DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

Lessons from moderating three virtual panels

I spoke at a conference Tuesday for the first time since February, and this time the dress code was a little different: no pants required.

That’s because my appearance at Futureproof IT came through my laptop’s webcam and the Zoom video-chat app, leaving nothing below my chest visible to the remote audience. That’s also how I moderated two more panels this week for the Collision conference that was originally set to run in Toronto in June but has since migrated to a digital format, with my appearances among those recorded in advance.

And that’s how I expect all of my conference speaking to happen for at least the next few months, thanks to the novel-coronavirus pandemic ruining everything.

I’ve learned a lot about successful panel moderation on a physical stage, but doing so in a virtual environment brings new challenges.

Start with picking and positioning a webcam. The camera in my aging iMac is at a good height relative to me when sitting, but it also delivers a subpar 720p resolution–and from that angle, I’d have natural light from the windows hitting only one side of my face. My HP laptop, meanwhile, has a 1080p webcam, and by parking it atop a stepladder and then a large tin topped by the thickest book I could find in my office (a hardcover of Dune), I could position it high enough while allowing myself to face my office’s windows.

(If I’d only bought the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam in the Before Times, I could have stuck the thing on a tripod and be done with it. As the song goes, there’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.)

The Collision panels added another complication: a request for a pale, blank backdrop. I managed that by hanging a white bedsheet from the ceiling with packing tape and binder clips–the tape stuck to the drywall, but I needed the clips to hold the tape to the sheet.

And then none of my other panelists showed up with pale, blank backgrounds. That’s one reassuring aspect of this: Not only can you expect somebody else to have audio or video hiccups, you can also expect somebody else to have a worse backdrop or camera angle.

Before kicking off a virtual panel, you must also silence every other device in the room, and my failure to think through “every other device” meant the Futureproof panel was not interruption-proof. As in, we were distracted by the one thing I didn’t think to put in do-not-disturb mode, an old Trimline land-line phone on my desk mainly for nostalgia purposes.

At least I didn’t have to change any settings on the laptop, thanks to Windows 10’s Focus Assist quashing interruptions from other apps once I switched Zoom to full-screen mode. But that also meant I had to look elsewhere for a timer: I couldn’t see the lock in the Windows taskbar, while Zoom’s option to show your connected time doesn’t account for minutes spent prepping on a call before a panel begins. I made do with the clock apps on my phone and iPad.

All three panels suffered from a certain latency as other speakers paused before answering my questions. You can’t point or nod to one as you would onstage to encourage them to jump in–and if one starts filibustering, it’s also harder to signal him to wrap things up. Simply reading the facial expressions of other panelists can be difficult if they use a lower-resolution webcam or neglect their lighting.

Reading the audience seems even harder in Zoom unless, I guess, you keep the chat pane open and have an audience that is exceptionally concise in their feedback. The way Facebook and Twitter let a live video audience respond with emoji and hearts ought to deliver easily-understood feedback at scale, and perhaps one of the many virtual-event apps now seeing escalating interest–see my friend Robin Raskin’s writeup of a handful at Techonomy–gets even closer to the real thing.

But I highly doubt any app will recreate how great it can feel to have a live audience tuned into the talk, laughing at your jokes and then applauding your work.