It wasn’t really a Virtual Conference

OK, you might think I am being pedantic, but the word ‘virtual’ carries some weight, so bear with me.

The term ‘virtual reality’ emerged from online gaming. Players place themselves in an imaginary universe, and adopt a character or avatar while they are there. In multi-user games they interact with other avatars, without wondering much about the real person behind them. Virtual reality headsets take this one step further by providing a 3D fully immersive experience of the imaginary landscape.

Virtual reality is usually compared with ‘real life’; the first is a creative construct, the second is the world we actually inhabit. In what sense was our conference last weekend virtual?

Before there was widespread access to the Internet we communicated with our family, friends and colleagues in many ways that were not face-to-face. We used a variety of written methods – letters, notes and memos – and we used the phone. I don’t think we ever saw these as virtual conversations; they were real conversations with real people. In the same way, once email became ubiquitous it was seen as an extension of our other modes of communication.

During lockdown we have all discovered new ways of communicating with each other, and, in spite of their shortcomings Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams have actually enhanced our lives. Hopin was an excellent platform and closely mirrored an in-person conference, with some added benefits, notably the chat function during debates and fringes. This was not an imaginary world peopled by avatars – at least, I don’t think it was.

So let’s stop describing it as a Virtual Conference; it was an Online Conference … or maybe, in the future, just Conference.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Spot on Mary! I have tried to refer to in FB posts ( and elsewhere) an “online” conference as opposed to an “in person” one

  • suzanne Fletcher 1st Oct '20 - 3:46pm

    Good article, and if this is the way for the future we need to be right in how we describle it.
    However there is a word I would change. In “During lockdown we have all discovered new ways of communicating with each other, and, in spite of their shortcomings Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams have actually enhanced our lives.”
    we haven’t “all” discovered, only those of us lucky enough to be able to afford to access electronically, and have the ability to do so.
    Something that we “all” need to address for issue within and outside our party.

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Oct '20 - 3:46pm

    Is it there? Can you see it?

    Y Y Real
    N Y Virtual
    Y N Invisible
    N N Gone

  • Venetia Caine 1st Oct '20 - 5:13pm

    I’m old-fashioned enough to resent the appropriation of the word ‘virtual’ by the digital world at all!

  • Phil Wainewright 1st Oct '20 - 7:38pm

    Mary Reid says the term ‘virtual reality’ emerged from online gaming. If you go even further back, you’ll find it has its origins in science fiction. Clearly, our conference was neither a game, nor a fiction – real people participated. We discussed real-world issues that we hope to concretely influence.

    But when we saw people speaking, we saw their digital image, their video avatars. We experienced them virtually. To that extent, the conference was virtual and I don’t think it’s helpful to reject the use of the word. What matters is that we retain our ability to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake. I think attendees did particularly well on that score this year.

  • James Belchamber 1st Oct '20 - 7:57pm

    How can conference be real if our eyes aren’t real?

    Something to think about.

  • The issue of the use of words is interesting. When I was at school we were told not to use various American words. OK was one, and that is now an international word of course. It is difficult for me to remember much else because we now speak as standard English if not American then the mid-Atlantic used by Holywood. My view is that it is the media industry which has grown out of Holywood that has ensured that English as a language is still a recognisable language around the globe. The Holywood I am talking about is the virtual Holywood rather than the suburb of LA.
    As far as conference is concerned need a discussion of what our aim of involving and empowering our members is, and then how-was best to do that.
    I realise that there is a deeply conservative trait in us all, but is there any reason why we should spend time a adapting a nineteenth century method of involving members to the twenty-first century?

  • It’s an interesting thought. Conference was very real, albeit online, but by adding virtual as a descriptor gives the impression that it was an online attempt to mimic the format of a traditional conference, rather than a whole new sort of conference that is designed around some or all of the participants taking part online.

