Category Archives: Workplace

How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Yesterday I skyped into Czerne Reid’s science journalism class at University of Florida to talk about breaking into science writing as a profession, and especially the use of blogs and social media as tools for accomplishing that goal.

Just a few days before that, as a part of our regular Question Time in preparation for our panel at WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, we tackled the same question:

What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?

Rose Eveleth collected and organized the responses we received on Twitter (using hashtag #sci4hels), but here I’d like to provide, all in one place, a bunch of links to resources, other people’s thoughts about it, and a few brief thoughts of my own.

Ways of becoming a science writer

There are two basic trajectories: one more traditional, which I like to call “vertical”, and the other one I call “horizontal” which, though it happened with individual writers for a long time, seems to be a much more frequent, if not dominant trajectory these days.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. They major in journalism in college (perhaps double-major in a science as well), work on their school paper, start internships early in their local papers (or radio or TV stations), then go to a Master’s program in science journalism. By the time they graduate from that, they already have lots of experience, several internships, many clips, perhaps some local awards, and are ready to start making a living as staff writers or freelancers.

The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers. The most direct horizontal trajectory involves starting a science blog while still doing research, becoming known for good writing there, then start pitching stories for online (and later print) magazines, and gradually leaving the lab bench and starting to make a living by writing alone. Brian Switek, John Timmer and Ed Yong are probably the best known examples of people who took this path. Heck, I am one of those examples, too. Many more are somewhere along that trajectory right now.

Of course, those are extremes, too neatly cut apart. Many people will do something in the middle, combining the two approaches in some way. For example, they may pursue a career in research while also taking summer internships at science magazines, or editing the science section of the college newspaper. Some may major in science, then go to j-school for Masters. Also, not all of the new entries into science writing are young. Sure, some make the switch after college or Masters in science, but others make the switch later, after getting a PhD, or finishing a postdoc, or after years of teaching as adjunct faculty with no hope of ever getting a tenure track position, or even after many years as full faculty, once grant money dries out and there are no more resources to keep running the lab.

Either way, there comes a time when one becomes a professional science writer/journalist and has to make a living that way. What does one need to do to succeed?

Understanding the new media ecosystem

It is important to be aware that 20th century media ecosystem is a very unusual aberration in the way people communicated throughout history. Means of production were expensive. Very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence.

Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free.

This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There is only so much time and energy anyone can invest into consumption of the media. In the flood of information coming out every second, how does one get science to the audience? Specialized science media outlets cannot see each other as competition any more – they are now collaborators, helping each other toward the same goal: trying to, at least occasionally, displace trivia, Hollywood gossip, and dangerous pseudoscience with good science news. Individual science writers, as equal participants in the media ecosystem, should do the same: replace the notion of competition with the idea of cooperation.

How does a new science writer succeed in this new ecosystem? In the 20th century, one would try to ingratiate oneself with the gatekeepers, the editors. As they are still part of the ecosystem and probably will be for some time in the future, this strategy is still valuable, but it is only one of many. More important, if anything, is to build support networks with your colleagues, peers and buddies. The concepts of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Horizontal Loyalty’ are not just theoretical – put them to practice.

You may think of two potential career routes: getting hired as a staff writer somewhere (getting harder with each passing year), or to freelance. But there is a third way now: start and build your own media empire.

Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, BoingBoing started out as unknown person’s personal blogs – after turning into group blogs, then adding functionalities that let readers contribute, today they are media organizations that make money, hire and pay editors, and more. Perhaps your own blog can turn into something like this. But teaming up with your own Friends In Low Places may make such a start-up more successful.

First you have to write

People who want to become professional writers are, I assume, people who always liked to write. Childhood diaries. LiveJournals filled with teenage angst. Long Facebook updates. It’s time to take this seriously and do your writing in a more serious, organized, professional manner. Start a blog. This is your writing laboratory. Start blogging about science. Nobody will know about your blog until you start promoting it, so don’t worry that your early posts are clumsy (you can even delete the first few embarrassing posts later, once you are happy with your blog and start promoting it).

Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you.

Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic.

Ignore the “professional” advice about having to blog daily. It was a necessity a decade ago, not any more. In the days of RSS feeds and social media, it does not matter for your readers any more – they will find your posts no matter how infrequently you post. It only matters for you and your own writing habit that you blog with some regularity.

Also ignore the “professional” advice about writing relatively short blog posts. Leave that for brief news articles. Blog posts are longform, at least most of the time. And longform works online much better than short articles – the traffic keeps on giving for years, as people rediscover long posts, see them as resources, and share with their friends.

Also important to remember: You’re A Human, So Write Like One. How do I write? First I read and study the topic. Then, I compose text in my head (usually during dog walks, often over a number of days, sometimes even months), imagining I am explaining something to a good non-scientist friend. Then I sit down and quickly transcribe that. Quick proofread. Click “Publish”.

Like every other skill, writing needs practice. Write every day, something, anything. That’s what makes the blog useful – you have a platform for your words every day. You’ll get better. When you write something for publication, watch carefully what the editor changed in your manuscript and learn from it. Read a lot of good writing, paying attention to how other writers accomplish their goals.

The hard-line “never write for free” slogan is a hold-over from some old, outdated times. Early on in your career, you will write for free quite a lot, especially on your blog. Your blog becomes your portfolio, your PR material. As you become a professional, you will learn how to reject offers to write for free, and will mostly write for pay. But even then, there will be times when you will want to write for free – on your own blog (or your Mom’s neighborhood newsletter). You will want to experiment with a new form, or a new topic. Or you will want to write something that would be hard to sell. Or you wrote something on commission, got rejected, got paid your kill-fee, and now want to see your work out there, meeting the readers.

Or, if you are a natural born writer, every now and then there will be a story inside of you, fighting to burst out of your chest and get expressed in words or visuals, and you won’t care if it’s paid or not, you want it out, and your blog will be there waiting for just such pieces.

Getting started with your blog

It’s easy. Go to (or some other platform, but WordPress has recently become a standard and is probably your best bet) and start one. Pick a name (and a URL) that is catchy, memorable yet informative about the main topic of the blog. Make at least some minimal effort to make it look pretty. Fill out the ‘About Me’ page, put buttons for your various social media accounts on the sidebar, and provide a method for readers to contact you. Start posting.

Get in a rhythm – decide you will post something on your blog every day or every week and stick to it. Sometimes, it will just be a few links or a YouTube video. Other times, you will write something more substantial. Start with book reviews – those are relatively easy. Do Q&As with scientists. Cover new papers in “ResearchBlogging” fashion. One day a seriously good post will come out of all your daily thinking in the shower and during dog walks.

Learn about science blogging, its theory and history. Learn about best blogging practices. Learn about the ethics of online writing and blogging, including the ethic of the link and the ethic of the quote.

If you make a statement, link to the source or to additional information. If you quote somebody, provide the link to the original context (including audio file or transcript if you yourself did the interview). A quote with a link increases your trust with the readers. A quote without a link decreases your trust with the readers – it’s a red flag that you are trying to manipulate them. And always try to link to the scientific papers you write about, even if they are behind paywalls.

Decide if you want to have commenting on your blog or not, and what kind of (technological and human) comment moderation you need. Come up with your moderation policy. Be prepared to be present in your own commenting threads in order to keep them constructive.

Another option is to join a group blog. Double X Science, Last Word On Nothing, Deep Sea News, Southern Fried Science, Science-Based Medicine, Real Climate, Biofortified and Panda’s Thumb are a few examples of excellent group blogs with high visibility, which authors can use as springboards for their writing careers. This reduces the pressure on any individual blogger to post with high frequency, as collectively they will produce plenty of new material on the homepage every day.

It is also OK to just write guest posts on other people’s blogs. A number of science blogging networks have designated guest blogs for just such occasions. We here have two such blogs – Guest Blog and MIND Guest Blog – but other bloggers on the network may also sometimes accept a guest post.

Even if you run your own blog, it is not a bad idea to occasionally write a really good one for a Guest Blog on a media-owned network. A post on our Guest Blog counts as a clip in your portfolio, is highly visible, will show up high on Google searches for your name, and thus will serve you well as your promotional material when you start pitching or applying for jobs.

You can find a number of good links about getting started, and about running your blog, on this wiki page.

Get some professional training

If you are further along in your career (e.g., research career) you may feel too old to waste another year or two of your life by going back to school. But if you are younger, e.g., just out of college, you may want to consider getting a Master’s at one of the specialized Science, Health and Environmental Reporting/Writing programs. There are several excellent programs to choose from, e.g., NYU, UCSC, MIT, UGA, UNC, USC, City University (London), UW-Madison and several others.

If that is too long (or expensive) for you, spend a summer at a science writing workshop, e.g., Banff or Santa Fe.

Or, if you are still in school, take some writing or journalism classes despite not needing them officially for your major.

Try to get an internship, perhaps in one of the popular science magazines. Nothing prepares you better than learning on the job.

Attend meetings with professional writing and journalism workshops, talks, panels and discussions, e.g,. ScienceWriters (NASW/CASW), ScienceOnline (either the annual flagship meeting in Raleigh, or one of the growing number of satellite events), AAAS annual meeting, SpotOn, or WCSJ. Use the opportunity to get to know (and get known by) editors and others whose careers are well in advance of yours, but also to meet your own peers and start forming your own posse of ‘Friends In Low Places’. Many of those events also have “Pitch sessions” where you can pitch your story ideas directly to editors.

Start reading, regularly and closely, sites that discuss journalism (especially science, environmental and health journalism), provide writing tips, provide media criticism, or provide information about unreliable scientific papers. These should probably include KSJ Tracker, CJR Observatory, NASW, Nieman Journalism Lab, The Open Notebook, The Science Writers’ Handbook, Embargo Watch, Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview, SpotOn Blog, Communication Breakdown, and right here – The SA Incubator (I’d have listed the NYT Green Blog here, but sadly, it is now dead).

Read good science blogging by setting up ScienceSeeker as your homepage. Find out which blogs you like, subscribe to them, post comments, perhaps start out your own blogging by emulating their style until you develop your own.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If a blog post is published in a forest,….?

OK, you’ve been blogging for a while and now you are happy with your posts. You are ready for readers and their feedback. How do you get the readers to your blog? Good readers, with relevant interests and backgrounds, those who can provide valuable feedback?

First things first. Make your blog an official science blog by applying to have it aggregated at ScienceSeeker. ScienceSeeker is a portal for science writing and blogging, a result of fusion and then further development of and (COI: I am one of the founders of ScienceSeeker, which is a ScienceOnline project). It keeps getting developed and adding new features.

Neither Google Blogsearch nor Technorati are good at filtering science blogs. They pull in spam blogs, blogs with a science tag that have no science content whatsoever, as well as blogs that push pseudoscience, anti-science, medical quakery and other silly or dangerous nonsense. As only approved science blogs can be found at ScienceSeeker, it has unofficially become a ‘stamp of approval’, a way to filter out the noise and focus on the quality content that one can filter in various ways, from topical filters, to only posts covering papers, to ‘Editors’ Picks’. A number of journal publishers and media organizations are now using ScienceSeeker to get metrics on how much their articles were blogged about. In its effort to preserve science blogs for posterity, Library Of Congress is using Science Seeker as the filtering mechanism guiding their decisions what to preserve. So get your blog on there. It will bring you reputation, traffic, and just the right kinds of readers to provide you with feedback.

Nominate your posts for various awards and collections, e.g., Open Laboratory, 3QD science prize, ScienceSeeker Awards, Science Studio (podcasts and videos) and others. This will give them visibility as people check out all the nominations.

Register and become a respected user on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Stumbleupon and/or Fark. Be sure you know their policies well (e.g., Reddit will let only a small proportion of your links be to your own work). Don’t waste too much time on those sites, but you can use them to find interesting links to share, to share other people’s work, and to occasionally share links to your own posts and articles. If one of your posts catches fire on one of those sites, make sure your server can take it, and be present – you will be busy for a few hours moderating comments, deleting especially obnoxious, snarky, nasty or idiotic ones. But some comments will be good, and a small proportion out of those tens of thousands of visitors will bookmark you, keep coming back and will become your regular readers.

Have a nice-looking homepage (you can make it with WordPress, or use a specialized platform like About.Me, or pay a designer friend to make you one). Your homepage should have a short, easy to remember URL so you can shout it out on the street and people will be able to spell it, remember it, and find it later when they go online that night. This is your single most important URL that you will place everywhere – on your business cards, and on profile pages on all the social media and other sites that let you have a profile. Everywhere you are online should link back to your homepage. And your homepage should link to everywhere else you are online.

Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts.

If you are lucky, you will be invited to join a blogging network, which makes your blog even more visible. If you are VERY lucky, you will be invited to move your blog to a media site as a blogger/columnist, like Ezra Klein at Washington Post, Nate Silver at NYTimes, or the Phenomena quartet at National Geographic.

If you are just embarking on the professional career in science writing, we can help right here at The SA Incubator. Khalil and I post our weekly “Picks” – if you have written something you are proud of, don’t be shy to send the link to us. If we like it, we’ll link to it. Then we may ask you to do one of the “Introducing” Q&As, a great opportunity to present your past career, skills, links and goals that will turn out very high on Google searches once potential employers start googling you.

The necessity of social media

There are many social networks out there, some general some specialized, as well as platforms which include some social media elements. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantArt, Instagram, Pinterest, FriendFeed, Branch, Quora, Goodreads, MySpace, LiveJournal, Orkut, Diaspora, SoundCloud, Slideshare, Storify,, ResearchGate, Mendeley, FigShare, CiteULike, and many more. Which ones to use? I suggest you use one or two that fit you best, but also take a few minutes to set up profiles on many other networks. That way, people who find you on those sites can click on the link and find themselves on your homepage, where they can see where you are really active.

This wiki has a lot of great resources for starting out and using a number of those sites professionally, as a scientist or a science writer. Pay special attention to the pages about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, as those are the three biggies you should probably pay most attention to.

Let’s focus on Twitter now. It is essential for a journalist. Not having – and using – a Twitter account today is like not having an email address ten years ago (and yes, some cutting-edge people are completely abandoning email and doing all of their communications over social media).

Big companies have suffered losses because their old-timey PR teams were unaware of the backlash on social media, and then incapable of responding correctly on social media. Businesses can lose money if they are missing key information that appears only on social media. Academia is especially horribly insulated and way behind the times. But nowhere is use of social media as important as in journalism. Don’t be this guy who was completely oblivious that his newspaper was in the center of national maelstrom of harsh criticism, because “I only deal with what’s on paper”.

When an airplane skidded off the runway in Denver, I knew it, along with 100,000s of other people, 12 minutes before everyone else. A passenger tweeted about it, and it spread like wildfire, including his updates, blurry photos, etc. CNN had a brief piece 12 minutes later. The accidental “citizen journalist” scooped them. Sometimes, for some news, these 12 minutes may be crucial for you.

Twitter and Facebook were key methods of communication not just between participants, but also to the outside world, during the Mumbai attacks and the Arab Spring.

People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.

Journalists on deadline quickly find expert sources for their stories.

Journalists who observed the massive, instant, intense and scathing reactions of experts to #arseniclife or #Encode did not make the mistake of filing their positive stories and then having to backpedal later.

If all you see on Twitter is garbage, you are following the wrong people. You have to carefully choose who to follow, and then learn how to filter. Unfollowing is easy, and polite. You are not dissing your Mom, as if you would if you unfriended her on Facebook.

Don’s use Use an app. There is a lot of outcry right now (by myself as well) about the imminent demise of some Tweetdeck apps (version 0.38.2 is by far the best, if you can have it and keep it indefinitely – other apps are OK on smartphones, e.g., HootSuite or Twitterific). It is important to me not to have Twitter/Tweetdeck as yet another tab in my browser, a place where I have to go and spend time. Twitter is not a site to go to and spend time on. Twitter should be a part of the workflow, silently running in the back, behind my open browser.

Tweets show up in the corner and 99% of the time I do not even notice them. I am busy with something else, and I mentally block them out. But I have a “search image” (a term from ethology – a bird does not systematically scan every inch of tree bark, instead it has a search image for the shape and color of its prey insect and automatically homes in on it). If a tweet shows up with my name in it, or a specific word in it, or by a specific person, I will notice and take a glance. If there is nothing important, I only lost 1/10th of a second and can go back to what I was doing. If it seems important, I will Favorite the tweet (if unsure of the quality of content) or Retweet it (if it comes from a trusted source), so I can have it saved to read later. If it seems important and urgent, I will click through and investigate. Perhaps this is information that is more important to me than whatever else I happen to be doing at the time. And even then, I will probably spend only a few minutes on it before returning to whatever I was doing before.

In Tweetdeck (or any similar app), one should have a number of columns – move them around: the default position may not the the best one for you (I move “All Friends” far away to the right so I don’t have to see it almost ever). Mentions and Direct Messages are your more important columns, but also make several that follow Lists (your own, or other people’s), or display tweets that contain particular words or hashtags (your “Saved Searches”). I will add a column for an event hashtag while the event is on, then delete the column afterward. Play around until you refine your filtering this way.

Here are some good lists to get you started – follow them, and also follow some of the listed people directly – you decide who is useful to you:

ScienceSeeker Members
Best mindcasters I know
Young Smart Newsies
Top Journalism Linkers
Young science writers
ScienceOnline 2013 attendees
Blogs and bloggers on the Scientific American blog network
SciAm Contributors

If there is something I’d like to tweet out, that is easy, too. No need to go to Twitter. Get some kind of or AddThis bookmarklet for your browser and you can tweet any link in two clicks (perhaps with a little editing, to add/remove stuff from the tweet so it’s just the way you want it).

What kind of stuff you can – and perhaps should – do on Twitter? There are several different things. First, you can just use it to find information, to pick up good links, or to eavesdrop on conversations. Treat it as a river of news – sometimes you dip in, sometimes you go away. You won’t miss much while you are away. If information is really important, it will have staying power – many people will still be linking to it, retweeting it, and discussing it next time you log in. If you missed it – it’s not important.

You can, of course, post your personal musings, but if you are going to use Twitter like a professional, keep that to the minimum. I bet less than 1% of my tweets are in this vein.

You can retweet others. Your followers do not see everything tweeted by everyone you follow. Twitter is very asymmetrical – you don’t follow those who follow you, not automatically. You follow those who are useful to you, and you are followed by people who find you useful. Thus, if someone tweets, and you retweet, this will be fresh to many of your followers. If they RT in turn, they will spread it to their followers and so on, in concentric circles, spreading the message out further and further. A tweet can go a long way.

You can engage in conversations. It’s OK to butt into other people’s conversations, but be polite and be useful and constructive. If you know the answer to someone’s question, provide it. If you are at a University and have library access, you can help your freelance colleagues in search of papers – they will use the hashtag #Icanhazpdf (but first carefully read the comment section of this post to understand the legal, moral and etiquette aspects of it).

You can be a useful filter for others. Post links to good articles and blog posts. Everyone tweets links to NYTimes, BBC and The Guardian – you don’t have to. Instead, set up Google (and Google News and Google Blogsearch) alerts for the keywords in the domain of your expertise and interest. It can be “watersheds” or “science+superheros” (one of mine is “circadian”, naturally). Some of those links in the alerts will be very interesting, yet from obscure publications. People will soon realize you are the “go to” person for that topic. Follow a few good by less-well-known blogs. Tweet out links to their posts.

