ScienceOnline2012 - thoughts about present and future

Bora Zivkovic
February 6, 2012

On your way to ScienceOnline2012, your plane finally lands at Raleigh-Durham International airport. While you slowly taxi to the gate, what do you do? Naturally, you turn on your smart-phone, open up your favorite Twitter app, and announce to the world: “#scio12 – I have landed at RDU. Anyone else here? Want to share a ride to the hotel?”.

If you are lucky, you’ll find a couple of other attendees have landed at about the same time, so you meet them at the baggage claim (fortunately, Terminal 1 is under renovation so everyone had to land at the same over-crowded Terminal 2), and share a shuttle or cab into town.

This is the first moment of serendipitous meetings, as you introduce yourselves to each other, who are you, where you come from, what you do, what brings you to ScienceOnline… you just made your first #scio12 friends.

Twenty minutes later, your taxi pulls up at the Doubletree/Brownstone hotel. As you and your fellow passengers exit the car and start gathering your luggage, this tall, skinny, bespectacled, excitable creature runs out of the hotel, waiving his arms, and starts hugging everyone. Oh, that must be Bora! So, you get a hug. And naturally, the next thing you do is take your iPhone out again and tweet: “#scio12 has officially started: #IhuggedBora!”

And so the adventure begins… (most of the images in this post are thumbnails – click to see them larger)

The Close-contact community

In 2007 we met at UNC. The following four years, we convened at the wonderfully scienc-ey Sigma Xi. This year we moved to McKimmon Center at NCSU. We keep moving to bigger spaces, but our community keeps getting larger, so the density remains high. Thus, wherever we met, we were always tightly close together, rubbing shoulders with each other. There are hugs (not just with me, but among others).

This is me, getting a hug from the NCSU chancellor – photo by Tim Skellet:

There are handshakes:

There is some (though controversial) research showing that hugging and close contact increase mutual trust, thus strengthening the community. Close proximity to friends, by increasing oxytocin levels, may help people get bolder, perhaps speak up at conferences, which is a good thing at unconferences like ours.

But there is a flip-side to this coin. Strengthening of bonds within an in-group weakens the bonds to people outside of it. If you are all hugged-out at #scio12, are you then suspicious of perfectly nice passers-by on the streets of Raleigh as you are walking to a restaurant? Are you going to tip your waitress less because she is not a part of the in-group? Are you more unpleasant when replying to emails, tweets or blog comments by people who are not at the conference? We certainly do not want that side-effect to happen!

And then there is the question of new people at the meeting. As veterans, now old friends, hug each other (and me), do the newbies feel left out? Are they now out-group and treated as such by the in-group? Judging from the feedback, generally not, but at least initially some may feel that way until they realize how welcome they are by everyone else. Those are some hard questions we want to ask (and I asked a few times on Twitter after the conference), because we do not want anyone to feel left out – at the conference physically, or watching from afar online.

The introvert reaction to #IhuggedBora

With the fast growth of the conference, there were more newbies attending this year than repeat offenders veterans. This had a potential of changing the atmosphere of the conference, so we did our best to prepare the new people, as well as to recruit the veterans to actively welcome new people to the community. Blog posts by Pascale, Zuska, Janet and me, as well as asking the question on Twitter, we hope, helped new people prepare better for what they will be experiencing. The “SXSW of science”, “SciFoo, but democratic”, The Bonnaroo of the Blogosphere, or “Burning Man for scientists” – those are some comparisons made with ScienceOnline over the years (and see for yourself), so we wanted to make sure that new attendees understood this well in advance.

But not everyone is ready for such a close-contact and furiously-paced event. Some people are introverted. Others are shy. Some may be both introverted and shy. Some may be suffering from the impostor syndrome at the beginning, not knowing if they fully belong to this community. Some are not active on Twitter (or not on Twitter at all – 64 did not enter a Twitter account into their registration form, and most of them I could not find there with searching either) and thus may not know the rest of the community well yet.

I probably have mild Aspergers (not diagnosed, but people who know me very well – including a psychiatrist – agree that all signs are there), so had to spend decades studying people’s body language and training myself to recognize subtle cues and respond appropriately. As people walk in, especially new people, I have to quickly figure out if the person will be comfortable getting a hug from me or not. I don’t want to assault anyone, or make anyone uncomfortable. I had to make fast to-hug-or-not-to-hug decisions on the fly, and I hope my success rate is not too bad. So some people got a handshake or a nice word instead. Some of the same people gave me spontaneous hugs three days later, some did not. I want everyone to be comfortable and to get the most they can from the conference. Not everyone is here in order to become my personal friend (Dunbar be damned) and that is OK.

