Making it real: People and Books and Web and Science at ScienceOnline2010

You cannot see the feedback that many participants at ScienceOnline2010 have already provided to Anton and me (keep them coming – we take the responses very seriously), but the recurring theme for the “highlight of the conference” question was “Meeting the People”; and the main request for the future is “provide more time for informal conversations”.
You will see even more of that kind of sentiment if you peruse the growing list of blog coverage. Or glean it from photographs posted on Flickr and Picasa here, here, here, here and here. Or on YouTube videos here and here.
While Early Bird Dinner, Friday Workshops, Coffee Cupping, Lab/Museum Tours, Friday gala, long lunch breaks, evenings at the hotel bar, and Saturday banquet were all good opportunities for mingling and schmoozing and networking, obviously people crave even more, and we will try to make sure to provide even more such opportunities next year. Your suggestions as to how to do this are welcome.
As the conference is growing, each year I get to meet many people I have only interacted online before. And for over 90% of them, as soon as they walk in I recognize them from their pictures on blogs and Facebook or their Twitter avatars, and squeal and jump and hug them as if seeing a long-lost friend. That is exactly how it feels. Some online denizens spill a lot of their personal life, glories and worries, on their blogs. But even those who write ‘serious’ blogs and never post anything personal or introspective, perhaps do not realize how much of their personality seeps through between the lines. And it is quite incredible how offline personalities match online personalities – no matter how hard one tries to concoct an artificial online persona, the real person comes through and is recognizable in Real Life at first Hello.
There were 267 people there. If I spent an hour with everyone, that would take almost two weeks with little-to-no sleep. Not having that much time, I at least tried to say Hello to everyone (almost succeeded!). Even a brief handshake and a smile is enough to put a human face to an online name and to make future online interactions more meaningful.
The importance of meeting online friends in real life is something that Anton Zuiker has instilled in all us locals here over the years. The BlogTogether is his brainchild – the unofficial organization of local (Triangle NC) bloggers that has over the years organized numerous meetups, Long Tables, and conferences, including the 2005 Bloggercon (where Anton and I first met – he was wondering who this n00b was sitting next to Dave Winer, not that I had any idea at the time who Dave Winer was), 2006 Podcastercon, and the four ScienceOnline conferences in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Out of the small band of early adopters in the region grew a huge community of people who use the Web in various ways. And everyone craves the human touch and face-to-face contact. Just check the Social Carolina calendar – so many opportunities for online folks to meet in meatspace. There is a regular Triangle Tweetup, and Ignite Raleigh and soon the first TEDxRTP, there are monthly Techie Tuesdays at the RTP headquarters, not to mention all the smaller ad hoc gatherings. More specifically to science, there is now a large organization of Science Communicators of North Carolina, most of whom do at least part of their work online, and we have recently started Science In The Triangle website and blog where we announce, and subsequently report, on science and technology events and news in the area.
We kicked off the conference program on Saturday morning with a session on the importance of meatspace, science freelancing, science motels and coworking. One of the moderators of that session, Brian Russell, runs Carrboro Creative Coworking space, and the PRC building where we held the Friday workshops was just waiting for the conference to be over before it undergoes a complete redesign and renovation to become the second coworking space in the Triangle, focused on science and technology. The importance of face-to-face interactions was noted in several other sessions. And the BlogTogether spirit permeated the entire meeting.
Who would have thunk that books would be such a hit at a gathering of Web evangelists (many of whom probably have Kindles and are salivating at the prospect of laying their hands on the iSlate)! But it was. There were two sessions dedicated to the topic, both often mentioned as “my favourite session” by the attendees. See some excellent coverage of those by Jennifer, Morgan, Eric and an entire series of posts by Brian.
Months ago, when I was putting together the program schedule and trying to assign rooms for session, I did not predict that books would be such a hot topic. It is totally my mistake, for which I apologize, for assigning one of these sessions to the small room.
The books included in the swag bags were quite a hit – and not just with us old fogies, but also with the younger set: Miss Baker’s high school students who went home with quite a loot! A number of people brought books for the book-exchange table in the back of the room, and if I am correct, all the books found new owners.
Many book authors were present, as well as bloggers who snagged book deals recently. Several brought (or had their publishers send) free copies of their books to the conference and were at the ready to sign them for the lucky winners. Durham’s Regulator Bookshop sold many copies of Michael Specter’s ‘Denialism’ and Felice Frankel’s ‘No Small Matter’ at the Friday Gala and ten lucky attendees at the gala got copies of ‘Denialism’ by raffle.