    It would be interesting to have a think about how we would design a conference if we knew that some, most or all of the participants were going to be online. I think we’d end up with a different format, and I hope time is taken to consider these and experiment a bit in the future. I’d be particularly keen to be granted access to some simple online training/reading material on particular issues of interest that would inform us in debates and stop them being overly dominated by those who are already heavily involved. We’d have to be careful not to let these become campaign videos, but I’m thinking in particular of brief introductions to certain environmental issues, the sort of technologies that are now available, along with their pros and cons, and probably most importantly if we want good debate – an explanation of the terminology.

    Regardless, I don’t think we can go back to a time when only members who can travel to one particular part of the country are the only ones voting.

  • Thanks for all the comments. Over on Facebook it has generated quite a lot of heat, but mainly about accessibility of conference to different sectors rather than about my terminological query. As I said there, I think my point was that in any use of the word virtual implies “not quite real”. We should consider an online conference as real as an in-person one.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Oct '20 - 2:32pm

    I like the use of the word virtual because it does have two meanings, the first being the modern use in technology, which allows it to imply online. The second being it’s older meaning of ‘almost’ an event or a ‘good enough’ to be an event.
    Humans have used pictorial representation for thousands of years and the new technology is an extension of that. It is astonishing to me that my first baby granddaughter in Australia was able to accept our appearance on a screen as being ourselves before we even met her. We would ask her if we could have some of her food and she would hold out the spoon and then pull it back laughing. Now both of them talk about us as if we were there. We have virtual hugs and get to play in their games.
    For me online doesn’t have that depth of meaning so I’d like to stick with Virtual Conference please.

  • David Garlick 2nd Oct '20 - 4:20pm

    Great conference whatever you call it!

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Oct '20 - 8:25am

    “It would be interesting to have a think about how we would design a conference if we knew that some, most or all of the participants were going to be online.”

    Don’t forget Suzanne’s point about not everyone being able to access such a conference online. That might include those who for one reason or another don’t use the internet at all, those whose broadband connection are inadequate etc….

  • Christopher Love 4th Oct '20 - 10:16am

    Our online conference was a massive success. It was a huge undertaking in difficult circumstances, and it was right first time.
    Helps rebuild our credibility after our incompetent showing in GE19. Very welocme, as at the mo it is hard to be a Lib Dem

  • @Nonconformistradical I agree. I would like to think that consideration of those who find it difficult to get online would form part of that process.

    That said, far more people are excluded from a conference where you have to travel to and stay for several days in Brighton than one where you need to get online. I would like to think that in post-COVID times, a real world experience would remain available to those who need or want it, and I anticipate that in a hybrid scenario, the party leadership and those organising sessions would be at a real conference centre, or perhaps in local hubs, which would give a sense of occasion and help with some of the IT issues and flow.

    But in post-COVID times, those who don’t have decent home broadband might be able to access an online version via other means, and this is something the party could look to help out with.

    I imagine that different demographics within the party might favour different options. Those living further from the venue, who have busy jobs, or who have younger children, or can’t afford the travel/accommodation or are just a bit shy, will find an online conference more accessible. The normal system favours those who have more time to spare and older members. Arguably, those older members are less keen on an online event – although I wouldn’t like to generalise. Many of us who are spending our working week facing a computer screen might appreciate the change the most.

    I’d say that we might benefit from more mini-conferences. Either shorter, one-day non-voting events, or those that give more attention to regional or subject interests. These could be used as journal club events, or to thrash out ideas relating to particular policy ideas, helping those involved to be more informed by the time an actual conference with votes comes along.

  • Julliet Makhapila 6th Oct '20 - 2:26pm

    On line Conference brings it’s on experience. Does that substitute meeting someone by person , and being able to share those meals or catching up time? Would the 4 min count down chat time be real in an ideal world? Many of you maybe had full service so you were able to communicate both ways. Some of us could only listen and not really be able to participate fully, so technology has it’s issues. Virtual/online Conference is good as an additional value to meeting in normal conference. Covid19 has made Lib-dems to explore new ways of perharps working different 😊. So some of those few members who keep saying the word ‘can’t’ need to say it can be done. Virtual /online Conference in my views can never replace meeting someone in person.

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