The Ethics of Conference Attendance in a Networked World

So, I can generally get funding for approximately one conference per year.   I would have liked that to be Internet Librarian, but I did Computers in Libraries earlier on this year.

Now that IL is wrapping over and I’m reading all the great blogging about the conference, there’s an element in me that wonders if going to such conferences in the future would be useful to my employer.   If they pay to send me to the conference, they probably want me bringing something back — that’s totally fair and the way things should work.

The problem is that in a networked world, I can easily converse with any number of qualified professionals on the subjects most relevant to my world.   I can usually get it “on demand” and with a few added questions to go with it.   I do not have to put my hand up and hope the moderator sees me; I do not have to worry if someone will think my question is stupid; I do not have to crowd the presenter afterward like a groupie to say hello.    I also do not have to go to a presentation that is meaningless to me because there is nothing in a particular time-slot important to me.

And looking at the blogs of people who were at Internet Librarian, I get the gist of most of the key messages.     I can even follow Twitter and find out some of the not-so-conferency conference stuff going on.    It’s almost as if I was there without ever being there.

So, my main motivation for attending conferences is to see the faces of the people who I have IM’d before.   It’s a social networking game, or rather, a continuation of the social networking game, because I already social network with these folks.   I am not sure if this is a fair motivation for my employer to send me to the conference.

Now don’t get me wrong — there are some further spin-offs to going to conferences.   For instance, I can see the exhibits of the latest vendors.    This year I got a sneak-peak at LibraryThing for libraries, which was nice.   And sometimes I get something special out of a presentation that I thought I’d hate.    And other times, I just simply meet new people that I can add to my network.

And then there is the broader question — why should I lose out on great conference fun just because I know how to use the technology to keep up with my learning?

So, I guess I have more questions than answers here.   What are your purposes for going to a conference, and is it really an organization-improving activity in the end, with all the advantages to be gained from social networking?   What can I gain from an in-person conference that I cannot gain by through technology-mediated tools?

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13 thoughts on “The Ethics of Conference Attendance in a Networked World

  1. fundamentally, not everyone is as into technology-mediated-networking as you. go to conferences to meet people face to face and to meet people you couldn’t meet online. then, watch the magic happen!

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  2. Wow, I think there is much to be said for face to face interaction and meeting people in person. You are able to connect in ways not possible in the “virtual world”. I love conferences! Plus, many things can happen much quicker during “in person” meetings than virtual ones.

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  3. Maybe the issue is technology conferences and not conferences in general.

    Face to face is great, but still — with technology stuff, it’s not really that much of an advantage. It’s good for the people stuff, but that’s different and can be achieved in lots of environments, including local conferences.

    Is it really fair and/or worth it for me to spend the extra dollars going to a place like Washington or Monterey so I can see a bunch of people I consider friends is the bigger question.

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  4. Great post, Ryan! I am totally with you. More and more, I find that I’m not going to conferences so much to learn new things, but to meet people, and to put faces with the people I know from different online environments. Like you, I agree that face-to-face is great, but a lot of the technology action is happening in these online networks, all the time.

    I’m trying to come to terms with the funding issues as well. Certainly, I think there is value in meeting (or seeing) people, and if you’re into committee work then you have to go (to ALA at least), but as for learning new things: give me an hour a day and an RSS reader and I’ll stay pretty much on top of things. (Throw Twitter, chat, and email in, too, and I can stay pretty much bleeding edge.)

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  5. While some can find some good reasons for face-to-face interactions, I do not think that the choice to be weighed is between face-to-face and online networking. For me the more important choice is online versus environmentally destructive. I think that if anyone were able to tally the vast amounts of jet fuel burned in the atmosphere to ferry around conference participants, sometimes thousands of miles, just to speak for 15 minutes, it might give some pause. Furthermore, for those of us in Canada who receive grants (public money) and work at universities (where the salaries are mostly funded by taxpayers), it just seems terribly odd to spend on average $1,200 per conference, on hotels, meals, fees, transport…again, to speak for 15 minutes. We truly are an overprivileged elite when we get to make such choices and entertain such discussions.

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  6. I think this is an interesting question, and I certainly don’t have the answer.

    I recently went to a local regional conference; when I was thinking about what I would get out of it, I fully admit that the two biggest draws were that I would get to see an IRL friend who I don’t get to see often enough, and that I would meet a few people that I am online friends with. And yes, there were a few speakers I wanted to see, but that fact wasn’t at the top of my list. Ironically, outside of spending some time with my friend, the speakers were the upside.

    My situation might be slightly different in that my current job does not fund conference trips outside of the registration fee. No food, no lodging, no nothing. It’s not a priority. I was not expected to go, and I certainly was not expected to report anything upon my return. In fact, the fact that I went was looked upon as a “vacation” by at least one co-worker. Therefor, I felt no guilt about going for less than “purely professional” reasons, as I spent more than my employer did in order to attend.

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  7. Yes, there is something to be said for having a conscience where conference attendance is concerned. When money is tight, there’s a lot to be said for staying home. On the other hand…

    Getting out of your routine, out of your same-old-same-old four walls, getting away from co-workers can be a very good thing. Some might be tempted to call it “vacation,” but I think a better term in this case is “professional re-creation.” (The hyphen is intentional.) When we are re-created, we are refreshed, we are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

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  8. Maximilian: While I think the environment ought to play into all our decisions as well, I had a question about the costs of airlines traffic and jet-fuel versus the regular commute with cars for the same individuals in the same period.

    If you think about how airplanes are organized in a mass-transit way and how people often commute in large vehicles by themselves, the fuel costs may not be so different — in fact, they may be less. Add in other things like the fact that a single hotel will house most of these individuals versus heating both a home and workplace, and then there is the maintenance of roads, additional safety infrastructure, police traffic, firestations etc etc etc., I really do not think conference attenders are any worse than the regular drudge. In short, I think our environmental focus should be our day to day decisions. Ie. how many cars do we have? Do we live far from work/services? Do we use mass transit? Do we have cottages and extra homes to maintain? etc. etc. etc.

    A recent (admittedly air-transport industry funded) study did show that air traffic only amounts to about 1% of emissions in Canada. Count that against cars and electrical power. . .

    http://www.atac.ca/en/media/index.html?id=07Nov05_1

    As far as the “priviledged” piece, I recognize your point there too, but I think it’s overstated. Assuming there is value coming back the conference — for instance, let’s say I learned how to effectively install and maintain an open source solution for an ILS, that measley $1500 could end up saving the taxpayers 10s of thousands or more. All the more reason, in the end, to be sure that a conference is going to bring something back for your employer if they indeed pay for the costs.

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