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Despite the fact that most of the world is now connected with high-speed fiber and even phones can record 4k video, it seems to me that there is a large focus on offline events. Universities invite guest speakers, hold seminars, organize conferences, etc, and most of the content is not even posted online afterwards. Often the events themselves don't include anything more than the speakers doing their presentations, answering a few simple questions and leaving shortly afterwards - all of which could be done on Skype or a myriad of other platforms.

So why is there still such a strong focus on physical presence?

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    Your assumptions are wrong, and you seem to be missing the point of conferences and other academic events. – 101010111100 Apr 1 '17 at 9:52
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    Speakers don't leave shortly afterwards: they remain at the conference venue to talk to colleagues from all over the world, continuing discussing the topics and fostering collaborations. Things that cannot be done via Skype. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 1 '17 at 10:03
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    Occationally people actually get a chance to talk to someone new at a conference. How would that ever happen online? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 1 '17 at 12:04
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    A conference offers an environment without students, administrators, family, friends, hobbies, or other distractions. You meet people, talk with them, eat with them, spend time with them, and so on, because you don't have any excuses to avoid it. That's what most people need to maintain successful long-term collaborations. – Jouni Sirén Apr 1 '17 at 12:22
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    @JeffE There is an interesting cultural difference here. Where I come from, both bachelor's and masters's students are seen as students, while PhD students are seen as early-career professionals. I frequently forget that for many people an unqualified "student" may include PhD students. – Jouni Sirén Apr 1 '17 at 16:19
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Conferences are not organised for the talks alone. They are more like the academic equivalent of a pool party or a weekend football league. Although on the face of it the purpose might look like spending time in the pool or playing football, people really go there to meet other people.

As a PhD student it took me a while to realise this. Most people attend conferences to get face to face time with other people in thier field, and often the talks act as adverts for collaboration. You'll notice that there are often conference dinners and mixers designed precisely for meeting others.

Every time I've heard someone talk in earnest about what they liked about a conference, it's always that they managed to catch up with a colleague or similar.

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    Fully agree, the "hallway track" is the reason for face-to-face conferences. – Fred Douglis Apr 1 '17 at 17:43
  • Great answer. Do academics generally acknowledge that this approach is 'old school'? – user14156 Apr 1 '17 at 19:57
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    @JonathanReez, I'm not certain even non-academics would. I'm in industry, working for one of the major producers of telecommunications and collaboration equipment. We still host, attend, and participate in physical, in-person conferences -- one of the last I went to both boosted our prestige (inasmuch as one of my coworkers gave a very well-regarded opening talk on research we're sponsoring) and provided several recruiting opportunities, many of which came through the "hallway track". – Charles Duffy Apr 1 '17 at 19:58
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    However I do wish that conferences videoed the formal talks and that they were somehow attached to the related papers. – Ian Apr 1 '17 at 22:51
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    @Ian Some conferences do and even post them for free online, like (in my field) the Strings conference on string theory. – JNS Apr 2 '17 at 9:28
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I agree with Nathanael's statement. Part of developing a community of scholars is networking. While online activities open new opportunities for networking (for instance, cheaply bringing together people from different regions on a shared platform) there are significant limitations to networking only online.

As researchers, we conduct a lot of our work in isolation - even when we collaborate with others, it is often filled with internet exchanges rather than in-person contact. The in-person nature of conferences and guest speakers gives greater opportunity to have high-quality interactions.

I do agree that it would be helpful if universities and organizations provided more of their organized content online, but only in addition to in-person interactions, not in place of them.

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