[Yet another personal post in our series]
STOC Festival Design: Improving interaction and fun factor; reducing information overload.
How can we increase the value added by a conference in today’s information-rich world, when papers have been available on arxiv for months to the experts in that area?
These are some personal thoughts (ie I am not representing the committee or SIGACT).
First, I wish to make a plug for poster sessions at STOC: all papers should also be presented at an evening poster session. If you missed a talk, you can get the 2-5 min (or longer!) version at the poster session, tailored to your level of prior knowledge and speed of comprehension. (Remember, theory says that 2-way communication is exponentially more efficient than one-way!) Poster presenters —often students and junior researchers—will get a chance to meet others, especially senior researchers. Ideas and email addresses will get exchanged. (Currently I talk to approximately zero students at the conference— certainly, nothing facilitates it.) Also, different coauthors could present the talk and the poster, which doubles the number of people presenting at the conference.
Second, conferences should do a better job to help us navigate today’s sea of information. (As Omer notes in his post, we can decouple the “journal of record” role of STOC with the actual program of talks.) The current format of 95+ talks of 20 min is very fatiguing, and it is hard to figure out “What to do if my attention span only allows N talks?” Arguably, this question can be answered by the PC, but that signal is deliberately discarded and hidden from the attendees. One way to reveal this signal would be to schedule talks of different lengths. For example, with 130 accepts one could have 8 talks of 20 minutes in plenary sessions, 48 talks of 20 minutes in two parallel sessions, and 74 talks of 5-minutes each in two parallel sessions. (And all papers would also be presented in poster sessions.)
Benefits: (a) Allows substantial increase in number of accepts to 130 while staying with two parallel sessions. (b) May lead to a less risk-averse PC (ie more diverse conference) while maintaining a very high-quality core. (c) Attendees get to tailor their consumption of content. (d) A 5-minute talk is still enough for the presenter to give a sense of the work and publicize it. Each attendee gets exposed to ½ of the overall program instead of a 1/3rd; this is efficient use of their attention span.
Possible objections: (a) Effect on tenure/promotion. (b) Noisiness of the signal (c) Authors are worse off.
I think (a) will become a non-issue. If today’s tenure case has X STOC papers, tomorrow’s might have X/2 papers with 20-min talks and X with 5-min talks (b) Yes, PCs are 100% fallible, but weigh that against all the benefits above. If we don’t believe in PC judgement we might as well disband STOC.
For (c), let’s do quick a Pareto analysis. The comparison plan on the table is 95 accepts: 8 plenary talks + 87 talks of 20 min in three parallel sessions. (We need three sessions because of the substantial plenary component being added.)
With 130 accepts the turnout will be higher; perhaps 25% higher. Authors are trying to maximize the number of people exposed to their paper. The basic math is that ½ of 125% is roughly twice of 1/3rd of 100%. We’ll see that all authors are much better off in this proposal, except those whose paper had a nominal “rank” of 57-95 in the PC process, who both gain and lose.
Rank 1-8: Somewhat better off (125% vs 100%)
Rank 9-56: Significantly better off (62% vs 33%).
Rank 57-95: Gain and lose. (An audience of 62% instead of 33%, but 5 min talk instead of 20 min.).
Rank 96-130: Significantly better off. Their paper gets into proceedings, and they get 5 min to pique the interest of 62% of the audience (without waiting half a year to resubmit).
Every ex-PC member will tell you that papers that end up in the 3rd category were equally likely to be in the 4th, and vice versa. Knowing this, rational authors should prefer this new plan. It makes smarter use of a scarce resource: attendees’ attention span.