But not getting hugged may make people feel like they are not a part of the in-group. Perhaps there is a hugged circle, and an un-hugged outside group. This would be against the ethos of our meeting, but this is the BlogTogether spirit that was the original inspiration to the conference – that being in the same space as others, with hugging or handshakes or just eye contact, helps us know more about each other and affects our online relationships. But I want to try something different next year. I have no idea how and when #IhuggedBora tradition started (a couple of years ago), and it is fun, and I like it, and many others like it. But there should be a way for non-hugged people to feel just as welcome. Perhaps a second hashtag?

Someone on Twitter suggested high-fiving. But then I remembered when I first arrived in the USA I was unfamiliar with the gesture. I worked at a horse farm, working with young horses in the mornings and teaching riding school in the afternoons. There were a couple of big, burly guys working at the barn, feeding horses and such. They would come down the aisle of the barn, raise their hands and say “Hi, five” and I would step to the side and do this:

Hi Five!

I had no idea I was supposed to come toward them and that our palms were supposed to meet! Obviously, a cultural difference…

Perhaps this Web-savvy community has seen the “Like” button enough times to understand the “thumbs-up” gesture (despite the thumbs-up gesture being considered rude in some cultures)?

Thumbs up!

We have a year to think about this, and welcome all of your feedback, but we will definitely ponder a number of ideas on how to make the event more comfortable for people who are new, shy, introvert, or just plain exhausted and overstimulated.

Perhaps we can designate a “silent room” where there is no talking, where people can come in for a few minutes to recharge their batteries (both their mental batteries, and those charging their elecronic devices), get online and write in peace, perhaps take a nap, meditate, do some yoga….the Cafe room is awesome for interactions, but it is anything but quiet.

We may also try to do some veteran-n00b pairings ahead of time, essentially providing each new attendee (or at least the students, or people who indicate at registration they would like this) with a “go to” person for questions and help, perhaps starting the conference with an event designed to get the pairs to meet each other for a few minutes. A broader, speed-meeting rotation (like speed-dating events) to get people to break the ice and talk to someone new, may also be considered.

At ScienceWriters meetings, there are all sorts of ribbons one can attach to the name-tag, including “first-timer” and “talk to me”, the latter indicating a veteran willing to field questions or help the new people. Perhaps we can do something similar.

And of course, serendipitous meetings of small groups of new people are already embedded in the program – random banquet seating, bus rides to and from the hotel, tours you sign up for without knowing who else will be going there with you, chairs all over the Cafe room and the main hallway, parties at the hotel, going out for dinner at a restaurant – opportunities for talking to new people one-on-one or in small groups are numerous.

Obviously, we are obsessed with details. Not just because it frees you up to focus on the proceedings, but because not paying attention to detail can actively hinder and spoil the experience for some people.


We had attendees from 40 states of the USA (if you count D.C. as a state), five Canadian provinces, and seven other countries.

Unsurprisingly for the host state that is a hotbed of science and technology, North Carolina was represented by 119 people (plus four locals who snuck in for a single session without registering, but that is OK). There were 56 attendees from New York, 34 from California, 21 from Massachussets, 15 from Washington D.C., 14 from Maryland, 13 from Virginia, 12 from Illinois, and 10 from Wisconsin. There were also representatives from Pennsylvania (9), Washington State (8), Minnesota (7), Florida and Colorado (6 each), Arizona, Indiana, Montana and Connecticut (5 each), Ohio and Texas (4 each), Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Utah (2 each), and one person each from Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont.

Canadians were represented by 8 Ontarians, 4 people from British Columbia, 3 from Alberta, and one each from Quebec and Nova Scotia. From other continents, we had 13 guests from the U.K., 5 from Germany, two from Denmark, and one each from the Netherlands, Italy, Australia and Mauritius. Of course, those are people’s current addresses. If we asked for the place of origin, it would have been even more geographically distributed (Peru, Hong Kong, Costa Rica…). After all, Nadja Popovich and I spoke Serbian to each other at the conference, as we were both born in Belgrade (which also continues the tradition of having someone from Serbia every year)…

Discussion about sex and gender in online science communication started before the conference, was a strong theme during the event itself, and the conversation, continues, well after the meeting ended.

Race, ethnicity and culture, together with geography and gender, are important aspects of diversity. According to the feedback we are getting, sessions on Broadening the Participation of Underrepresented Populations in Online Science Communication and Communities and Science writing in and for developing nations were incredibly well received. Again, there is, quite a lot of post-conference discussion of it. There is a lot of enthusiasm now not just for expanding next year’s program to include more sessions on this topic (see the wiki page with Program suggestions for 2013, already buzzing with activity), and not just to get an even more diverse group to attend next year, but also to do as much as possible throughout the year to start and test a variety of strategies for promoting science in as broad communities around the world as possible.

