A Virtual DAC Experience

Reporter’s Notebook: While some aspects of a virtual conference struggle, other aspects of virtual DAC showed ways they can be better.


This has been the first virtual conference for me, and I will say I was not sure what to expect. I did moderate a panel for it, but that was pre-recorded because the panelists did not care to be awake and performing live for what would have been 3 a.m. for them. I hosted a virtual happy hour, I conducted many interviews, attended sessions, keynotes and other events, but one thing stands out to me more than anything else – virtual panels actually can be better than the physical things.

Let’s start with the simple stuff. It is recorded, meaning that you can attend whenever it is convenient for you. I am not quite sure what happens to all of the videos after August 1st, but it would be a shame if they went into the bit-bucket in the sky. I hope these become permanent — especially panels, that do not have papers that go along with them. You can pause, rewind, fast forward — and that is a big one for some people who can replay at double the speed and get the same content out of it in half the time.

The audio is better quality, too. Yes, there were a few issues with people’s connections, but so long as there are no problems with the panelists or moderator, then you just have to wait and retry. There were some issues on my panel based on the connectivity of the panelists, and I have seen a couple of cases where panelists disappeared for a while when their connection went down. I am sure that if COVID persists, the reliability of connections to homes will improve.

Sound quality is a big one for me as a moderator. You can’t believe how bad the audio quality is up on the stage where the sound system provides no direct amplification for you. Most of what you hear are echoes. There have been several panels where I have not been entirely sure what the panelists said.

We may need to see more suitable places where people can attend meetings or do this kind of activity without the contents of their homes being exposed. Panelists need to be more aware of their immediate surroundings, and they have to become familiar with silencing their computers, as well as their phones, and having other things that hum turned off. But this is just a matter of becoming aware of the issues and dealing with them.

This brings us to the main difference and a significant improvement over the physical event, which is the feedback mechanism. The system used for DAC was not perfect because there were actually two chat windows, one in the DAC platform itself and a second one within zoom. Some moderators were confused as to which one should be used. That is just a technicality that can easily be solved.

But text chat offers two advantages. First, people are less “scared” to ask questions online than they may be in person. A lot of people do suffer from anxiety and are afraid that they may freeze when they get to ask their question in front of a large audience. In the virtual world, they can think about it, form their question, and then put it into the window. Sessions that were pre-recorded then can have the presenters respond in real time. This is more difficult in a live panel, but the moderator can ask those questions and provide a filter for questions that are nothing more than advertisements. Some panels even allowed people to “join” the panel and ask their question verbally. This will put more work on the moderators, but I am all for getting more audience participation.

Still, this is where it gets interesting. Anyone can respond in the chat windows. The audience can fully participate, and that becomes part of the record. Now, clearly that could become a problem, and so these platforms may need the ability to moderate the chat window and to be able to hide entries, or even stop certain people from abusing the system. But it allows the panel to become democratized. The panelists may stimulate the conversation, but they are no longer the only contributors. This makes it significantly better than the ‘real’ thing.

Of course, there remain some downsides. You cannot pick up on body language as much as you can in person, and if the moderator cannot get to see all of the panelists, then ensuring a good flow is more difficult. But this last point should be easily fixable if this becomes a common way this is done.

So while I am not sure that all aspects of a virtual conference work — and I really missed the person-to-person interaction — virtual DAC has opened my eyes to some new possibilities. It is time for us to put on our thinking caps and come up with new formats that enhance the possibilities of being virtual, and not just try to replicate what worked in the physical.

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