Broadcast links to your own posts. But do it politely and judiciously. Tweet once in the morning. Then again that day “for the afternoon crowd”, then once next day “for those who missed it yesterday”. That should be sufficient. DM (direct message) the link to a few people with more followers than you have but who are aware of you and know who you are. Ask them to take a look, provide feedback, and they are likely to retweet it if they like it.

Here are some quick rules you should memorize on how to be a useful and respectable contributor to social media.

And finally, if you are really well organized and dedicated, you can truly use Twitter as a part of your journalistic flow – from individual tweets, to aggregations of tweets – both your own and replies you got (e.g., on Facebook or Storify), to longer blog posts, to magazine articles, to books.

Moving on to Facebook, the strangest animal of them all, undergoing a metamorphosis every year or so, often abruptly changing people’s privacy settings, expectations and experiences. That makes many people uneasy about it.

You have to be sensitive that there are two main styles of Facebook use. One is personal, the other is professional. It is perfectly OK to keep settings to ‘Private’ and to friend only family and best friends, share vacation pictures and not much else. It is perfectly OK if you prefer to use it that way. But perhaps you should set up another Facebook Page for your professional outreach. This is where you post interesting science links, urge other scientists, writers, journalists and bloggers to follow your page. Keep the two worlds separate.

Many people, including myself, do not separate the two worlds. Yes, I occasionally post personal stuff, but I mainly post links to science stories on my personal profile, which is set completely on ‘Public’. I have many FB friends, and of them many are not inherently interested in science. By being my FB friends, they get served their daily dose of science anyway. Many are thankful for this. This is the so-called “push” method of science communication, where you push science onto unsuspecting audiences. The reverse is “pull” method, in which people who are already interested in your stuff will know how to seek you and find you if they know your stuff is good (people interested in science know where to look for Scientific American).

There is a lot of scientifically incorrect information floating around Facebook. One of your roles can be as a “downer” – the person who brings in a link to the scientific information that corrects the pseudoscience. And yes, your aunt may get really angry at you because of it, but at least some of aunt’s FB friends will learn something from your link, perhaps share it elsewhere.

And now the elephant in the room – Google Plus. It is not easy to figure out what it is and how to use it and how to find good stuff on it. But if you are using any Google product (e.g., Gmail) you are already on G+ even if you are not using it. Thus, it has tons of people on there already. And unlike some past Google experiments (like Google Buzz and Google Wave), this one does not appear to be going anywhere – it is here to stay, and it’s a monster. I have more G+ subscribers than Twitter followers or FB friends. Most of them have zero background in science. The least you can do is throw some science links at them, even if you do not have time to engage further. Lots of traffic comes from there, so it’s worth a second or two to plop in a link.

What is important to know is that scientists, science bloggers and writers were some of the early invitees to the Beta version of G+ before public launch. They have explored the platform from the very early days. There are many of them there, and many are active. They are experimenting with new functionalities, especially cool uses for Google Hangouts. Find “Scientists” circles and start following people. Even if you don’t engage with it fully now, keep an eye on it, keep your presence on it, I would not bet against Google that this will wither and die.

Next step

You are writing every day. You are blogging regularly. After six months of regular Twitter use, you now have some followers and interaction. Perhaps you joined a popular group blog or even a blogging network. You have a few guest blog posts elsewhere, perhaps a few clips from school or local papers, or when you did an internship. It’s time to start pitching.

Different editors have different preferences for pitches. But many will explore your blog, your prior clips, your social media activity (potential employers for staff jobs will do that very thoroughly).

If you pitch me for the Guest Blog, for example, and I have never heard of you before, you need to write me a longish, polished pitch. Show me that you can write, that you can write a pitch just as perfectly as you will write the article itself later on.

But if I know you from your blog, from Twitter, perhaps some previous work, you don’t need to do that. You can DM me on Twitter with a very brief pitch and I am likely to say Yes.

Now go and write.

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again


Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:


Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.


Albert Einstein

Or this one:


John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at or or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How

Continuing with the theme from my ‘farewell to scienceblogs‘ post, I want to do some more thinking, out in public, about the current changes in the science blogging ecosystem. This post is probably going to end up being just a set of meandering thoughts and I hope people continue the discussion in the comments.

So, let’s start with history and then see how it may illuminate the present.

Inception of the model

In 2006, grew from initial 14 to about 45 blogs. At the time, there were only a couple of hundred science blogs written in English. Thus, the proportion of science blogs that were on Sb was huge, perhaps as many as 10% of them all were hosted on the network.

In 2006, one could argue that blogs on included some or most of the “best” blogs, as well as a representative sample. Seed certainly targeted blogs that were well written and reliable. And Seed definitely tried to collect a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices.

But Seed also biased their sample in two important ways:

First, they, initially at least, invited bloggers who already, for the 2006 standards, had large traffic. This was definitely a good strategy – the one that made them an instant success in comparison to other (some even older) networks who tried to get non-bloggers to become bloggers (and popular at that) over night. By joining the Seed’s network, these already popular bloggers brought their readers with them, immediately increasing the visibility of the network and immediately increasing the readership of the other blogs on the network. In 2006, some (though not all) science bloggers with the largest traffic, got to be popular by regularly tackling controversial topics (medical woo, pseudoscience, creationism, politics, religion, global warming, etc.) or by giving voice to groups that were up till then invisible in the society and mainstream media (e.g., female scientists, graduate students and postdocs revealing how the world looks like from their perspective, atheists, etc.). Those topics are very important, but are not representative of the broader science blogosphere any more.

Second, Seed initially invited the bloggers who posted frequently. It is not a bad idea, when starting a new network, to make sure there will be plenty of new content appearing all the time. But that kind of frequent blogging style is more of an exception than the norm. Very few bloggers naturally post with the frequency of PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, Grrrlscientist, Greg Laden or myself. And especially in science blogging, writing a detailed, high-quality post about science takes some time, research and effort which most of us cannot summon every day, let alone multiple times a day.

The popularity and visibility of Sb led many people to think “Hey, I can do this” and today there are thousands of science blogs out there. This means that even with 80+ blogs on the network (as of couple of weeks ago, now around 60), the SciBlings represented only a tiny sliver of the science blogosphere, perhaps around 0.1% (totally inventing the numbers here, but these things – what is an active science blog, for example – are very difficult to define, track and calculate).

Over the four years, the science blogging ecosystem changed. Many of us blogging at also changed. Some noticeably reduced their posting frequency (perhaps moving some of the formerly bloggy material over to Twitter or Facebook). Others changed their interests and topics – this is normal as people change and their blogs evolve. These days I blog about scientific papers quite rarely, but blog often about the ways the Web is changing the world of scientific publishing, science journalism, science communication and science education. I completely understand that people who were reading my blog four years ago may not find my current blogging interesting any more (and vice versa).

Thus, in 2010, the stable is even less representative than in 2006. And with thousands of science blogs out there, many of them excellent, nobody can claim that the blogs on Sb are “the best” any more. Some are among the best, but there are many more “best blogs” in the world not on Sb. But as the network was huge, and hugely visible, and hugely respected, and hugely watched by MSM, all those wonderful science blogs outside the network were essentially invisible, living in the shadow of Sb and hoping we’d link to them sometimes (which we tried to do often, but that is not enough). It is like in the Mesozoic – all those tiny little shrew-like mammals hiding in underground burrows and foraging for seeds at night, being unable to spread into any other niches because the big, dangerous dinosaurs are roaming around the land.

[Image source]

But as the ecosystem was changing, the dinosaurs started feeling a little ill (at least for the past year or so). And then at one point, a giant asteroid (with a Pepsi logo on it) hit the Earth and the giant dinosaurs went extinct.

Now, looking at what is happening at Sb today, I feel that the network will survive, at least for a while. But it will be a smaller, more nimble network in which bloggers have a much bigger voice. The series of defections, followed by the blogger strike, and the management’s response to it suggest that from now on bloggers will be very much calling the shots, as they are the only viable part of the enterprise. Bloggers on the network are all experts in (self)promotion or they would never have ended on Sb in the first place. They can come up with fascinating ideas how to promote the network – and themselves as a part of it – that no traditionally trained PR person can even imagine. So, if the new model for will be more along the lines of Workers’ self-management (also see), then we may see a continued evolution and continued high relevance of this network in the future – after all, dinosaurs are still around us, and they are very beautiful and nimble, though small: we now call them ‘Birds’.

But in the meantime, while Sb is rethinking itself, it is obvious that its size and reputation is smaller. This suddenly opened up the space for many other players to come in. An adaptive radiation of mammals after the K-T boundary, if you will….

[Image source]

The Present

So, there is an awful lot of evolutionary experimentation going on right now. Existing networks are expanding and changing their technological architecture to accommodate the growth. Individual blogs are turning into group blogs. Group blogs are turning into blogging networks. Brand new networks are being built. There will be successes and there will be failures, but when everything settles down, we will probably see a very different environment. Instead of one large island, there will be an entire archipelago of smaller islands. And the new ecosystem requires a new behavior in it, and a new way of thinking about it.

Take a look at my Blogroll on the right – most of that list are various science blogging networks. Some are run by big newspapers (The Guardian), several by popular magazines (National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, as well as Burda in Germany), some by university programs for science journalism (Scienceline, Elements), some by scientific publishers (Nature), some by scientific societies (American Chemical Society) and several are self-governing blogger cooperatives (interestingly, often aggregated around a single topic). Each of these networks thus has a somewhat different goal, and a different ‘business model’.

What worries me is that so many of these networks are trying to copy what Seed did in 2006. Now, don’t get me wrong – as I stated in my farewell post, Seed did many things right. Christopher Mims who conceptualized, started and then ran the network for the first six months was a visionary – some of the things he did with are now so “normal” that nobody can think how it could possibly be done any differently. It is certainly a good idea for all the other networks to analyze what Seed did right and what Seed did wrong, then to apply those lessons to their own goals and concepts. But they should also realize it is not 2006 any more. Four years are a millennium in Internet Time. The world has changed.

What is the overall goal?

My assumption is that most science blogs are tools for communication, popularization and education of science. The goal is to turn the world (including the individual nations in it) into a “scientific” world, aka, into a reality-based world.

If you think of science communication as a series of concentric circles, at the center are data. The only readers capable of understanding raw data are computers. Once computers analyze and visualize data, those can be understood by experts. But just like dumping reams of data online by WikiLeaks does not make an impact, raw data in science also do not make an impact on their own. Just like WikiLeaks outsources story-telling to the Media, so data need someone to turn them into a story. Those stories, the next bigger concentric circles, are scientific papers, readable (as of now, but this may change) mainly by other people in the same scientific field. The discussions going on in the comments on the papers (and this will, over time, become more common-place as more journals adopt the practice and people get used to seeing it everywhere) are the next circle.

The next big step is to translate those papers and discussions into something that can be understood by people outside of the narrow discipline – the lay audience. That lay audience is also stratified. A scientist in one field is lay audience for another field, but is highly educated and tends to think like a scientist. Then there are generally well educated people who are interested in science. And then there are people who don’t even know if they would be interested in science. Thus, there need to be several different levels of presenting science to the lay audience. And there need to be both “pull” (for interested audience) and “push” (for not yet interested audience) strategies for disseminating scientific information.

The “pull” outlets are science-specific, e.g., dedicated science pages in newspapers, science channels on cable TV, science programs on radio, popular science magazines, popular science books, and science blogs. They are seen by people with interest in science, and easily avoided by those who don’t care. Such outlets span a range of levels, from kids to scientists in other fields. Communication in this outlets is generally pretty good, with bloggers doing a great job at pitching to somewhat higher levels – the educated audience that is very interested in science (including scientists in other fields). This is also the level that is not at all covered by any of the legacy media, and has been missing until recently.

The “push” outlets are general media that may throw a science story into the mix. Such stories can be in papers, magazines, radio, TV, movies, eclectic websites, etc. Such stories tend to be written by general reporters, not specialist science journalists, and thus tend to be awful. But it is the bloggers who do a great job correcting such stories and ‘schooling’ journalist who make mistakes (who may, if their egos allows them, listen and learn and get better).

Both the push and pull versions of the traditional media have a large audience. But bloggers still don’t. Congregating into networks is what turns bloggers into Media, makes them highly visible to the legacy media that will spread stories (or correct their own) and make their spread and reach much wider. Building blogging networks is an application of the use of the ‘network effect’ to make this effort more efficient, by giving the bloggers greater visibility both to casual Web surfers and to the traditional media. Just like WikiLeaks is a global, non-national, crowd-sourced media organization that needs legacy media to make an impact with their stories, so blogging networks are also global, non-national (usually), crowd-sourced media organizations that need to be visible by legacy media in order to have their stories spread widely enough to make an impact.

The mindset that the world is a competitive place, where one company or organization will win and the others will go bankrupt (think of VHS beating Betamax and V2000), is a 20th century mindset. Yes, Google is the best and most popular search engine, but there are others and those others still are used by millions of people who have their own, often good, reasons for making that choice. Today, an ecosystem in which multiple, perhaps many, producers of the same thing, coexist, collaborate, co-depend, is becoming more and more of a reality in more and more areas of life, from globalization of the world (One Remaining Superpower model is gone, if you have not noticed), to industry, to publishing, to the Web. And so it is with science communication, which includes, among else, science blogging networks – many, not just one.

Instead of one huge network, there will be a couple of dozen smaller ones. Sharing similar goals, the networks should be collaborative, not competitive. Each network should display widgets showcasing the most recent posts from all the other networks. There should be a central place that sends people to all the networks. There should be common offline events. There should be actions that all networks participate in. Any network that decides to stay out of these things would self-isolate. And just like the world itself is now interconnected and being isolated does not work for you very well (think: North Korea), so blogging networks are interconnected and being isolated will not work for you either – nobody pays attention to you, and when they do they do not say nice things about you, you cannot control your own message and cannot respond to other people’s messages.

What does it mean to be a blogger these days?

Four years ago, one’s blog was the main and probably only way to communicate online. Blogging networks being blogging networks made perfect sense.

But today, there are many other ways to communicate online. One may exchange information on Twitter, discuss it on FriendFeed, keep social connections alive with friends (and blog fans) on Facebook, post shorter ideas on Posterous, cartoons and videos and quotes on Tumblr, upload videos on YouTube, podcasts on Imeem, slideshows on Slideshare, travel photos on Flickr or Picassa, art on DeviantArt, sell art on Etsy or swag on Zazzle (or CafePress), publish books on, submit scientific manuscripts to PLoS journals, edit Wikipedia, review books on Amazon or Shelfari, and use the blog only for longer, original, well-researched or more thoughtful pieces.

Different people will use their blogs in different ways, for different purposes, but in most cases the blog is not the only means of communication. If you go to an independent blog, you will often see not just the content of the blog but also a whole host of buttons and widgets showing that person’s online (and offline, including professional) activities elsewhere. I just started playing with WordPress, but you can already see on the right sidebar my latest tweets, the FriendFeed widget, links to ScienceOnline and to the Open Laboratory books, and to the homepage where you can find all sorts of buttons leading you to other places I can be found online.

For some people, their blog is their central place and all the other activity is satellite. For others, the focus may be on their MSM work, or their books, or activity on Twitter, and blog is just one of many “other places” where they sometimes do something interesting.

I think new blogging networks have to take this reality into consideration. Be networks of interesting people, whatever they do, not just networks of blogs. Help them showcase everything they do, not just blogging. And if, for technological or managerial reasons, an individual blogger is not capable of showing exactly where the blog sits in their own online work, they will not like it, and they will leave. No way to put all those widgets on the sidebar? The blog then feels isolated from the rest of that person’s work instead of as an integral part of it. The person will feel as giving up too much of their own personal ecosystem for the good of the network’s ecosystem.

Accommodate people who are infrequent bloggers, but do other interesting stuff (i.e., no frequency requirements at all). Promote their videos, podcasts, photography, art, books… Have an easy-to-find list of all of your bloggers’ Twitter feeds.

But serious content, the kind people put on blogs, still needs to be central to the project. Otherwise, it is just another social network (one of several dozen failed “facebooks for scientists”). While networking is important, good content is more than important: it is essential. I am watching Science 3.0 these days – less than a month old, thus no established blogs there as yet, but an interesting concept of putting together everything the members do.

Also, consider a way to preserve some of the content longer than the fleeting moment of a blog post. Collect “Basics” posts in one place, or have the bloggers collaborate on building so-called “explainers” on various topics. Such explainers would contain material at different levels – from kids to expert and everything in-between, including raw data and scientific papers, all clearly marked as to who the intended audience is. Such explainers would be updated (perhaps by editing, wiki-style, with preserved history of editing) as new information comes in. Such pages would also contain links to all the blog posts that the network has produced on that topic, and bloggers would likely send their readers to the Explainer page whenever they blog about that topic again. Build something more lasting out of the bloggers’ work.

Mobility and Exclusivity

This is a unique moment in the history of science blogging networks. This is the only time when people leaving a network are regarded as “hot property” and are actively courted by other networks. Being a SciBling has a certain element of reputation that other networks are now trying to capitalize on. At least six or seven networks have talked to me so far and I have yet to give a strong Yes or a strong No to any one of them. May even go solo for a little while longer.

Also, until now, it was difficult to leave the network – you leave Sb to go where? Into the dark abyss of anonymity and invisibility. Thus many people hung on….

But once there is an archipelago of networks, each roughly equally visible and respected, it will be easy to move from one to another. You join one, try it out for a month or two and, if you don’t like it, move on to another one. Networks should anticipate this, and implement a mechanism for easy move of bloggers in and out.

While networks will provide visibility and traffic, they will not automatically turn a blogger into a hot-shot any more. It is like good peer-review (or good editorial decisions in the media) – a blogger on a network has a seal of approval that s/he is OK, not spouting non-scientific nonsense, but there is no guarantee that the person is one of the elite best. For actual reputation, being a member of a network will not be sufficient any more – that, you will have to build for yourself, as an individual.

The exclusivity of the networks (“you can blog with us and nobody else”) has been eroding for quite a while now. At the beginnings of we were expected to close our old blogs and move them to the network. Razib had quite a problem for continuing to run Gene Expression Classic. It is much more common now for bloggers to contribute to multiple personal, individual, corporate or group blogs, and even to have blogs on two or more networks. This will become even more common in the new ecosystem and any network that asks for exclusivity will not find many bloggers willing to join.

Building and Maintaining Community

With the ease of movement from one network to another, and with the ease of having a blog on multiple networks, how does any individual network get to keep anyone on board? How does one build loyalty? After all, each network is now just one node in the network, and many bloggers will feel a loyalty to the broader community but much less loyalty to the particular network they are on. It is also much easier to be a solo blogger today, as RSS is everywhere (no need to use Google Reader for it – RSS imports are on every social networking platform and more), social networking sites are busy, and multituded of networks will have to pay more attention to them now, if nothing else scouting for new talent.

One obvious way is money. If the business model allows it, and if finances allow it, pay more than the other networks, and this will persuade at least some people to come and to stay for quite a while. Bloggers on networks are media, thus they should be paid for their work, just as if they were journalists in a more traditional outlet.

