Virtual is not “the same” as in-person

But that doesn’t mean it’s bad

So after the 2021 all-virtual Apple WWDC, once again I see the meme of “you don’t need in person, virtual is just as good, see?”

Okay, based on the way Apple did this, that’s an utter load of bollocks. Like, literally.

For example: after a session, any session, did you, the audience have a chance to ask questions of the presenter(s)?

No, you did not. For one, as best as anyone can tell, the sessions were recorded well before the event. So they weren’t “live” in any sense of the word.

Did the presenters give out their emails so you could ping them later with a question? As best I can tell, no. So even if you have a question, you’ve no way to ask the presenter(s) unless you happen to know them, or you can track them down on some form of social media. The option presented was to ask a question in the dev forums with a WWDC tag.

If anyone is going to seriously try to tell me that forum communication is just as good or better than in-person, I will wonder if you have ever actually met another human being. Because there’s no way that’s true. Like none.

This is one of the serious disadvantages of virtual conferences: the heavy control of all interactions. You can’t ask questions after a session unless the conference decides to allow for it. You can’t wait outside the room and have a quick hallway chat.

Now, Apple did have some slack channels going. That you had to register for and in a very limited set of offerings. None of them directly applied to the questions I had, so why would I waste space in a SwiftUI/DevTools/Accessibility/Machine Learning channel/lounge asking questions that had nothing to do with those subjects? Regardless of the legitimacy of my questions, in those settings, they would be nothing but noise.

The same thing the labs. I would have liked to have gone to the Shortcuts lab, but as a 1:1? That sounds like “I have a specific actionable issue with this code here” thing, not a “I have a larger question that may take multiple people to answer.” As well, in the past, one of the huge advantages of labs was having someone say “I can’t answer that, but I know someone who can, they’re right over there, c’mon.” I didn’t see any way that could happen, since again, this wasn’t “live” in any real form of the word. And since everyone at Apple is dispersed, even if someone did know a person who could help, that’s finding if they’re online, asking them if they have time, and even with slack/messages/email, that can take a while, and in the meantime, that slot is effectively wasted.

Also, there was exactly one Device Management lab, and only two shortcuts labs, and you had to get an appointment to each. Trying to rush to get an appointment for a lab slot is the exact opposite of fun.

There’s also the lack ability to into someone who may not be presenting or running a lab/lounge, but just there, and they’re a person you want/need to talk to. Again, that’s a big thing, and it’s something that’s regularly been as useful, if not more than the sessions. Quiet corner chats are great ways to get questions answered that would never be answerable in a session that will be recorded and reviewed, at least internally. “Off the record” for any value of that term is simply not possible with how the WWDC was set up.

The conversations you walk past that accidentally turn out to have great value? Nope, not happening.

The “hey, here’s this person you should meet” and this person is not an “official” presenter? Possible, but tricky, because you have to give out the kind of contact info this person may not be comfortable giving out for me (a complete stranger) to meet them, and handing out my contact info to them (a complete stranger who may not work for Apple) is similarly dicey. But there’s an odd kind of anonymity in just talking to someone. That conversation doesn’t have a record. It can end and either party will have no way to continue it if that’s what one or both people want. That’s not even counting the conversations with non-Apple devs and other attendees, which again, huge value.

Also, when you’re talking about WWDC numbers, a video conference? Yeah, not scalable, and now there’s a push, backed by some actual data, that for remote communication, video is actually worse than audio only because of what video does to humans trying to use “normal” in-person context clues. You’re very much “on” with video. Anyone on a video conf. with me who thinks I’m relaxed and not hyper-aware of being on-camera, yeah, such a nope.

So let us dispense with the idea that both can be the same. They aren’t. And that’s not even dealing with the gatekeeping a video conference has for people who don’t have access to unlimited bandwidth. I know more than a few folks who even if they’d wanted to couldn’t watch more than a handful of sessions in less than a month, because their satellite internet, which is their only real option, is so metered they’d eat their monthly bandwidth allotment but quick.

Like definitely in the US, this assumption that everyone has the same bandwidth options as you do in larger cities is just beyond any form of reasonable. Like literally during the pandemic, there have been gobs of articles about how many places in the US do not have proper high speed internet access. Here, some data:

How do those folks even watch the sessions, much less do anything else. Y’all, the US is a damned mess when it comes to high-speed internet, so for every person who didn’t have to deal with long flights but could still watch the sessions, there are a lot of people for whom the WWDC will take months to actually look at, if they can at all. (Dial-up is not dead, really.)

However, that does not mean you can’t get closer. There’s a few ways.

Why not both?

First, this is not either-or. You can absolutely have an in-person conference with remote options. You can even allow remote folks to ask questions during the Q&A. This is a well-solved problem. Like this is not even vaguely new. Secondly, don’t make people stalk presenters to ask them a question. Even if it’s a WWDC-specific email and not their normal work email, give people a way to contact them afterwards. Thinking about it, a WWDC-specific email would probably work pretty well. Allows for interaction, but helps keep bad actors out of “real” email. Q&As after a session have real value.

Secondly, have a larger range of lounges in slack/teams/whatever. If you have a session on it, have a channel on it. There absolutely should have been a device management/shortcuts lounge, especially given that Shortcuts on macOS was so new and honestly unexpected. Like, there’s a lot of detailed questions that I know came out of that. Also, have a form of “just hanging out” channel for different Apple folks to be able to interact with remote attendees. Yes, that would have to be carefully monitored for bad actors, but banning people is quick, and since you have to have a developer account to even get in, letting people know that being a tool in Slack may get their accounts terminated has a way of getting people to think about their behavior.

Thirdly, and I know this seems anachronistic, but again:

…Have a physical collection of conference videos and presentations. There are a lot of people living in places where streaming/downloading is either expensive as hell for them, or simply not possible in under a year. Thumb drives, Blu-Ray, don’t just assume the entire audience has GigE to their house.

Too many people are being binary about this, and I honestly don’t understand why. Both methods, in-person and virtual have real advantages. From folks who live very far away from Cupertino not having to deal with international travel (a pain in the best of circumstances, which these days are not) and folks with a variety of physical issues for whom travel of any kind is fraught with real problems to people who don’t do well with remote communications or don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a room full of strangers (which is kind of what Slack is), a combination conference is not only possible, but preferable.

Both sides miss out. The virtual folks lose out on a lot of the “a-ha” convos/hallway convos/after hours convos (it’s not all alcoholic fogs, there’s some serious work done at a table in a restaurant/bar), the people in person lose out on being able to attend and interact in the comfort of their own homes, sans pants. The expense of a WWDC in person is not small, so the virtual option is great for people who want the info, but are unable to get their jobs to pay for it, or just don’t have the scratch for airfare, hotel, and food.

Like this is absolutely doable in a way that isn’t all or nothing, and combining both in a thoughtful manner would, I think, make for a really good experience for everyone. Would it be perfect?

Dude, if anyone in tech is going to lecture me that it has to be perfect to be acceptable, I’m going to wonder if you’ve ever written “hello world”.