Now more than ever: Academic conferences need to embrace the digital age!

Under the impression of recent political developments in the US, major academic associations have started to respond to the challenge of how to hold their annual mega-conferences in an age of travel insecurities.

The International Communication Association (ICA) already sent out a clear statement that they are looking at ‘alternative platforms’ to engage with scholar who cannot or do not want to travel to the United States or more generally under current visa insecurities.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a strong statement against travel bans, but with no reference to alternative forms and approaches to hold meetings.

And all International Studies Association (ISA) could come up with so far was to urge participants to join them in Baltimore later in February as first signs of a conference boycott have started to emerge online.

Similar discussions emerged last year about Turkey as a conference venue and I think this is a bigger issue that will re-emerge in the future. Many convenient aviation hubs are located in ‘problematic’ countries and different countries may experience different issues that may affect the association
s conference hotel booking in 2019.

I have been written about the need to take mega-conferences into the digital age before and hope that there will be a more fundamental discussion about the role of mega-conferences other than being convenient income generators for associations and the global academic-Marriot-Hilton-complex.

Your conference needs to be online. Full stop.

This needs some strategic thinking and re-thinking of the convenient rituals of showing Powerpoint-pdfs in windowless meeting rooms.

You need to stream keynotes, AGMs and similar core events. The problem is that hotel networks are either not built for those data streams or charge hefty sums for limited network access.
Also, hiring professional broadcast equipment and technicians is expensive. Our MA program in Communication for Development has been working with streaming technologies for 16 years and commercial venues are usually bad locations for inclusive digital events.

Conferences need to offer wide-ranging digital access
The jokes about missing or expensive Wi-Fi are only one aspect. Meetings rooms need to be accessible so virtual participants can Skype-, Google Hangout- etc. in. Let participants run their own facebook live streams and give them the opportunity to explore other platforms and technologies outside platform capitalism.

Digital access can provide important local ‘grounding’
If you allow global access you will hopefully not just get a Skype presentation, but glimpses into the online realities ‘out there’ – what technologies do academics use, how do they circumvent surveillance and what does it look like in the place where they are based?
That could be a more valuable contribution than listening to an #allmalepanel presenting findings from journal articles that have already been published.

I think that every association should have a digital communication champion in their senior management. By clinging to an outdated, but relatively convenient model for a large group of mainstream academics, academic associations ultimately undermine key functions of their mandate.

Digital access should not be a bonus, but a strategic imperative so caregivers, parents, underprivileged academics or those who simply do not like to spend money on economy class flights will have opportunities to listen, contribute and participate in debates.


  1. Thank you for this call to action - mobilizing knowledge without relying on flying people!


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