A few months ago I attended the ECCS, a big European conference on complex systems, and it was a blast. I got to hang out with some good friends and colleagues, and made some useful connections. I gave a pretty successful talk, learned interesting stuff and I found some very necessary scientific inspiration.
On the down side though, I confirmed a couple of things that I had already noticed before: first, and as a general rule, a vast proportion of the talks at a conference just suck (see “Annoying things about conferences, Part I”). Second, big conferences are a waste. I hope you notice how both points are ironically correlated, but since I already vented about the first point, now I am going to focus on the second one.
Big conferences, although a real pain to organize and not usually lucrative, are prestigious for the invited speakers and the organizers and institutions, and, in general, very attractive for the attendants. These type of events bring attention and funds to the field in question, they get people to talk about it and sometimes even some press coverage. All this is very laudable, of course. The problem is that, as a conference grows in number of attendants, it quickly exceeds what a single person can attend, to the point that it can become overwhelming by several orders of magnitude. For example, I understand the practical reasons behind organizing ten parallel sessions, but at the end of the day, does it make sense to register for a 700-people conference when in each one of the talks you attend to there are 30-50 people on average? And let’s not even talk about monster events like the March Meeting. I am not planning on attending any time soon, but I have heard that around 9,000 people join every year.
As a workshop organizer myself (of events way smaller than the ones discussed here), I understand the appeal of a big event: the visibility, the opportunity to team up, and also the chance to meet/invite everyone at once… Nonetheless, I think that, strictly from the attendants’ perspective (which is of course not the only one to be considered), it is not all that great. Specifically, there is this constant feeling of inevitably missing out interesting content and ending up doubting the choices you made (something like the “too many items in the menu” dissatisfaction, or Paradox of Choice). Not to mention the huge lines to get your lunch.
Besides the fact that having many, many talks doesn’t necessarily mean having many good talks, I think small conferences allow for more networking and direct contact among participants. And that is the main point of scientific gatherings, really.
Finally, there is something about big faceless crowds that always feels intimidating, hostile, even if we know it is not real, and make us act accordingly. To adult scientist and fourth-graders alike.