During Saturday banquet, books (including more ‘Denialism’ and ‘No Small Matter’, several copies of ‘Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’ by Tom Levenson, ‘The Carbon Age’ by Eric Roston, ‘The Tangled Bank’ by Carl Zimmer, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ by Henry Gee, and several copies of 2006, 2007 and 2008 editions of Open Laboratory anthologies) went to the winners of Twitter Trivia Contest held in-between Ignite talks. The questions were about stuff said at the meeting earlier in the day and the guests tweeted their answers. We could all see on the screen who got the correct answers first. Some answers were very funny, and the people following from outside were confused with a flurry of short, seemingly meaningless tweets referring to duck penises and such. The toughest question was “what do Anton and Bora drink to celebrate the successful ending of the conference each year?” – only four people got it right (slivovitz – the fastest tweeter was John McKay, probably the person at the conference I waited the longest to finally meet in person – six years!) and no, it’s not Carl Zimmer’s blood.
On Friday, everyone signed the conference board and those whose signatures were covered by the dice won the remaining books:
signed board.jpg
Finally, those who could not get the books by luck, had to resort to blackmail
So, why are dead-tree books so popular with the online set? No idea! But perhaps there is something real about a book that kindles and slates and tablets and iPhones don’t have. Just like a conversation with a person while sitting at the same table feels more real than the conversation with the same person online (though the online dialogue may well be much more information-rich), it seems like a book feels more real than the electronic book reader. Both are objects of about the same size and weight, both have words on a page to be read – yet there is something more intimate about the paper book. You may read an eBook on an airplane or during daily commute on a train, but you want an old-timey book to take with you to the beach, or to snuggle with at home under the covers. Will that feeling disappear in another generation or two? I don’t know.
But if this sentiment persists for another year, perhaps we can organize something more next year, perhaps find all the published authors in the list of registrants in advance and get copies of everyone’s book for giveaways and other stuff – suggestions are welcome.
One thing that happened between last year’s conference and this one was the explosion of Twitter. While collecting information about all the participants I also linked to their Twitter accounts and put together a Twitter List of all the participants. Obviously, a very large proportion of attendees were going to use Twitter, and many others were curious to follow the proceedings using this channel.
Anticipating this, we determined the hashtag (#scio10) early on and started our own Twitter account which, with 568 followers, obviously attracted many more people than just the participants.
In previous years, wifi was nice, but (except for moderators/presenters) not necessary. But this year, with everyone trying to tweet, wifi was essential. So we hired the pros – the amazing guys from SignalShare who made sure we were swimming in bandwidth and will also provide us with stats in a couple of weeks, which we may share with you later – for now: we transmitted 25 gigabytes of data over 2 days!
Not just that everyone could tweet and liveblog at all times, but session moderators got bold and logged into SecondLife in one session, and Skyped in guest speakers in two sessions (Science And Entertainment, and Open Access in the Developing World) without a glitch. Not to mention that (almost) all sessions were recorded (videos will be on YouTube shortly – a professional is editing them right now) and several were livestreamed on Ustream and a couple into SecondLife.
twitterscreen at RTP HQ.jpg
[Twitter Board at the RTP headquarters on Friday night]
Dr.Free-Ride was voted to be the best live-tweeter of the conference and has blogged some interesting thoughts about the experience (as well as a whole series of posts containing well organized collections of her tweets from each session – a good way to save the tweets forever). Check out also what Dave Munger wrote about it, as well as Chris Brodie’s links to (and evaluation of) various ways to find stored tweets (apparently almost 7000 of them, and still going strong three days after the meeting).
twitterscreen at SigmaXi.jpg
[Live Twitter screen]
Interestingly, our FriendFeed room was not used as much, considering that scientists and science bloggers tend to love it and use it a lot. I guess the purchase of FriendFeed by Facebook led many people to abandon the service although it is still, IMHO, the best venue for live online coverage of conferences. We’ll see what future brings – Google Wave?
Twitter itself was mentioned in many sessions as one of the tools people use to do, teach or communicate science. Considering that it was mentioned in only one session last year, this is a huge change. Now that Twitter is more of a way of talking than a company, something twitter-like is likely here to stay.
We started and ended the conference with sessions on diversity in science online and offline, both of which got high marks from everyone who attended. Here, I only want to note that out of 269 people who registered at the door (or did not, but were reliably spotted by two or more witnesses, or locals who did not register but crashed the meeting and we know them well), 133 were men and 134 were women. This is a rare parity at tech, bloggy or science conferences. And it felt that way – comfortable for all. Also, we had 10 attendees younger than 18 and, if I am correct, two older than 70 – and every possible age in-between.
Overarching Themes
It is interesting how the conference evolved over the past four years. The first meeting was all about blogging – all sessions and conversations were about the way people use blogs to do, teach and communicate science. Most of the people gathered back in 2007 were bloggers. But things have changed over time…more about it in a second.
The 2008 meeting started expanding from blogs to other stuff scientists and those interested in science do online. If there was a theme, it was Activism – how to use blogs and other online tools to push back against enemies of reason and also how to influence the influentials (especially elected officials at various levels).
The 2009 meeting had one huge underlying theme – that of Power. But the other big theme then was Openness. We talked a lot about everything Open – from Open Notebook Science to Open Access Publishing. It was an appropriate year to have a lot of focus on it as this was the time when Open Access movement made huge strides, many scientists first became aware of Open Access and what it is, and many scientists were first made aware of the bankruptcy of the Impact Factor.
