Online conference formats remove the need for travel and reduce the costs of attendance, but they do not preclude inequality in access and participation. New challenges are posed by a move online, such as replicating the much valued spontaneous and informal opportunities of traditional in-person conferences, where non-verbal cues are more easily detected (Fish et al. 1993, p. 46; Erickson 2011, p. 508). Furthermore, the different norms of interaction in an online setting may exacerbate inequalities in participation. For instance, online communication is often associated with a degradation in politeness (Hardaker 2010, p. 238). Cultural insensitivity and impoliteness are known causes of lower levels of minority faculty representation in the academy (Louque and Thompson 2005, p. 38 and p. 233). Accordingly, online communication may make it harder for inexperienced or minority community members to establish themselves in a global network of colleagues. This may have long-term impacts on the diversity and innovation potential of the socio-ecological research community.
Another immediate issue is access to technology and infrastructure for online participation. Minority participants likely experience the digital divide disproportionately. For example, only 42% of urban households in India have Internet access, dropping to 14.9% for rural households (Government of India 2018 p.47). Further, primary users of the Internet in India are male (36%) with only 16% of women having access to mobile Internet, the primary mode of digital connectivity (GSMA 2019, p. 15). This underlying disparity in digital access is partially neutralised by reliable Internet access for those engaged at a subset of governmental, private and higher education institutes. However, with the current shelter-in-place restrictions, institutional access is restricted, forcing users to rely on in-home or mobile Internet, which is frequently unavailable, with only 23.4% of urban households having access to a computer (Government of India 2018, p. 47). Access is likely even worse for conservation practitioners based in rural settings globally and for students ‘sent home’ from universities. In Africa in March 2020, only 39.3% of the total population could access the Internet, compared to the rest of the world at 62.9%, with smartphone access at 51% in South Africa, 30% in Kenya and extremely low at 13% in Tanzania (Ngware 2020).
Increasing global access to the Internet is central to achieving the UN sustainable development goals, and a shift to online conferences supports this aim. However, increasing access will increase the carbon emissions associated with the Internet, which are estimated to exceed those of the aviation industry (Boston Consulting Group 2012, pp. 9–13; Malmodin and Lundén 2018, pp. 26–29). Evidently, ‘going online’ does not completely neutralise the carbon emissions of a conference (Taylor 2020). As such, accounting for the carbon footprint of conferences remains relevant for online formats, but could legitimately meet the demands of the carbon management hierarchy.