Don’t pay by page-view. This creates internal hierarchies. This also creates pressures (even if there is no formal frequency minimum requirement in the contract) to post often and to post controversial stuff and to post silly stuff, diluting the science content on the network. Every month when you calculate the earnings and deduct the costs, share the rest equally among all members of the community, regardless of how much they contributed either by frequency of posting or by traffic.

Another obvious way is the opposite – promise never to have ads, never to have corporate interests involved, and never to pay anyone for anything. This is definitely appealing to some bloggers who draw salaries elsewhere and for whom complete editorial freedom and complete perception of ethical purity are essential.

Another way is to have kick-ass technical support. This is a big reason some bloggers like to be on the networks. They may have too large a traffic to be able to deal with it on their own. Or they may be too busy to deal with it. Or they may be great writers but with essentially zero technical skills. Reliable technology is a big plus. And rumors and gossip about the quality of tech support on various networks spread fast and wide.

Also, use platforms that are easy for bloggers to use and customize. These days, multi-blog WordPress seems to be in the lead. Drupal is great for developers and for making parts of the site that bloggers will not touch, but is non-intuitive and cumbersome for the non-techie users. MoveableType4 got clunky over time and requires tech support with high level of expertise and seems to be hard to be flexible with – you are building a site not just for 2010 but also a site that can nimbly change as the Web changes. One day Scripting2 will be available for everyone, and it is perfect for bloggers like me who write long posts – the asides, explanations of the basics, references, link-lists, things I inject into my posts as full paragraphs now can be hidden at first read and revealed by those who want to see them by a single click.

If you combine clunky tech-support, and no access to traffic data, with limits to editorial freedom, you get a revolt on your hands and people start leaving. If business ideas trump everything else, you’ll run afoul of the bloggers’ ethics and they willl leave really fast.

Make sure that blogs on your network have a good mobile version. Design good apps for iPhone and Ipad. Make sure your bloggers get them for free.

Provide cool swag. I have collected four Sb mugs over the past four years, one for each member of the family, and they are our favorites – I am actually drinking coffee from one of them right now. I have a t-shirt that says “Coturnix” on the back, with an Sb logo. Seed has provided, in the early years, swag for us to give to readers in contests. That is cool stuff.

Provide backchannel forums. Any platform will do, though I personally prefer (formerly known as Collective X) as there is a possibility for exchanging large files, having rich profiles, having easy-to-find documents (e.g., How-To manuals for tech questions), having forums for organizing synchronized action, etc. Count on some members not participating there – there are some SciBlings who never logged into the back forums and thus never really felt like members of the community (and were also wildly uninformed about what is going on). Thus, if a network is too small (e.g., 10 or less), you’ll end up with three people chatting in the forums – that is not a community. Be a part of that forum yourself, regularly. Continuous conversation between bloggers and overlords is essential for developing trust, and thus loyalty.

Organize common actions. DonorsChoose drive every October was a great community-building activity on, for an example.

See how your company/organization can help your bloggers’ careers. For example, if yours is a media company, you can help bloggers write for and get published in your magazine. If they publish a book, promote it. Promote the network and the individual bloggers in your promotional materials, in your magazine, on your website, etc. Also, ask bloggers to promote the network wherever they may be – especially if they go to conferences. Give them swag and let them spread the word about you.

Bloggers who come from a journalistic background want to learn how to use all these newfangled online tools. Bloggers who came from other (mainly scientific/academic) backgrounds want to widen their toolbox to include some of the traditional media. Help both groups as much as you can.

Organize offline events. Blogs are a means to finding people to do rhythmic things with. The two SciBlings meetups in 2007 and 2008 in NYC were amazing events! We gelled so well together as a group. We shared several meals, drank a lot, sang karaoke, met with our readers, met Adam Bly and others in the management, visited Seed offices, took group pictures, got tons of swag. It was a blast. It did wonders for our sense of identity as a group. Likewise, the 1.000,000th Comment parties were awesome – the NC event was at the Asheville Zoo with several SciBlings and several readers, followed by dinner.

And for the building of a broader community that includes all the networks, just come to ScienceOnline every January (the 2011 version is likely to be heavily invested in the building of the new ecosystem, so don’t miss it!), send your Overlords and a bunch of your bloggers, send swag, put up posters, moderate sessions, do a Demo of your network, promote Open Laboratory (and your own bloggers’ posts that made it into the latest edition) on your site, be a generous part of the new ecosystem and your own bloggers will love you for it.


Make your network attractive to bloggers, feeling welcome there. If The Usual Suspects invite other Usual Suspects, A-listers invite other A-listers, a bunch of buddies who are all white men invite each other, you will have a problem. The first thing the blogosphere will notice, within the first millisecond of unveiling your network, is that there is no diversity on your network, just an Old Boys Club and an Old Clique. Instead of enjoying the attention, you will have to immediately switch into the PR disaster management mode.

Thus, make sure that at least 50% of your starting line-up are women. And hopefully not everyone’s white and middle-aged either. This will also change the internal dynamics of the community – male-dominated groups are much more competitive, and you want to foster a cooperative activity.

If you spent last few years mainly schmoozing with your buddies in science, or tech, or your neighbors in Silicon Valley, and you have no idea what women, minorities, seniors and youngsters to invite, you are a few years too late for this. If you decide to invite some of them to your network, they will probably be very polite in saying No, but to themselves they will be saying something like “Who the hell are you? What planet did you just fall from? I have never heard of you, you never read my blog, you never commented on my blog, so why this sudden interest in it, eh? You don’t follow me on Twitter, we are not Facebook friends, I am not on your blogroll, so why do you want me now? As a token to put on your pretty new network so you can add another notch on your “diversity” belt? Well, no, sirree!” And they will be perfectly correct in thinking that way.

But if you have started years ago, when science blogosphere was young, always looking around for new voices, reading the new blogs because they are fun, commenting not because it’s good for business but because you are personally motivated to say something, ask something, say Hello, than you are OK. Just by chance, half of these blogs will be written by women, some by older people, some by younger people, some by non-white people.

You would be reading them because their writing is great. You would be commenting, and blogrolling them, and linking to them, and promoting them because you love what they do, not for political motives. You would try to meet them in person when you travel, and you would invite them to conferences you organize. You would make fast friendships this way, without any ideas that this would potentially turn into anything like a business deal.

And then, if such an opportunity arises and you can start a new network, you will have a pool of hundreds or even thousands of cool bloggers to pick from, people with whom you already have a genuine friendship and mutual trust. And you would be VERY familiar with their work as you have followed it for years. Thus you will have plenty of choices who to invite in order to have a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices – and pure statistics will ensure that about half of them will be female and a few of them non-white and non-middle-aged. No need to do anything artificial, or to do something out of the ordinary in order to get “proper balance” – it will just happen.

Later, once the network is live and kicking, you can do more stuff to promote diversity and especially to promote new and young bloggers. For example, you can make an “incubator” blog to which you invite a very new and young but talented blogger (or even a group, e.g., friends from a science journalism school) to guest-blog on for one month (Seed did that with a photoblog for a while). There is no guarantee, or even expectation that any of those guest-bloggers would ever be invited to join the network as individual bloggers, but that one month would be great training, great experience and great exposure to them, so once their month is over they can take their audience with them wherever they go, feeling confident in their blogging skills. You may specifically ask the readers to be “nice to the n00b” and ask your senior bloggers to keep an eye – be there to teach, to advise, and to defend against nasty commenters. And if an individual blogger really kicks butt, drawing a lot of traffic and comments with brilliant content, then you can certainly consider invitation for a more permanent slot on the network. In other words, be a factor in growing the community of science bloggers, not just defending your own turf.


There are many other ideas I have, and other people have. Each network will have to see what their goals are, what ambitions, what resources they have, etc.

I could have kept all of the above to myself, and charged a single network $100,000 to advise them and help them set up. But that would not work – it only works if most or all networks think about this the right way and do the right thing. A lone network doing it right cannot survive in the interconnectedness of the archipelago if all the other players adopt outdated ideas. It is a network or networks, and I hope that people who run or build networks right now read this, talk about it with each other, and come to ScienceOnline2011 to hatch a common strategy, because we have a common goal, and need to collaborate on reaching it.

Books: ‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler

grid_cover.jpgAbout a month ago, I told you about the book-reading event where Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) read from his latest book On The Grid ( I read the book immediately after, but never wrote a review of my own. My event review already contained some of my thoughts about the topic, but I feel I need to say more, if nothing else in order to use this blog to alert more people about it and to tell everyone “Read This Book”.
infrastructure 001.JPGWhat I wrote last month,

“I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.”

infrastructure 003.JPG…was reinforced when I read the book itself: I don’t know anything about infrastructure. But after reading the book I can say I know a little bit, understand how much I don’t know, and realize how much more I’d like to know. I bet it was fun watching me as I was reading it, exclaiming on average five times per page “This is so cool”, and “Hey, this is neat” and “Wow, I had no idea!” and (rarely) “w00t! Here’s a tidbit I actually heard of before” and “Hey, I know where this is!” (as I lived in Raleigh for eleven years, I know the area well).
infrastructure 006.JPGA few years ago, Scott was just as ignorant about infrastructure as most of us are. But then his curiosity got better of him and he started researching. He would start at his house in Raleigh and trace all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. Sometimes there would be a crew on his street digging into the asphalt and fixing something and he would approach them and ask questions. At other times he would figure out where the headquarters are and who to ask to talk to:
infrastructure 007.JPG

“What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.”

infrastructure 008.JPGIn a sense, this book is a memoir of curiosity as Scott describes his own adventures with a hard-hat, a modern Jean Valjean sloshing his way through the Raleigh sewers, test-driving the public transportation, and passing multiple security checks in order to enter the nearby nuclear plant.
infrastructure 009.JPGBut it is more than just a story of personal awe at modern engineering. Scott weaves in the explanations of the engineering and the underlying science, explains the history and the politics of the Raleigh infrastructure, the historical evolution of technologies underlying modern infrastructure, and illustrates it by comparisons to other infrastructures: how does New York City does that, how did Philadelphia did it 50 years ago, how did London 500 years ago, how about Rome 2000 years ago?
infrastructure 014.JPG

“What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.”

infrastructure 015.JPGAnd this brings me to the point where I start musing about stuff that the book leaves out. As I was reading, I was constantly hungry for more. I wanted more comparisons with other cities and countries and how they solved particular problems. I wanted more history. I wanted more science. I wanted more about political angles. But then, when I finished, I realized that a book I was hungry for would be a 10-tome encyclopedic monograph and a complete flop. It is good that Scott has self-control and self-discipline as a writer to know exactly what to include and what to leave out. He provides an excellent Bibliography at the end for everyone who is interested in pursuing a particular interest further. His book’s homepage is a repository for some really cool links – just click on the infrastructure you are interested in (note that “Communications” is under construction, as it is in the real world – it is undergoing a revolution as we speak so it is hard to collect a list of ‘definitive’ resources – those are yet to be written):
OnTheGrid homepage.jpg
infrastructure 022.JPGWhat many readers will likely notice as they go through the book is that there is very little about the environmental impacts of various technologies used to ensure that cities function and citizens have all their needs met. And I think this was a good strategy. If Scott included this information, many readers and critics would focus entirely on the environmental bits (already available in so many other books, articles and blogs) and completely miss what the book is all about – the ingenuity needed to keep billions of people living in some kind of semblance of normal life and the interconnectedness that infrastructure imposes on the society, even on those who would want not to be interconnected:
infrastructure 027.JPG

“There are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.”

infrastructure 031.JPGMy guess is, if there’s anyone out there who could possibly not like this book, it will be die-hard libertarians who fantasize about being self-sufficient in this over-populated, inter-connected world.
infrastructure 032.JPGAt several places in the book, Scott tries to define what infrastructure is. It is a network that provides a service to everyone. It has some kind of control center, a collection center or distribution center. It has a number of peripheral stations and nodes. And there are some kinds of channels that connect the central place to the outside stations and those stations to the final users – every household in town. There is also a lot of redundancy built into the system, e.g., if a water main breaks somewhere, you will still get your water but it will come to you via other pipes in surrounding streets, with zero interruption to your service.
infrastructure 025.JPGScott covers surveying of land, stormwater, freshwater, wastewater, roads, power, solid waste, communications (phone, broadcast media, internet) and transportation (e.g., public transportation, trains, airplanes). These are the kinds of things that are traditionally thought of as ‘infrastructure’. But aren’t there other such systems? I’d think security has the same center-spokes model of organization as well: police stations and sub-stations (distribution centers) that can send cops out wherever needed (distribution channels), with potential criminals brought to court (processing centers) and if found guilty placed in prison (collection center). Similarly with fire-departments. Ambulances are just the most peripheral tentacles of the health-care infrastructure. The local-county-state-federal political system is also a kind of infrastructure. So is the military. So is the postal system. So is the food industry and distribution.
infrastructure 018.JPGThinking about all of these other potential examples of infrastructure made me realize how many services that require complex infrastructure undergo cycles of centralization and decentralization. For transportation, everyone needed to have a horse. Later, it was centralized into ship, railroad, bus and airline infrastructures. But that was counteracted by the popularity of individually owned cars. And of course taxis were there all along. And as each decade and each country has its own slight moves towards or away from centralization, in the end a balance is struck in which both modes operate.
infrastructure 020.JPGYou raised your own chickens. Then you bought them from mega-farms. Now many, but not most citizens, are raising their own chickens again. It is not feasible – not enough square miles on the planet – for everyone to raise chickens any more. But having everyone fed factory chicken is not palatable to many, either. Thus, a new, uneasy balance.
infrastructure 011.JPGNowhere is this seen more obviously today as in Communications infrastructure. We are in the middle of a big decentralization movement, away from broadcast (radio, TV and yes, newspaper industry infrastructure with its printing presses, distribution centers and trucks) infrastructure that marked about half of 20th century, and forward into something more resembling the media ecosystem of the most of human history – everyone is both a sender and a receiver, except that instead of writing letters or assembling at a pub every evening, we can do this online. But internet is itself an infrastructure – a series of tubes network of cables and it is essential not to allow any centralized corporation to have any power over what passes through those cables and who gets to send and receive stuff this way.
infrastructure 013.JPGFinally, as I was reading the book I was often wishing to see photographs of places or drawings of the engineering systems he describes. As good as Scott is at putting it in words, there were times when I really wanted to actually see how something looks like. And there were times when what I really wanted was something even more interactive, perhaps an online visualization of an infrastructure system that allows me to change parameters (e.g., amount of rainfall per minute) and see how that effects some output (e.g., rate of clearing water off the streets, or speed at which it is rushing through the pipes, or how it affects the water level of the receiving river). That kind of stuff would make this really come to life to me.
infrastructure 030.JPGPerhaps “On The Grid” will have an iPad edition in the future in which the text of the book is just a beginning of the journey – links to other sources (e,g., solutions around the globe, historical sources), to images, videos, interactive visualizations and, why not, real games. After all, it is right here in Raleigh that IBM is designing a game that allows one to plan and build modern infrastructure – CityOne. These two should talk to each other and make something magnificent like that.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle.
The small images are thumbnails – click on each to see the whole picture, full-size.

Seven Questions….with Yours Truly

Last week, my SciBling Jason Goldman interviewed me for his blog. The questions were not so much about blogging, journalism, Open Access and PLoS (except a little bit at the end) but more about science – how I got into it, what are my grad school experiences, what I think about doing research on animals, and such stuff. Jason posted the interview here, on his blog, on Friday, and he also let me repost it here on my blog as well, under the fold:

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Seth Godin on the tribes we lead (TED talk video)

This is one of the four TED videos we showed (according to the TED rules a TEDx has to show original TED videos as a certain percentage of the program) at TEDxRTP back in March:

When The Bride Of Coturnix posted this video on her Facebook Wall, she added this little note: “People often ask me what, exactly, Bora does for a living. This is the closest answer. The ‘for a living’ part is a bit of a gray area…” LOL

Esther Duflo: Social experiments to fight poverty (TED talk video)

Important (h/t Bride Of Coturnix):

Stuff I showed on my panel at AAAS

Since I don’t do PowerPoint but use the Web for presentations instead, and since the recordings from AAAS are not free (yes, you can buy them, I won’t), and since some people have asked me to show what I showed at my panel there, here is the list of websites I showed there. I opened them up all in reverse chronological order beforehand, so during the presentation itself all I needed to do was close each window as I was done with it to reveal the next window underneath.
I started with to explain the new interactive, collaborative methods in science journalism we discussed there.
Then I showed this series of tweets:
as an example of how that system can work:
I then showed how I filter my Twitter stream to eliminate much of it and only get to see what people I trust deem important:
I pointed out that some people got jobs on Twitter:
I showed how some people – including myself – got jobs on their blogs:
Then I showed an example of a PLoS ONE paper, as a center of an ecosystem, and the comments and links as an outer shell of that ecosystem:;jsessionid=2009BD9E7195AADA6D62474B19ABA3FE
I particularly showed the links to the blog posts aggregated on to show the reputability of science blogging in the current science publishing ecosystem.
Then I discussed
and as example showed how I collect important links about Dunbar Number from Twitter to FriendFeed for a future blog-post:
A blog-post or a series of them can lead to an MSM article, and perhaps a series of articles can lead to a book contract. But even without that, one can potentially have a blog post published in a book, e.g., in the Open Laboratory:
Finally, if one gets a book published, there is nobody organizing the marketing and the book tours any more, so I showed how Rebecca Skloot organized it herself, by tapping into her online community:

The Piano Stairway (video)

An awesome experiment in Stockholm, Sweden where students changed stairs in a subway station into a piano:

And? More people started using the stairs than the escalator! It’s just more fun!

Techie Tuesday

On Tuesday night I went to the RTP headquarters for Techie Tuesday, an occasional event when people who work in various companies in the Park come over, after work, and have some good food, a beer, and get to relax and chat and meet new people. It is quite a lot of fun. Pictures under the fold (better quality on Twitpic):

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Tatjana in NYTimes!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove. Or you can remind yourself by checking this, this, this, this and this.
If you came to ScienceOnline09 (or followed virtually) you will remember that she co-moderated two sessions there: Open Access in the networked world: experience of developing and transition countries and How to paint your own blog images .
Well, today, Tatjana is in New York Times! I hear from those who get the papers in hardcopy, that the article starts on the front page, but the part with the interview with Tatjana and her husband Doug is on the third page of the online version of the article. I wish the theme of the piece was happier….but who knows, perhaps appearance in the Old Media (especially if the link is spread virally via New Media) may bring in a job!
What is really nice is that the online version of the article links to Tatjana’s Etsy store, so perhaps she’ll get some business that way!

I don’t care about business models of journalism/publishing.

I am feeling mean today. So, here is my first mean post of the day.
About a week ago I read this delicious post about the business of scientific publishing. It is a good read throughout – the title of the post is “Who is killing science on the Web? Publishers or Scientists?” and the answer is interesting. But what stood out for me was this paragraph:

This past February, I was on a panel discussion at the annual NFAIS conference, a popular forum for academic publishers. The conference theme was on digital natives in science. At one point I was asked (rather rudely) by a rep from a major publisher what exactly the new business model should look like for publishers in an Open Access world. My first thought was, “I don’t care if you find one or not. I’m here to advance science, not your bottom line.”

