Science Online and in Real Life

The Sciece Online meeting wrapped up yesterday afternoon, though the associated conversations and socialization carried on late into the night. I got to meet a lot of people I’ve only previously known as cartoon avatars, and spent a surprising amount of time talking about rugby.

One of the things that stands out about the meeting, and that lots of people raved about, is the “unconference” style, where there aren’t formal presentations, but moderated discussions. This wasn’t all that surprising to me, because it’s essentially identical to the more casual sort of panel at a science fiction convention. It has the same benefits– when it works well, you get a wide-ranging and freely flowing discussion– and also the same failure modes. These were, on the whole, pretty well run, though I think somebody needs to run a workshop next year on the proper use of microphones at these things.

Content-wise, I stand in kind of an odd position relative to most of the material being discussed. A lot of the career-building stuff was aimed at people who aren’t me– I have a tenured faculty job (prompting no small amount of liberal guilt on my part when people talked about academia), and I don’t have any real journalistic aspirations. A lot of the blogging stuff was more focused on controversial topics– climate change being the most frequent example– and that’s something I consciously try to avoid blogging about. As a result, I didn’t wind up learning anything particularly revelatory during the sessions, though I hope I was able to make some useful contributions to the book writing discussion.

The informal parts were more useful. Well, not to my liver or bank account (though the bartenders at the Marriott loved me), but I had some useful conversations with people planning interesting projects, and a lot more conversations about the book-in-progress that were very encouraging– the people I described it to generally said “Oh, that sounds really cool!” It’s nice to be reassured that I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good project. And I got a few positive comments on a more half-baked idea I have for a different book (because my brain has this annoying habit of coming up with good ideas for things I don’t have time to work on…), which was also nice.

The one thing that was a little uncomfortable in the programming of the meeting was the somewhat stark divide between the journalists and the scientists at the conference. The two groups are doing very different things, and there was a slight tendency to look at a discussion topic from only one of those perspectives. I wasn’t that bothered by it, but there were a few scientists who were really annoyed at some of the discussions of journalistic methods, which they took to be dismissive of the communication skills of scientists. If I were going to recommend any changes to the next meeting, it would be to be more aware of this when selecting co-moderators for discussions, so you don’t have two journalists running a discussion in a way that makes some scientists feel shut out.

If I had to identify one thing I wish people would take away from the discussions that I went to, it’s that there’s no One Right Way to do any of this stuff. A lot of the problems that took up a lot of energy and angst seemed to originate in trying to find THE method for doing something. In reality, there are lots of ways to be successful in communicating science, and taking a prescriptive stance toward outreach or blogging or even journalism. Lots of people love Ed Yong’s writing at Not Exactly Rocket Science, and he’s undeniably very successful doing what he does, but that’s not the only way to run a blog or communicate science. If I tried to write this blog in the style of Ed Yong, it would suck– that’s not a form that I’m comfortable with. And if Ed had to write his posts as conversations with my dog, I suspect that would suck, too.

I think it’s important to remember that there are a wide range of different styles and voices that can work, depending on the talents of the people involved. Too much time gets spent on trying to find the formula for writing things a particular way, and not enough on individual experimentation to find what works. Now, granted, this is easy for me to say, given that I don’t have to pitch stories to outlets that demand a particular style, but I think I’d rather address that by pushing for new outlets publishing a greater diversity of styles than by getting everybody to write the same way.

But that was a minor frustration. On the whole, it was a very enjoyable meeting, and if my schedule permits, I’ll try to come back next year. And if you’ve been waffling about whether or not to attend, I definitely recommend it. Though I would also encourage you to consider getting more sleep than I did this year…

(The “Featured image” at the top is from Saturday afternoon, when I blew off the final “Converge” session to go to the Miami vs. N.C. State basketball game. It was an excellent game, and I could try to make an argument that it’s serving as a metaphor for something, but really, it’s mostly there because the Corporate Masters upgraded the ScienceBlogs back end, and I wanted to test the new image upload system…)


  1. #1 Rosie Redfield
    February 3, 2013

    Hmmm… The misleading legend to that featured image photo caused me to waste 5 minutes checking that the number of people actually attending the meeting was only about 450, not the thousands in the photo.

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