Virtual Events Suck.


I mean, is this even up for argument?

Sweet Caroline

One of the whitest-ass things in the world is our people’s obsession with songs at sporting events, and indeed, in large crowds. If you’re reading this and you’re from Europe, feel free to replace my references to Sweet Caroline with Seven Nation Army, same diff. That said, you can fairly reliably trigger this behavior in most cultures in most parts of the world by finding a sufficiently rowdy bar around midnight and playing something on the jukebox that gets folks going. Humans, we’re social creatures, yeah? A few bars of Neil Diamond, a couple people singing along, and by the time you’re at ‘Hands, touching hands’ you’ll have a swelling crescendo that culminates in a ear-shattering and atonal screech of ‘SWEEEEEEEEEEEEET CAR-O-LINE (WOAH OH OH)’ making the bartenders silently plot the murder of everyone in their line of sight.

People like being around people, and most people don’t treat everyone around them as some sort of incredibly delicate faberge egg. There’s a lot of “wow look at all these accomodations people are making that disabled people have asked for now that nobody is supposed to leave their house! hypocrisy, much??” and I’m like, yeah, duh? Pointing out hypocrisy is the lowest form of engagement in 2020. This is why virtual events suck – because nobody is actually planning on doing them any longer than they need to.

Shameless Self-Promotion

One of the benefits of in-person conferences is that they temporarily remove you from your day-to-day work and immerse you in a community of like-minded individuals. It’s not just about getting to hear new ideas, but also about the break from your daily routine. This is one of the things that is hardest to replicate in a virtual event. DIDevOps was perhaps the most successful virtual conference I’ve seen in making their event feel like An Event. This event was clever and whimsical, the community was engaged, and it definitely didn’t feel like just another video call.

Rachel Stephens, RedMonk

I wrote earlier this year about the idea of a decisive moment and how that influenced the thinking behind Deserted Island DevOps. To elaborate a bit, Cartier-Bresson was a street photographer who coined this phrase in the introduction to his 1947 book.

Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.

What is, then, the ‘decisive moment’ of a tech conference? My original criteria was that an event was etherial or placeless; From the smallest DevOpsDays to the largest re:Invent, an event is defined less by the where than by the who. As an attendee, you are swept away from the status quo for a time (even as it inorexably pulls you back in, given the amount of people I see working on laptops during events) into a convention center or hotel or theater or whatever, specifically to focus on something other than what you normally would. Quite literally, you are being moved out of your comfort zone. This can prime you to accept ideas that normally you wouldn’t, can rejigger your brain chemistry for a few hours to make you see things from a different perspective. That’s valuable! As a speaker, you’re transported to a new stage, with a new audience, a new set of eyes and ears to reflect off of. It’s almost like being a comedian and testing out material – you try some new lines, some new jokes, add an anecdote here, shave one off there. Repetition builds mastery. Next week, or next month, you’re going to do it all again. Our traversal through the liminal spaces between these potemkin stages lends itself to inward focus where we must Do The Work to shut out the world around us. To be less floral about it, the demands of the road make us better speakers because the only way we don’t go fuckin’ mad is to focus on the work.

Virtual events offer none of this, unfortunately. As attendees, another Slack, another Zoom call, another wave of talking heads and PowerPoint. As speakers, our audience disappears behind a chat window. We lose our reflection. It’s sad and terrible and great for some people, but on the balance I think we dislike it more than we like it.

The bad is part of the fun! You can’t replicate the feeling of gnawing on an underripe banana while chugging overly-hot-but-not-terribly-flavorful coffee watching someone who’s company paid way too much for a keynote while mentally ticking off the people you need to talk to that day while working out the soreness in your back from the bed that isn’t yours that you got maybe four productive sleeping hours in due to jet lag while figuring out who you’re going to catch up with after the show wraps that day as you muse about how it looks like your competitors have a much nicer booth than yours, and you wonder if they’re hiring except that one asshole still works there and so on and so forth. “That sounds terrible!” you may be musing, and you’d be right, but I love the terrible. I thrive in the terrible. I’m drinking single origin fair trade coffee beans that were roasted in small batches locally brewed in a fancy coffee maker and I can tell you that when this is all over and I can have a cuppa brewed in the backroom of a Hilton it is going to be the sweetest thing I can possibly imagine for five seconds right before I start hating everything about it again and that’s fine.

The bad of an in-person event is terrible, but it’s a terrible I can work with. I go outside like once or twice a week now to get groceries and that’s all I’ve done for the past nine months. I want the workable terrible, not this horrific stasis.

Why Do Virtual Events Suck To Attend?

The reason that virtual events suck is that we’re trying to replicate in-person events. We’re doing old-school iOS skeumorphism but for primarily social gatherings. No wonder they suck! There’s a few broad reasons:

KubeCon EU ‘Lobby’

Why Do Virtual Events Suck To Sponsor?

Alright, let’s flip the script. I’m wearing my business hat now.

Why Do Virtual Events Suck To Speak At?

Last part - the speaker experience.

How To Make Virtual Events Not Suck

Honestly, as a replacement for real events, you can’t. You can’t just take what worked and slap it online and have it go well or be as fun or useful or valuable or whatever as a real event.

