Shafer's experience is backed up by a new paper on "Newsreaders' Recall and Engagement With Print and Online Newspapers," which finds that people who read print newspapers remember a lot more material than people who read online papers -- and which also has some serious relevance for the question of in-person vs. virtual events. Shafer writes:
The paper explores several theories for why print rules. Online newspapers tend to give few cues about a story's importance, and the "agenda-setting function" of newspapers gets lost in the process. ... The paper finds no evidence that the "dynamic online story forms" (you know, multimedia stuff) have made stories more memorable.
The paper cites other researchers on the subject who have theorized that the layout of online pages -- which often insert ads mid-story or force readers to click additional pages to finish the story -- may alter the reading experience. A print story, even one that jumps to another page, is not as difficult to chase to its conclusion. Newspapers are less distracting -- as anybody who has endured an annoying online ad while reading a news story on the Web knows.So, print newspapers provide more context and organization -- a better system of cues for organizing the experience -- and also demand a higher level of attention from readers. I'd also add the power of serendipity; you're more likely to browse a print newspaper, to linger over it, and to follow whatever stories happen to catch your eye. Where online, you tend to skim in a very purposeful way, looking for specific bits of information.
All of these advantages, it seems to me, apply equally to in-person meetings, which are rooted in professionally curated programming that is delivered within the context of a tangible space, which encourage attendees to surrender their full attention simply by virtue of being physically present, and which brim with the potential to surprise everyone who is there, because you never know who you're going to sit next to, or run into in the hallway, or share a drink with. It's the promise of the real, the lure of the tactile; also, you know, the power of meetings.