Science Online was an amazing annual unconference that started a few years back and grew and became part of the reshaping of public communication about science. This year, the people running the conference started out with the plan to move the conference to a new venue, Atlanta, and last week abruptly announced that the conference would not happen and the ScienceOnline organization would be shut down. Those who paid the registration fee would be refunded.
A few science writers and bloggers are writing about how great ScienceOnline was and how much it will be missed, and some are providing a few comments about why it had ended. I won't bore you extensive thoughts about how great the conference was (a little at the end). I've written about that before, and since I did not attend the last two, I'm not really in a position to extol its wonderfulness at this point. Besides if you are reading this you surely already know what ScieneOnline was and how great it was.
I would like to know, however, why the project shut down. This is not morbid curiosity. ScienceOnline was a big, vibrant, powerful, a meaningful thing in my profession, and its sudden and unexpected (to me, anyway) demise can't pass without some analysis. If All the Scientists one Friday morning got an email saying the American Association for the Advancement of Science would stop publishing Science Magazine and shut down all operations by Saturday, they wouldn't just say "Oh, that was nice while it lasted. Oh well." They would be compelled to discover why an organization central to their profession would shut down. Well, the demise of ScienceOnline is like that, but a couple of orders of magnitude smaller. Frankly I find the lack of serious consideration as to why ScienceOnline shut down in the few posts that mention it to be odd. Spooky even. Happy Halloween.
Here are my random thoughts on the matter.
ScienceOnline was growing, and there was no significant event or change in the nature of the science communication community that would suggest that such a successful project would not be able to continue. I think it is reasonable to say that it should have continued and it should not have shut down.
There have been suggestions that ScienceOnline was ruined by Bora Zivkovic, the former principle of the operation. Bora was accused, tried, and convicted of inappropriate behavior and forced to resign. The nature of that inappropriate behavior is up in the air, in the sense that people have labeled it with various legally meaningful terms that don't actually apply, questions have been raised in the same venue as some of the accusations about the veracity of those accusations, and the entire exercise was riddled with posturing, hard feelings, look-at-me-too antics, and a certain amount of bullying, variously coming from some of the dramatic protagonists working from many different angles. There is a Standard Line that goes with the Bora Saga, and within a few weeks of the breaking of that story (almost one year ago, I believe) every one knew the Standard Line. At that point you eitherr towed it faithfully, objected to it anonymously, because questioning it openly felt like it would lead to your own trial and conviction. That was a mess, but I don't think it had anything directly to do with ScienceOnline closing, because one entire conference happened AFTER that event, and after all, despite the always entertaining ability for so many professionals who operate on the internet to act like middle school students, in the end, most people eventually pull on their big kid pants and get real. Two years after a person involved in a conference leaves the process, the conference can move on.
There have also been suggestions that ScienceOnline was ruined by so-called "Feminazis" who had gone after Bora or used that problem as a means to do their evil work. This suggestion has been made to my knowledge only sarcastically, with the indication that "oh, any minute now the MRA's (Mens Rights Activists) will be accusing the feminazis of bla bla bla...." I mention this here only so I don't have to insert it later in an Updated version of this post, because I am perfectly confident the accusation will be made if it hasn't been already. This possibility is just as absurd of an explanation as the aforementioned "Bora Ruined It" hypothesis. It requires no more consideration. It has been brought to my attention that some have read this paragraph as a suggestion by me that "feminazis" ruined the conference. Clearly, I am saying a) that didn't happen, b) the idea is out there and c) the idea is stupid. Which is what I said. But now I said it again. AND DON'T USE THAT WORD FEMINAZI
There are two material differences between ScienceOnline 2015 and the previous conferences. One is the venue. The conference has always been held in the Research Triangle, and Scio 2015 would be held in Atlanta. Maybe everybody hates Atlanta. Maybe the Triangle offered a unique palatial charm not to be found many other places. I'm sure that latter aspect is true, but I find it hard to believe that this would cause ScienceOnline to tranmogrify form the "Un Conference" to the "NoWay Conference."
