Miscellaneous Science Online Stuff

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the What does Science Online Want to Be? post was received-- I kind of expected that to cause more anger than it did. It did prompt a lot of discussion, most of it during the dinner hour in Chateau Steelypips, so it was really hard for me to keep up. Given the volume of stuff and my inability to respond promptly, I thought I'd try to round up a few things here:

1) Kelly Hills's post on cons vs. conferences is very good. This is something I said myself after Science Online this past year-- it felt very much like a SF convention. In ways both good and bad, though when I said that I was thinking more about panel-running pathologies than harassment issues. Anyway, the post does a good job of laying out the distinction, and some of the things I meant when I said I thought the organization and the meeting needed to be a little more professional.

2) Mark Powell's post on being harassed by another man is a brave admission and useful cautionary tale: you may think you'd do something to stop it, but then again, you might not be able to.

3) There was a bit of surprised discussion on Twitter and Facebook over the suggestion that Science Online the meeting was not seen as entirely welcoming by everyone. And I have to agree that once I was there, the atmosphere was very friendly, despite the fact that I knew relatively few people going in.

However, the "once I was there" is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Most of the unwelcoming stuff comes before you get there, starting with the registration process, where small numbers of tickets were doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, becoming available at a very specific time and selling out within minutes. This is a great method if you're running a rock concert and trying to generate buzz, but it's a terrible, terrible way to run a professional meeting. It's very unwelcoming to people who have family or work responsibilities that make it difficult for them to block out time to be at the computer right at the magic moment when the tickets go on sale. This was further compounded last year by the fact that the registration system was very badly put together, and only seemed to work for people using certain types of mobile devices.

The root of this problem is the strict cap on the size of the meeting, which is what limited the number of tickets. Except people who were set to moderate program items got automatic invites, and those mostly went to a particular group of "insiders," people with high status in the community. This is also a problem, and many people on Twitter and Facebook spoke about feeling excluded in this way-- having a particular set of people granted automatic access while others scrabble for the few remaining spots creates a bad impression. Getting into that core community presents some barriers of its own, as vividly demonstrated last night-- people with young kids or clock-punching jobs may not be able to participate in the social media conversation at the right times and in the right ways to get "inside" status.

In discussion on Twitter I saw Karyn Traphagen (managing director of Science Online) say that this year they're implementing limits on the number of items a given participant can be on, which will at least spread those automatic invitations around a little more widely. Though that may actually make the scramble for the other tickets somewhat worse; tough to say.

4) That last is, of course, a major problem for the organization, in that a lot of people speak very passionately about the importance of the "intimate" feel of the meeting. Opening it up more widely would run the risk of diluting that, and to a lot of people that would ruin the "specialness" of the meeting.

I'd say there are two ways to go with this. One is to regretfully acknowledge that the specialness doesn't scale, and allow the meeting to become as large as it naturally wants to be. There are some things you can do to try to create a feeling of a smaller meeting-within-a-meeting-- topical interest groups and forums, smaller group sessions and the like-- but this is, obviously, a limited approach, and necessarily involves a bit of fragmentation. I'd argue that that's already happening to some degree-- I don't think I got anywhere near the Deep Sea News people, for example, despite their having an infamous party-- and accepting it would just be acknowledging reality.

The other option is, if the intimacy is essential, to own it. Be the TED of science blogging, an exclusive experience for only the few lucky enough to get to go. Fill the whole meeting by lottery, and put the program together after you know who's coming. Yeah, that means a given year might be missing some of the "rock stars," but there are enough really bright people in the community to get a good program by random selection. This isn't entirely consistent with the status as a professional event, but it would be a good deal more equitable than the current arrangement.

5) A number of people also seem to have taken my comments about the party atmosphere as some sort of puritanical objection to drinking. These people clearly have not met me, especially not at the 2013 meeting. I have no problem with drinking per se, and would be one of the people hanging out in the bar regardless.

