Friday, October 27, 2023

SVP's big mistake to make a separate virtual conference this year

Due to the pandemic, SVPs 2020 and 2021 were great for people like me who can't afford to travel to it, pay for the registration and lodging, and miss work for that long (I did go in person back in 2001 and 2002 when I unwisely used student loans to afford it... still paying those off...).  We got to see all the cool new discoveries for a few hundred dollars and could do so at our leisure without missing concurrent talks, rewatch things we missed, and talk with the presenters without the physical hassles.  Then last year they decided to make the online portion optional, so that most of the people with talks I wanted to see didn't upload anything and if I recall correctly, only two of the theropod sessions' presentations were even available.  But at least the posters were all there to view, since those require basically no effort to upload unlike narrating a Powerpoint presentation.  It was still very disappointing for paying the non-member's United States-based fee of $300.

This year, SVP decided to make a separate virtual conference from its old-style physical conference.  I was hesitant after seeing most of the power players back out of showing anything last year when given the option (I still have no idea what Ruebenstahl et al. proposed about Coelurus...), but you don't know what you're missing if you don't try it.  So I paid the slightly lower fee of $200 and yesterday the virtual meeting started and ... what a waste.

The website states "We will still have posters, but they will be in an organized virtual poster hall you can walk around and explore."  But what we didn't know until the abstract book came out (conveniently when refunds were also no longer possible) is that only 38 of these are "virtual posters" and that everyone else had the option to let their poster be uploaded but didn't have to.  And what we didn't know until yesterday is that only 92 of the 323 normal poster authors agreed to upload their posters to the virtual meeting.  That's 28% and includes a whopping FOUR Mesozoic theropod posters, only two of which (the Wessex megaraptoran braincase and the Yellow Cat allosauroid teeth) I really care about.  Didn't get Cruz Vega et al.'s Hell Creek avian, Hall et al. on Bistahieversor pneumaticity, Rhynard et al. on Allosaurus jimmadseni internal skull anatomy, Bugos and McDavid on juvenile Coelophysis, Voris et al on Atrociraptor frontals, Takasaki et al. on troodontid intermandibular joints or Perry et al. on Nanuqsaurus validity.  Not that those would have justified the $200 price point either (for comparison last year's "very disappointing" virtual meeting still had about fifteen interesting theropod presentations/posters), but it would have been better!

Of course the big missing piece was having none of the 305 talks uploaded.  No Coppock et al. or Carr and Brusatte on Daspletosaurus species, Slowiak-Morkovina et al. on Bagaraatan, Makovicky et al. on a giant Mussentuchit caenagnathid, Lamanna et al. on unenlagiine Imperobator, Ruebenstahl et al. on Velociraptor species, Maddox et al. on a Hell Creek unenlagiine or Hohman et al. on Two Medicine dromaeosaurid variation, and that's just page 56 of the abstract volume.  Not only were most of the most interesting presentations given as talks, but a talk is far more engaging than a poster.  It's ten to fifteen minutes long, whereas even the most text-dense posters take maybe a couple minutes to read, and most much less.  Similarly, talks are more entertaining than posters, which means I ended up watching a lot of talks from SVPs 2020-2022 that were outside my area of expertise, and learned more.  But I have about as much interest in reading a poster on unfamiliar material as I do reading a paper on it.  So instead of a potential ~61 hours (305 talks times 12 minutes) of entertainment just from talks alone, we got 130 posters which took a few hours to get through.  For comparison, that was ~70 hours for $300 in 2020 and 2021 versus ~3 hours for $200 this year.

