Field of Science

Science Online 2011 ramblings

By now, about every aspect of Science Online has been thoroughly blogged and overblogged, so for a comprehensive review, see the Science Online 2011 website, namely the Blog and Media Coverage page. I don't think I have much to add, but I'll ramble anyway. After all, this is why I have a blog, right? Plagued by an epic writer's block lately though, so lower your expectations accordingly. Even more so than you should normally when approaching this place. In fact, since this has been sitting in my drafts folder for about four five six days, I'm just going to hit random parts of the keyboard and hope the result resembles English somehow, while torturing you with a sequence of cumbersome, poorly linked clauses, so I can get back to regular blogging, ideally with readable sentences that time.

Cheesy as it sounds, the highlight of the conference was definitely the people. In a way, it's more of a 'reunion' than a conference sensu stricto, as some put it. A major aim of the conference is to humanise the blogosphere, as knowing each other personally should make the environment more pleasant and less aggressive, and I think it works. Without knowing the physical entity behind an online alias, it is sometimes easy to find yourself carried away with something they wrote, as opposed to evaluating the person as a whole. We all have our quirky opinions, and we all write stuff from time to time that can piss off someone, somewhere. Sometimes it's too easy to get fixated on a single idea you find personally irritating, and forget that there is more to the poster than that one comment. Knowing each other in a more personal manner could diffuse some of those conflicts.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little of the general blogosphere drama carried over into the physical conference. People generally seem more chill offline. Maybe I was just oblivious to the real picture, as I usually am (drama usually passes by me without even acknowledging my existence – I guess that has its own perks), but everyone was really friendly and full of energy. Combine that with Deep Sea partying and North Carolinean hospitality*, and great times were had!

*I'll ramble about 'surprising' non-homogeneity of North American cultures in a later post...

The group of attendees was surprisingly diverse in the professional/occupational sense, including a range from students and scientists to full-time writers and journalists to PIOs and librarians and some people behind things like PLoS and Mendeley. There were those with various artistic talents, from science illustration (eg @flyingtrilobite/Glendon Mellow) to music (eg. Adrian and Kevin's GFAJ-1 Arsenic Blues – though that recording does not do it justice) and comedy (@sciencecomedian/Brian Malow). Being somewhat locked up in the ivory tower by this point, it was great to meet people with real jobs who actually talk to people outside academia. Science Online is also unusual in that everyone was on a fairly even level, regardless of professional rank. Your professional hierarchy and reputation were irrelevant since there was hardly anyone from your own field. Thus, faculty, students, librarians, writers, postdocs, etc all spoke on equal ground, which was a wonderful experience in itself. As much as some try to suppress hierarchy at traditional academic conferences, it's still clearly there, and your rank in the field does matter. At Science Online, your online presence was more important, but that hierarchy is, thankfully, less rigid, and still rather nebulous in concept.

The use of Twitter at the conference was rather's as if between all the smaller discussions and conversations in the physical realm was a broader conversation in the electromagnetic waves of Twitterland. The badges had a place for one's Twitter handle, along with a QR code for the website. It's as if we had multiple identities, and I did for sure. I went by my blogger alias (shocking plot twist: Psi Wavefunction is not my legal name ;p) since that's how people know me online. Given that, I still preferred by real name in offline conversations. Which made it even more awkward. Some people insisted on calling me Psi – I don't mind at all, but it was odd to be called by something other than my real name!

I won't even try to go over all the highlights regarding people and events, but I'll just casually mention some snippets, in a totally random manner and order. Mostly my own reactions to them, since others have already discussed the topics in greater detail (and insight).

First off, our keynote was Robert Krulwich, a journalist and co-host of Radiolab. In attempting to attract an audience who typically think they don't care about science, they have a very interesting approach to explaining complicated topics: acting stupid. Stupider than their listeners. We like feeling smarter than others, so it often works better when the teacher (sensu lato) speaks the language of a novice rather than an expert, and asks such questions of the guest experts that the audience would never 'stoop' to. Ie, very basic questions, prodding for very basic answers in return. That way, the audience doesn't feel like material is dumbed down for them (which may feel somewhat insulting, and definitely distanced), but rather for the host, ie Krulwich. Of course, there is also much humour involved, and the programmes are, as a result, entertaining. It's amazing what these people can do, as it is incredibly difficult to convince someone a topic is interesting once they've made up their mind it's not. Making it relevant is not enough – making it relevant and fun, without the feeling of distance (and definitely not lecturing!) is an art, and one we really need more of.