Brian Malow, the science comedian

The diversity of people attending ScienceOnline, in terms of geography, gender, race, ethnicity or culture, means that everyone brought something different to the meeting – different background, history and culture, different angles and goals and needs. While here, they cross-fertilized their ideas, told their stories and learned from others. This also means that people have gone home to all those distant places and are now sharing what they learned, teaching, influencing their colleagues, neighbors and students, thus enlarging this community even more.

On the wearing of many hats

According to our registration form report, ScienceOnline2012 had 243 bloggers (high time to defenestrate the notion that this is a ‘bloggers conference’ when half the people don’t blog), 153 journalists, 151 scientists, 115 educators, 71 students, 43 enterpreneurs, 34 Web developers and 46 who identified as ‘other’. That total is almost 900, so on average everyone (457 people checked in at the registration desk) checked two boxes.

Thus, the success in cross-fertilization of ideas at ScienceOnline is not just due to it being a rare event bringing together people who do different things in science, e.g,. researchers, teachers, journalists, bloggers, web developers, publishers, public information officers, librarians, artists, historians, students, etc. but because almost everyone at the meeting is currently (or has experiences in the past of being) in multiple roles. Not because people here wear different hats, but because everyone wears many hats.

There was an interesting moment at the end of the closing plenary panel, moderated by David Kroll with panelists Maggie Koerth-Baker, Seth Mnookin and myself. Someone in the audience grumbled that the scientists were not represented on the panel. David and I looked at each other in puzzlement. David just boxed up his lab equipment a couple of weeks before the event, moving from full-time research to full-time communication. How is he so suddenly not a scientist any more?

Although most of us at ScienceOnline play multiple roles, it seems that people have an automatic tendency to assign only a single “profession” to each other, mainly guided by the most recent place of employment. Some people think of me as a freewheeling, provocative blogger. Others think of me as a ‘journalist’ because I am an editor at a respected media entity. Others think of me primarily as an educator because I teach BIO101 to adult students and blog my lecture notes and am a Visiting Faculty at NYU school of journalism.

I am all of that, for sure. But if you forced me to identify myself with just a single word, I would easily choose this one: “scientist”. Just because I haven’t messed around a lab for a decade does not mysteriously make me a non-scientist. ‘Once a scientist always a scientist’, because being a scientist is not a profession but a worldview. I cannot quit being a scientist now. Not to mention that I still have research collaborations that occasionally lead to publication. Which is why I tend to take the scientists’ side in various scientists vs. journalists debates.

The realization, after the conference already ended, that we are all a bunch of misfits, pioneers, and generally crazy risk-takers, led to an amazing new hashtag – #IamScience. Inspired by unlikely career trajectory of Mireya Mayor, our keynote speaker, Kevin Zelnio finally let it all out – an incredible and courageous story of his life and how he got into science, and into and out of a research career. Hundreds of tweets, and dozens of blog posts are being now assembled on a Tumblr blog, while Allie Wilkinson started a photo-Tumblr with pictures of scientists – This Is What A Scientist Looks Like – and Mindy Weisberger put together a video:

I Am Science from Mindy Weisberger on Vimeo.

There are many blog posts already posted, some old some new, and here is just a small sample of posts I could find most easily: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

It seems that #scio12 attendees are not the only ones with unusual and circuitous career trajectories in and out of science. Perhaps the “usual” path is the most unusual of all. There is a lesson in this somewhere….

Move aside, C.P.Snow, we bridged dozens of cultures

Writing text is not the only way of communicating science. And it can only reach certain audiences. There are many other ways to communicate science, either independently or in conjunction with text, each method potentially reaching a different segment of the target population: art, illustration, photography, maps, data visualization, sounds, music, animation, video, games…possibilities are endless.

We’ve always had sessions on art and video, but this year we really upped the ante. There was a whole slew of workshops on art, photography, data visualization, making maps, making videos, etc, and many sessions discussed the relationship between science and various areas of art, photography and music.

Artists submitted their art for the Art Contest. Their submissions were projected on a screen in the Cafe room and were given prizes in the end. Videographers, likewise, sent in their work ahead of time and their videos were projected during the Film Festival, again with prizes.

Maggie Pingolt, Russ Creech and Brian Crawford took most of the “official” photos at the conference, but others did their share as well. Probably the most popular was the #youhavebeenframed series – many of the people in those photos now use the images as their new Twitter avatars.

