ScienceOnline’09 – interview with Arikia Millikan

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.
Today, I asked Arikia Millikan, the former Overlord here at, to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?
twitter_arikia1.jpgFirst and foremost, I consider myself a scientist, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. I studied the “hard sciences” throughout my education and scientific principles govern my outlook on the world. But my lab bench is my laptop and I mostly conduct observational studies on the way people use the Web to communicate.
I do experiments, too. I spent about eight months “Cat Herding” at ScienceBlogs, and that was a pretty major experiment. The variables were ideas as well as “physical” changes to the appearance and functionality of the network. Tweak this, upgrade that, measure the changes with analytics and user responses, update methods accordingly. Way better than the lab-coat variety, IMO, because while conducting my experiments, I got to play with awesome scientists online.
I’m also a communicator. I began my undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. The first week of classes, we were instructed to forget everything we ever learned about writing, because we were only going to perform “technical writing” from there on out. I didn’t like that. I remember thinking, “Science is hard enough for most people to understand, why would anyone purposely create a whole new language to further obfuscate the concepts, making it more abstract to the people who will eventually use products created by science?” So I got what I could from the program, which mostly was an ass-kicking in calc-based physics (but also a solid foundation in the fundamentals of computer programming), and my junior year I changed my major to psychology and joined the student newspaper. There I started the science beat and reported on scientific accomplishments and their societal implications.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I want to be someone who, in the future when people look back at the evolution of the Internet, they’ll say, “Arikia Millikan played an important part in how awesome this is today.” I’d also like – and this is my total pipe dream goal — to write a tech column for Wired. It’s the one publication I subscribe to in print and I read it cover-to-cover every month.
Most importantly, I want to be someone who never stops learning about and benefiting from technology. I am not going to be the old curmudgeon musing about what new technologies the young whippersnappers are in a frenzy about at any given moment. I think that, in the process of learning, some people acquire mental blocks where they think they can’t learn new things, and this can be a very damaging state of mind. I’m 22 right now and I think I’m pretty quick to use and adapt to new gadgets, computer programs, and Web features as they emerge. But I want to be just as adept when I’m 72, Moore’s Law be damned.
What is your Real Life job?
I’m funemployed! I have an assortment of freelance jobs and gigs that keep me mentally occupied and sustain my existence in New York City. The project I’m the most excited about right now is that I’m working with Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, as his research assistant. He’s in the process of writing a book about statistical predictions and there’s a large focus on science. So basically, I get to travel around the country accompanying him on interviews with the most awesome scientists I can find. Besides that, I build websites, I have a handful of top-secret projects I work on sporadically with some really talented people in Brooklyn, and I write things occasionally. Working with Nate, I’ve realized that I’d like to write a lot more. I’ve always been someone who has a lot to say, but sometimes it’s hard to say it when you’re constantly in the presence of scientific greatness. It’s like, who am I to write on a topic when there are tons of people already doing it way better than I ever could? I guess it’s kind of a lame excuse. I’ll try to try more and see what happens.
internets.jpgOh, and I pick up shifts here and there at The Internet Garage, a grungy public computer lab in Williamsburg, the hipster sector of Brooklyn. I provide Internet and technical support for customers and help them use the equipment here, all of which is either crappy or broken. It’s a pretty hilarious place. Most people think it’s a drug front. I assure you that it’s not, though the owners don’t seem to be remotely concerned with turning a profit. I kind of want to write a screenplay about the IG someday.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
Well, it’s the field of communication via the use of the Web as a science that interests me the most. The fact that the topic of conversation in the networks I study is science is just a bonus, really. On a recent trip to MIT with Nate, we met Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. He talked to us about the emergent field of Web Science and drew us a circular flow chart that I’m going to frame and mount on my wall. Web Science is different than Computer Science in that it takes human behavior online into account and examines the way our behavior shapes the development of the Web itself. That’s the stuff that really gets me going. I want to know everything there is to know about this field.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?
Blogging and social networking tools are the subject of my work. They enable the individual to simultaneously be consumers of content and providers, and that’s a really powerful concept. I don’t blog too much myself, though I do use all of the above social networking tools on a daily basis. My primary use of them is personal, but it blurs with the professional. I don’t think the two necessarily have to be separate, and I think with the way voluntary information sharing is heading, it will soon be impossible to keep them separate. I think a lot of people are adamant about using sites like Twitter to enhance their professional careers and propagate their viewpoints, and that’s awesome. But I’m 22 and living in the craziest city in the world. Sometimes a girl just needs to Tweet about a guy she just saw with full-face tattoos or a gambling adventure in a speakeasy bar. The question Twitter begs to know is “What are you doing?” after all.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
cat herder.jpgTo be honest, I discovered them when the magazine intern position I applied for with Seed Media Group was filled, but they had an opening with this thing called “ScienceBlogs”. The first time I looked at the ScienceBlogs homepage, I had no idea what it was all about, and this turned out to be a large source of motivation in my work there. I figured that if I couldn’t tell what the deal with the site was or intuitively access the best and most relevant content, most other people couldn’t either. So I accepted the internship and set out to try to make ScienceBlogs better. In that process, I discovered that there was a more effective way for me to further scientific communication than by directly doing the communicating. And now I hope to make that my career.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
Attending ScienceOnline 2009 showed me that, though the Internet is a big, mysterious place where there are tons of opportunities for deception, people are generally who you would expect them to be. To “know” someone online, and then meet them in real life, you get insight into layers of one’s personality that, in the past, you may not have had access to. It makes just as much sense sometimes that a person has the exact opposite temperament online that they do IRL, than if their online and offline personalities are one and the same. Attending ScienceOnline last year reinforced the human component of what I do. Because, though it is about traffic and numbers and economics, the best part is knowing that you’re helping someone achieve his or her goals of science communication.
Thank you so much. See you again in January at ScienceOnline2010!
See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.