* This happened around hour 56** since I last had sleep, so I shamefully admit to not processing much information at that point

**let's see, got up around 9ish on Tuesday, hung out + packed all night, went to Seattle on Wed, hung out, flew out Wed night, horribly packed flight with stopover at Washington DC, too short to sleep much, arrived at RDU on Thu around 9am, couldn't check in or sleep, keynote around 8pm...yeah. Must've been a zombie by that point.

Went to the history of science panel, where we underlined the importance of understanding the context of scientific discoveries, and the richness that the extra dimension (time) adds to scientific stories overall. And historical context provided properly, not crudely mocking the past thinkers for coming up with such "ridiculous" hypotheses. Probably most of the stuff we think today will be laughed at in a couple centuries or so, if we as a species make it that far. The historical aspect includes not only the history of one's field, but also the sociopolitical context of the time, since science is not this purely 'objective' holy thing independent of human thought; science is a human process, and thus carries with it the stamps of every generation's worldviews. It can only make more sense that way. Where possible, good science writing should happen in four dimensions.

With John Logsdon and Julie we directed a discussion on improving public outreach for small and/or obscure "micro"-disciplines, with emphasis on internet presence. I'll make a separate post on this topic later.

I was also on a panel my awesome co-moderators on beginning blogging and issues like the impostor syndrome, which was a great lot of fun. Others have blogged about it already, and I'll add the links once I find them (soooo many #scio11 posts to catch up on...!).

There is currently some talk about compromised diversity in the blogosphere, but we must keep in mind that we are biased by being an anglophone blogsphere, and the conference was in North Carolina, which was difficult to get to even for those of us on the other coast, let alone from overseas. I personally doubt pushing labels could help much, and think the problem, where it truly exists, lies deeper than online presence. Yes, some races/ethnicities/groups are underrepresented in the English-speaking blogosphere, but that may have something to do with the same races/ethnicities/groups being underrepresented in the educational system in general, and not with the internet or the community.

When I read blog posts, I pay very little attention to the background of who writes them, aside from their field of expertise/activity. If I find the stories interesting, I'll read them regardless of the gender of the author, and I don't feel particularly obliged to read a story I wouldn't otherwise touch simply due to their background. On the internet, it is especially easy to be truly 'colourblind' (in the metaphorical sense too), since you don't even see the author unless you look. So the issues with diversity online are probably a direct result of the problems offline, which are much harder to fix with online means. Maybe instead of focusing on the skewed diversity of bloggers, we should first look at how blogging can help the problem closer to its root. Eg, are underprivileged groups even reading any of our stuff in the first place, and if so, what can we do to be more useful to them, etc.

But I'm not sure it's entirely helpful to start shelving ourselves into categories like "female blogger" or "white blogger" or whatever. I don't particularly care for being read as a "female immigrant Russian atheist blogger". I would prefer to be read as some person whose writing people occasionally find interesting. My background would be a digression, perhaps interesting for my regular readership, but far from necessary for the main goal. But then again, maybe as a scientist I underestimate the average reader's desire to understand the blogger's character – would love for my readership to chime in on this!

Anyway, those were my [somewhat obligatory] two cents on the diversity issue, and I'll probably leave the discussion there. It's not that I don't care, but rather that such topics are not my forte, so I prefer to lurk quietly. But, by all means, feel free to discuss here!

And lastly, before I forget, some nebulous panel ideas for #scio12:
- Online presence of non-English languages
- Issues/specifics of niche blogging
- Dealing with "writer's block" (successfully, unlike Upper 1974 J Appl Behav Anal)
- Making the most of course blogs

Next up, eventually I'll put up some pictures from the overall east coast journey. And post some fucking protists, at last! =D

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