If you look at Flickr sets tagged with scio12 or scienceonline2012 or YouTube videos tagged with scio12, you will see that many participants used the conference to practice their skills – some with amazing results.

Perrin Ireland led a workshop on Sketch-notes on the very first morning, after which she and her brand-new trainees drew cartoon notes of all the sessions they subsequently attended – this was a huge hit!

A couple of dozen attendees went to a tour of the NC Arboretum and drew, painted or photographed the amazing flora there. Much of their work is now online.

Podcasts are still coming out, but listen to Nadja Popovich’s official ones here. Finally, several videos were made at the venue, some still in production, some embedded into this post, others easily found on YouTube.

And then….oh my! Some attendees decided to make art permanent, on their own bodies! They went to Dogstar Tattoo Company for a Science Ink tour. After hearing Carl Zimmer talk about the history of tattooing, and having his book signed, several participants got their own tattoos (less courageous of us got temporary tattoos, provided to everyone at registration).

From the Raleigh News & Observer: Rebecca Guenard, center, and Russ Creech, left, watch as Christie Wilcox, who is getting her PHd at the University of Hawaii, gets a lionfish tattoo from Kathryn Moore at Dogstar Tattoo Company in Durham Friday, January 20, 2012. Wilcox is one of the attendees in the ScienceOnline2012 conference in Raleigh.

And it is not just art – history, philosophy, sociology, ethics, politics, mathematics, literary narrative and humor kept cropping up in many sessions and events, some dedicated to it, some not. Music had its own session, but also made an appearance in discussion of crafting a longform narrative, in a session on data journalism, and in discussions of video. And at the Open Mic, we could see that many scientists and science communicators have tremendous musical talents.

Math had its own two sessions and two Blitz-talks, yet also invaded many other talks and sessions, from narrative to altmetrics. I doubt anyone at #scio12 is such a stereotypical data-robot not to be moved and impressed by this interweaving of a whole slew of ‘cultures’. After all, it’s all about context. Person most excited exiting the altmetrics Blitz-talk was a historian! If years of library digging – stuff that makes a PhDs in history – can be replaced by a few clicks to get patterns of citations and mentions over time, then historians can finally focus on the real deal: analysis and interpretation of such patterns. Can you imagine the time-saving and re-focus that discipline can have?

Storytelling, though part of the discussion in several sessions, also had a DIY component – the Monti storytelling show during the banquet. Humor was discussed in a dedicated session (as well as in a couple of others), and then there was Brian Malow, switching from theory to practice, doing stand-up science comedy (which also included art) during lunch.

Heck, even sports snuck in somehow – we all got an introduction to the wonderful world of curling.

To boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before…

A lot of the discussion at ScienceOnline2012 was, without stating so overtly, about the distinction between push and pull strategies for reaching new audiences. We are pretty happy with what we can do – and the quality of work – at science-dedicated venues, be it the science section of NYTimes, or pop-sci magazines, or specialized science radio shows, or blogs, podcasts and websites. People working at such venues tend to be good at what they do and they tend to be… at ScienceOnline!

As the now famous diagram by Ed Yong demonstrates – the good scientists and good journalists talk to each other about bad scientists and bad journalists who are conspicuously absent. But those bad scientists and journalists have to be reached or replaced. How? They work in mass media we cannot penetrate, addressing audiences we cannot reach. How do we also get there and reach those same vast audiences with well-done science stories?

It’s hard, but it can be done. There were more than several people at the meeting who do it, daily or occasionally. They have great success and their new audiences appreciate them. The resistance mostly comes from our own ranks!

When a scientist publishes text and data in a scientific paper (especially behind a paywall), the audience is miniscule and the effect on popular understanding of science and trust in scientists is zero. But when a scientist decides to show up in the media as a source, s/he gets tagged as a “media whore” by the colleagues in the department (or in the entire discipline). The ‘Sagan-Gould effect’. If you popularize science, your research must be suspicious, right?

And if on top of appearing in traditional media you also do some of your own blogging, or engagement on social networks, the eye-rolling and ‘tsk-tsk’-ing must be endless. You may have to do this pseudonymously because your PI or your Department Head may explicitly forbid online engagement. In some places it is the government that prohibits scientists from talking to the media. It takes some courage to go ahead and do it anyway. The problem is not the audience, but one’s bosses and colleagues. People who do this anyway are at ScienceOnline. But how do we reach people who are too afraid to do this – they are too afraid to come to ScienceOnline as well!