And that paragraph can be equally applied to all of publishing, not just science: from newspapers to books. Just replace “science” with “journalism” or “Truth”.
Business model! Business model! All they care about is business model. I am excited about the way the Web is transforming society and all they care is how to save their jobs! I get it – they should care. The new media ecosystem can support a much smaller number of professional journalists than the old one. So many (though not all) will lose their jobs. I don’t have an interest in that aspect of the media business at all. If they have any other expertise besides scribbling, they will find other jobs once their media houses lock the doors. If not, tough. But I am really not interested in their livelihoods. Just like blacksmiths found jobs in car factories, the journos will find something else to do. I am interested in the ways new media channels are changing the world, not the parochial or individual insecurities of those whose world is changing. I am an interested observer of the revolution and saving the inevitable victims is not my job.

Research Triangle Park

My regular readers probably remember that I blogged from the XXVI International Association of Science Parks World Conference on Science & Technology Parks in Raleigh, back in June of this year.
I spent the day today at the headquarters of the Research Triangle Park, participating in a workshop about the new directions that the park will make in the future. It is too early to blog about the results of this session, though the process will be open, but I thought this would be a good time to re-post what I wrote from the June conference and my ideas about the future of science-technology parks – under the fold:

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The Shy Connector

‘How to get strangers to talk to you’ instead of ‘How to talk to strangers’? I find this blog post and slide-show quite interesting. I see how it may apply to introverts – and I sure am not one of them – but I can also see how much of it applies equally well to extroverts like me, almost as a reminder to keep one’s over-extroverted mannerisms under control:

Science & Technology Parks – what next?

As you may have noticed if you saw this or you follow me on Twitter/FriendFeed/Facebook, I spent half of Tuesday and all of Wednesday at the XXVI International Association of Science Parks World Conference on Science & Technology Parks in Raleigh. The meeting was actually longer (starting on Sunday and ending today), but I was part of a team and we divided up our online coverage the best we could do.
IASP2009 001.jpgChristopher Perrien assembled a team (including his son) to present (and represent) Science In The Triangle, the new local initiative. They manned a booth at which they not only showcased the website, but also had a big screen with TweetDeck showing the livetweeting of the conference by a few of us (e.g., @maninranks, @mistersugar, @IASP2009 and myself), gave out flyers explaining step-by-step how to start using Twitter, and gave hands-on instruction helping people get on Twitter and see what it can do for them.
You can look at the coverage by seaching Twitter for IASP or #IASP or #IASP2009 (in some of my first tweets I misspelled it as IESP). You can search FriendFeed for all the same keywords as well, as most of the tweets got imported there.
IASP2009 002.jpgScience In The Triangle is an online portal for news (and stories about news) about scientific research happening in the Triangle region of North Carolina. This is a way to keep the researchers in the Triangle informed about each other’s work and local science-related events, as well as a way to highlight the local research efforts for the outside audience. It is in its early stages but we’ll work on developing it more. It will be interesting to compare it to other similar portals, like NSF Science Nation and The X-Change Files (neither one of which is regional in character).
Apart from that, what was I doing at this kind of conference? Frankly, I never really thought about science/technology parks much until now. I have spent the last 18 or so years inside the sphere of influence of the Research Triangle Park and was blissfully unaware of the existence of any others. I did not know that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of such parks around the world (including – and I should have known about it – the Technology Park Ljubljana in Slovenia). I did not know they had an official international association. I did not know that there are specified criteria as to what makes a park a park. Or that, for instance, the NCSU Centennial Campus is considered a science/technology park and is itself a member of the Association, outside of its proximity to RTP. Just learning these things was enlightening in itself, besides the actual susbtance of the talks.
IASP2009 003.jpgThis was also an interesting cultural experience for me. For the past several years, my conference experiences were mainly unconferences or very laid back and friendly science conferences. This was not it. This was a formal, old-style business conference with about a thousands businessmen (and very few women) wearing business suits. Even I felt compelled to wear a coat and tie and uncomfortable shoes to fit in. I also forgot that the program itself was bound to be much more formal. A session called a “panel” does not mean that 3-4 people on the stage will vigorously discuss a topic between themselves and with the vocal audience, but that 3-4 people will give PowerPoint presentations in rapid succession.
But I am not complaining – I know that the business world is even slower to evolve than the science world and that the tech world is light years ahead – as some of those talks were quite interesting and enlightening (see all the Tweets from the various sessions), and some of the people I met (and I knew almost nobody there in the beginning) were interesting as well. For example, Will Hearn prospects the sites for potential corporate (or industrial park) development around the world, from Peru to Macedonia. He runs Site Dynamics and has developed software – SiteXcellerator – that provides important information about the population, education and economics of any place on earth the company may be interested in moving into.
So, what is a science/technology/industrial park? It is a place. Seriously, and importantly, it is a place, in a geographical sense. It is a piece of land which houses a collection of science, technology, business and industrial companies and organizations, all placed together because they can potentially collaborate.
IASP2009 004.jpgThe location of the Park is chosen for being conducive to business (nice tax breaks by the state, for instance) and for containing well-educated and skilled workforce in abundance (thus usually close to a big university). In some cases, the companies go where the skilled potential employees already are. In other cases, the Park members build educational institutions needed to produce skilled workforce out of the local population (so, for example, if biotech moves into a place abandoned by the textile industry, a college needs to be built to re-train the local workers for the new and more high-tech jobs). Some parks are focused on a single industry (e.g., pharmaceutical, or even defense in some places) or even a single product (e.g., solar panels), while other parks are drawing together a variety of different fields.
More than 20 Parks received silver medals last night for existing 25 or more years. So this is not a new fad in any way. Research Triangle Park got a gold medal as it celebrated 50 years of existence this year. It is the largest and the oldest of the science/technology parks in the world, at least among the members of the Association.
But I had a nagging thought in the back of my head. Is RTP really the oldest?
IASP2009 005.jpgSo last night when I got home I went online and started searching for “science cities” or Naukograds of the old Soviet Union. The most famous is Akademgorodok which is possibly a couple of years older than RTP as the Wikipedia page states “in the 1950s” (RTP was founded in 1959) and this NYTimes article from 1996 says “four decades ago” which places its foundation at around 1956.
By the way, that NYTimes article (I actually remember reading it at the time – the heady old days of reading newspapers on paper!) is quite interesting. But take it with a big grain of salt – remember the source and the time: the New York Times in the 1990s was essentially Clinton’s Pravda, especially in the area of foreign politics, so any article about a foreign country is automatically suspicious. I’d love to see a blog post on the topic by a respected Russian blogger, either as an antidote or as a confirmation of that NYTimes article.
I would love to see someone cover the history and evolution of Naukograds, their strengths and weeknesses, ups and downs, during the Soviet era, during Perestroika, and in modern Russia, as well as the science cities that are now located in other countries that gained independence from USSR during the 1990s. That would be quite a teaching moment for everyone involved, I’m sure. If I am reading it correctly, these science cities conform to the criteria of being science/technology parks as the Association of Science Parks defines them. I wonder if any one of them actually became members of the Association since then?
IASP2009 006.jpgBack to the RTP now. Plenary talk by the Duke University President Richard Brodhead confirmed some of the history and some thoughts I had about the importance of RTP in North Carolina history (I missed the talk by Andrew Witty, but Anton blogged it and it appears to have been along similar lines).
UNC-Chapel Hill is the oldest state university in the country. NCSU and Duke are also very old. There are a couple of dozen smaller universities and colleges (and a couple of amazing high schools for kids with math and science talent) in the Triangle. And other science-related organizations. Then, there are many more schools around the state. From what I gather, each one of those schools was on its own, pretty isolated from each other. Researchers at one school were not aware of the researchers at another.
Then, some enlightened people in the state decided that with all those schools churning out all those educated graduates, the jobs for those graduates should also be in North Carolina. Why teach them here, just to see them leave for the greener pastures? And thus the RTP was born.
IASP2009 007.jpgIt took a while for the park to grow, but it attracted or spawned some powerful and creative organizations, from RTI and Glaxo and NIEHS, through IBM and SAS, to Sigma Xi and NESCENT and Instead of educated people leaving the state in search of jobs, the companies started bringing jobs to where the educated people are – and there was one place to move to: the Research Triangle Park or as close to it as possible.
But that was not the end of the story. All those companies and organizations started collaborating with (or hiring) the researchers from local universities and….this brought people from different Universities together! People from NCSU and Duke and UNC and other schools got introduced to each other this way and started collaborative research with each other. Soon formal and informal collaborations between schools and departments were put in place. As a result, science in the state boomed. Instead of isolated nodes, there was now a network.
And I still think this network is pretty unique in the USA. In other places known for top-level science all of it is concentrated in one big city (e.g., New York City, Boston, Atlanta, or San Francisco) while the countryside of the state has nothing of the sort. And if one adds the historical rivalries between those old Universities in these cities, there is not much network effect there. Much more competitive than collaborative. But in North Carolina there are long-term ongoing collaborations between researchers, departments and schools all across the state, from Wilmington and Greenville, to Triangle, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, to Charlotte, Davidson, Cullowhee, Boone and Asheville (which is why I argued that the Nature Network Triangle Group should be renamed North Carolina Group which you should join if you are in NC and interested in science). Just look at how geographically dispersed the NC science bloggers are, if that is any indication.
IASP2009 008.jpgThus RTP, besides bringing together researchers and industry (which some of us purist scientists may not like that much) also inadvertently spurred on the advancement of pure, basic research. RTP provided the central place that connected all the schools and then people in those schools could make their own connections and do whatever kind of research they liked, even the most basic kind that does not have an obvious and immediate application (of course, long-term, all that basic knowledge ends up being applied to something, it is just impossible to predict at the time what the application could be).
There are other effects of this rise in science and technology in the state. Instead of graduates leaving the state, people from other places started coming in (look at licence plates on cars on I-40, or parked on campuses – you can see everything from Ohio and Michigan and Georgia to New York and California and Alaska), further increasing the concentration of highly educated people. The knowledge and education and expertise are regarded quite highly. Thus, the reality-based party has been in charge of state politics for a long time and last year even the national offices were deemed important enough for locals to vote out the anti-science party.
But that was last 50 years. That is 20th century world. How about today and tomorrow, now that everything about the world is changing: economics, communication, environmental awareness, even the mindset of the new generations?
You know that the rapid changes in the workplace are one of my ‘hot’ topics here. How will the information revolution affect parks (and the domino effect downstream from parks – universities, jobs, infrastructure)?
This is the moment to introduce the most interesting presentation at the meeting, by Anthony Townsend. Anthony is the Research Director at The Institute for the Future, focusing on Science In Action as well as coworking. I tried to get him in touch with Brian Russell of Carrboro Creative Coworking (and if you are in the Triangle area, but Carrboro is too far for you, fill out this survey about the potential need for coworking spaces in other parts of the Triangle), but I am not sure if they found time to meet this week. For this meeting, Anthony wrote a booklet – Future Knowledge Ecosystems: The Next Twenty Years of Technology-Led Economic Development – which you can download as a PDF for free, and I think you should.
His talk was a firehose – I tried live-tweeting it, but even the speed of Twitter was not fast enough for that. I am sure happy that he mentioned PLoS (and showed the homepage of PLoS Genetics on one of his slides) as an example of the new global, instantenuous mechanism of dissemination of scientific information. But I digress…
The main take-home message I got from his talk is that the world has fundamentaly changed over the past decade or so and that science/technology parks, old or new, need to adapt to the new world or die. He provided three possible scenarios. In the first scenario, parks evolve gradually, adapting, with some delay, to fast but predictable changes. In the second scenario, the physical space of the park becomes obsolete as research and connections move online – the park dies. In the third scenario, the parks are forced to adapt quickly and non-incrementally – inventing whole new ways of doing research combining physical and virtual worlds.
A traditional Park is a place where different companies occupy different buildings. The interaction is at the company-to-company level.
A new Park may become a giant coworking space, where the interactions are at the individual-to-individual level. Anthony actually showed a slide of a Park in Finland where a building (or a large floor of a large building) was completely re-done and turned into a coworking space.
As more and more people are turning to telecommuting and coworking, the institution of a physical office is becoming obsolete. What does that mean?
Employees are happy because they can live where they like. They get to collaborate with who they find interesting and useful, not who their corporation also decided to employ. They don’t have to see their bosses or coworkers every day (or ever). Everything else can be done in cyberspace.
What does the company gain from it? Happy productive employees. No echo-chamber effect stemming from employees only talking to each other. Ability to hire employees who are the best in what they do and, knowing that, unwilling to move from the place on Earth they like to live in. Employees who are always up to the latest trends and industry gossip due to constant mingling with the others. Free PR wherever the employees are located – they all meet the locals and answer the inevitable question “What do you do?”
The phenomenon of company loyalty is quickly fading. Most people do not expect to work for a single employer all their lives. They will work several jobs at a time, changing jobs as needed, sometimes jumping from project to project. Getting together with other people in order to get a particular job done, then moving on.
This will actually weaken the corporation – making everyone but controlling CEOs and CFOs happy. Corporations will have to become fluid, somewhat ad hoc, very flexible and adaptable, as their people will be constantly circulating in and out.
In such a world, a sci/tech Park will have to be where the people want to live – a nice place, with nice climate, nice culture, good school systems, safe, etc.
In such a world, single-payer health-care system that is not disbursed via the employer will become a necessity.
Sure, there is the production part of companies that actually produce ‘stuff’ and they will also be in such Parks so their own (and other’s) blue-collar and white-collar employees can routinely interact (Anthony showed a slide of a production line literally weaving through the offices, forcing workers, bureacrats and R&D personel to get to know each other and watch each other at work, thus coming to creative solutions together).
As for science itself, a Park may be something like a Science Motel, a place where both affiliated and freelance scientists can come together, exchange ideas and information, work together, use common facilities and equipment, regardless of who their official employers are and where those are located geographically.
Sounds like something out of science fiction? That kind of future is right around the corner.
The interaction at the organization-to-organization level, the cornerstone of Parks and the local economic growth in the 20th century, has been discussed quite a lot at the meeting, as expected. Especially collaboration between Universities and industry (and sometimes government).
The park-to-park level of interaction, essential in the global economy, and the reason the Association of Science Parks exists, was discussed quite a lot, of course.
IASP2009 009.jpgBut I did not get the vibe that the level of individual-to-individual was on many people’s minds. The idea that the corporation will have to get less coherent and/or hiererchical because the new generations will insist on the individual-to-individual collaboration did not get much air play. The time when people realize that information wants to be free and that, with current technology, it can be set free, is a challenge to corporations, especially for keeping trade secrets. Perhaps there will be less trade secrets as the new mindset sets in – a network can do more and better than competing units.
This was brought splendidly to us all last night, at the end of the Gala (no, not the amazing Tri-chocolate mousse dessert!), by theCarolina Ballet dancers, each bringing his or her own individual skills and talent (and it was visible that they all differ – some are more athletic, some more elegant, the #1 ballerina is top-world-class) and working together to produce a collective piece of beauty.

Duke Univ pres Richard Brodhead RTP, Local Synergy

Anthony Townsend & Future Knowledge Ecosystems, IASP 2009

XXVI International Association of Science Parks World Conference on Science & Technology Parks

I’ll be going to IASP next week, one of several people reporting from it for Science In The Triangle. We have organized our coverage strategically – I will be there for a couple of events on Tuesday and all day Wednesday. I’ll be posting here and on Twitter and Science In The Triangle will aggregate everyone’s posts in one place.
What is IASP?:

The International Association of Science Parks (IASP) is a worldwide network of science and technology parks. IASP connects science park professionals from across the globe and provides services that drive growth and effectiveness for members.
IASP members enhance the competitiveness of companies and entrepreneurs in their cities and regions, and contribute to global technology-led economic development through innovation, entrepreneurship, and the transfer of knowledge and technology.

What is the conference about?:

The future can be a daunting place. Regions and places around the world are looking at ways that they can be more prepared for the opportunities and challenges to come.
Places and regions that are fully integrated, viable, and use knowledge and its applications as the major driver in economic development will fair well in this new landscape. For the past fifty years, science and technology parks have led this model. The evolution of this industry’s growth will serve as a model for others.
Join us in Raleigh, NC, on June 1-4, 2009, to discuss what the elements of these future knowledge ecosystems might entail.

You can follow on Twitter (also here, or follow the #iasp hashtag) and Facebook:

This conference will focus on trends in technology-led economic development, the development and activities in science, research and technology parks including incubation, university relationships, corporate partnerships and workforce issues. It will also include discussions around intellectual property, venture capital and strategic partnerships.
In recent years, the International Association of Science Parks (IASP) has held this conference in Barcelona, Spain, and Johannesburg, South Africa, and future years will be hosted by Daejeon, Korea, and Copenhagen, Denmark. Take advantage of an international conference on a domestic ticket!

So, watch this space next week for my liveblogging of some of the events there.

My interviews with Radio Belgrade

Last year in May, when I visited Belgrade, I gave interviews with Radio Belgrade, talking about science publishing, Open Access, science communication and science blogging. The podcasts of these interviews – yes, they are in Serbian! – are now up:
Part 1
Part 2
I know that this blog has some ex-Yugoslavs in its regular audience, people who can understand the language. I hope you enjoy the interviews and spread the word if you like them.

ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power

I know it’s been a couple of months now since the ScienceOnline’09 and I have reviewed only a couple of sessions I myself attended and did not do the others. I don’t know if I will ever make it to reviewing them one by one, but other people’s reviews on them are under the fold here. For my previous reviews of individual sessions, see this, this, this, this and this.
What I’d like to do today is pick up on a vibe I felt throughout the meeting. And that is the question of Power. The word has a number of dictionary meanings, but they are all related. I’ll try to relate them here and hope you correct my errors and add to the discussion in the comments here and on your own blogs.
Computing Power
Way back in history, scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were called then), did little experimentation and a lot of thinking. They kept most of their knowledge, information and ideas inside of their heads (until they wrote them down and published them in book form). They could easily access them, but there was definitely a limit to how much they could keep and how many different pieces they could access simultaneously.
A scientist who went out and got a bunch of notebooks and pencils and started writing down all that stuff in an organized and systematic manner could preserve and access much more information than others, thus be able to perform more experiments and observations than others, thus gaining a competitive advantage over others.
Electricity and gadgets allowed for even more – some degree of automation in data-gathering and storage. For instance, in my field, there is only so much an individual can do without automation. How long can you stay awake and go into your lab and do measurements on a regular basis? I did some experiments in which I did measurements every hour on the hour for 72 hours! That’s tough! All those 45min sleep bouts interrupted by 15min times for measurements, even as a couple of friends helped occasionally, were very exhausting.
But using an Esterline-Angus apparatus automated data-gathering and allowed researchers to sleep, thus enabling them to collect long-term behavioral data (collecting continuous recordings for weeks, months, even years) from a large number of animals. This enabled them to do much more with the same amount of time, space, money and manpower. This gave them a competitive advantage.
But still, Esterline-Angus data were on paper rolls. Those, one had to cut into strips, glue onto cardboard, photograph in order to make an actograph, then use manual tools like rulers and compasses and protractors to quantify and calculate the results (my PI did that early in his career and kept the equipment in the back room, to be shown to us whenever we complained that we were asked to do too much).
Having a computer made this much easier: automated data-collection by a computer, analyzed and graphed on that same computer, inserted into manuscripts written on that same computer. A computer can contain much more information than a human brain and, in comparison to notebooks, it is so much easier and quicker to search for and find the relevant information. That was definitely a competitive advantage as one could do many more experiments with the same amounts of time, space, money and manpower.
Enter the Web: it is not just one’s own data that one can use, but also everyone else’ data, information, ideas, publications, etc. Science moves from a collection of individual contributions to a communal (and global) pursuit – everyone contributes and everyone uses others’ contributions. This has a potential to exponentially speed up the progress of scientific research.
For this vision to work, all the information has to be freely available to all as well as machine-readable – thus necessity of Open Access (several sessions on this topic, of course) and Open Source. This sense of the word Power was used in sessions on the ‘Semantic Web in Science’, the ‘Community intelligence applied to gene annotation’, and several demos. Also, in the session on ‘Social Networking for Scientists’, this explains why, unlike on Facebook, it is the information (data) that is at the core. Data finds data. Subsequently, people will also find people. Trying to put people together first will not work in science where information is at the core, and personalities are secondary.
Power Relationships
In the examples above, you can already see a hierarchy based on power. A researcher who is fully integrated into the scientific community online and uses online databases and resources and gives as much as he/she takes, will have an advantage over an isolated researcher who uses the computer only offline and who, in comparison, has a competitive advantage over a person who uses mechanical devices instead of computers, who in turn does better than a person who only uses a pencil and paper, who beats out the guy who only sits (in a comfy armchair, somewhere in the Alps) and thinks.
Every introduction of new technologies upsets the power structure as formerly Top Dogs in the field may not be the quickest to adopt new technologies so they bite the dust when their formerly lesser colleagues do start using the new-fangled stuff. Again, important to note here, “generation” is a worldview, not age. It is not necessarily the young ones who jump into new technologies and old fogies do not: both the people who are quick to adopt new ways and the curmugeons who don’t can be found in all age groups.
Let’s now try to think of some traditional power relationships and the way the Web can change them. I would really like if people would go back to my older post on The Shock Value of Science Blogs for my thought on this, especially regarding the role of language in disrupting the power hierarchies (something also covered in our Rhetorics In Science session).
People on the top of the hierarchy are often those who control a precious resource. What are the precious resources in science? Funding. Jobs. Information. Publicity.
Funding and Jobs
Most of the funding in most countries comes from the government. But what if some of that funding is distributed equally? That upsets the power structure to some extent. Sure, one has to use the funds well in order to get additional (and bigger) funds, but still, this puts more people on a more even footing, giving them an initial trigger which they can use wisely or not. They will succeed due to the quality of their own work, not external factors as much.
Then, the Web also enables many more lay people to become citizen scientists. They do not even ask for funding, yet a lot of cool research gets done. With no control of the purse by government, industry, military or anyone else except for people who want to do it.
Like in Vernon Vinge’s Rainbows End, there are now ways for funders and researchers to directly find each other through services ranging from Mechanical Turk to Innocentive. The money changes hands on per-need basis, leaving the traditional purse-holders outside the loop.
As more and more journals and databases go Open Access, it is not just the privileged insiders who can access the information. Everyone everywhere can get the information and subsequently do something with it: use it in own research, or in application of research to real-world problems (e.g., practicing medicine), or disseminating it further, e.g., in an educational setting.
In a traditional system, getting publicity was expensive. It took a well-funded operation to be able to buy the presses, paper, ink, delivery trucks etc. Today, everyone with access to electricity, a computer (or even a mobile device like a cell phone) and online access (all three together are relatively cheap) can publish, with a single click. Instead of pre-publication filtering (editors) we now have post-publication filtering (some done by machines, some by humans). The High Priests who decided what could be published in the first place are now reduced to checking the spelling and grammar. It is the community as a whole that decides what is worth reading and promoting, and what is not.
In a world in which sources can go directly to the audience, including scientists talking directly to their audience, the role of middle-man is much weakened. Journal editors, magazine editors, newspaper editors, even book editors (and we had a separate session on each one of these topics), while still having power to prevent you from publishing in elite places, cannot any more prevent you from publishing at all. No book deal? Publish with No magazine deal? Write a blog. No acceptance into a journal? Do Open Notebook Science to begin with, to build a reputatiton, then try again. If your stuff is crap, people will quickly tell you and will tell others your stuff is crap, and will vote with their feet by depriving you of links, traffic, audience and respect.
You can now go directly to your audience. You can, by consistently writing high quality stuff, turn your own website or blog into an “elite place”. And, as people are highly unlikely to pay for any content online any more, everything that is behind a pay wall will quickly drop into irrelevance.
Thus, one can now gain respect, reputation and authority through one’s writing online: in OA journals, on a blog, in comment threads, or by commenting on scientific papers. As I mentioned in The Shock Value of Science Blogs post, this tends to break the Old Boys’ Clubs, allowing women, minorities and people outside of Western elite universities, to become equal players.
Language is important. Every time an Old Boy tries to put you down and tell you to be quiet by asking you to “be polite”, you can blast back with a big juicy F-word. His aggressive response to this will just expose him for who he is and will detract from his reputation – in other words, every time an Old Boy makes a hissy fit about your “lack of politeness” (aka preserving the status quo in which he is the Top Dog), he digs himself deeper and becomes a laughingstock. Just like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do to politicians with dinosaur ideas and curmudgeon journalists who use the He Said She Said mode of reporting. It is scary to do, but it is a win-win for you long-term. Forcing the old fogies to show their true colors will speed up their decline into irrelevance.
Another aspect of the Power on the Web is that a large enough group of people writing online can have an effect that were impossible in earlier eras. For instance, it is possible to bait a person to ruin his reputation on Google. It is also possible to affect legislation (yes, bloggers and readers, by calling their offices 24/7, persuaded the Senators to vote Yes). This is a power we are not always aware of when we write something online, and we need to be more cognizant of it and use it wisely (something we discussed in the session about Science Blogging Networks: how being on such a platform increases one’s power to do good or bad).
The session on the state of science in developing and transition countries brought out the reality that in some countries the scientific system is so small, so sclerotic, so set in their ways and so dominated by the Old Boys, that it is practically impossible to change it from within. In that case one can attempt to build a separate, parallel scientific community which will, over time and through use of modern tools, displace the old system. If the Old Boys in their example of Serbia are all at the University of Belgrade, then people working in private institutes, smaller universities, or even brand new private universities (hopefully with some consistent long-term help from the outside), can build a new scientific community and leave the old one in the dust.
Teachers used to be founts of knowledge. This was their source of power. But today, the kids have all the information at their fingertips. This will completely change the job description of a teacher. Instead of a source of information, the teacher will be a guide to the use of information: evaluation of the quality of information. Thus, instead of a top-down approach, the teachers and students will become co-travellers through the growing sea of information, learning from one another how to navigate it. This is definitely a big change in power relationship between teachers and their charges. We had three sessions on science education that made this point in one way or another.
And this is a key insight, really. Not just in education, but also in research and publishing, the Web is turning a competitive world into a collaborative world. Our contributions to the community (how much we give) will be more important for our reputation (and thus job and career) than products of our individual, secretive lab research.
Yet, how do we ensure that the change in the power-structure becomes more democratic and now just a replacement of one hierarchy with another?
Coverage of other sessions under the fold:

Continue reading

Is your pilot too sleepy to land you safely?

Ask the pilot:

Ask yourself this: Whom would you prefer at the controls of your plane on a stormy night, a pilot who smoked a joint three days ago, or one who had six hours of sleep prior to a 13-hour workday in which he’s performed half a dozen takeoffs and landings? The first pilot has indulged in a career-ending toke; the second is in full compliance with the rules. I have to assume that the FAA realizes the foolery of such enforcement policies, but it nonetheless chooses to put its resources into drug testing and other politically expedient issues. Meanwhile it procrastinates, performing study after study and poring over data from NASA circadian rhythm experiments in an attempt to answer one of the world’s most perplexing questions: Is exhaustion a detriment to job performance?

Hey, You Can’t Say That! Or can you?

I have received, from a friend, a draft of an intra-institutional guideline for employee blogging and online behavior. The employer has been anonymized. The document has been written by non-scientist non-bloggers at the institution and is making the rounds prior to formal review and approval.
We have talked about this at ScienceOnline’09 in the session Hey, You Can’t Say That!. Here are some of the bloggy responses to that session to get you up to speed:
Deep Thoughts and Silliness: Semi-live Blogging Scienceonline09: Day 2
Highly Allochthonous: ScienceOnline Day 2: generalised ramblings
Ideonexus: ScienceOnline09: Hey, You Can’t Say That!
Expression Patterns: ScienceOnline09 – Day 3
Confessions of a Science Librarian: ScienceOnline ’09: Sunday summary and final thoughts
I do not know how many other research institutions (for example universities and research institutes), or other science-related businesses (for example science publishers and biotech), are developing – or have already enacted – similar guidelines, but there’s no time like the present for the science blogging community to plug itself into this discussion and maybe even start taking some active steps (for example recommending a set of guidelines or a template document for circulation and use by scientists and their employers).
What I would like you to do is read these draft guidelines, comment on them on your own blogs, make changes and edits to make it better, or to make it start making sense, make sure that your edits are highly visible (e.g., in bold or red), and then post the URL of your post in the comments of this post. Here is the text as I got it:

Social media guidelines for Big Research Institution (which I will abbreviate as BRI from here on out) staff
These guidelines are intended to cover blogs, where BRI staff discuss their projects or professional work, as well as BRI related pages set up by staff on social networking sites such as Flickr and Facebook. They do not cover any personal use of social media which is primarily about personal matters or hobbies.
We have a long history of BRI staff actively contributing to public discussions. However there are a few simple guidelines for BRI staff to consider when setting up their personal blogs and wikis which are outlined under “Personal social media guidelines” at the end of this document.
Guidelines for a BRI context
BRI can clearly benefit from the use of social media to promote its activities, discuss projects and research, and increase its overall knowledge base. These guidelines are intended to ensure that BRI can have a strategic overview of how we are using social media, use it in an effective way to develop our vision, facilitate its development and cross promote where appropriate.
For the purposes of this document online social media activity by BRI staff and associates falls into two categories:
Public facing – Social media which directly relates to or discusses work or projects at BRI and has a general public audience.
Peer to peer – As above but where the blog, forum, wiki etc is used as a tool for scientists and others to communicate with their peers and is not intended for a general public audience. This includes both social media content hosted by BRI and collaborative projects.
Speak freely, but respect BRI’s confidentiality and values
Whether social media content is public facing or peer to peer, the individual has a duty to:
* behave in a way that is consistent with BRI’s values and policies
* respect the confidentiality of information as outlined in BRI’s staff handbook
Unless there are specific concerns about the nature of the work, BRI staff are free to discuss work and research online. However, staff must not reveal any information which may be confidential. This might include aspects of research, BRI policy or details of internal discussions. Staff should check the BRI IP policy, the staff handbook and/or consult their manager if at all unclear about what might be confidential.
The content of peer to peer pages or sites is the responsibility of the relevant department. The content should follow BRI editorial guidelines to ensure usability and accessibility. Content is the responsibility of the individual and their department and would not be edited by BRI editors. Moderation is the responsibility of the relevant department.
Public facing social media is covered by the general editorial guidelines, and should be written for the expected audience and have a moderation plan agreed with BRI.
Intellectual property
All BRI social media output is the intellectual property of BRI.
BRI will operate all of its social media under a creative commons license, which means that content such as images can be reused for educational purposes unless otherwise stated.
It is the responsibility of the author of any social media content to ensure that the copyright is cleared for any material published.
Setting up of new social media and content pages
Whether you are setting up new BRI social media pages within the BRI website or on an existing social media site such as Flickr or Facebook, they need to follow the BRI interactive project process.
In the first instance please discuss with your manager. If they are in agreement then the next step is to complete and submit a concept brief for social media (link here) which outlines:
* the purpose
* the author
* the audience
* the contributors
* moderation plans
* expected duration
* how they fit with department/corporate plans
Concept brief forms are available from your manager.
Existing blogs
Staff who already have a blog, wiki, forum etc. which is related to their work or BRI should discuss it with their manager and the BRI production editor. This will allow for a shared understanding of activity in this area and will help BRI promote and aggregate a body of BRI blogs in the future.
Scientists can link to their blogs from their CV’s on the BRI website but it may also be appropriate to integrate it into other areas of the site and promote it more generally from BRI’s website.
Personal use of social media by BRI staff
If within your blog, wiki or social media pages BRI or work at BRI is highlighted the content should comply with the Code of Conduct outlined in the staff handbook.
Additionally if a personal blog is clearly identifying the staff as a member of BRI it should have a simple and visible disclaimer such as ‘The views expressed on this blog/website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of BRI.’
Personal social media pages or websites may link to BRI’s website, but should not reproduce material that is available as a result of BRI employment, use any BRI branding, nor should the blog or website purport to represent BRI in any way.
If you wish to use BRI copyrighted material you need to obtain BRI’s permission.
Social media
For the purposes of this document, the term Social Media includes:
* blogs
* forums
* networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo, Linked In
* photo sharing sites such as Flickr
* video sharing sites such as YouTube
* all other sites allowing publishing of opinion and comment where an individual might be viewed as representing BRI
Appendix: BRI’s existing social networking rules
Social networking websites
We provide open access to the internet for business use. However, we do recognize that you might use the internet for personal purposes. This policy sets out your responsibilities in relation to using the internet to access social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Friendster.
Personal use of the internet
We allow you to access social networking websites on the internet for personal use during certain times. These times are:
* before and after work hours; and
* during the one-hour break at lunch.
We reserve the right to restrict access to these websites and to bar individuals who abuse our broad approach to open internet access.
Personal conduct
While we respect your right to a private life, we also have a general duty of care for the welfare of all our staff and also a responsibility to ensure that the reputation of BRI as an institution of world standing is protected. We therefore require employees using social networking websites to:
* refrain from identifying yourself as working for BRI;
* ensure that you do not conduct yourself in a way that could be perceived to be of detriment to BRI’s reputation and its role as a public authority; and
* take care not to allow your interaction on these websites to damage working relationships between members of staff and clients of BRI.
Monitoring of internet access at work
We reserve the right to monitor internet usage, but will endeavor to inform you should your usage be under surveillance and the reasons for it. We consider that valid reasons for checking an individual’s internet usage may include suspicions that you have
* been spending an excessive amount of time viewing websites that are not work-related; or
* acted in a way that damages the reputation of BRI and/or breaches commercial confidentiality.
We reserve the right to retain information that it has gathered on an individual’s use of the internet for a period of 12 months.
Access to the web may be withdrawn in any case of misuse of this facility and may result in disciplinary action.
Security and identity theft
You should be aware that social networking websites are a public forum, particularly if you are part of a ‘network’. You should not assume that your entries on any website will remain private. You should never send abusive or defamatory messages.
Please be security conscious and take steps to protect yourself from identity theft, for example by restricting the amount of personal information that you reveal. Social networking websites allow people to post detailed personal information such as date of birth, place of birth and favorite team, which can form the basis of security questions and passwords. In addition, you should:
* ensure that no information is made available that could provide a person with unauthorized access to BRI and/or any confidential information; and
* refrain from recording any confidential information regarding BRI on any network

What do you all think? Go ahead and make your own edits, or de novo drafts on your own blogs, and let me know the permalinks here.

No, you don’t need a physical ‘newsroom’

You know I am very interested in the way the Web is changing the workplace, in many instances eliminating the need for having a physical office.
Michael Rosenblum appears to feel the same way about it:

Two years ago, we began a very interesting experiment with a major cable provider.
We built and ran (and continue to run) a hyper-local TV station which is probably the most cost-effective in the country. It’s a model for others.
Now, after two years, we are going to start our second one.
When we sat down to do the budgets, the first thing we cut out was the office.
We had an office for the first station, but realized after a year, no one went there. There was no need for it.
All of our video journalists work from the field, cut on their own laptops, and set their own schedules. Coming into an office every day would only eat into their reporting time and serve no purpose. Not to mention the vast cost of a physical office – the building, the desks, the carpet, the lights. All unnecessary.
So when we set out to design our second station, we eliminated the building and the office entirely.
Don’t need it.
Don’t want it.
I raised this concept recently at a media conference held at CUNY in New York, chaired by Jeff Jarvis.
Many journalists on my panel were upset at the concept. “You need a newsroom” they opined.
No, I don’t think you do….

Then he goes on about NBC having an unnecessary (and expensive) building and Facebook not having one and Kevin Gamble adds that perhaps NSF does not need a building any more as well.
I thought there actually was a Facebook building in Palo Alto, is there? Perhaps just an office within a building. But when Robert Scoble visits Facebook and blogs about it, I don’t think he has a beer with the guys at a bar – he visits a discrete space, something with floors and doors and furniture. Otherwise, I support the sentiment 100%.

Carrboro Creative Coworking on NPR

Brian Russell was on NPR Marketplace this morning, talking about Carrboro Creative Coworking. Worth a listen:

Radical Transparency

This article is almost two years old, but it is perhaps even more current today than it was when it first appeared:

Pretend for a second that you’re a CEO. Would you reveal your deepest, darkest secrets online? Would you confess that you’re an indecisive weakling, that your colleagues are inept, that you’re not really sure if you can meet payroll? Sounds crazy, right? After all, Coke doesn’t tell Pepsi what’s in the formula. Nobody sane strips down naked in front of their peers. But that’s exactly what Glenn Kelman did. And he thinks it saved his business.
The Internet has inverted the social physics of information. Companies used to assume that details about their internal workings were valuable precisely because they were secret. If you were cagey about your plans, you had the upper hand; if you kept your next big idea to yourself, people couldn’t steal it. Now, billion- dollar ideas come to CEOs who give them away; corporations that publicize their failings grow stronger. Power comes not from your Rolodex but from how many bloggers link to you – and everyone trembles before search engine rankings. Kelman rewired the system and thinks anyone else could, too. But are we really ready to do all our business in the buff?
“You can’t hide anything anymore,” Don Tapscott says. Coauthor of The Naked Corporation, a book about corporate transparency, and Wikinomics, Tapscott is explaining a core truth of the see-through age: If you engage in corporate flimflam, people will find out.
Secrecy is dying. It’s probably already dead.2 In a world where Eli Lilly’s internal drug-development memos, Paris Hilton’s phonecam images, Enron’s emails, and even the governor of California’s private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit – trying to hide anything, really – is an unwise gamble. So many blogs rely on scoops to drive their traffic that muckraking has become a sort of mass global hobby. Radical transparency has even reached the ultrasecretive world of Washington politics…
All of which explains why the cult of transparency has so many high tech converts these days. Transparency is a judo move. Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info – so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?
Some of this isn’t even about business; it’s a cultural shift, a redrawing of the lines between what’s private and what’s public. A generation has grown up blogging, posting a daily phonecam picture on Flickr and listing its geographic position in real time on Dodgeball and Google Maps. For them, authenticity comes from online exposure. It’s hard to trust anyone who doesn’t list their dreams and fears on Facebook.
The new breed of naked executives also discover that once people are interested in you, they’re interested in helping you out – by offering ideas, critiques, and extra brain cycles. Customers become working partners.3 Kelman used to spend valuable work time arguing why the real estate business had to change; now his customers do battle for him, wading into Redfin’s online forums to haggle with old-school agents.
Nearly everyone I spoke to had a warning for would-be transparent CEOs: You can’t go halfway naked. It’s all or nothing. Executives who promise they’ll be open have to stay open. The minute they become evasive about troubling news, transparency’s implied social compact crumbles.
Which illustrates an interesting aspect of the Inter net age: Google is not a search engine. Google is a reputation-management system. And that’s one of the most powerful reasons so many CEOs have become more transparent: Online, your rep is quantifiable, findable, and totally unavoidable. In other words, radical transparency is a double-edged sword, but once you know the new rules, you can use it to control your image in ways you never could before.
“Online is where reputations are made now,” says Leslie Gaines Ross, chief reputation strategist – yes, that’s her actual title – with the PR firm Weber Shandwick. She regularly speaks to companies that realize a single Google search determines more about how they’re perceived than a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. “It used to be that you’d look only at your reputation in newspapers and broadcast media, positive and negative. But now the blogosphere is equally powerful, and it has different rules. Public relations used to be about having stuff taken down, and you can’t do that with the Internet.”
But here’s the interesting paradox: The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation. Putting out more evasion or PR puffery won’t work, because people will either ignore it and not link to it – or worse, pick the spin apart and enshrine those criticisms high on your Google list of life.

