It's not all or nothing with virtual - in fact, we've been blending physical and digital mediums for decades, showing us how there need not be a fight to the death between the two - especially if we want to preserve the headway we've made in terms of accessibility.
We're all very, very, familiar with the fact that the pandemic has necessitated a dramatic uptake in everything virtual. From quizzes and birthday parties, to conferences, work meetings and academic conventions - gatherings across the board have been shaped by a need to retreat from in-person settings.
We're so familiar with this that it almost doesn't have to be declared anymore; with each additional foray into this well-documented trend sounding more and more like a preach to the choir. Nonetheless, we're reiterating it here, not to insult your intelligence, but rather to highlight how: firstly, this uptake is far more meaningful than it's often given credit for, and, secondly, said uptake is not as novel or unprecedented as it's often made out to be.
It's not surprising that much coverage has focused on the tricky, lack-lustre aspects of our daily lives - zoom fatigue, a lack of interactivity, clunky software and platform design - but this masks the fact that these are teething problems, caused more by the nature of present solutions themselves than by any fundamental problem plaguing virtual connections. This, in turn, masks the fact that virtual platforms, even in their current state, have helped people engage with each other on a scale that would have been seen as little more than wishful thinking before.
Yes, lots of time online has stemmed from a need to find substitutes - but, at the same, so much of this presence has ushered in a hugely significant removal of traditional barriers to access that have excluded so many, for so long. Contrary to the air of inevitability that often shrouds any talk of inclusion, we can keep things this way, and we've made it happen before.
Take for example the first, televised live sporting event - a tennis match between Bunny Austin and George Rogers at Wimbledon 1937. Did this spell the end of fans attending Wimbledon in person? Far from it. Instead, it marked the beginning of a new era for tennis, and sport more generally, in which the barriers to watching and participating in live events were dramatically diminished, at no detriment to in-person attendance.
In 1975, 'The Thrilla in Manila' boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was the first to be broadcast from overseas via satellite. In 2006, the FIFA World Cup in Germany was the first sporting event to be broadcast in HD on the BBC, with five of the matches earning titles as the most-watched programmes of that year. In 2012, an estimated worldwide audience of 1 billion watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics - with the BBC broadcasting over 2,500 hours worth of live coverage, part of which was the first of its kind to be shown in 3D. In exactly the same way, we should move away from seeing the future of virtual as an “all-or-nothing” scenario, but rather an exciting new way in which the traditional barriers preventing participation can be mitigated, if not removed altogether. A situation where we can push the boundaries of physical meetings, as opposed to precluding them completely.
Indeed, if we maintained that everyone who wanted to watch the tennis, the football, or the Olympics had to secure tickets, book flights, hotels, and arrange childcare for the whole time they were gone - that would, quite rightly, sound like a wildly unfair expectation. And yet, that has been the persistent, characterising state of affairs with respect to so many other domains. If we can democratise access to our favourite sporting events, is it really so out of the question to expect the same flexibility from our schools, our jobs and our community groups?
We recently collected some perspectives on the virtual space through our State of Virtual Survey - the responses to which have informed our latest report, which you can expect to see from us very soon - which revealed that just under one fifth of respondents said they would not be using virtual event software at all if physical events were to resume this year. Whilst of course different people will have to contend with a slew of different factors constraining, or facilitating, their continued adoption of virtual solutions - a virtual-phobia still exists for some of us, which risks turning back the clock on some of the valuable concessions that the pandemic has catalysed.
As the past year has shown us, the concerns of marginalised groups are often not taken as seriously as they should be, and it is only when the malaise spreads to those not traditionally handicapped by the status-quo that decisive action is taken. Disabled students, for example, were scarcely accommodated in higher education and yet - in record time - learning centres across the world were able to shift online; offering flexible attendance as well as both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. This is not to pretend that these shifts were easy or totally seamless - but they speak volumes about who is accommodated, and when. We shouldn't all have to be in the same boat for us to embrace the technologies that will bolster the ability of the many- and not the few - to gather, share, learn and contribute, without having to compromise. A reversion to physical doesn't hurt us all equally, but - if this wasn't reason enough to be enthusiastic about changing our ways for good - enhancing in-person events and expanding their reach only stands to benefit us all.
Platform data from Eventbrite reveals that virtual events hosted in the UK and the US attracted more than 30% of their attendees from other locations around the world; an apposite illustration of just how far virtual can go in broadening access. Not only have new audiences been reached, but Eventbrite's three most-attended virtual events of 2020 centred around social justice - 'Ibrahim X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist' took the top spot with over 277,000 registered attendees - and were run in parallel with physical protests, expanding their reach in the first instance, whilst also offering 'follow-up' collaboration opportunities that no doubt aided in sustaining the momentum of these long overdue conversations. Last week, organisers in the UK used virtual vigils to mourn the tragic death of a young woman in London, and create a safe space for women to meet, share their own stories and 'push the conversation forward in regards to women's safety'.
Gathering virtually empowers swathes of people to play an active part in what is important to them, and the persistent cynicism that lurks behind much contemporary coverage, and clearly some contemporary attitudes, seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the potential these solutions have to change our lives permanently - and for the better. As the history of the events space shows us, physical and virtual are complementary, and not mutually exclusive - an important fact to remember as we seek to build on the accessibility gains that virtual makes possible.