Why I’m getting cold feet over the lack of tech conferences

Let’s talk about socks, baby

It’s strange how it’s the little things that you miss. More than half a year into this pandemic, the effects have been severe and wide-ranging and in the tech industry there have been two very obvious consequences: The boom in video conferencing that has led to the likes of Zoom becoming a household name, and global lockdowns forcing conferences to go virtual.

Attending tech events has always been a highlight of the job for me, but now that it’s been taken away, I find that what I’m missing most of all isn’t the knowledge-sharing, the networking or even the after-hours drinks events – it’s the socks.

As anyone who’s attended one of these events will know, the expo floor is always filled with companies trying to plug their own solutions, and they all use free swag to try and lure attendees into a conversation. It’s a common sight to see delegates wandering the halls with bulging bags of assorted loot, and I’ve always enjoyed trawling the floor to see what the pickings are at any given show. Often these are things like portable chargers, bluetooth speakers or bottle openers, but one surprisingly common freebie is branded socks.

Over the past few years, I’ve got into the habit of collecting vendor socks from expos and conferences, partly because I’m a cheapskate who doesn’t want to buy his own footwear, and partly because when I’m taking a briefing with a company, it gives me a mischievous little thrill to wear a competitor’s socks. I’ve collected socks from the likes of Citrix, MobileIron, Sophos, Solarwinds, Box, Carbon Black and many, many more. I’ve even owned socks that have outlasted the company themselves, as was the case with Waffle.io.

While it’s a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a great sadness to me that this slice of normality has disappeared and I’ve found myself unable to refresh my supplies of vendor socks this year. It’s become part of the ritual of conference attendance, and while some companies have tried to recreate the feeling by shipping out swag boxes to the homes of attendees to virtual events, it’s just not the same. 

True, the socks themselves are rarely much good in terms of quality – a view to cost savings mean they’re often cheap, polyester things that rarely last more than a year before becoming threadbare – but as my supplies dwindle, it’s one more reminder of all of the small things COVID-19 has taken from us

More distressingly, there’s a very real chance that my sock stocks will never truly recover. This year’s pivot to virtual events will no doubt be an illuminating experience for many organisations and when large scale conferences are once again possible, I find it hard to imagine that companies are going to go back to the practise of spending thousands of dollars on flights and accommodation to bring journalists like myself to international events when they can simply live stream sessions and conduct briefings via video conferencing.

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We’ve covered in exhaustive detail all the ways in which the events of 2020 will reshape the world as we know it – from an increased reliance on remote working, to a recession-fuelled startup boom, to the growth of digital business models – but there are some things that will go back to normal, and for the sake of my feet, I hope tech conferences are among them.

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