Read the whole thing – all those good examples that I snipped out. Is this how you operate, either as a person or as a company/organization?

Blogs – a means to finding people to do rhythmic things with?

I found this quite intriguing:

Those thinking that online social networking is a substitute for face-to-face interactions might want to think again. Recent research in psychology suggests there are some benefits to real-life socializing that the Internet just can’t provide; researchers at Stanford University have published a report in Psychological Science called “Synchrony and Cooperation” that indicates engaging in synchronous activities (e.g., marching, singing, dancing) strengthens social attachments and enables cooperation. As most of our online social networking to date is based on asynchronous communication and interaction, this could spell trouble for those that prefer to engage in relationships online rather than off.

Hmmm, isn’t this quite a leap? There is a difference between being in the same physical space and doing something rhythmic in it. There is also a difference between doing something together online vs. offline. I do not see how those things are comparable.

Scientists have theorized that synchronous activities lead to group cohesion ever since the 1970s, but Stanford’s Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath wanted to put some backing behind this notion. In one study, the researchers led 30 participants around campus in two different conditions: one walking in step (marching), the other walking normally. Afterwards, the participants were instructed to play an experimental economics game called the “Weak Link” in which productivity is a function of the lowest level of input. Wiltermuth and Heath found that participants that walked in step were initially more likely to cooperate as a team.
In a second study, participants were instructed to read or sing the Canadian National Anthem while performing a simple activity in tandem or separately. As you’d expect from the hypotheses, individuals that sang together or acted together showed a greater level of cooperation. A third study cemented these results.

OK, that’s fine. This is why people chant, sing, dance, march, etc. There are good reasons why simultaneous rhythmic activity fosters cooperation and closeness. Have you ever been to a political rally and chanted something in unison with thousands of others? That’s building a communal spirit:

Have you ever been to a soccer game in Europe:

The game started a couple hours later as it was getting dark. It gets dark here at 4:30pm. And that was around the time the crowd began to cheer for their team. It was amazing to listen to. Imagine an entire stadium cheering together… but not the kind of cheering that we know in the States. This was not the sound of random cheers… or the periodic screams that come with doing the wave… and at no time did I ever heard the word “fence”. No, the Serbian fans were singing. They were all singing together to support their team. And their voices in unison echoed through the chilly night and into our apartment. It was astonishing. I truly believe that everyone should have the great privilege of listen to European soccer fans. Then again… I have no idea what they were singing… honestly, it could have been about a fence… but I’m not going to focus on that.

It does not matter if you are playing for Milan, Borussia, Real-Madrid or Manchester United – you have to be a professional, an amazingly self-controlled person with nerves of steel in order not to be affected by the continuous chant of 100,000 Red Star fans when playing at their stadium. The players play in sync with the audience chants, and the audience alters the chant to match the rhythm of the play. It is absolutely amazing to watch. So yes, rhythmic synchronized behavior is a great way to ensure group cohesion which is needed for attaining the group goals, e.g., of scoring goals. Or winning elections.
But now we get to the argument that does not seem to have anything to do with rhythmic behavior:

The Internet is a great enabler of asynchronicity. Instead of phone conversations or face-to-face chats, for instance, occuring in real time, instant messaging allows all parties involved to think and react at their own paces. E-mail is handled at the recipient’s leisure. The pace of social networking is dictated by the participants. Is the nature of online communication- that is, a lack of synchronicity- potentially damaging for relationships? If it takes a certain sort of tandem activity to strengthen social connections, maybe the Web is missing out big-time.
As an aside, this might also suggest why individuals that are deep into the gaming scene (e.g., MMORPGs, first person shooters, etc.) often tend to find companionship online more easily than most: perhaps playing a game online is a cooperatively kinesthetic experience that satisfies this human need for synchronicity.

Hmmm, none of this is rhythmmic activity. It is social, communal and synchronous, but it is not rhythmic. Thus, the study noted above can’t really say anything about it. A lot of the stuff online happens synchronously, in real time – Skype, chat, fast-moving discussions on blogs and forums, etc. are just as synchronous as a real-life conversation. Here, the distinction is not between rhythmic and arrhythmic, but between online and offline.
Now, a lot of online activity is centered around finding like-minded people. When you find them, and, let’s say you read their blogs regularly, after a while you start wishing to meet them in person. What do you do? You connect with them on Facebook or in order to track each other’s travel so you can meet up whenever you are in the same town. You organize a Blogger MeetUp to meet like-minded people in your area, or a BloggerCon if you want to broaden the scope geographically. That is how Science Blogging Conference originated – my wish to meet other science bloggers in person.
But when we meet in person, do we engage in rhythmic behaviors (no, I don’t want to know about that kind!)? Perhaps we may raise a glass of beer or wine in a completely synchronous and rhythmic manner, but that is rare. It is not about rhythmicity, it is about physical proximity. Even most of the Flash Mob activities (see this list for examples) are rarely rhythmic – I found only one example that is synchronously rhythmic.
This is also related to my obsession with the Death Of The Office, i.e., with the world of telecommuting and coworking. Instead of having the people picked for you by others – going to the office – you pick your own friends and, whenever possible, meet them in person. You actively choose to live in the place where you can combine all your needs for a particular climate and culture, with the proximity to a substantial number of people you like to see often, although you have first discovered each other online. Then you can go with them to a soccer match and chant in sync if you want, but that’s not the point.

Co-Researching spaces for Freelance Scientists?

Pawel tried, for a year, to be a freelance scientist. While the experiment did not work, in a sense that it had to end, he has learned a lot from the experience. And all of us following his experience also learned a lot about the current state of the world. And I do not think this has anything to do with Pawel living in Poland – I doubt this would have been any different if he was in the USA or elsewhere.
You all know that I am a big fan of telecommuting and coworking and one of the doomsayers about the future existence of the institution of ‘The Office’. And you also know that I am a scientist, so it is no surprise that I have been also thinking how to connect these two – is there a way to have a coworking (or co-researching) facility for freelance scientists?
If you work 9-5 for The Man, it is understandable that you should strive mightily to sharply delineate work from the rest of your life, and to measure your worth in dollars (or place of employment, e.g., Harvard). But if you are lucky (and work to make it happen), you will do what you like to do, what you’d do for free anyway. Thus, you express your person through your work, you are what you do and your job is you, and it is perfectly fine to completely blur that distinction. If that is the case, your worth is not measured in dollars – you can say you “made it” if you can live wherever you want on the planet (or even off of it if you are adventurous), surrounded by people you like, doing what you like, and having lots of friends. You will be measured by the size of your network – who is your (mutual – it has to be mutual!) friend.
Sure, you can make many mutual friends online, through blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, etc. But, as a human being, you also need physical proximity to some of the people you really like a lot. What are blogs but means to find each other in order to organize a Blogger Meetup or BloggerCon?
So, if you have that luck and freedom, you will choose where on Earth to live both by the criterion of climate and natural beauty and by unusual concentration of people you really like and want to be surrounded with.
But what about your work – how can you transport your work wherever you want to live? This depends, of course, on the nature of your work. If your job is to think, read, write, communicate, publish or do stuff with computers, you can do that everywhere as long as there is electricity and internet access. You can work at home, or a corner cafe, or a nice local coworking space.
But what if you are a scientist? How can you do that?
Remember World 2.0 at Rainbows End? In that plausible world, which will cease to be Science Fiction in mere years, some scientists obviously work at universities or at institutes that may or may not be associated with universities. They are presumably hired to teach and train the new generations of scientists there. But most of scientific research is apparently happening elsewhere – in the virtual world, on the “boards”.
When I read about those “boards”, I was reminded of sites like Innocentive, Innovation Exchange, Nine Sigma or even 2collab – places where funders and researchers find each other and exchange money for discoveries – a free-market type of funding. As an alternative, it sound pretty good, though big basic science would probably still have to be funded by the government agencies.
But, Vinge never tells where those scientists live and where they actually do their research. They may pick up jobs online, but they still have to do wet work in some lab somewhere. Where? Some may be at universities, supplementing their income in this way. But many are likely freelancers (many of those perhaps without any formal degrees in science, just talented people who learned by themselves and through their thoughts, words and actual discoveries, built their reputations in the scientific community). Where do those freelancers do their research?
Perhaps in a scientific equivalent of a coworking place – perhaps something like a Science Hostel. I have been thinking about this for quite a while, but I did not know that Garret Lisi also came up with this concept. Apart from being on the cutting edge of science publishing, he is also apparently thinking innovatively about the way science in the future will be done. In his interview on Backreaction, Garett says:

I’ve been thinking about what the ideal scientific work environment would be, and the best thing I’ve been able to come up with is a Science Hostel. I envision a large house where theorists could live and work on their stuff alone or in groups while having their meals and living space provided. The idea is to give researchers time, with an easily accessible but undemanding social atmosphere, and as little responsibility as possible. And, of course, it would have to be somewhere beautiful — with good hiking and other things to do outside. For the past year I’ve been living near Lake Tahoe — a great environment for thinking and playing. Anywhere in the mountains would probably be good for a Science Hostel — even better if it’s next to a good ski hill. 🙂

Now that is all very nice if you are a theorist – all you need is an armchair. Or if your only scientific tool is a computer, you can do it there. But what if you need more?
A coworking space has three important components: the physical space, the technological infrastructure, and the people. A Science Hostel that accommodates people who need more than armchairs and wifi, would need to be topical – rooms designed as labs of a particular kind, common equipment that will be used by most people there, all the people being in roughly the same field who use roughly the same tools.
But this is not such a new idea. Remember Entwicklungsmechanik from the late 19th and early 20th century? The winters in Germany are cold, so the developmental biologists spent a lot of their time at Stazione Zoologica in Naples, where they made their discoveries by studying eggs and embryos of sea urchins. That was a Science Hostel. How about Woods Hole? Cold Spring Harbor? Perimeter Institute? Those are all Science Hostels.
But in the modern world, there can be more of those. There will be vast differences in size, type and economics. Some will be built and funded by large, rich institutions. Others will be cooperative projects. Some will be free, but by invitation only. Others will be open, but charging for space and use of the facilities. While most of the past and existing institutes of this sort only cater to people who are already associated with other academic institutions, some of the new hostels will cater to freelancers as well (needless to say, Open Access to literature is essential to development of such spaces).
And people will choose to live where the appropriate Science Hostel is located because this is where they can do their work and live their lives surrounded by like-minded people. There will be a lot of physicists living in the village that has a Physics Hostel. A lot of molecular biologists surrounding a Hostel equipped for them. Perhaps there will be a Hostel specifically geared towards research on whole animals with its own IACUC, facilities and staff.
We’ll wait and see….

What’s an office for?

You build a mine where the ore is. And facilities right next to the mine, to extract the metals from it. And a factory next to it that turns the raw metal into parts and objects. And a train station or a port next to it, so you can move the objects to the stores you built where the people are. And you also build a town where all your employees will live.
That’s how it’s always been done.
You cannot work the land, without living on it and getting your boots muddy. If you are hoarding something valuable, you need to hire night-guards who will actually show up at work. I understand, there are many jobs that require a person to show up at a particular place at a particular time to get the job done. The actors have to actually show up at the theater for the show to go on.
But many of those same companies also have offices and headquarters. Not to mention that more and more companies are dealing with information, education, knowledge, news or entertainment. Why do they still require people to show up at the office?
When the economic times are tough, why do CEOs fire people?
Why don’t they close the offices instead?
And keep the people?
Is it because they hate to relinquish personal micromanaging control?
That’s what telecommuting and coworking are all about. Recognition that the concept of the “office” is something that belongs to the previous millennium. All the office-typical work can now be done online.
If you force people to come to the office every day, they will resent the lack of freedom. They will resent you for being overbearing and controlling. People who rub elbows with each other every day are bound to sometimes rub each other the wrong way, starting animosities, cliques and general sense of disgruntleness. The result can be this. And will be, more and more, as the new generations were not brought up to suffer indignities in silence.
There is a lot of complaining going around the business leaders’ circles about the Millennials being lazy or demanding. No, the kids see an antiquated system and are working to change it from within, demanding that you change the way you do business – it is you who ‘don’t get it’, the kids are fine.
If you close the office and keep the employees, you will get stronger loyalty and greater job satisfaction. The job will get done better. People will come up with creative ideas that can save your company.
Furthermore, you will be able to hire the best – the people who live elsewhere and have no intention to move for the job, people who are aware of their quality and cannot be bullied into uprooting their families just to work for you.
Even better, if your employees are all around the world, this means that they are walking billboards for your company. They go around certain circles wherever they are and answer the usual question “what do you do?” every day. If they are all at the HQ, you need to pay for PR. If they are everywhere, the PR is automatic and free.
But apparently, the CEOs are not even aware how outdated their thinking is. A recent survey prompted some of them to think, for the first time, about the possibilities. It will be too late by the time they moved from “hmmm, interesting idea” to “yes, we’ll do this right now”.
Kevin Gamble asks:

When working with organizations, I’ve heard it said more than once, “People are our most important resource,” and yet how many are downsizing? Do you hear them seriously considering the savings that could accrue from closing unneeded offices? I have yet to hear a single person mention that their organizations are considering closing offices in order to preserve staffing. I have heard a few mentions of consolidation of offices, but that’s different.
Even without an economic meltdown the closing of offices makes total sense. Given our current situation, closing offices is a no-brainer. Seriously, unless you are selling or producing a physical product what function does your office serve? Make a list– yes, I am challenging you to justify why you keep your offices while at the same time downsizing your work force. I’ll wait… go make that list. Now which of those functions could be satisfied in some less expensive, and perhaps better manner by a co-working facility, hot-desking, or virtual meeting space?

Carrboro Creative Coworking Opening Party

This is where I was last night…. it was great fun, lots of people, lots of enthusiasm. Congratulations to Brian for pulling it off!

Will there be new communication channels in the Obama administration?

There is quite a lot of chatter around the intertubes about changes in the communication environment that happened between the last and this election and how those changes may be affecting the way the new White House communicates to people as well as how the new White House will receive communications from the people.
A lot of people are impatient – they want to see everything in place right this moment. Easy, guys! The inauguration is on January 20th. Until that time, Bush is the President and the Obama communications folks have time to think through, design and implement communication channels that we will definitely NOT see until the inauguration or a little bit later. So, you can pore over all you want in search for hints of the future, but it is unlikely you will see anything truly informative until January 20th at the earliest.
But in the meantime, speculation abounds.
This NYTimes article lays down the arguments pro and con (and check out the FriendFeed discussion as well – quite telling to see how some techie folks do not understand this is not a technological problem at all).
The problem is this: if a President says or writes something that is recordable – and technology is irrelevant, it could be handwriting, a magnetophone or an 8-track – it can be subpoenad by Congress. The article explores the tensions between the need for a President to have confidentiality about important matters of the state, and the need to open up new mode of communications fit for the 21st century mindset of the Facebook generation (Note: “facebook generation” has nothing to do with the actual Facebook site, or with a particular age – it is a frequently-used shorthand term for a mindset of continuity and openness in communication).
This is why Bush stopped using e-mail the day he became the President. Everything that the President says or writes becomes official record. New technology allows one to communicate too much and too informally. Chatting with friends over e-mail becomes a potential liability for the officials of such high ranking.
What is new is that Obama is the first President with that “facebook generation” mindset of constant, open communication, as opposed to a bubble-boy, smoke-filled back-rooms, secretive types that the previous 43 Presidents were. The laws, customs and trappings of his new job are going to be conflicting with his modern instincts towards openness. And people are starting to talk about a potential need to alter these out-dated laws in order to allow Obama to lead a more transparent government.
We shall see what actually happens, but we can expect, at least until/unless there are legal changes, that all the e-mailing will be done by staffers and not Obama himself. He is also going to be the first President in history to keep a laptop on the Oval Office desk (doesn’t this sound quaint?)! He will likely use the computer not to broadcast or communicate anything himself, but only to get informed (perhaps via an RSS Feed).
Another confusion in online chatter about potentially new communication is that people do not make a distinction between centrifugal (broadcasting, outwards) communication and centripetal (listening, inwards) communication.
The best example is probably this Slate article. I think Disckerson is confused. The new Prez will experiment with a number of new ways to communicate. Some of it is inside out, some is outside in. Posting the radio address on YouTube is the part of inside out. It is not the only tool and should not be looked at in isolation. Yes, it is part of his PR, but it is targeted to a set of people who past Presidents did not and could not reach: exactly the same people who are the most likely to use OTHER channels of communication to talk back to him. What Dickerson did in this text was sorta like focusing on a Food Chain and not seeing the Food Web (or forest for the trees, choose your own metaphor) – a lack of ecological thinking by a member of an old media class that thinks too linearly.
Brian Solis has collected probably some of the best ideas on the entire issue, and you should also read the various links and ideas in Josh Bernoff’s post and Lidija Davis’ post.
Obama’s first radio address was also filmed. The movie was posted on, and also on YouTube:

People like Dan Farber and Allen Stern are worried about favouritism – why YouTube and not other video services? Answer: if the only place they place a video is, then someone else will put it on YouTube, perhaps edited, with open comments, who knows what else. By posting it on YouTube themselves, the Obama comms folks are putting a degree of control over the message. In the next few months, they may decide to do the same on several other video-hosting services. This was just the first address, and YouTube, being such an 6000lbs gorilla (or is it an elephant in the room?), is the obvious place to go and test the waters first before embarking on a more ambitious program.
Also, a more ambitious program requires building the communications team. Which requires hiring people, including a Chief Conversation Officer, perhaps this guy (or me – I can do it, that’s my job right now anyway). That process has just started. People like Secretary of State are much more important positions to fill first. So, have some patience….

Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of Politics

Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of PoliticsThis I first posted on June 24, 2004 on, then republished on August 23, 2004 on Science And Politics. I love re-posting this one every now and then, just to check how much the world has changed. What do you think? Was I too rosy-eyed? Prophetic?

Continue reading

From Telecommuting to Coworking

Great article in Carrboro Commons today – I know because I’m in it! The concepts of ‘work’ and ‘office’ are changing and those in the information economy are starting to adapt to the new world:
Creative Coworking offers a new dynamic:

“People left the office and cubicle and they say, ‘OK, I’m going to break out.’ … So you start doing that. You work at home. You want to get something better than the couch, so you get a table. … You start creating an office in a spare bedroom. That works great for a while,” Russell said.
“Then you get a little bored, and your spouse is like, ‘Why haven’t you gotten out of your pajamas in the past five days?’ And so they go and get dressed and take their laptop and bag and go to a coffee shop.”
“They do that for a while, but then the music starts to bug you. There aren’t enough electrical outlets. … You get frustrated, so you go back home. …”
Ultimately, all those public places with social potential don’t have all the things you need, Russell said.
“There’s a big gap between working at a coffee shop and owning your own office.”

Then, a little further down the page, you can see a familiar name …. 😉 Doing this interview was actually tons of fun!

Watch this. Now.

If the movie does not work for you, watch it here.

Carrboro Creative Coworking – the pricing list released

You know I am excited about Carrboro Creative Coworking. Looking at the pricing list which was released today, I think there will be a place for me there I can afford….

The 21st Century Workplace is wherever you and your laptop happen to be

12 New Rules of Working You Should Embrace Today. As you know, point #4 is one of my pet peeves:

4. People don’t have to be in an office. This is the one I wish most businesses would get, right now, right away. It’s so obvious once you get away from the traditional mindset. Traditionally, people worked in offices (and of course most still do). They go into the office, do their work, go to meeting, process paperwork, chat around the watercooler, clock out and go home.
These days, more and more, that’s not necessary. With mobile computing, the cloud, online apps and collaborative processes, work can be done from anywhere, and often is. More people are telecommuting. More people are working as freelancers or consultants. More businesses are allowing people to work from anywhere — not just telecommuting from home, but literally anywhere in the world. People are forming small businesses who have never met, who live on different continents. People have meetings through Skype or Basecamp group chat. They collaborate through wikis and Google apps.
If you are stuck in the traditional mindset, think hard about what things really need to be done in an office. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for working in an office, but often those barriers have other solutions you just haven’t explored yet.
The advantages of a decentralized workplace are many. Workers who have more freedom are happier, and often more passionate about their work. They enjoy collaborating with others who are smart and talented, and work is no longer drudgery. Flexible schedules work well for many people’s lifestyles. Mobile computing is actually good for many types of businesses where people need to be on the go. And what really matters isn’t that the worker is present, but that the work is being done.

Carrboro Creative Coworking is a Go!

Carrboro Creative Coworking, a brilliant local project spearheaded by Brian Russell, is now a reality. The lease has been signed!

Carrboro Creative Coworking now has a lease for office space at 205 Lloyd Street, Suite 101 in downtown Carrboro! It’s 3,049 square feet and has nine small offices, two conference rooms, a kitchen, and public work space. The TARGET opening date for CCC is Wednesday, October 1, 2008. Stay tuned for exact dates and grand opening party info. 🙂
To launch this business I need your help now. Its essential that I pre-sell as many services as I can. This will fulfill a requirement for receiving my loan from the Town of Carrboro. Plus it’ll give us a personal boost. My wife and I are taking a LARGE financial risk. I believe its worth it.
Early next week I’ll have a pre-sell agreement for you with a list of services and their costs. We’ll have the Coworker (day/seat), the Full Time Coworker (desk/month), and the Office Coworker (office/year). Once the space actually opens we’ll fill out a more formal sales agreement contract. This pre-sale agreement will primarily act as evidence for the Town of Carrboro that you want to work at the space. MOST IMPORTANTLY it will help me to get my loan!
So if you believe in Carrboro Creative Coworking PLEASE get ready to commit. Look for the pre-sale agreement here. Contact me if you have questions.

You can read (and if you are local forward to your friends and media) the official press release (pdf):

August 21, 2008 – Carrboro, NC – Carrboro Creative Coworking signed the lease
and is ready for business. And it’s not any ordinary business – Carrboro Creative
Coworking (CCC) is a professional shared workspace with a cafe-like
atmosphere. Designed with a welcoming environment for micro-business owners
such as freelance professionals, home-office workers, entrepreneurs, start-up
business owners and more, CCC offers a place to set up shop quickly and
conveniently. Small offices, full time desks, and seats are available for presale
” For years I’ve dreamed of creating a place for people that need reliable office
space, a cool community with interaction and flexibility,” says CCC founder Brian
Russell. “Carrboro is the ideal spot for folks that telecommute from everywhere to
the Triangle to DC to San Francisco to New Delhi. We have an amazing group of
people right here looking for a place to convene professionally. They may not
want to work at home alone for long stretches. They may not want to work in a
vast commercial office. This affords social interaction as well as professional
opportunities. In the end, CCC can actually be less expensive than other office
space and you get great coffee!”
Russell is preparing to launch CCC sometime in early October. It will be located
at 205 Lloyd Street, Suite 101 in Carrboro, NC. Please keep a look out for
information about the grand opening party and office tours.

See what Brian says:

Rage 2.0

Why Rage? Because Henry inspired me (though Mrs.Gee made him edit out the ‘excessive’ language). Why 2.0? Because I am all gung-ho about everything 2.0. So there!
So, like Henry, I will now proceed to rage about something….
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, often staying in some very top-of-the-line hotels around the USA and Europe. Lovely hotels. Very comfortable. Very clean. Great service. Good food. Lots of cool amenities. More and more environmentally friendly. Nothing really to complain about. And I certainly do not want to single out Millennium UN Plaza hotel just because something that irks me very much happened there. Something that reminds me that the hotel industry as a whole has not entered the 21st century yet.
So, let me collect my thoughts and start with my own premises as to what a hotel needs to provide. At a minimum, every hotel room in every hotel in the world should provide these four essentials:
1) Bed. Hopefully a bed that is comfortable, does not squeak, and will not break down under my puny weight.
2) Bathroom. Hopefully a clean one with cold and hot running water and a decent pressure in the shower head.
3) Electricity. It is pretty essential – for lights and for recharging cell-phones, camera batteries, blackberries and laptops.
4) Online Access. Free (well, included in the room price), fast and reliable.
Most hotels are really good at providing the first three:
If your bed breaks, you call the reception and in 5 minutes your bed is either fixed or you are moved into a beautiful large suite for the rest of your stay.
If something in your bathroom leaks, you call the reception, and their plumber will be up in your room in no time, and if it cannot be fixed in 5 minutes you are moved into a beautiful large suite for the rest of your stay.
If your power goes off or a light-bulb burns, you call the reception, and their electrician will be up in your room in no time, and if it cannot be fixed in 5 minutes you are moved into a beautiful large suite for the rest of your stay.
But, if your online access does not work, you call the reception and they have no idea how to help you. They cannot send their internet technician to your room because they do not have one. Last weekend, when I called the reception to inquire about a sudden loss of online access, the receptionist forwarded me to tech support. I was naive – I thought it would be a hotel employee. Nope – the first question:
– Where are you?
– Room 3424
– Which hotel? (Yikes! Not in my hotel?)
– Millennium UN Plaza.
– Which city is that? (OMG, this one is continents away!)
Anyway, it was not my job to talk to the tech. Hotel should have taken that call and figured that out. Part of their hotel service. What they are paid for. I have already figured out that my computer is OK and that the problem is with the hotel network (soon I learned that the entire hotel lost it, not just me). There was nothing that the nice person in India could do remotely and I knew that from the start. When I was forwarded to the tech, I expected a hotel employee who could actually physically come up and check the network.
I checked at the desk a couple of times, politely. As the day progressed, I saw more and more people, more and more agitated, asking the same question “When the hell are you going to fix this!?” To which the poor receptionist could only shrug her shoulders – it is not something she was taught to deal with. The hotel had no way to deal with it. They do not understand yet that Internet is one of the Four Basic Essentials of a hotel room. They do not even use it on their own computers (how do they run a hotel? how do they provide up-to-date travel/weather/shopping/tourist information to guests without the Web?!).
As Henry notes:

Actually, I do know the reason for all these things. It’s because the people at the other end of the phone, or across the desk, are often powerless to address the problem in hand, because they are too dim, or haven’t been trained, or that the systems with which they are meant to be dealing are so distributed and fragmented so that any one person in the company feels no sense of responsibility.

That is exactly right – nobody there could do anything, or cared to try anyway. Even with a potential riot at hand, with dozens of red-faced guests shaking their fists at them. “We are aware of the problem”. Shrug.
Wifi was working in the lobby, as someone soon discovered, which soon was packed by busy travelers furiously typing on their laptops. People doing their work. Work for which constant online access is a must. Kind of work that most busy travelers these days do (most people never travel more than 100 miles from their birthplace/home and then do not stay in hotels, but those who travel tend to travel a lot and are highly connected people – the clientele of this hotel for sure). The hotel industry has to wake up to this reality.
Then I checked their ‘internet cafe’ in the basement. A tiny, ancient PC, with a tiny screen, the only browser being an old version of Internet Explorer, access through dial-up modem and all that for 50 cents per minute! No thanks.
24 hours later, the hotel was still internet-less. I checked my e-mail once I got home the next day.
Over my recent travels, I noticed several different continua in the hotel industry concerning the Internet.
Some only have an “office” just like the one I described above, but more and more do provide either wifi or cable or both in each room.
Some provide crappy access, some are decent, and a rare hotel provides a really good, fast, reliable access.
Some provide access for free as they should (and many savvy travelers now consciously pick such hotels, which should be a hint for the rest of the industry), some charge relatively low prices ($5-10 per day), and some charge exorbitant amounts of money (hundreds of dollars for a few hours, e.g., the hotel in Trieste I stayed in back in April).
The three continua do not necessarily overlap – free wifi can be crappy and an expensive one can be good, and reverse.
But what is common to all of them is that this is all outsourced and if they have a problem they do not have a person on staff who can fix the problem, someone who is intimately familiar with the particular hotel’s network.
I went back to my room and looked around. There were several objects in the room that, if there was a problem, hotel would fix quickly, yet they looked so quaint, so 20th century, so useless in today’s world.
There were alarm clocks. Why? Mrs.Coturnix and I are not gadget-happy folks, yet between us we had at least 4 or 5 “things” that have the alarm clock function on them (two cell phones, a blackberry, two laptops).
There were radios. Who listens to the radio (except locally, when at home – that’s different)? If I want music, I do not want to depend on some local DJ and his taste. I will go online and find exactly the music I want to hear at any given moment (and put it on my iPod if I want to). If I want news, I do not want to depend on the scheduling and choices of the radio news team. I will go online and find exactly the news and information I need at that moment. Even if I overhear some piece of news on the radio, I will have to go online to check if it is true, because Corporate Media is not to be trusted – it is unreliable.
There was a TV. I have not turned on a TV in a hotel in years! What for? For entertainment, TV is crappy – there is so much more and better stuff online. And anyway, I am traveling, my entertainment is likely happening outside of my room – sightseeing, meeting bloggers, participating in a conference…. As for news and information, TV is even less reliable than radio. The Web rules.
There was a telephone. A land line. Why? Because that is the only way to call the reception desk until they adopt a more modern technology. When was the last time you used your room land-line phone to make a call out? To a friend? A decade ago?
I’ll be perfectly happy to get a room without an alarm clock, without a radio, without a TV and without a telephone if I am guaranteed flawless perfect online access included in the price of the room.
Which brings me to my second Rage of the day….
I love Olympics. It is one of the most exciting equestrian events in the world. Oh, there are other sports there as well, some really cool to watch as well. Even the exotic, strange sports with unfathomable rules, like baseball.
As a kid, I watched the Olympics every four years. Belgrade TV was very good at it. We had some good sportscasters who knew when to shut up and let the athletic drama unfold itself in silence. We watched all the sports in which Yugoslavia had representatives (especially if they had a chance at a medal), e.g.,. basketball, handball, waterpolo, shooting, kayak/canoe, tennis, table-tennis, long jump, even soccer. And we watched a lot of other events because they were exciting, and had exciting personalities from other countries. And yes, we got to see the equestrian events, at least an hour for each of the three disciplines. In real time. We rooted for the good ones, or for the underdogs, or for whoever was neither Russian nor American. And we had great fun watching together, with good food and drinks.
In 1980., we hated the Americans for boycotting the Moscow games, for undercutting the very idea of the Olympics, the time when politics is supposed to be pushed aside and people around the world enjoy the achievements of the best athletes no matter where they come from and under which flag they compete. Yet the Games were fun to watch. The basketball tournament was legendary – Yugoslavia, USSR and Italy had incredible battles between themselves for the three medals, unforgettable matches. And without Americans, a lot more athletes from smaller countries got into the spotlight and won medals. It was almost more fun because the Americans were not there – more diversity.
In 1984., we hated the Russians for boycotting the Los Angeles games, for the same reasons as four years earlier. We hated them even more because this led into the Games becoming an American self-love-fest like we never saw before. It was boring. American nationalism in our faces hour after hour….
If the Games were given to Belgrade for 1992 (lost them in the last round of voting to Barcelona), there may not have been a war there. We would have something to strive for, something unifying, and something that would potentially bring jobs and money (and yes, national pride for the whole country, not its little parts). We were so excited about the candidacy alone. Darn!
The 1992 games were the first for me here in the USA. It was the pay-per-view year. I was working at the barn at the time. We got some money together and one of the guys bought the pay-per-view for the entire equestrian package and taped it all. We gave him the blank tapes and he made copies for all of us. I watched the entire equestrian program like that. And I watched some of the other events on TV and was sick of the way it was made: mad American nationalism, 100% focus on US athletes and on sports in which those athletes were meant to win a gold (otherwise it was a Satanic unfairness, or the referees were biased America-haters, or whatever excuse could be found except the idea that some athlete from another country could actually be better and on that day luckier than the American one).
Since then, I did not watch the Games.
This year, I am not watching either. And no, I am not boycotting. If I did not boycott the 1980 and 1984 games, why boycott these ones? How are they different? Every government in the world does stuff some of us don’t like. The purpose of the Olympics is to inspire progress in international relations. For people of different nations to see and get to like the people from all other nations, by watching their athletes, seeing they are human, identifying with their agonies and triumphs. Games are supposed to undermine the politics of bad governments. Some are a little better than others. But Reagan’s USA, Brezhnev’s USSR and today’s China – not much different even in degree. I will not let politics intrude into the Games ideals. If governments want to boycott, they have the right to do so, but they are idiots if they do. Individuals – whatever anyone wants to do for whichever reason. I have none.
But the main reason I am not watching this time is because I am incapable of watching them on my own terms. I do not want the NBC coverage. I want to watch events I want to watch. I want to watch them when I want to, how I want to, where I want to.
I see that danah thinks along the same lines:

I want an Olympics where the “best” is broadcast on TV, like now. But I also want an interactive version. Take gymnastics. I want to know on each apparatus who is up live. And I want to be able to switch between different cameras and choose my own view through the stadium so that I can watch whichever competitor I want. I want to be able to watch live, all day, on ALL sports (even judo and the other weird ones where Americans are not so present). I want interactive live and I want to be able to pull down and follow any individual Olympian or team through their events at a later point. I want the Olympics to be treated as a bunch of spliceable objects that I can remix live for my own viewing pleasure. And I want to be able to see it ALL. Is that that hard to ask for? Hell, I’d be willing to pay for such interactive watching options. And I’d certainly be willing to watch ads to see things LIVE. But boy does it annoy me to watch a “live” NBC broadcast that is already well reported on in the NYTimes.

Is there any way the next Olympics can be done like this? With no exclusive media rights given to anyone? I want to read the athletes’ blogs. I want to see the amateur movie clips from the events (and behind the scenes, e.g., in the horse stables at the equestrian venue) on YouTube. I want to listen in on press conferences live. I want it all on my computer live, the way I want to see it. Not the way some 20th century, dinosaur-age TV producer thinks I want to see it.
End of Rage.

Paperless Office? Bwahahahaha!

Today, I have everything I need on my computer, and so do most working scientists as well. Papers can be found online because journals are online (and more and more are Open Access). Protocols are online. Books are online. Writing and collaboration tools are online. Communication tools are online. Data collection and data analysis and data graphing and paper-writing tools are all on the computer. No need for having any paper in the office, right? Right.
But remember how new that all is. The pictures (under the fold, the t-shirt is of Acrocanthosaurus at the NC Museum of Natural Science) of my old office are only five years old! You know I am a Web junkie. If I could have survived without paper, I would have ditched it all. But I could not (and the pictures show only half of the office – there were two large file cabinets full of reprints behind the photographer – my brother – and much, much more, plus more in the lab itself):

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On Coworking

Brian Russell interviewed for Matt Frye’s Triangle Stories. Go and listen….

This is why I telecommute….

….so I never get to the point at which I am driven to behave like this:

One day soon, people will look back at videos like this one and wonder in astonishment that people in the past had to go to a place to work! That there used to be such a thing as the office! And that people wasted time, energy and polluting materials in order to get there! And that there was such a thing as a mental division between ‘Work’ and ‘Life’! And that people traveled short distances every day instead of long trips every now and then, just to see the world… Increased mobility (in physical and cyber space) allows us to control our movement better – and decrease it by eliminating unnecessary driving around.

