“It’s not the same”

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard somebody say this, regarding virtual conferences, zoom meetings, etc.

And you’re right, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as face-to-face.

However, there are trade-offs.

• Not having to pay for gasoline, hotels, out-of-town restaurant meals.

• I don’t know about you, but I find that the signal-to-noise ratio is vastly boosted by the reduced distractions of virtual convening. In-person meetings can leave a person feeling overstimulated and distracted.

• On a related note, this is something that often comes up at a conference or retreat. The atmosphere is very concentrated and intense in terms of learning, and that can result in an intense emotional bonding with our fellow participants. The can be beautiful, but they can also be a lot of emotional fallout. I have many times seen people fall into intimacies that would best have been kept platonic/collegial rather than physical, and have often been one of those people. Virtual conferences offer a way to meet people, and if there is meant to be deeper intimacy, the individuals can then, after the conference, correspond and arrange it. But there is a safety buffer of geography.

• Having an electronic means of transmitting contact info, and other info, by text right there on the spot, via the Comments section of Zoom or other conferencing app. No more arriving home with a suitcase (or backpack) full of scrap paper, business cards, etc. Hey, maybe you’re more organized than I am, but I suspect I’m not the only one who finds great relief in immediate, paperless, easily retrievable info-sharing.

• On a somewhat related note, I noticed that the “postconference crash” or “emotional hangover,” or whatever you want to call it, from a virtual conference is almost zero. Whereas I have had some severe emotional hangovers, post-crashes after returning home from physical conferences, retreats, convergences. It seems to be accentuated the more geographic distance there is. With meetings at the local or bioregional level (as opposed to in-person conferences that draw from a wide area), somehow I end up staying more grounded, knowing that we will realistically be able to keep in touch and build real community over time. (This is my experience; your mileage may vary. But I often find that when I describe my experience, it turns out that more people feel the same way than I had expected. And I have not only experienced this as a participant, but also witnessed it as a teacher, instructor, or leader — That a lot of people crash once they get home.) Otherwise — this may sound counterintuitive, but — I think we are better off meeting virtually if we’re going to be meeting with people who live in geographically scattered locations.

• Being able to interact with, learn from people who might not have the means to come to an in-person conference. I’ve met people from Kenya to Kazakhstan to Chile to Canada, and lots of places in between.

• Scheduling too, people from so many countries might not be able to drop everything to come to one conference that’s happening at one time. But meeting online increases the odds of being compatible with more people’s schedules. Yesterday’s Water Stories webinar I attended (Water Retention Earthworks Success Stories) seemed to have dozens or possibly even hundreds of attendees, from all over the world. The presenters were based in Chile, and offered truly invaluable knowledge with detailed illustrations and footage.

• Being able to implement what you’ve learned immediately, on the spot, in your household and neighborhood and community. No jet lag — either literal or mental.

• And of course, for all of us who care about eco-footprint and walking our talk, there is no contest. Virtual for the win! This is really key in particular for those of us who identify as environmental professionals. We need to walk our talk.

• And finally, germ exposure. With or without Covid, viral transmission is a major concern and is not going to become any less of a thing as years go by. My personal preference is to limit indoor spaces, and build a bit of immunity with some exposure to indoor spaces locally at selected times. Priorities and tradeoffs! Like, I don’t need to be present at city commission meetings indoors so much. Nothing I have to say is that important that I can’t make a video or write an email. And I adore my city officials, but fortunately we can get face-to-face contact via outdoor public community events. But, when a friend of mine is getting a community award, I am willing to risk a bit of indoor time to honor her.

To be sure: Face-to-face contact is necessary for humans, as it is for all other primates. Fortunately, face-to-face contact is available literally all around us. And many of us are deficient in the area of knowing our neighbors. If you need more face-to-face contact, go outside. You can start with something as simple as just saying hello to somebody as they are walking by walking their dog. I know this may sound dismissive, but this is a life-and-death issue for our society right now. We are deficient in face-to-face contact. And in-person conferences are not the way to solve that deficiency.

Another thing you could do, that I think a lot of people don’t think to do, is gather a bunch of your local community members in one place, such as a roofed pavilion or your open-air living room, with a wide-screen TV (or sheet + projector, or laptop computer), and attend a virtual conference together.

As the Flight Free Movement — a wonderful movement which seems to be led largely by academics who have seen the light — has taught me, there’s a lot of gatekeeping and ego in academia and other professions that makes people think they need to travel to glamorous conferences overseas. So, handling that set of emotions and beliefs is a key part of weaning ourselves off of the compulsion to travel to things that are best partaken right at home.

All of that said, every bioregion these days abounds and opportunities to get together in person, outdoors, to experientially learn things such as planting, harvesting, earthworks, rainwater collection. I do strongly encourage everybody so inclined to carpool, walk, bicycle to those opportunities in your home region.

PS. Right after I posted this blog post, I was able to partake of a video that was an invaluable review for my Certified End-of-Life Doula training. Which I took online, in 2023. Since a lot of you have expressed interest in training for hospice doula/end-of-life Doula, I am sharing the link here to Suzanne O’Brien’s YouTube channel. Suzanne is an amazing instructor — super knowledgeable and experienced, kind, down-to-earth, and a great inspiration. With the CEOLD training, I have already been able to help multiple friends and neighbors as they and their families have gone through the end-of-life passage.