Stop Calling it a Virtual Event. It’s “Digital”
We are officially in the midst of CES this week, the annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association. This year CES promises to “digitally convene businesses, thought leaders, policymakers, media and the broader tech community to launch products, build brands and form partnerships.”
“Digitally convene” — I was interested to notice that the largest and best known trade show in the industry didn’t choose to call itself a virtual conference or a digital experience or who knows what. Looking at a calendar of upcoming events, I see a mishmash of terms: digital festival, online summit, virtual forum.
It’s time to put a stake in the ground and clarify our terms. A virtual event is one that takes place in a virtual world or in virtual reality. A digital event is one that uses some combination of livestreams, “simulive” video, polling, chat, or other online engagement techniques.
To use the terms this way is to follow standards that are already commonplace in the technology industry, not to mention society.
In tech, “virtual” refers to computer-generated experiences that are “almost but not quite” worlds or realities. They simulate physical spaces on our computers and phones. Many of them offer the opportunity for us to have an avatar, a representation of ourselves, that can navigate the virtual world. We see this in games or in virtual event platforms like Virbela. And if you put on VR goggles like Google Cardboard or Facebook’s Oculus, you become the avatar. The device uses your physical movements to simulate corresponding movements in the virtual world.
The tech world has used the word “virtual” in this way since the late 1950s. It makes sense to continue this practice and speak of a “virtual event” as one that takes place in a computer-generated representation of a physical space.
“Online” has become pretty much a superfluous term when we’re talking about digital technology. “Online” is the default state for any digital device today — to the point where we have the “Internet of Things,” ie refrigerators and exercise bikes that are online. We don’t need to specify that something is online anymore. To the contrary, the remarkable thing now is when we unplug. We feel compelled to tell people we’ll be offline but there isn’t much point in telling them we’re online.
For that reason, I think “digital event” is preferable to “online event.” Digital is the broader term for what we do with computers, and it is assumed that whatever we do with computers is hooked up to the net.
This leaves us with “digital events” for the other combinations of video and engagement techniques which you can build on a web page. Arguably we could also call these online events or internet events, but “digital” is the term that society has adapted to talk about experiences that aren’t analog, live, or real. We talk about digital nomads, digital thermometers, digital culture, the digital divide. We get it. A digital event is one that happens via computer or phone.
Enjoy CES 2021!
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