The ongoing mess over Bora Zivkovic’s harassment of women writers in connection with his editorial role at Scientific American and Science Online has moved into the “What is to be done now?” phase. The most prominent and linkable of these are from Maryn McKenna and Kelly Hills, though I’ve also seen the edges of more ephemeral discussions on Twitter. Much of this has focused on formal organizational changes, stripping Bora of power and titles and banning him from the conference. These are entirely appropriate, though partly moot given that he’s resigned from both Scientific American and Science Online– a formal ban is the only remaining step.
At the same time, there’s a sort of cultural issue at the heart of this that is one of the things that bugs me about this story. There are some discussions about making operational changes in these areas, too– safe spaces, quiet areas, alcohol-free zones– but I think they’re kind of dancing around a bigger issue. Some of this ended up on Twitter Friday night in discussion with Razib Khan, but I don’t think it was all that widely read; having said anything at all, though, I might as well get a more complete version done.
The core issue, I think, is this: Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends. This acts to confuse issues of relative power and status within the community in ways that make what we’ve seen in the last week more likely. I am not saying that this excuses or condones the hundredth part of what Bora did– there should have been absolutely no question that he was wrong in every way, particularly in those utterly appalling email exchanges. But I think that the balancing act Science Online is trying to maintain contributes to an atmosphere that makes it easier for lots of people to look past what should have been obvious warning signs, as Martin Robbins noted Friday just before the shit really hit the fan. And I think that there needs to be some more global consideration of just what Science Online both specifically as a conference and more generally as an online community is and should be.
To explain what I mean, I need to go back to the early days of ScienceBlogs, after the dinosaurs but before the giant armored sloths. When ScienceBlogs was first set up in 2006, there was a back-channel forum for private discussions among bloggers, and while much of this was professional, as inevitably occurs when you give people a space to exchange messages, a lot of the forum traffic was social.
Bora wasn’t one of the original fourteen bloggers, but he was in the first big wave of additions, and quickly became a significant presence in the network (which was, in turn, part of getting him to the prominence he had). I recall him as a regular participant in the forum discussions, though I recall very little of the content, which mostly seemed inconsequential (I was up for tenure review at around that time, so my primary contribution to the forums was occasionally getting in nasty arguments and pissing people off, because I was a giant ball of stress). There was never anything grossly inappropriate in the forums, but the general atmosphere was pretty loose, with a lot of jokes about alcohol, occasional sex references, and other mild adult content. I recall occasionally thinking that people were oversharing (not a widely held opinion, just a personal reaction), but I hasten to add that I have no specific memory of Bora saying anything out of line. (Mostly what I remember was a bunch of us nagging him to actually work on writing his Ph.D. thesis; I don’t recall if he ever did finish that, or if the PLoS thing came along and he left ABD.)
Even if people did talk about sex, or flirt with each other, though, there’s nothing wrong with that, because it was a consensual group of like-minded adults who were all in the same position. We were all just people who ran blogs, hanging out with other people who ran blogs. Nobody needed to be there, and nobody there had any significant power over anybody else who was there (other than the ScienceBlogs staff, but they quite sensibly stayed out of most of the forum stuff). In that context, it’s not unreasonable to discuss sex, drugs, and rock’n'roll, provided that nobody objects.
The origin of Science Online was somewhat similar. It started out as a small gathering of bloggers who happened to be based in North Carolina, and again, my initial impression was that it was basically a party thrown by and for a bunch of people who ran blogs and wanted to hang out with other people who ran blogs. A very informal atmosphere would be totally appropriate.
In the intervening years, though, roles changed. Science Online moved from being a small get-together for people with blogs to a moderately large conference (around 500 attendees) that’s an important part of the professional life of the people who work in science communication via the Internet. And Bora moved from being just a guy with a blog to a community manager for PLoS and then to the blog editor at Scientific American, a person with the power to make decisions about who got to join the network or even guest blog there. And he was also one of the founding officers of Science Online, another position carrying significant prestige within the community.
Those changes in scale and role change the rules, dramatically. Once you’ve got a significant power imbalance, lots of conversation topics become off-limits, because people who are uncomfortable may no longer be in a position to walk away or demand to talk about something else. If someone with power starts talking about inappropriate subjects, people without power feel significant pressure to just sit there and take it. And the wrenching stories told this past week show just how damaging that can be.
So, what’s the problem I’m talking about? The problem is that Science Online has made a concerted effort to obscure those power relationships. They make a big deal– well past the point of eye-rolling for me– about how they don’t put affiliations on nametags because everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family, and so on. And they promote a party atmosphere– the informational emails last year talked up the bar area and the liquor service available at the big evening wing-ding, and things like the disastrous DrunkScience experiment were if not officially promoted, widely known and discussed. There’s also a lot of somewhat juvenile running jokes about duck penises and that sort of thing that are certainly not to all tastes.