Since then, the emotions about it have calmed down a little bit – there is a sense that “good guys won” (the NIH open access mandate, the domino effect of Harvard’s OA mandate, huge growth in participation in OA week around the globe, enormous growth in the number of OA journals, etc.) and that we can now talk calmly about building the future system together. A number of people, including representatives of Nature and Elsevier, told me (or tweeted or mentioned in their feedback forms) that they really liked the session led by Pete Binfield on article-level metrics – instead of being combative (PLoS rulz!), it was a constructive discussion of strategies for moving forward all together to make the publishing world better adapted to the modern world.
As ScienceOnline is a modified Unconference – see this post for the detailed explanation of how we build the program – the content tends to reflect the composition of the meeting. First two years, the meeting was dominated by bloggers. Third by Open Access Evangelists. This one? Three groups, really: the ocean bloggers (not so much numerically as the fact that they are highly visible…, audible), the librarians, and, biggest cohort of all: science and medical journalists and writers.
As the Program grew on a wiki page with potential attendees suggesting sessions and volunteering to lead them, this year’s Program matched the profile of the group. Thus, there is no surprise that a couple of sessions, a couple of demos and an Ignite talk had marine themes. Likewise for sessions about librarianship and databases and reference managers.
But what was noticeable was lots and lots of sessions on the media and journalism. Which is perfectly fitting – 2009 was a year of great turmoil in the world of journalism, including science/medical journalism, with newspaper folding, journalists losing jobs and vigorous discussions about the future media ecosystems occuring throughout the year in various online and offline venues. This WAS the perfect year to have a focus on the media.
For the best coverage of the media ‘track’, see Ed Yong before and after, Christine Ottery before and after, David Dobbs, DeLene Beeland before and after and some more after, Andria Krewson, Sabine Vollmer, Ryan Somma, Janet Stemwedel and Eric Johnson.
What about my prediction that this year’s theme will be Trust? I think it was right. The word was used over and over again in many sessions, in various meanings, but mainly in the context of journalists and scientists (especially blogging scientists) eyeing each other with semi-suspicion and trying to (re)learn to trust each other. This world is changing, and the establishment of trust between these two formerly warring parties is a necessity. It was great to see the entire journalistic track start with Ed Yong opening his session with “Bloggers vs. Journalists is over – we will not talk about that, let’s move on”. And that sentiment remained with us throughout the meeting (perhaps meeting face-to-face engenders trust). During the provocative and excellent session on “Which scientists should journalists trust?” led by Connie St.Louis and Christine Ottery (who shared with me the 1st prize for Bounciest Happiest Energizer Bunny of #scio10), some outside onlookers on Twitter tried to inject the bloggers vs. journalists division into the conversation (something like “but bloggers can never be journalists”) and it was wonderful to see several people in the room politely (or is it civilly?) counter that (OK, OK, it was delicious to watch the wicked smack-downs by the likes of Ed Yong and Brian Switek).
But there are several other themes this year besides Trust, Bloggers vs. Journalists is over, and Importance of Meatspace and they are all related to each other in a way. One of them we shall perhaps call Integration.
Blog is software. If you search my blog for that phrase (or similar) you will find several instances of it. I was happy to see that phrase quoted on Twitter in another session and also happy to see Carl Zimmer repeat it at the beginning of his session. Blog is a tool, a medium. Like every other medium, it affects the form and format and the message. But it is not in itself a different means of communication. Corporate blogs and science blogs and political action blogs and personal blogs all have very different tones. It doesn’t matter.
One reason this meeting did not feel like a bloggers’ conference, unlike the previous ones, is that most people in attendance have by now gone beyond the idea of ‘being a blogger’, whatever that means. Whatever one does – scientific research, or science publishing, or science teaching, or science journalism, or freelance writing, etc, these days one needs to use a whole plethora of tools, only one of which is a blogging software. To succeed in this business, one cannot be a single-medium person any more. One has to use both the traditional channels of communication – books, scientific journals, popular science magazines, newspapers, photography, art, radio, television, movies – and the new communications technologies – websites, blogs, wikis, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, photoshop, art Tablets, podcasts, videos, etc. and combine most or all of them in one’s work.
Which explains why there was so much energy in the dialogue between people whose background is in Old Media and those who first entered the world of communication in the New Media, usually as bloggers. The two groups were eager to learn from each other how to best use each other’s tools. This may also explain why there was so much interest in the sessions about the book business – scientists who entered communication by becoming bloggers are now looking to expand into some of the more traditional realms because the non-techie segments of the population still use (and trust more!) the traditional channels. The Web-savvy scientists eager to improve the way science is reported, explained and presented in the media, in order to make the society more scientific, are intent on penetrating the traditional media – from books to newspapers to radio to Hollywood – in order to improve it from within by bringing their expertise into it.
