The conclusion of Apple’s big software shindig this week wraps up a months-long experiment in virtual tech conferences. The experiment isn’t over—far from it, as the coronavirus pandemic shows no real signs of easing up in the US, and most of the tech events from now through the end of 2020 are being marketed as “virtual” events.
Typically, between the months of April and June each year, tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple corral thousands of people in one massive space to give previews of new software and to get app makers excited to make apps for them. This year, those rousing keynotes, coding sessions, hallway conversations, and after-hours meetups all happened online.
Only, some of those interactions didn’t happen at all. Events like Google I/O, Facebook F8, and Amazon re:MARS were canceled entirely. Microsoft and Apple forged ahead with carefully produced CEO keynotes and virtual coding labs, but couldn’t replicate the serendipitous run-ins or casual gatherings that are sometimes the most valuable part of conferences. Virtual attendees told me that online-only events have lowered the barriers to entry; people no longer have to spend thousands on tickets and travel to get access to information that may be critical to their livelihoods. But people who spoke to me were pretty straightforward about what’s still lacking from virtual events: They miss the hang.
“Conferences aren’t just about what’s on the schedule, but the side conversations and the other social aspects,” says Christina Warren, a former tech journalist and current podcast host who now works as senior cloud developer advocate at Microsoft. “I don’t think we’ve quite figured out as an entire industry what the best way is to bring in some of those social interactions when an event is virtual.”
Warren points out that online-only events have some very real benefits for communities that are normally underrepresented at tech events. Virtual keynotes and coding lessons can be translated into a dozen different languages for people watching at home, whereas translating in-person events usually involves audience members wearing headsets or straining to see screens with captions. During the WWDC keynote and 206 subsequent developer labs, where app makers get tutorials on building for the latest software platforms, Apple offered closed captioning and audio descriptions, a narration service that attempts to describe what’s happening for members of the blind community. Microsoft took it a step further during its Build event, offering not just closed captioning but bringing in ASL translators and offering them as a picture-in-picture option during lab sessions.
Still, there were no virtual events that were adequate substitutes for in-person meetups. Steven Aquino, a writer who identifies as disabled and who covers the topic of accessibility, notes that for the last several years Apple has hosted an accessibility-focused get together, where engineers and others who are interested in learning about the subject convene to show off new tech developments that could help the community. This year, Apple decided not to host an online version of this.
“It’s a bummer, not only because it’s a fun thing, but for disabled people like me it’s just super nice to see all that representation and camaraderie,” Aquino says. “And the keenness from others who want to learn from us.” (A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment on the record when WIRED asked about this event.)
And at a time when systemic racism and aggressions against the black community in particular are at the forefront of the public conversation, some black developers say virtual conferences can weaken the sense of community and inclusion they've built over time.
On the one hand, Apple’s and Microsoft’s decision to give free, all-access passes to their conferences this year eliminated what several people described as a very real divide between people who can pay for tickets (which ranged from $1,600 to $2,400 last year) and the people who could not afford them, which made them feel like "second-class citizens." On the other hand, not being there in person quite literally means you’re not able to see other people from your community.
“I have spoken at a lot of conferences and there definitely is that moment, in person, where you do the look around to see if there are any other folks who you feel might match your identity,” says Kaya Thomas, a developer and the founder of the We Read Too app. Thomas had a great experience at last year’s WWDC, she says: “There was ‘Black At,’ ‘Women At’, all these different meetups, and it felt great to be in a room together and commemorate and discuss. I think you definitely miss that with virtual events.”
Still, Thomas says she felt bolstered by the efforts developers made to put together (non-Apple hosted) virtual events during WWDC this week. This included a series of talks given under the hashtag #WWDCWatchParty, organized by developer Michie Riffic. And Thomas herself helped host a pre-WWDC virtual trivia game for attendees.
Many were quick to point out that, despite Apple’s verbal and monetary commitments to diversity and inclusion, this year’s virtual WWDC keynote featured only one black speaker, when senior engineer Yah Cason presented Apple’s upcoming plans for its connected home software. “2 hours, one black person,” tweeted Erica Joy, director of engineering at GitHub. Kamilah Taylor, the cofounder of Swaay and an engineer at Gusto, also tweeted: “I know folks have started to say there were a lot of women, but let’s be frank, there were mostly white women … you can do better Apple.”
Despite the sorely missed in-person meetups and the still-disappointing lack of diversity at tech events, plenty of developers gave Microsoft and Apple kudos for managing to put on robust and technically sound virtual conferences this spring. People who attended Microsoft Build describe a Twitch-like user experience, where developers could drop in on virtual coding sessions at all hours and catch a live session of a Microsoft program manager showing off their home setup. Others remarked on the fast pace and smooth transitions of Apple's WWDC virtual keynote and, yes, the aerial drone shots. One developer told me that this year’s WWDC online coding labs felt strangely more personal than years prior, because Apple presenters were speaking directly into their cameras instead of addressing a large group in a room.
At this point, no one knows how long it will be before large tech conferences happen in person again, if at all. But if this season’s virtual tech events have offered a kind of blueprint for what may come—a beta test, if you will—they’ve proven there’s still blank space for the communal elements humans crave. Think fewer executives speaking in platitudes, and more opportunities for people to speak with each other. “Personally, I hope tech companies continue the virtual conferences when it comes to the sessions, because it’s nice to be able to pause and absorb that information,” says Kaya Thomas. “But maybe they could do one or two days of in-person things, the keynote or the meetups, when it’s available in the future.”
One thing Thomas says she hopes doesn’t return is the hefty price of admission to these events. “Let’s be honest: Apple doesn’t need more money.”