A guest post by Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Russian, New York University
I attended my first national academic conference in 1989, and I was already off to a bad start. I was only there because I was presenting a paper, which I read at breakneck speed, probably mystifying the already bored audience. Along the way I drank five glasses of water and prayed for the panel to end so I could go to the bathroom.
Since then, I’ve gone to more conferences than I can count, and always for the wrong reasons. I go to present my own papers, and, despite my annual resolve to attend more panels, I usually spend my entire time socializing. I used to wander the halls, wondering who I would run into, until I settled on the strategy that has worked best: sitting on a bench in a hall and waiting for people to notice me. Even more pathetic: this is the highpoint of my social life.
So the move from quick hugs and air kisses to Zoom is a terrible drag, even though I’m a big fan of the technology. With all the opportunities for random, unforced socialization gone, I may have to go listen to people's talks.
Since my national conferences made the unsurprising announcement that they were going virtual, I've occasionally tried to drum up interest on Facebook in developing alternative social interactions...
Since my national conferences made the unsurprising announcement that they were going virtual, I've occasionally tried to drum up interest on Facebook in developing alternative social interactions, but to no avail. I'm on my own here, which, come to think of it, is a self-referential metaphor for the problem at hand. My attempts at solitary brainstorming have yielded only scattered brainshowers, but if I share them here, maybe someone else will figure out how to make something of them.
Anyway, all my efforts have yielded exactly two ideas. The first:
Bring Back the Calling Card
Legend has it that George Bernard Shaw once received an invitation saying, "Lady X will be at home on Tuesday between 4 and 6," and Shaw returned the card with the words "Mr. Bernard Shaw likewise."
We know from nineteenth century society tales that gentlefolk used to have cards announcing their "hours," a regular time when they were prepared to receive guests. This was a low-tech solution to the problem of socializing before the age of the telephone. Perhaps it could be adapted for the age of Zoom?
Malcolm Gladwell (I know, I know) identifies a category of people he calls "connectors," people who are natural hubs. They know everybody. And we all know people like that; at conferences, they're usually going out to dinner with twenty of their closest friends (and another twenty people who know the first twenty). What if some of those people announced times during the conference when they'll be hanging out on Zoom, and anyone's free to join them? If it gets too noisy, there are breakout rooms. I can think of plenty of reasons why this probably won't work, but what's the harm in trying.
But we don't have to be so hierarchical here. After all, we're trying to emulate the spontaneity of conference socializing. For that, the answer is.....
Yes, that Chatroulette. If you know the name, you probably remember that this video chat software, which was intended to let people talk to strangers at random, rapidly turned into a Random Penis Generator. It was basically the condensation of everything bad about the Internet: all you needed to do was stay on it for a few minutes, and you'd be subjected to the live equivalent of a dick pic. Why, you might wonder, do we need that, if we already have Jeffrey Toobin?
My thought was this: if a similar platform were made available only for conference attendees, the likelihood of this sort of abuse would be very low, because the professional repercussions would be immediate (again, #metoobin). But the randomness could be at least entertaining, and possibly productive.
The idea was to find something like Chatroulette without it actually being Chatroulette. But in the interest of thorough research, I went to the Chatroulette website (without even enabling private browsing). The launch page contains a link to "Chatroulette for Virtual Conferences." Which just confirms what we academics already know: if you have a good idea, then someone else has already thought of it.
It's a bit late to try Chatroulette for ASEEES, but worth thinking about for future conferences if our current apocalyptic hellscape continues much longer.
This sounds like a job for a committee.
Money, Meet Mouth
I can't be a one-man Chatroulette; the technology is too complicated for that (plus: eww). But I can try a small social experiment using the calling card model, with the caveat that 1) no one rats me out to the Human Subjects Review Board, and 2) my "connector" mojo is middling at best. Sure, I know a lot of people, but my general conference dinner strategy is to find Mark Lipovetsky and join the huddled masses, yearning to schmooze.
By the time this piece appears, I will have announced on Facebook two separate "receiving hours." The first, on Friday, November 6, at 2:00 EST (https://nyu.zoom.us/j/98187034380s) is aimed at people I know or sort of know, who might want to chat with me and whoever else happens to be there. If it gets too big and cacophonous (which I sincerely doubt), there are always breakout rooms.
The second, on November 14, at 2:00 EST (https://nyu.zoom.us/j/92163442180) is for people I might not really know, but maybe are interested in some of the things I'm interested in, and want to talk about some idea they have. These would probably be one-to-one conversations, and if more than one person takes me up on it, the other can hang out in a waiting room.
My hunch is that both of these will be spectacular failures, but even if they are, that doesn't mean they can't be improved upon later by someone else. I'll share the results on Facebook, even if they are as embarrassing as they expect.
And, hey, if it works, maybe I can present the results at the next conference. Anything to avoid going to panels.
Eliot Borenstein is the author of Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism, and Pussy Riot: Speaking Punk to Power.
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