Another big difference between previous three meetings and this one, in my opinion, is a switch from pure communication to Engagement. What do I mean by that? Everything we discussed in the previous years was geared toward a goal of making the information available and making sure people get it – that is a one-to-many approach: we are the experts, you are the non-experts, listen to us! This year, everyone was exploring the ways to get people engaged in some action. We had several sessions and demos covering a whole range of Citizen Science projects, in which communication tools were not just a way for scientists to talk to an audience, but for the public to get engaged in science – to do science. The scientists and journalists were exploring ways to engage each other more deeply (the Talking Trash session was a great example of this), Anil Dash was trying to figure out how to get people engaged in giving expertise to the government and affect policy, Nate Silver and Arikia Millikan were interested in scientifically studying how to best engage with people online, etc.
Most clear example of this shift between the past years and this one was the session by Miss Baker and her students. Last year she was teaching in a high school in Baltimore and her eight students from there came to the conference to tell us how they use online tools. That is, how they find, read and evaluate the scientific information we put out there – a more-or-less passive reading process. This year, students from her new school in Staten Island did something completely different: they showed us how they do stuff online, how they study the Web, how they design educational materials, make videos, run blogs, design computer games, and what criteria they find important in estimating the potential success of their projects with their peers. I don’t think these kids are any different from the kids we saw last year, or that they grew up in much different environments. I think it is just the case that the world of the Web has changed in the past year in a way that crossed over a threshold from expert=>non-expert communication (with potential for feedback in comments, sure) to a ‘we can all help each other become experts’ way of thinking and doing things, where experts are there more in an advisory role than as lecturers.
What will be the theme next year? Who knows, too early to tell. But it will be affected by the composition of the registrants, so start thinking now and recruiting your friends and colleagues now.
The Unconference
Our conference is growing (roughly 130, 170, 210 and 270 people attended them in the past four years respectively). We like it that way. We like to bring in fresh blood, not just have a reunion each year. But this also means that many of the n00bs at the meeting have never experienced an Unconference before. Some instantly fall in love with the format. But others find its perceived lack of structure uncomfortable (and pick Keynote, workshops, Ignite and demos as their faves in the feedback form). When I hear a complaint that the ‘audience hijacked the session from the moderator’ I think to myself “Great – that session was in the true unconference spirit”.
It is the job of the audience to NOT let the person on stage drone on. This is why the people on the stage are called moderators, not speakers. Most of our audience grokked this fast, and of course many have already been to unconferences before, either ours, or Scifoo, or various other Bar Camps etc. This year’s sessions, at least those I saw myself, were all highly participatory. And we want them that way.
The trick is how to get new people to understand the concept beforehand and embrace it. How to make sure that all the moderators are up to speed with the concept and able to function as moderators in it? What can be done online in advance to help that transition? How can the conference begin so everyone ‘gets it’ fast? Suggestions are welcome.
The fact that the conference is growing so fast means there are now many people who have attended it at least once and, perhaps with this experience under their belts, can moderate sessions next year. We hope that over the years the unconference format becomes so ubiquitous at conferences of all kinds that nobody will be surprised by it any more.
Plans for the Future
Yes, we have started planning already ;-)
The first big question is growth. There were 267 people here this year. There were 168 on the waitlist (though some of these managed to get in, but most did not). There is a huge interest in attending future meetings. What do we do? How big can the conference get before it loses its fun and intimate atmosphere? If we allow it to grow, where do we do it? We love Sigma Xi – it is so….scientific! Would a new venue that can hold more people be as nice?
As I said at the Friday event, before Michael Specter’s talk, we are not moving the conference to another town. There are good reasons we want to have this meeting permanently in the Triangle area: the incredible scientific community and an incredible online community, plus infrastructure and….well, I don’t want to move ;-)
People who want to organize a ‘franchise’ elsewhere should be free to do so – just contact us if you want to tap into our experience and expertise in organizing such an event. The ScienceOnline London version of the event is already going strong, planning for the third meeting this June. In 2011, there will be ScienceOnline Belgrade in Serbia. Anyone else who wants to organize it somewhere else, let us know.
Timing? We traditionally do this during the MLK, Jr weekend mainly because it is the time when the smallest number of other (scientific, skeptical, techie, etc.) meetings are taking place in any given year. But we will re-evaluate this – moving the conference to a later date, or to workdays instead of weekend, are ideas on the table for us to think about.
Thanks to everyone who has already filled the feedback form – we will read and re-read and analyze these carefully. We do it every year and use your feedback to make the next event even better. Stay in touch.

