This weekend I’m attending the Editors Canada conference. And this year it has been… different.
Every year, I attend two conferences for editors, one in Canada, one in the US. In 2020, for reasons of global plague, both were cancelled; in 2021, both have moved online, at least for this year.
Before I became an editor, conferences I attended were academic ones – specifically theatre studies and performance studies. But the model was the same. Conferences are organized around speeches and presentations, some to smaller groups, some to bigger ones. You get to learn about all sorts of interesting and relevant ideas.
And then there’s what they’re really about.
Conference is a word that is used for more things than this sort of gathering, as we know; it can be a small meeting (between a lawyer and a client, for instance), or a grouping for the purposes of sports (the Eastern Conference of the NBA, for instance) or religion (e.g., certain sets of Methodists), or any of several other assemblies of people. Conference is the noun form of confer, which comes from Latin confero, from con- ‘together’ plus fero ‘I bear, I carry, I bring’.
And conferences are about bringing people together.
They’re about not just listening to information, but listening to it sitting next to someone interesting you just met. They’re about not just laughing at a witticism, but laughing about it in a room full of people. They’re about sneaking into a session late, sneaking out of a session early, standing listening at the back because the room is too full, live-tweeting, asking a question in person, sharing in the silent group indignation when someone goes on a rambling more-a-comment-than-a-question.
They’re about big rooms full of hundreds of people with a common interest, and smaller rooms with fewer people focusing on a niche subject.
They’re about banquets, with their curious mix of pro forma, exciting, starchy, and awkward presentations, plus the infinite logistical vagaries of mass food.
They’re about standing in front of a room full of people, talking to them as a group, seeing their faces, hearing them respond, and then getting to chat with some of them afterwards.
They’re about sitting at a picnic table with people from several continents, having lunch and talking about whatever really interests you.
They’re about bumping into people at receptions. They’re about banquet table strategy. They’re about going out touring the town and seeing other people from the conference doing the same.
They’re about sitting in a lobby bar, or a local pub, or someone’s hotel room, until rather late in the evening, with people you get to see in person for three days each year, talking about what’s happened with you and what you’ve seen and how business is going and…
They’re about getting to meet people in person whom you’ve long admired from a distance – or, these days, long interacted with online (more or less mutually).
They’re about group outings, and silent auctions, and events such as dance-offs and spelling bees (yes, really), and playing cards or Scrabble (or both) in the lobby.
But when you can’t get together in person, they’re still about coming together. Webinars are justly reviled – from the audience perspective, they’re not very engaging, and from the presenter perspective, they’re talking into the void, disorienting, unnerving, panic-inducing – but they do let you slip in late and slip out early without being noticed, and they do make question-and-answer less susceptible to domination by the most aggressive. And the small-group meet-ups – I took part in two of them today – still let you talk to other people and see their smiling faces, not to mention whatever part of their residence is behind them. And they let people from many places come together with minimal expense or inconvenience.
But online conferences still bring only about ten percent of what I go to a conference for. They don’t bring the same togetherness.
So I look forward to seeing people in person again… next time!