Scientists are also chastised by their colleagues if they voice a political opinion, even if it comes to policies that directly affect them, e.g, opposing the RWA bill. The instinct to present an apolitical face is strong among scientists (as well as many journalists), with sometimes devastating consequences.

Other science communicators push the envelope by doing something else – publishing in unlikely venues or trying to reach new audiences by going where those audiences are.

You may go where the cheerleading fans are, then serve them science. The audiences love it, the traditional science communicators accuse you of sexism.

A reader of Playboy magazine may read it for the Vonnegut stories, but then gets served science. The target audience loves it. The traditional science communicators accuse you of sexism.

Your audience may go to BlogHer to get sex advice, and get served science. The audience loves it. The traditional science communicators think you are not really up to par.

Your audience may follow the links to hear some hip-hop, and there they get served science. The audiences love it, but since the traditional communicators do not grok that culture, they may not think you are good enough. Seriously?

You start pushing hard science and skepticism at the super-popular website infamous for its richness of dangerous medical quackery and ridiculous New Age pseudoscience. The audience laps it up. The traditional science communicators are skeptical.

You may have an unusual background, unusual career, unusual “looks” for a scientist, more balls and ovaries than the remaining 456 people in the room for the Keynote lecture, go where most guys have no courage to go, face certain death five times, discover a new species, still do your own lab science, are a role-model for balancing career with life as a parent, but since you are on TV, with your own show, this must mean that you are a bad scientist or no scientist at all, right? It does not matter that TV is the hardest medium to penetrate, and the hardest medium to get science done right (it is a very male, ego-driven culture, full of people who “know what works on TV” and thus will not listen), and that we are all saying that someone’s gotta do it because everyone watches TV – that’s where the real “mass” audience is. But when someone does, and does it well, we are all up in arms? We invited Mireya to do the keynote specifically to break those biases among ourselves. It seems it worked. And everyone who got to chat with her during the remainder of the meeting has a new appreciation for her as a person with passion, for her science, for her work as a science communicator, for her groundedness and level-headedness, sense of humor and overall humanity. She’ll be back next year, as one of us, doing something fun, TBD.

If we want to reach broader audiences, we have to get out of our own comfort zones, adopt the cultures of those audiences, and serve them science wherever they are, in ways they can like and appreciate. Hard to do. But if the ScienceOnline community does not lead the way, who will? We may think, from our perspectives, that some of those cultures are imperfect for various, often valid reasons (e.g., sexism). But are we going to avoid communicating science to all the people we deem imperfect? If so, all we are left is our own echo-chamber. We need to break out of it – isn’t that what the Web is good for?

We keep saying that we should divert attention of people who are browsing the Web looking for celebrity gossip, or politics, or attractive human forms, to cool science stories instead. Let’s do even more of that! And support those of us who are trying.

Your feedback

So far, 186 out of 457 attendees responded to the feedback form. If you have not yet done so, please do it now (we’ll later have a separate feedback form for people who attended virtually).

We read your responses very carefully every year, many times throughout the year, and try to address the issues you identify, or incorporate your ideas. Your feedback is extremely valuable to us so we can always try to make the conference better than the previous year.

I take it as a sign of generally even and high quality of the program that so many sessions are picked as the “strongest point” or “highlight” of the conference, instead of one or two sessions dominating that question. On the other hand, each session that was identified as “weakest point” by some people was also touted as the best session by someone else – just goes to show that tastes differ.

This also tells me I need to work closer with moderators in making descriptions of sessions as crystal-clear as possible as to what exactly they will cover, at which level, for which audiences (though unconference format can lead to a different session anyway), so people have a better idea what to expect. And some of the feedback noted serendipity – attending a session that was very different from expected and learning a lot from it nonetheless. We are also happy that many informal events got frequent mentions as highlights – Keynote, The Monti, comedy lunch, several tours, evening at the Museum…

The reaction to the Keynote was overwhelmingly positive. Some extremely positive. About a dozen respondents (all women) replied in a similar vein – they came in with trepidation and skepticism and came out enlightened and with their worlds turned upside-down, the same reaction Zuska wrote about in public. And Janet’s banquet story was a perfect book-end to it as well. There were only three strongly negative responses, including one by a person who did not attend the Keynote or talk to Mireya in person, carefully protecting one’s a priori biases from potential challenge.

And every time we get an email notification that a new feedback form came in, we have the urge to respond, to answer your questions. I will not break your anonymity, but I can speak to some concerns in general terms. In some cases, our reaction is “Hey, we sent out this information in advance, you should have read our email messages”. In other cases we think “Oh well, we have to make sure to use ALL methods of communication, and repeatedly so, and not hope that one tl:dr email and a few tweets are sufficient.

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