globe was palpable and at times a little over the top and uncomfortable. The demographic was young, multicultural and multiprofessional. This is not typical behaviour for medical conferences, and perhaps is more akin to pop concert tickets. It’s a situation that makes some feel uncomfortable, but there is no doubt that it is engaging a worldwide population of learners.
A paradox perhaps, that the conference espousing an online socially connected world is one that sells out in hours and has a waiting list of those wanting to attend.
I’ve not quite got my head round this yet, but I think there may be at least two elements at work. Firstly there is a natural human desire to connect and conferences allow that, online interactions are good, but they are not the real thing and it’s great to meet in person, to explore ideas and to satisfy a human need to put faces to names. Secondly, although I find the online education world fascinating, there is only so much it can do. A live presentation of high quality is unsurpassed as a learning experience and you simply can’t do some things online.
Take the on stage discussion at SMACC on the future of medical journals as discussed by Richard Smith (ex BMJ editor). That was a great session that simply could not work as well in any other setting. A blend of science, politics, fun and entertainment with some really important discussion points and views.
So, the conference is far from dead, but it is changing. It’s role as a prime means of delivering information is perhaps waning, but as an opportunity to form and build social links, collaborations and understanding it is surely on the rise.
So I guess I’ll probably see you in an auditorium soon. If you do then say ‘hi’. After all, the people are just as important as the presentations. Collaborations, discussions and developments come from interaction, not from powerpoint.
DOI: I’ve had supporting expenses to travel to many conferences, including SMACC last week. I am unbelievably lucky and priviliged to do so. I’ve actively supported a range of innovative conferences and believe that the old model of boring lectures given by boring speakers on boring subjects is a waste of time.