I have a confession to make. I don’t like “virtual events.”

I don’t know quite why I call it a confession. I just have a feeling I’m supposed to like them. People I meet who know that I have blogged about conferences, and often about how technology is reshaping them, are always surprised–perhaps even suspicious–to learn that I don’t care for their “virtual” counterpart.

First, let me say what I don’t mean by “virtual event.” I don’t mean the grassroots virtual event that sprouts thanks to engaged attendees. That type of virtual event is something to aspire to.

Nor do I include online education, like webcasting, etc., and its integration with various online social tools to improve engagement. That’s all great, too.

When I say “virtual event,” I’m talking about this:


You might recognize this as one of the booths at the Virtual LegalTech Show on November 19.

I’m not picking on LegalTech. In fact, I think LegalTech has been an industry leader when integrating the use of online tools with its legal events. Its New York conference last year was one of the first legal conferences to really take off on Twitter and it seems to always be working on new ways to engage its tech-savvy attorney market.

What I’m picking on is the “virtual” platform and its effort to simply recreate the live event in an online format. LegalTech didn’t come up with this, of course. It’s simply another online tool they’re trying out. A variety of companies offer the virtual platform, and I’ve had my eye on some of them for the last year or so, but so far I’m not buying it.

See those people milling about in the picture? I think they’re supposed to make me feel connected. Instead, they make me feel like I’m playing the Sims, only the Sims is more interactive. How about the chat box you can see on the right? When I “went to the booth,” I received some type of welcome message in a long list of other welcome messages (with occasional responses) that went something like: ‘Hi, Alli. Thanks for stopping by. Let me know if you have any questions.” This exchange might take place in real life, but here it feels like I’m back in an AOL chatroom, circa 1995. And why do I need to hear loud background noise–mimicking the sound you might hear when you walk into a bustling auditorium–to let me know when I’m in the exhibit hall? It doesn’t make me forget that I’m actually just staring at my computer.

Maybe I simply lack imagination, but I think we can educate, engage and [in the case of sponsors] market online without needing to simulate the real-life experience with features that only remind us of the limitations of online events. In many ways, the online experience isn’t inferior and when we let its form develop and stand on its own, we might even see that some things are better online.

What do you think?