The question is what kind of tone is being set, as an organization. If Science Online is going to function as a serious professional meeting, then it probably needs to step back a bit from the "great big party" image. Because while the social leveling effect of alcohol is appealing to many people, there are also a lot of people for whom that's a big turn-off.

This doesn't need to be a drastic change, either. I'm not saying to ban boozing completely-- that would make no sense, given my personal fondness for beer-- just to de-emphasize it a bit. Scale back the drinks at the official social events, arrange some informal social space that isn't a deafeningly loud lobby bar, and drop the alcohol references from the promotional materials. Take a more professional tone in presenting the meeting all the way around.

Again, this doesn't mean becoming a bunch of teetotalers-- there's plenty of social drinking at the physics conferences I go to, and I've had a great time going to pool halls in the small hours of the morning with folks at DAMOP. But there's also a clear sense in and around the meeting that this is a professional environment, and people are generally on good behavior. That wasn't really the feel at Science Online, which was fine for me, as I didn't have anything riding on anything that happened there. I could afford to treat it as just a party. A younger writer looking to make career-boosting connections, though, might see the whole thing differently, and if this is going to be a space where careers get shaped, that's maybe not the best way to do business.

6) Finally, I've seen occasional indignant comments about how the calls for changes to the management are unjust attacks on Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen, who have been involved in the running of the meeting from the start. To a point, I agree that it's unfortunate that their hard work has been tainted by association with Bora's harassing activities.

But the sad fact is that this has cast a lot of what they've done into doubt-- Janet Stemwedel's post about the doubts this has triggered is a powerful demonstration, and there's more in the ripples of doubt hashtag. Bora has been deeply involved in setting the program, and now there are numerous women wondering if he was selecting and promoting them for less than honorable reasons, while others who were denied spots are wondering the same from the other side. That's an incredibly toxic situation.

There really does probably need to be some change in the way the program is put together. That's going to be awkward, because the selection was apparently nearly done when this whole thing broke, and given what's gone down, they probably ought to go back to the beginning and start over. But that's a hard thing to ask at this stage.

In the future, it would probably be good to spread the programming responsibility around a little more widely, so it's not so strongly identified with a small group of individuals. The program for APS meetings is set by rotating committees of scientists from within the various divisions, who sort abstracts between talks and posters, set up sessions, and so on. That's overkill here-- even if you opened Science Online more widely, the number of program items isn't going to approach DAMOP, let alone a March Meeting-- but some borrowing wouldn't be a bad idea. Form a program committee of five to seven people, and rotate most of them regularly. If you think that Zuiker and Traphagen are essential to maintaining the tone of the meeting, which is arguable, then make them permanent members, but bring in other people as well, and mix those people up from year to year. That spreads responsibility around, and reduces the chance that any one person can poison the whole atmosphere.

I've also seen claims that this can't be done because it would be impossible to find people who weren't associated with Bora in some way. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a steaming pile of horseshit. There are plenty of people around who would be sufficiently independent of him to not be tainted by his legacy-- a handful of folks have been blogging since before he came on the scene (myself included, but don't take this as volunteering); other people have long histories in science communication and journalism that owe nothing to Bora (Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, etc.); other people have reason to be unhappy/ skeptical of Bora's influence (any of the women who were denied spots as mentioned above, or people like Kelly Hills who had some public disagreements with Bora); still others have enough personal integrity to be fine despite having been good friends with him (I'd put Janet Stemwedel in this category, for example). You can find people to take up those roles right now, and as time goes on, this will become much less of a problem.

Or, again, you could go full bore with the community thing. Put the program together by letting people vote on items to include. This would require a bit of tracking by subject, so as to ensure that it's not dominated by a couple of hot topics, but that's a logistical problem that can be solved. And that would leave no question of inappropriate influence in the program selection process.

So, that's the roundup of stuff I've been thinking about that doesn't fit on Twitter. And now, it's time to doze off in front of my Giants making another pathetic attempt to play football.

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