Virtual Conferences: Future or Far Fetched?

There seem to have been a lot of big, exciting, energetic Christian Conferences (especially tech-focused ones) this past fall.  And I noticed via twitter that a new acquaintance of mine, Paul Steinbrueck, has managed to attend almost all of them.  So I asked him what he thought about the growing trend in Virtual World Conferences, and whether he thought we’d be seeing any of that coming to the church world any time soon.  He blogs at OurChurch.com (which also does fantastic website design, CMS, and hosting work), and here’s an excerpt from his response:

Right now I think virtual conferences are a ways from becoming mainstream because virtual worlds are still a ways away from becoming mainstream.  So, while virtual conferences may reduce the barriers of time and money they introduce new barriers of competency and comfort with the virtual world.

But the number of people engaged in virtual worlds like Second Life continues to grow.

Twenty years ago it would have been crazy to think you could get 10,000 people to sign up for an Internet-only, live streamed Christian leadership conference, but now that most Americans have high speed Internet access and view video online on a daily basis, the Leadership Network was able to pull that off with The Nines conference.

Could it be that in 20 years (or less), the Internet will no longer be primarily a 2 dimensional experience viewing flat text, images, and media, but a 3 dimensional experience?

He also posted this really cool video of a recent conference in Second Life, where (as some of you may already know) I’ve been spending some time recently developing a Presbyterian faith community.  Here’s the video:

I think Paul’s experience and judgment in the Christian “tech industry” are exceptional, so I respect and value his input on this subject.  I also think his analysis here is spot on, too.  Here’s my response (also posted as a comment on his original post):

Paul — thanks for posting on this.  I think you’re right that virtual conferences are still a ways from becoming mainstream.  But I’d answer your final question by saying, yes, the internet will go from primarily 2d to primarily 3d in quite a bit less time than 20 years.

I think the “web designers” of today will become the “virtual world environment and event designers” of tomorrow (borrowed from Ray Kurzweil on that idea).

But I also think that the current economic downturn will help spur a growth movement in virtual conferences right now — Unfortunately businesses intent on saving money will probably lead the way here, not churches (who are generally slow adopters).  That said, Doug Estes new book SimChurch highlights the increasing number of virtual faith communities, and real world churches with “internet campuses” — so maybe the church isn’t that far behind.

But be it church conferences or business conferences, you’ve also hit on a key point in this post:  competency and comfort with virtual worlds are the biggest hurdles to adoption.  I think this is where tech-savvy organizations can work wonders.  My experience with Second Life has been that when people join and explore in isolation, they tend to get frustrated with the experience, stuck, or even bored.

But on the other hand, when people come into virtual worlds with a fixed purpose, are met in-world by other people (represented by avatars) who walk them through a quick training session…the competency and comfort barriers fade quickly.  I imagine this is exactly what Virtualis did for their event.

For a Christian conference, providing this sort of virtual world “welcome wagon” orientation would have another advantage.  In addition to overcoming the barriers mentioned above, it would be an opportunity to practice just the sort of hospitality and welcome that many of our churches suffer from a lack of.

That said, I think what we’ll most likely begin to see in the near future of Christian conferences is a hybrid arrangement — real world conferences that develop virtual world equivalents, allowing people who can’t make the trip to participate and interact with those who do.


Comments

Virtual Conferences: Future or Far Fetched? — 2 Comments

  1. Hey Neal,

    I love the idea of virtual conferences–and have to agree with you on the learning curve for SL. It’s not just the learning curve, though, it’s also the technology–on the part of the user as well. I often get frustrated in SL because it uses a lot of graphics, and sometimes the forum just doesn’t materialize properly.

    Thing is, the virtual conferences I have seen have also had a remarkable lack of diversity in its speakers. The Nines was very heavily skewed toward white men, with very little consideration for women and people of color. This isn’t unique to virtual conferences, but I was disappointed because it seems like a virtual conference provides the perfect (and less expensive) opportunity to be more intentional about speakers.

    The other thing about The Nines that was hard for me is that it was a very passive forum. The speakers talked, mostly non-stop for all those hours, but there wasn’t any opportunity to ask questions, process, talk to other folks. I know several of us were following it on Twitter, but the conferences have got to get better about creating community and incorporating live feedback.

    Just my two thoughts. I probably won’t attend a virtual conference that fails to provide a diverse panel of speakers, with regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, and theological perspective.

  2. Katie,

    Good points all — although, while the nines had some elements of virtuality, I think it was also missing the greater sense of “embodiment” that conferences in virtual worlds (like Second life) have to offer.

    That said, what will it mean in a virtual conference when we have the ability to “choose” our gender, ethnicity, age, and appearance? I’m not saying that a male choosing a female avatar is sufficient to count for diversity in a virtual conference — but I do think virtual conferences (and by extension virtual worlds) also present unique opportunities for people to “walk in the shoes” of others and experience diversity in a new light.

    Unfortunately, the “tech-world” has until very lately been the realm of the educated, white, middle-class male. So I’m not surprised that the convergence of church conferences and virtual reality would look the same.

    Still, a few studies have shown that Second Life has slightly greater appeal to women than men. My own experiences have borne this out (of those friends I know in both “real life” and Second life, more are women than men). So if we forge our future conferences in the world of Second Life, I wonder if that might not give women an inherent advantage? Might be a good thing…

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