The Work-Place, or, Catching a Catfish Online

From the ArchivesA May 9, 2007 post, wondering to telecommute or not.
I will be offline for a couple of days so I will not be able to post at my usual frantic pace. Instead, I decided to write something that will take you a couple of days to read through: a very long, meandering post, full of personal anecdotes. But there is a common theme throughout and I hope you see where I’m going with it and what conclusions I want you to draw from it.
Pigeons, crows, rats and cockroaches
I was born and grew up in a big, dirty city and I am not going back (my ex-Yugoslav readers have probably already recognized the reference to the good old song Back to the Big, Dirty City by my namesake Bora Djordjevic of the uber-popular Fish Soup band). I spent the first 25 years of my life in Belgrade, population 2 million. No, I did not feel uncomfortable there. I knew every nook and cranny of the city. I walked around town most of the time, even if that meant two hours at a brisk pace in the middle of the night from the northernmost part of Zemun all the way home south of center.
And I still think that it is a great city – a wild mosaic of architecture from Roman and Ottoman times, through the Austro-Hungarian time, the pre-WWII Serbian and early Yugoslav kingdom era and the Tito communist period, to the Milosevic decade and Wes Clark’s enriched uranium. Steeped in history, yet not trying to live in it. Some cities try to keep looking the same the way they did a century or two ago when they were at the hight of their influence. Stratford-upon-Avon keeps trying to look as if Shakespeare is still living there. Not Belgrade. Far too confident in its 11 centuries of history to care about anything but youth and future. It can be dizzying walking around – there may be an old mosque from the times of Turkish occupation embedded into the remains of the Roman fortress, looking down the street of houses built in Austro-Hungarian style in one direction, in soc-realist style in another direction and overlooked by a huge green-glass modern hotel. There is great art and the ugliest kitsch standing side-by-side, European hyper-intellectuals walking side-by-side with peasants, bookstores sinking under the weight of philosophy books and Gypsies collecting scrap metal – and all equally poor.
But it hurts one’s throat to arrive in Belgrade (at least it did in 1995, the last time I went to visit, when my father was still alive). Clean air is not the first priority when the retirees are waiting for months to get their pensions. That is why I escaped whenever I could – summers in our small weekend house at the base of the Mt.Avala just about 20 minutes south of Belgrade when I was a little kid, a couple of weeks at the Adriatic coast every summer when I was little before that became too expensive, teenage years spent on the Danube river in Eastern Serbia in the village my father grew up in, and many years, day after day, at the Belgrade racecourse and the surrounding woods.
Back in 1989 or so, the rats at the racecourse got really numerous and big. Ten-pounders, some of them, I bet. They were not afraid to walk around in the middle of the day. They chased, caught, killed and ate our barn cats. Our terriers were afraid to approach the feed-rooms. We forbade the kids from going to get horse feed. Even we adults banged on the doors before going in. But gradually, we moved all the grain into bins and barrels, plugged all holes, reinforced the walls, and kept the floors as clean as possible. There was just not enough food around any more to sustain such a huge population. As it always goes, after a boom, there is a bust. The rat population collapsed and disappeared as suddenly as it initially appeared.
I grew up in a small apartment on the 7th floor. My school (K-12) was a walking distance from home. I took a bus to school anyway, being an owl and a late riser, but I had plenty of time to walk home after classes and stop by various food establishments, or parks, or the Natural History Museum, or the library, or stealing cherries and apricots from trees along the route…

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‘Generation’ is the mindset, not age

Words of wisdom (via):

The internet isn’t a decoration on contemporary society, it’s a challenge to it. A society that has an internet is a different kind of society than a society that doesn’t.

I agree. And people, regardless of chronological age, appear to separate along “generational” lines, with the word “generation” really meaning how much they grok the immenseness of the societal change. It changes everything: politics, economics, media, science, environment, public health, business…. The “old” generation thinks of the Internet as yet another place to put their traditional advertising – a website as a billboard. Plus, by charging something, they may get some revenue. The “young” generation understands that traditional marketing looks awkward in the new medium and is inherently repellent. I agree with this sentiment:

On the one hand, there are those who see Web 2.0 tools as an enhancement of traditional collaboration and outreach capabilities. On the other hand – and to my mind more intriguing – there are those who believe that Web 2.0 is heralding a new business paradigm.
To the former, the failure to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon is a missed opportunity to tap into new audiences and fundraising possibilities. To the latter, it represents the risk to development organizations of becoming obsolete, bypassed by new players who are more adept to exploiting the innovative potential of “radical collaboration”.

This has been discussed mostly in terms of the demise of the newspaper:

Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago.
Perhaps not, but trends in circulation and advertising–the rise of the Internet, which has made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive; the advent of Craigslist, which is wiping out classified advertising–have created a palpable sense of doom.
In the Internet age, however, no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad. Newspapers have created Web sites that benefit from the growth of online advertising, but the sums are not nearly enough to replace the loss in revenue from circulation and print ads.
Philip Meyer, in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2004), predicts that the final copy of the final newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. It may be unkind to point out that all these parlous trends coincide with the opening, this spring, of the $450-million Newseum, in Washington, D.C., but, more and more, what Bill Keller calls “that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose” is starting to feel like an artifact ready for display under glass.
Taking its place, of course, is the Internet, which is about to pass newspapers as a source of political news for American readers. For young people, and for the most politically engaged, it has already done so. As early as May, 2004, newspapers had become the least preferred source for news among younger people. According to “Abandoning the News,” published by the Carnegie Corporation, thirty-nine per cent of respondents under the age of thirty-five told researchers that they expected to use the Internet in the future for news purposes; just eight per cent said that they would rely on a newspaper. It is a point of ironic injustice, perhaps, that when a reader surfs the Web in search of political news he frequently ends up at a site that is merely aggregating journalistic work that originated in a newspaper, but that fact is not likely to save any newspaper jobs or increase papers’ stock valuation.

But more and more, this is discussed in other areas as well, especially politics:

The Drudge Report’s link to the YouTube iteration of the CBS News piece transformed it into a cultural phenomenon reaching far beyond a third-place network news program’s nightly audience. It had more YouTube views than the inflammatory Wright sermons, more than even the promotional video of Britney Spears making her latest “comeback” on a TV sitcom. It was as this digital avalanche crashed down that Mrs. Clinton, backed into a corner, started offering the alibi of “sleep deprivation” and then tried to reignite the racial fires around Mr. Wright.
The Clinton campaign’s cluelessness about the Web has been apparent from the start, and not just in its lagging fund-raising. Witness the canned Hillary Web “chats” and “Hillcasts,” the soupy Web contest to choose a campaign song (the winner, an Air Canada advertising jingle sung by Celine Dion, was quickly dumped), and the little-watched electronic national town-hall meeting on the eve of Super Tuesday. Web surfers have rejected these stunts as the old-school infomercials they so blatantly are.
Senator Obama, for all his campaign’s Internet prowess, made his own media mistake by not getting ahead of the inevitable emergence of commercially available Wright videos on both cable TV and the Web. But he got lucky. YouTube videos of a candidate in full tilt or full humiliation, we’re learning, can outdraw videos of a candidate’s fire-breathing pastor. Both the CBS News piece on Mrs. Clinton in Bosnia and the full video of Mr. Obama’s speech on race have drawn more views than the most popular clips of a raging Mr. Wright.

And politics again:

“We’re all pioneers now,” Trippi concludes. No one knows the best way to use YouTube yet, for example. (Such as your humble correspondent, who can’t even hold a Flip video straight.) “And it probably won’t be a campaign, it’ll be an individual committing an act of journalism,” he adds, for example. “No one’s perfected it, but the Obama’s campaing is closest. I envy the tools they have…. I think we’re just still seeing the first birthing of this new politics, too.” I agree.

And government:

Blue NC highlights the absurdity of Easley appointing someone who doesn’t know how to use a computer to head the committee on North Carolina’s electronic records retention policy: “Don’t try to e-mail the state about e-mail.”
Way back in 2002, I was told that Howard Coble — then sponsoring a bad net-related bill — didn’t know how to turn on a computer. Coble’s staff said I was just picking on him by pointing that out, but it mattered — someone who had never seen a click-thru user agreement wouldn’t have understood the power the bill gave the recording industry.
As Rep. Rick Boucher said, “I think it is very important that members of Congress who make judgments on this have a working knowledge of computers and the Internet. Many do, but some members are technology-averse, including some, unfortunately, who are in positions of influence.”
Hard to believe it’s still an issue six years later.
Speaking of hard to believe — a candidate using a blog was national news back in 2002.

And of course business:

Is this the end of the organization? Probably not by name and certainly not in the broadest sense of the term. But the traditional, tightly controlled, top down, branded organization is finding itself having to adapt and change. The organizations of the future will not look like the organizations of today.
Whether the organization as we know it survives or not, it is by studying the changing patterns of communication that we will discover the new shape of civil society. Our methods of analysis – and possibly our methods of regulation, funding, and participation – will shift from those that reflect managerial thinking to those that reflect ecosystem thinking.

The definition of ‘work’ is rapidly changing:

What occurred to me is that coworking is generational if you change your definition. Coworking is about this “generation” of people altering the perception of “professional,” “work environment,” “colleague,” etc. It is about hip people writing their own ticket for work. Coworkers are skilled individuals who are prepared to be part of the global community.
And businesses need to be aware of and adapt to this changing workforce. I have been researching this avenue quite a bit and as much as “coworking” is hip and trendy, it is smart and necessary in our changing economy. When software engineers end up doing business with colleagues halfway across the world, what’s to motivate them to come into a traditional office? Isn’t it more interesting for them to be in a coworking space where they can meet people in all walks of life? Businesses will be getting educated if they want to survive and stay competitive. It is just a matter of time before this “generation” of coworkers changes the way businesses do business.

The same goes for science publishing. Paper is dead. Some publishers think mainly about their hardcopy product, the paper journal that is sent out to libraries and subscribers. The website is almost an afterthought: “Hmmm, it would be cool to have something online. All the cool kids are doing it. Perhaps we can even get some revenue by placing our papers online and charging for access”. Other publishers are smarter – they are rethinking the business from scratch, adapting to a completely new world in which everything is online, the new generations find payment for information an abhorrent concept akin to censorship, and the paper is an afterthought – something that the end-user can just print out at home.


CNN: Telecommuters band together
Related: This is why collaborative education is so important.

Coworking in Carrboro

Carrboro’s Creative Coworking in the works:

Freelance web designer Brian Russell’s vision to create a shared workplace for freelancers and other creative types is moving toward a concrete Carrboro reality.
The idea to open what he called a shared office space with a coffee shop atmosphere was first mentioned publicly nearly a year ago. Russell said James Harris, director of economic and community development in Carrboro, encouraged him to make it happen.
The concept lies somewhere between a wireless-equipped coffee shop and the generic, cubicle-clad office. Russell said the need for this type of space is generated by people who have been driven away from the typical office environment but who are unhappy working alone at home.

A good article about Coworking

Brian Russell, who is building a coworking space in Carrboro, just alerted me to an excellent new article about this in the San Francisco Chronicle: Shared work spaces a wave of the future. Well worth a read.

Nice article on Coworking

Carrboro Commons interviews Brian Russell about Carrboro Coworking. As a telecommuter, I am quite likely to participate in this. I’ll keep you posted….

Breaking News: PLoS ONE Managing Editor visits the Chapel Hill office!

Yup, Chris Surridge, Managing Editor of PLoS ONE (and the author of the legendary comment) swung by the Chapel Hill office last night. Since my initial stint was in the San Francisco office, and Chris is working in the Cambridge UK office, this was the first time we met in person. Much fun was had by all. The pictorial story under the fold:

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Telecommuting is a great concept, providing flexibility of work-hours, availability when there is a family crisis, etc. But it is difficult to be self-disciplined at home. So many other things vie for attention, including that most excellent invention of all times – the bed.
That is why I spend many hours every day in my ‘office‘ in La Vita Dolce. I love the place – it is quiet most of the time (though I do find myself softly singing along the oldies, including the inevitable “If you’re going to San Francisco” and infamous “Only You”), coffee, bagels, cakes and gelato are the best in town, and the atmosphere is friendly.
But I cannot go there late at night (I am an extreme owl after all) or on days like today, a holiday, when the place is closed. So I sit at home and try to be disciplined, or just take a day off. But it would be great if there was a place I could go to on any day at any time.
Brian has been working for a while now on a business plan for just such a venue – a Coworking place:

Carrboro Creative Coworking is a professional shared working space with a cafe-like atmosphere. It is designed to be a welcoming environment for freelance professionals, home-office workers, entrepreneurs, startup business owners, tech workers, graduate students, writers, and others. Subscribers of the Carrboro Creative Coworking space will receive access to a reliable office space inside a unique modern community.

If there is sufficient interest (and there should be in this town), Brian would rent a place – a house, a set of appartments, or an office space, and all of us would pitch in our piece of “rent” that would keep the place running. There would be Internet connection for all of us, those with “full-time” subscriptions would have rooms with doors that can be locked, and there would also be a common space where one could meet and talk with the others – a fridge, a microwave and a GOOD coffee machine are necessities there.
So, if you live in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area and are interested in this, please fill out a short survey here (pdf) and sign up for the Google group while there (that way you can get more information about the business plan, etc.).

Wi-fi for the people

Brian Russell, the tireless fighter for public wireless in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area, recently wrote two blog posts on the widely read local blog Orange Politics: Chapel Hill WiFi Pilot needs different Hotspots and Where is the WiFi?
This received quite a lot of attention both before and during the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting where public wi-fi was discussed. Some pilot locations may get altered due to Brian’s advice. Today, Brian has a front-page article in Chapel Hill News on the topic. He has been building a Google Map of local wireless (on which I made sure to include a good word for my ‘office’). Brian writes:

On Sept. 1, or when the new pilot goes live, I will plot their locations on a Google map at Then I will publicly announce on Orange Politics a series of Wireless Tailgate Parties. Each day we’ll be at different Chapel Hill Wireless hot spot. Bring your folding chair, a fully charged laptop, food, drinks, a video camera, wi-fi phone, or whatever. If you don’t have a laptop don’t worry. We’ll share.

My new office

Since I came back from California, I’ve been trying to get Time Warner to remove one of the firewalls from my cable connection so I can get into the belly of the beast of PLoS. The wifi in the apartment complex is pitiful. I also tried at Town Hall Grill, but the loading of every page was very slow on their wifi.
The absolutely best wifi in the area is at La Vita Dolce. It is superstong and superfast, both inside and outside, and I’ve been going there every day to do my work. In addition, I just love the place – since new owners took over several months ago, this little cafe has become a center of local community, almost like a little family. Their coffee is good, the cafe mocca is the best I’ve had in years (and I tried, for comparison, at several other places including around San Francisco) and their gelato is delicious. And everything served with a smile.
So, if you want to see me, come by there – my office is the table in the corner, the one closest to the power outlet (so I don’t have to drain the battery on the laptop).

First Day at PloS

I Support the Public Library of ScienceThis post has been written in advance and scheduled for automatic posting. At the time this post shows up, I’ll be sleeping my first night in San Francisco. A few hours later, I’ll be at PLoS offices and will hopefully have online access soon after so I can post my first impressions.
As most of you probably know, I got a job as an Online Community Coordinator at PLoS ONE. Today is my first day at the job! I got the job in an unusual way as well – by posting about it on my blog (and the managing editor posting a comment “Is this a formal application?”). The rest is, as they say, history. To make this post shorter, I have blogged about the job before, about the way I got the job, and some of my thoughts about what I want to do with it, so check out the relevant posts:
I Want This Job!
Update on ‘I Want This Job’
Off to SF
Back from SF
It’s Official
While my CV and the cover letter were fine, what really got me the job were my blog commenters! That is: YOU! You demonstrated my ability to build an online community better than any Resume can reveal. Although, to be fair, it took me three years to build this community and now I have three months to build one on PLoS! So, I need your help and I am unabashedly begging for it.
So, my #1 goal (and there are other coooool goals I’ll tell you about later) is to dramatically increase the number of comments and annotations on the PLoS ONE papers, without compromising their quality. I have many ideas how to go about it, and so do the other members of the PLoS team, but I am always interested in hearing others (comments section of this post is a perfect place for just such ideas you may have).
For the time being, I will start with raising quantity first, i.e., trying to grow some numbers, e.g., overall traffic, number of return visitors, time spent on site, pageview/visit ratio, etc., building a critical mass until it reaches a threshold at which I will have to also deal with quality (you know the rule on blogs – more comments there are, lower the level of discourse).
Scientists are generally shy about posting stuff online, but a growing number of science bloggers shows that it is possible for them to change their habits! Please help me in that difficult task 😉 After all, you are the ones who are comfortable commenting – so if you set the example and start posting comments, the more reluctant scientists will hopefully follow suit.
As you are aware of, commenting is a positive feedback loop. If you go to a blog post (or a PLoS ONE paper) and see “0 comments” you are unlikely to be the first one to comment (but you are still more likely to do so than a scientist with no experience on blogs whatsoever!). But if you see “3 comments” or “7 comments” or “35 comments” you will be curious and you will click to see what others are saying. By the time you are done reading through the comments, you are already deeply involved and thus much more likely to decide to post a comment of your own (especially if you disagree with some statement there).
While scientists are secretive and shy by training, they are still people. The non-blogging scientists may have very high thresholds, but they do have thresholds! If they see a number of comments there and see something erroneous posted there, they will post a rebuttal, I hope. I need you – the bloggers – to bring the commenting threads up to the threshold levels at which non-blogging scientists will start kicking in. Then, hopefully, there will be a snowball effect and over the long run the growth of commenting will become organic (i.e., I will not need to bug you about this any more).
Here are some broad ideas about Science 2.0 I have (and I will give you particulars on what PLoS-ONE will do in the near future in later posts):
PLoS 500
Science 2.0
Nature Precedings
I will keep using my own blog as part of my toolkit at the job (subscribe/blogroll/bookmark it if you want so you can see the updates here as soon as I post them) and updates will appear here on my blog (and on the PLoS Blog as well). No, this does not mean I will quit blogging about other topics!
What should you expect me to ask/tell you in future job-related posts?
Usually, I will ask you to go to a particular page on PLoS site and do one or more of the following:
– take a look at the visual/psychological effect of the changes we made to the site and give me feedback about it
– test a new application we introduced on the site and let me know how it works and how it can be improved
– post a comment or annotation yourself (on a specific paper, or a paper of your own choice)
– ask the readers of your blog/website/newsgroup/mailing-list to do some of the above.
It’s all voluntary, of course. Do it if you feel like it, and are comfortable doing it, and have time, and are in just the right mood at the time…
Although, heed Orli’s words: “…as we all know, saying no to Bora means courting bad karma…” 😉
In order for you to be able to do this, i.e., to be able to compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’, I’d like you (and your readers) to go over the next few days and familarize yourself with PLoS ONE, its look and feel.
Also, you may want to get more familiar with PLoS as a whole, with all of its journals and with the principle of Open Access.
It will also be helpful if you register for the site, subscribe to RSS feeds of journals, and to e-mail notifications of new articles.
You can also help me if you use some of these ready-made PR materials (cool banners for your sidebars!) and here are some other ideas of the ways you can help.
You can join the PLoS group and PLoS cause on Facebook and invite all your ‘friends’ to join. On another social network? Start a support group yourself there!
One of the first things I am going to do is try to breathe new life into the PLoS Blog and make it a pretty central (and more frequently updated) spot on the site. As Technorati annual reports found out, it is not the age or quality that determines which blogs are popular and highly ranked, but the frequency and regularity of posting. This may also require some re-design. So, it is not a bad idea for you to subscribe to its feed and to check in regularly and post comments. Linking to its posts or placing them on services like digg, delicious, stumbleupon and redditt will also be appreciated.
Finally, go to the Sandbox and try your hand at annotations and comments before you do it on a real paper. Once you are comfortable with the process, find papers in your area of expertise and post a comment – it does not need to be very detailed (or a criticism of the work!). Authors will appreciate it if you tell them that you like the paper in 1-2 nice short sentences as well.
Oh, almost forgot – think about publishing your papers in PLoS-ONE. The average time between submission and publication is 19 days! More than 500 papers have already been published and several are added every week. And you get feedback from colleagues and your paper is likely to be cited more than if it was behind a pay wall. As long as it is good science and well written, it is acceptable. It does not need to be Earth-shaking, revolutionary stuff that goes to Science or Nature (though that is certainly acceptable!). It does not need to be of ‘general interest’ either – a very specialized paper is fine. Also, while currently most of the papers are in the biology/genetics/medicine areas, the journal takes anything from math to archaeology so please help us become more diverse!
Oh, another thing – if you are in Bay Area (San Francisco, California, USA) during July and would like to meet me in person, let me know.
Oh, and tell your friends…