Ok, smartass, what should we do then?

We already have a model for how to create engaging educational programming that people can watch on a screen, it’s called television. If you’re going to run a purely virtual event, start there. I’ll talk about “hybrid” events in the next section, so stay with me for the future - but let’s talk about what I think a good virtual event would look like.

Single Track. SINGLE TRACK!!

Not everyone in your audience is going to be interested in everything, but we should group things together into blocks of programming so that you’re more likely to get a critical mass of people watching things at the same time. The benefit of one-to-many presentation formats is that you can increase that ‘many’ many times over. Again, think TV. As an attendee, it’s a lot better to ask for a single contiguous chunk of time on one or two days (like, a three or four hour block) than it is to ask for 30 minutes at different times over a week. If people can’t attend live, fine, there’s video on demand. Even better, this helps expose your audience to things they maybe wouldn’t have considered or found interesting just from the description, you’re actually doing them a service.

Stop Having Booths

Commercials have been used to great effect over the history of television to sell people on things. Give sponsors space, let them come up with their own cool ideas, have them run those ideas on their own turf - I guarantee you every marketing person in the world would rather have their own Marketo page or whatever to do lead capture than work with importing from yet another CSV with non-normalized data. Give your sponsors the tools and time they need to be successful, but don’t be so afraid to give up control.

If you’re going to pre-record, ACTUALLY PRODUCE THE VIDEOS.

It’s very nice that you’re sending people another ring light and microphone (it is!) but my 0.02 is your money would be better spent on asking people if they wanted those things and if not, get someone to help them produce their videos. Even better if you can work with speakers individually to help them bring their talks to life - motion graphics, better demos, etc. etc. Movie magic, baby! Let’s go! This is a lot more expensive and time-consuming than just drop shipping another Blue Yeti to people, I get that, but I think it’s a lot better for attendees and speakers. Even better if you can book studio time for folks and really get profesh with it.

PS: Have people record slides and camera to separate local files then take those local files and use them to create the final video, don’t use the Zoom cloud recording, it compresses shit. Ideally don’t use Zoom to record at all, use something like VLC? I get that it requires more time and effort but c’mon.

Don’t Reinvent YouTube

This goes back to the single-track thing, but c’mon, Akamai and YouTube and Amazon and so many other people have excellent global-scale video streaming services. You can stream 4K out to YouTube. Just… have a livestream embedded into a schedule page that people can refer to. There’s so many examples of how to do a good livestream out there. Like, there’s an official chess channel on Twitch that gets tens of thousands of concurrent viewers… and it’s chess. We can probably out-produce chess, right?


Figure out why your audience is there, work for them.

The biggest, and final thing I’ve got here, is why are you doing a virtual event? Are you a company hosting a developer/end-user summit or something? Just go copy what GitHub did with Universe 2020 or what Microsoft did with Build this year and call it a day. Or don’t, because y’all are fine and are going to be hosting in-person events once you can. (Also, please read the next section on hybrid events)

Are you not one of those? Then it gets trickier.

If you’re a community event, then it’s tough. I think there’s two models here. The first is this - build a sustaining, and sustainable, community. Stop thinking of your thing as a “once a year” gathering, and figure out how to turn it into a year-round destination. If you’re, like, a GopherCon or something… you have a really cool Discord server now with thousands of people. Why not do streams every month, have people submit videos and talks that you premiere on YouTube, do panels and q&a’s and things like that and build that audience/community up so it’s not just around for a week at a time? I think the other side of this coin is to make your events, well, EVENTS! If you’re doing something weird (like the Animal Crossing thing, natch) then put together a tight six to eight hours of content and let people block our their day for it. Again, it’s easier to ask for a chunk of contiguous time than it is to ask for a lot of little dribs and drabs of time.

The Part Where I Talk About Hybrid Events

If these nerds can do it, you can too

Y’all know anything about speedruns? It’s a somewhat niche community of people who play video games really fast. Twice a year there’s a big speedrunner conference called Games Done Quick where they raise money for charity. Anyway, thousands of people show up in-person, millions watch through livestreams over the course of a week.

Sound familiar-ish?

A Hybrid Event Is Two Separate Events And That’s OK

If you’re planning on making a hybrid (in-person + online) event then you need to make two separate events and experiences. Half-assing either isn’t gonna go great and is just gonna disappoint everyone. What does this mean in practice?

Hybrid Events Are Maybe The Future

I think on some level the idea of a blended virtual/in-person event will persist going forward, or if nothing else, there’ll be a greater focus on the virtual side of these events. Covid-19 will stop being as much of a problem eventually. People will go back to having in-person events for no other reason than we all want to sing woah-oh oh really loud or participate in group activities. The business value of seeing other people in person is pretty high both from a sales-y and a professional networking-y way.

That said, there’s a huge amount of people who will show up online to participate if we make the room for them. There’s a world of creativity and unique ways to communicate and present information and get concepts across that a person standing on a stage paging through a slide deck doesn’t get across. I think we can figure both of these things out and go forward into the future.


I miss you all. See you in 2021.

Also I think these events did good this year in no particular order: DevOpsDays Chicago, LeadDev Live, DefCon, GopherCon, GitHub Universe, Deserted Island DevOps.