The second material difference is the registration fee, which I think had gone up to something like $400 (it may have been less than $200 a few years ago). Also, the student price was something like 20 dollars off that, which I regarded as cynical when I first saw it. This could be a real effect.
I have heard that most of the sponsorship dropped out. Some have said this is because they were mad at Bora, but that seems incredibly unlikely for a number of reasons, including his total lack of involvement in the conference. I would like to know why so many sponsors dropped out and what the impact of that was. It may have contributed to the very high registration fee. These two things together may have been a problem.
I also heard that while in previous years there was typically a long waiting list to get into the conference to begin with, this years the number of attendees was way down, far lower than the expected amount (in the 200's range instead of over 400?). I'd like to see the exact numbers on this. This could be a cause of the failure of the organization and conference; if 200 people fail to give you $200, that's a lot of moola you didn't get. Or it could be an effect. All those people who don't like Atlanta, didn't want to miss the Charm of the Triangle, and didn't want to spend twice what they spent in a previous year opted out. Or maybe they were just still mad a Bora and needed to be in a snit, or maybe they were mad at the Bora Haters and needed to be in a snit. Hard to say. My guess is that the price drove a lot of people away.
Added: I'm being told that last year's conference sucked. I had also heard t was great. But the fact that some people think it sucked matters.
There is one major effect which feels to me like the most likely reason. I may get the following bit a bit wrong in detail, simply because I don't know all the details, but my understanding is that Karyn Traphagen, Anton Zuiker, an Bora Zivkovic were the three driving elements in prior versions of Science Online (not counting last year) along with a few others. Bora was the most visible face, having been a community organizer de facto or professionally on the Science Internet for years. The three of them made Science Online out of nothing, crafted it, expanded it, made it an incredible success. Then they were no longer involved. Then it shut down. One could hypothesize that the new organizers, and I have no idea who they ended up being, simply killed ScienceOnline because they didn't know what they were doing. I suppose that question should be asked, but I have no reason to think it. But I do know that a rather amazing, perhaps even unlikely, kind of event was generated by a handful of people, most visible Bora, with Karyn and Anton very much engaged, and it may be that the magic worked only for them. What that magic was I can't say. Maybe this moment in time ... the moment when ScienceOnline 2015 was cancelled, happened every year but Bora, Anton and Karyn simply trudged past that and made it happen anyway. Maybe at this point in time there was always a shortage of interest by the online community but then the Three Conferenceoteers got in every body's face and made them excited about the upcoming event. Maybe the project always lost its sponsors at this point, but then Bora, Anton and Karyn would show up on their doorsteps, begging or dressed in funny kitten suites or doing whatever they needed to do to bring them back in the fold. This does not imply a lack of will or ability on the part of the organizers that shut down the conference, but rather, an amazing ability that probably grew and developed every year as the project projected, on the part of the original organizers, that was lost when they were lost.
Keep in mind that the transition wasn't smooth, as I remember. Last year's conference was still going to happen on the grounds of momentum alone, Bora left, and pretty quickly his compatriots did as well, staying involved for various lengths of time. A smooth transition over a few years of the major players is quite doable. A wholesale housecleaning is dangerous.
For my part, I appreciated ScienceOnline and I'd like to retroactively thank Bora, Anton and Karyn, and others who may have been involved, for making that amazing thing happen. It was inclusive across several dimensions (gender, age, ethnocultural identity, professional level, nature of field). It included art and science. It was unconferencey (though for me that was less of a draw, I've been attending unconference style conferences for some time). It had the Charm of the Triangle. It was not in Atlanta! It was a good conference. Thank you three for making that happen. It is a shame to see the project end.
(Quick note added: I now see Karyn is still very much involved but Anton as an advisor. Perhaps it was more Bora originally if my theory of losing the founders as having been important is correct.)
Added: This is a good run down of possible reasons for the demise of Science Online. I haven't seen anyone looking for "the cause" (I think most people in this community are beyond thinking so simplistically, we are science communicators and scientists after all) but most of the other points are worth checking out.
