The completion of Apple’s major Shindig software this week concludes a month-long experiment in virtual tech conferences. The experiment is not yet over – far from it, since the coronavirus pandemic in the USA shows no real signs of relaxation and most tech events will be marketed as “virtual” events from now until the end of 2020.
Typically, between April and June each year, technology giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple gather with thousands of people in a huge space to preview new software and get app makers to To create apps for them. This year, these rousing keynotes, coding sessions, field calls and meetups took place online outside of business hours.
Only some of these interactions didn̵
“Conferences are not only about the schedule, but also about side talks and other social issues,” said Christina Warren, a former technology journalist and current podcast presenter who is now a senior cloud developer advocate at Microsoft. “I don’t think we as a whole industry have figured out how to best engage some of these social interactions when an event is virtual.”
Warren points out that online only events have some very real community benefits that are typically under-represented at technical events. Virtual keynotes and coding lessons can be translated into a dozen different languages so people can watch at home. When translating personal events, viewers usually have to wear headsets or strive to display screens with subtitles. During the WWDC keynote and 206 subsequent developer labs where app manufacturers get tutorials on how to build the latest software platforms, Apple offered subtitles and audio descriptions, a narrative service that tries to describe what happens to members of the blind community. Microsoft went one step further during its build event and not only offered subtitles, but also hired ASL translators and offered them as a picture-in-picture option during the lab sessions.
However, there were no virtual events that were an adequate substitute for face-to-face meetings. Steven Aquino, a writer who claims to be disabled and is concerned with accessibility, notes that Apple has hosted an accessibility meeting in recent years that brings together engineers and others interested in the topic to indicate new technical developments that could help the community. This year, Apple decided not to host an online version of it.
“It’s a shit, not just because it’s a fun thing, but for people with disabilities like me, it’s just super nice to see all that representation and camaraderie,” says Aquino. “And the ingenuity of others who want to learn from us.” (An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the record when WIRED asked about the event.)
And at a time when systemic racism and aggression against the black community are at the forefront of public discussion, some black developers say virtual conferences can weaken the sense of community and inclusion that they have built up over time.
On the one hand, Apple’s and Microsoft’s decision to grant free all-access passes for their conferences this year eliminated the divide, described by several people as very real, between people who can pay for tickets (between $ 1,600 and $ 2,400 in last year) and the people they couldn’t afford, which made them feel like “second class citizens”. However, if you are not in person, you cannot see other people in your community.