In other words, they try hard to maintain a feeling that the meeting is just a bunch of people who run blogs (and podcasts, and videos, and other online media projects) hanging out with other people who run blogs (etc.). And this carries over a bit into the broader community interaction outside the meeting. While they make efforts to be broadly inclusive, there’s very definitely a core group of people on blogs and Twitter whose conversation and interaction has a disproportionate influence on the shape of things. And again, a lot of banter about drinking and weird animal reproduction and so on.
The organizers have chosen to foster this free=wheeling atmosphere with the best of intentions, and in some ways it makes for a better experience– I had a great time at last year’s Science Online, and if things work out, would happily go again (but then for me it’s strictly a party, as I don’t really have anything to pitch to anybody who goes there). But while it’s fun in some ways, it also contributes to problems by letting people deceive themselves into thinking that some things are appropriate when they’re really not.
Again, this is not an attempt to excuse or condone Bora’s actions. Those emails are utterly without justification, and would be stunningly inappropriate even if there were no power imbalance involved. But that carefully maintained just-a-bunch-of-bloggers-hanging-out atmosphere makes it just a tiny bit easier to pull off the mental self-deception required– because I’m fairly certain that Bora wasn’t calculatedly and deliberately torturing young women writers. He had almost certainly convinced himself that there wasn’t anything wrong with what he was doing, and part of that process had to involve working around that power dynamic. The most obvious path to that is “we’re all just bloggers hanging out,” in which case it’s perfectly okay to engage in a little flirting sex talk.
The obscuring of power differences also acts to produce the effect Martin Robbins noted (repeat link to save scrolling back up), where everybody else managed to overlook inappropriate behavior. As Robbins says, the whole random hugging thing from a couple of conferences ago seems way out of line. Particularly now, in hindsight, but even at the time to people who weren’t a regular part of the community. To people who were, well, it’s easy to write off as part of “we’re all just bloggers hanging out,” in which case it can be cute, and funny, and charming, and not disturbing. Again, I’m not trying to excuse Bora’s behavior or shift the blame to people who “really should’ve said something”– his actions are his reponsibility, and inexcusable. But again, the general atmosphere makes the self-deception needed for everyone else to overlook problems just a tiny bit easier.
So, as I said, I think there’s a global issue here that probably needs to be addressed a little more directly than it is. Quiet spaces and alcohol-free rooms are good, but this is ultimately a question about what the Science Online meeting really is, and what the community wants it to be. My own inclination would be to say that since blogging has been professionalized in a way that reproduces not only the advantages but also the pathologies of traditional journalism, it probably to move toward much more of a professional society model. That means more explicit acknowledgment of power and status hierarchies, and a bit more of a professional atmosphere in general, including things like formalizing the idea submission and panel selection process, and reforming the farcical invite/lottery registration system. And this carries over into the online stuff outside the meeting as well– when there’s a sense that being part of a particular group on Twitter makes a major difference in how seriously your ideas are taken for an influential conference, that in itself is a problematic power dynamic that can make people feel they have to endure jokes and banter that make them uncomfortable.
That doesn’t mean a complete abandonment of the party-with-your-friends model– believe me, I do plenty of drinking with friends at professional physics conferences– but a bit of official distancing from that would be a good thing. De-emphasize the boozing in the official materials, maybe go to limited drinks or even cash bar at the official events. Make hanging out in the bar more clearly an individual choice, not a quasi-official part of the meeting. Think about whether the cap on attendees is really necessary– strictly limiting attendees to keep the event “intimate” but giving guaranteed invites to particular individuals contributes to both the party atmosphere and the sense of a secret cliquish power structure. And so on– if this is a serious conference, and participation has the (perceived) power to shape careers, it needs to become a professional event, not just a party among friends. And if it’s a professional event, that makes the lines just a little more clear regarding what is and is not appropriate.
That won’t stop harassment– there’s plenty of that at professional meetings, as well– but it would demand a tiny bit more mental work on the part of the harasser, and a tiny bit less work on the part of the people trying to spot and report inappropriate behavior. And every little bit helps.
But I’m a very small and peripheral part of the community. I hesitated a bit about whether to even post this, since I’m so peripheral, but I already shot my mouth off on Twitter, and forced my own hand. I waffled more when I saw that some of these issues have already been brought up by Kelly Hills on Twitter, but eventually decided that it was important to add what little support I can to her argument.
This ultimately isn’t my decision to make, and whatever comes of this will have relatively little impact on my decision about whether to attend future meetings (I’m pretty much outside of all the relevant power hierarchies, anyway). But I think it’s a discussion that ought to be had.