Finally, SVP got the Q&A part down perfectly in 2020 and 2021 with a chatroom for each presentation.  In real life, you have to either awkwardly raise your hand for the limited minute or so after the talk and hope to be called on or track down the author during the meeting and hope they're not having a more important conversation if you find them.  But in 2020 and 2021, if you have any question you can just post it and the author will see it at some point and reply, with time to formulate a good answer.  Now in 2023 we have the virtual Sternberg Museum where we have to talk in real time while our avatars are next to each other and any author may be there or may not be at any given time, and if they aren't one of the authors of the 38 virtual posters have no obligation to be there at all.  And just like in real life, if you do happen to track one down they may be in one of the numerous virtual tables that are private chat rooms, so I guess you watch your avatar wait for them to get up?  Or maybe it's possible to interrupt the private chat awkwardly?  After checking, not even the virtual poster authors have any obligation, as they are merely "welcome to stand with their poster at any time".  With the average abstract having three authors are we supposed to keep track of all the authors of all the abstracts we are interested in and keep checking the Participants bar to potentially chat with them?  It'd be simpler just to email or Facebook message authors at this rate.  It reminds me of that meme of shopping in the metaverse where you have to push a virtual cart and turn to pick up virtual items instead of just selecting from a list like every online retailer - SVP has recreated the bad parts of in person Q&A for its virtual world.

"But wait!", you say.  What about the online components that aren't talks or posters?  They exist in hour or two hour intervals, and weren't announced until 10 pm Wednesday, approximately zero days before the meeting began.  So while it would be easier to find participating dinosaur authors at the 'Networking Social: Dinosaur Research' between 6 and 8 pm Friday, I gotta work and had no time to plan around it.  Besides that, 'Discussion Panel: State of the Dinosauria' might be interesting to watch (happening the hour before I work Friday, so I'll get to be there for the first 45 minutes), but this and the other Zoom presentations were stated to be uploaded to YouTube later so aren't really perks of attending the meeting.

Waiting for Choiniere's talk 30 minutes before it began, but I don't think it was even here and I had to use a link from an email instead.

Thus while $740 gets you up to 25 hours of talks (since in real life there are three sets of twenty-six 15 minute talks happening simultaneously every day) and 453 posters (let's say at 2 minutes per poster that's 9 hours to digest them all) plus all the in person events and online events, $200 gives you 130 posters that might take three hours to digest and the same online events.  Even ignoring the in person events and quality of talks over posters, you're getting 9% of the time from the online meeting while spending 27% of the cost.  $740 times 9% is $67.  A pretty far cry from $200.

Honestly, for the last three SVPs I've spent days viewing everything I wanted to whereas this year I was done in a few hours of virtual walking to each poster in order.  I watched Choiniere's Elliot Formation talk right before posting this (which was fine), will catch most of the dinosaur panel before work Friday, then probably watch the squamate panel Saturday and mammal panel Sunday because I want to feel some sort of relevance for my expenditure, but that's literally everything I'm remotely interested in.  I'd say the value is maybe $30.  It's sad.

Let's end this on a positive note though - how to improve things for future years.  The number one message that should have obviously been learned from this year and last is to UPLOAD EVERY TALK AND POSTER.  I get that not everyone has the equipment or skills, so just have SVP record the live talks and post those with an option for the authors to upload a high resolution version of the slideshow too.  To make it more engaging, have the presentation sessions from each room be streamed live via Zoom, then the talks broken up to be watched separately later.  For those 72% of presenters who are apparently paranoid someone is going to somehow get away with stealing your ever so tweet-worthy study on Deinonychus histology or whatever, I'm pretty sure nothing has been claim-jacked from SVPs 2020 or 2021 despite people having years to do so.  What's ironic is that SVP solved one of its main problems with technology- there are too many talks to view them all in person because they have to host three sets simultaneously, but by hosting them all online as videos on demand everyone can watch all of them.  Then this year they killed that solution and made the world worse for all the attendees with a return to artificial scarcity.  The second message is bring back the chatroom Q&A.  It was perfect and now you've recreated all the bad parts of in person interactions with new negatives like authors not even needing to be in the available space.  So again you've solved the real life problems with technology then just brought them back for no reason.

COVID 19 forced SVP to update to the Shiny Digital Future, but now it's backsliding to be more tedious for everybody.  Even the SVP members who get paid to attend via their institutions now again have to decide what talk room to attend, can't watch talks on their own time, can't rewatch talks, have to track down authors, etc..  2020 and 2021 showed us you can deliver a quality digital conference, please do it again in 2024.  Or if you insist on being as archaic as your material of interest, charge an order of magnitude less for that option.