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12 responses to “Making it real: People and Books and Web and Science at ScienceOnline2010

  1. Wish I’d been there!

  2. Fascinating post, Bora. Plenty of excellent advice for other would-be conference organisers.

  3. Well said, Bora – a magisterial summary of a fabulous weekend. You, sir, are The Man. My question is – do you and Anton get to have a vacation now? Not to mention the long suffering Mrs Z. and the other Zivkovicii? You’re always welcome to come to Cromer to hug a restorative dog. I sometimes find this helpful.

  4. hi Bora,
    I can’t say enough how impressed I am with the event you and Anton, David, and many others created and managed.
    As to the unconference spirit, I wonder if our obsessive use Twitter made the sessions less interactive than they might otherwise have been. I know when I’m focused on typing, I’m oblivious to what’s happening in the room and it seemed pretty clear that was happening to others, too, as they appeared to become more like a transcriptionist than participant.
    Thanks once again!

  5. Bora, I was so honored to be a part of the conference this year. What an incredible group of people! It was a great pleasure to meet (and in some cases to see again) so many of the people doing wonderful and important (not to mention cutting edge and sexy) work, including all of the fabulous bloggers that I love to read. Every single person who participated in the conference deserves a big Thank You, particularly those who took on the responsibility of doing the some of the work that made the conference happen (there are far too many names to mention, but everybody (including the shuttle drivers) should know that every bit of work contributed to making something great happen.
    I’ve been to philosophy conferences, writing conferences, nursing conferences and for me, the Big one: The American Society for Bioethics and Humanities conference. Everybody should take a minute and think of the other conferences they routinely attend. In my experience, no other conference gives so much and asks for so little (in terms of money and services). Science Online does ask that participants bring their ideas, open minds, and be prepared to engage in meaningful discourse. But what other conference picks you up/drops you off at the airport? Shuttles you around for free? Feeds you (without an additional charge)? Clearly, you have intentionally done away with as many financial barriers as possible to put on this conference and worked very hard to ensure the highest possible degree of comfort. And it shows. Hopefully in the future we will continue to see even greater diversity.
    I would like to say to your readers that this conference didn’t take a year to plan. It is the culmination of a lifetime commitment to ideas, communication, science, and people. You and Anton are the dynamic duo with super-human energy, unselfishness and commitment. Bora, you fill me with nachas. It is a tremendous honor to be your partner.

  6. Great overview of the weekend, I enjoyed the conference. Thanks for letting me help out a bit.

  7. Thanks everyone for a wonderful and inspirational weekend :) Bora, you are amazing!! Truly the King of the Internets!

  8. I’d like to have mini Scio meetups, preferably over drinks and food, here in NYC. I’ll even offer to help organize it – with a partner or three of course.

  9. Bora, Great summary/analysis of the meeting! This was almost certainly the best, most fun, most energizing conference I’ve attended. I’m so glad I got to participate. The unconference aspect, to me, was wonderful. I felt completely comfortable contributing to discussions, which is not always the case at other meetings. Hope to see you next year!

  10. Bora, during SciOn2010 I was in Belgrade but I was reading your blog every now and than…I felt so excited, knowing that ScienceOnline2010 was gathering so many interesting people science world. This long report is very very good, and I think we will make it next year as you said…
    Best regards,

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