I hadn't heard. I wanted to come to SciOnline every year but was only able to swing it once. That one year, however, was one of the high points of the last decade of my life.
Yes, it was great seeing you there!
I am one who hopes it isn't completely dead, just very ill, and that it will be revived because I had hoped to make it to at least one of them.
I could offer some comments but a few random thoughts aren't really going to inform the discussion a heck of a lot. However as we (Genome Alberta) have been a sponsor for a few years now and had already committed to sponsor this year I will offer this much.
As a non-profit research funding organization we can't offer a lot of $$$ but we felt and still feel the whole area of science communications deserves attention, the conference was an excellent venue to discuss the challenges and highlight the successes, and it drew a broad enough audience in person and online to warrant support.
When the Bora incident blew up we never hesitated in our continued financial support. One person does not a conference make, and the actions of one doesn't diminish the work of many. Sure we talked about it in the office but withdrawing support was never seriously considered.
We can't afford to move this along on our own but we've already been in contact with a few scattered groups and individuals to see if there is a way to keep the content and the format moving along.
Thanks for raising the questions.
Mike, thanks for your comment. What you said, about continued support (thank you for that!) is similar to what I've heard privately from elsewhere (not your organization).
The demise of ScienceOnline leaves empty what used to be a vibrant niche. And niches have a tendency to be filled. I hope.
Thanks for this Greg - I was similarly struck by the complacency of "sad, but let's remember the great times" responses. I think you're right that, with most other meetings of this size and influence, the key stakeholders would want to know what was going on. This looks too much like people taking what they can from the organization, then moving on when the well's dry - although I really hope that isn't the case.
I don't want to touch on all the 'people' factors that may have affected this outcome, but I do think you're right that the move to Atlanta was significant. The Raleigh-area had a history with the conference and a loyal set of supporters/volunteers. Among my friends who travel, Atlanta is one of their LEAST favorite metropolitan destinations. If it had to move there were probably some better city choices.
Anyway, it's good to see most people writing are recalling the good times. The conference changed lives, changed science communication, and it was a phenomena with a good run. All the organizers ought be proud of what they accomplished!
Having lived for six years in Atlanta I would say it wasn't a bad choice. Convenient public transportation to and from the airport to the hotel, the presence of Emory University and Georgia Tech and slightly better weather than Raleigh during that time of the year would have been pluses. Plus there are plenty of things to do in that part of town, including easy walking-distance access to bars, restaurants and shopping. Unfortunately a lot of people's impressions of Atlanta are colored by never visiting the nicer parts of town, of which there are quite a few.
For those who haven't seen it, here's P.Z. Meyers' take on the subject, including the letter that went out from the board announcing the disbanding of the organization:
Greg, I assume you've seen that (and found that the board's explanation isn't entirely satisfactory) but others may not have.
I'd say that the very fact that there were "personal issues" afoot makes it clear that, in this day & age, people who are the public faces of science organizations have to be absolutely impeccable, with the self-discipline of Marines.
This paragraph of yours is the first fair rendering of the Bora situation I have seen. How great that you aren't one of the dittoheads. If only someone would do a reported story on this -- all that's been out there have been the screeching witch-hunters.
"Bora was accused, tried, and convicted of inappropriate behavior and forced to resign. The nature of that inappropriate behavior is up in the air, in the sense that people have labeled it with various legally meaningful terms that don’t actually apply, questions have been raised in the same venue as some of the accusations about the veracity of those accusations, and the entire exercise was riddled with posturing, hard feelings, look-at-me-too antics, and a certain amount of bullying, variously coming from some of the dramatic protagonists working from many different angles. There is a Standard Line that goes with the Bora Saga, and within a few weeks of the breaking of that story (almost one year ago, I believe) every one knew the Standard Line. At that point you eitherr towed it faithfully, objected to it anonymously, because questioning it openly felt like it would lead to your own trial and conviction."