Science Online Together: day 1 recap

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Science Online in three words: BEST. CONFERENCE. EVER.

Okay so that sounds like I’m overselling, but I really am having a great time here. Even though it’s my first time attending a Science Online event, I came in immediately feeling welcomed by the community because the attendees cover such a broad spectrum — from journalists to PR specialists to science grad students — united only by a common passion for science communication. Unlike the physics conferences I’ve been to, there’s no pressure to prove myself to the “experts”; in fact, in some sense there are no experts. Sure, some people have more experience with science communication, or at previous Science Online conferences, but there’s definitely a sense that everyone has something to contribute. I had no qualms about speaking up at my very first discussion session. :-)

It has been an intense day though! I had substantive conversations with over 30 people who I had never met as of 24 hours ago. Some of them I already knew through Twitter, though, which was pretty cool — it’s exciting to recognize the faces in the profile pictures. I’ve been building a list of everyone I meet during the conference, which you should definitely check out if you use Twitter at all. (And if you don’t, it’s time to start! The tweets flying back and forth constitute at least as much of this conference as the in-person discussions do.)

CONVERGE: Welcome and Changing Challenges into Opportunities

Karyn Traphagen, the executive director of Science Online, kicked off the conference by welcoming everyone, thanking our host NCSU, and giving a quick introduction to the “unconference” format. As I mentioned yesterday, most of Science Online is not like a traditional conference where you have individual people giving presentations and everyone else passively listening. Yes, the CONVERGE talks are like that, but most of the time slots are filled with discussion sessions led by a moderator who guides the conversation while calling on the attendees to do most of the talking. From what I’ve seen today, each discussion session has about 40-70 people, depending on popularity, and because there is no pressure to have prepared remarks, it’s a really low-pressure setting in which it’s easy for anyone to contribute something to the discussion.

Today’s CONVERGE talk was given by Meg Lowman and her former student, Rebecca Tripp. They talked about a program allowing wheelchair-bound students like Rebecca to contribute to science research by climbing ropes into the canopy layer of the rain forest, searching for new and interesting biological processes and undiscovered species. It’s a great example of how people who might have difficulty with a traditional scientific career can bypass that difficulty by finding the right opportunity. But they also offered a cautionary tale about how, without significant, conscious support from the scientific community, we drive out people who experience these difficulties. The lesson carries over from students with disabilities to those who have to deal with less obvious difficulties, like subtle racial or gender discrimination.

Discussion: Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally

After the CONVERGE talk, I moved on to the first discussion session, focused on ways to prevent inappropriate behavior within the Science Online community and elsewhere. This session was prompted largely by the revelation last year that Bora Zivkovic, the founder of Science Online, had sexually harassed several women. I was only a passive observer of the reaction to those events, so I won’t try to describe them here, instead offering a link to this excellently detailed summary.

In the wake of those events, Bora is of course no longer involved with Science Online, leaving the community at this conference (and the larger online science community) to confront a legacy of suppressed harassment. The overwhelming message from the attendees at this session was that it’s important to talk about instances of inappropriate behavior, including but not limited to what Bora did, because to skirt the issue (by saying “in light of recent events blah blah blah” and so on) conveys that the Science Online community is not a safe place to speak up about things that make you uncomfortable, and that’s precisely the culture that allows that sort of behavior to continue.

For more on this session — and there is lots more that’s worth reading — see the Storify page and follow the #scioBoundaries hashtag on Twitter. I want to thank Kathryn Jepsen in particular for some very enlightening discussions after the session, and all others who contributed to the discussion, because it was a tough topic to work through but it’s very important.

Discussion: Helping Science Readers Become Critical Thinkers

The next session was about how science writers can encourage their readers to critically evaluate the science they (the writers) are reporting on, rather than just consuming it and taking it on faith that the reports are correct. This is a constant source of tension between writers and scientists: writers want to gain publicity and sell content, which means it’s often in their interest to cast scientific results into a form that will appeal to the general public by simplifying and even sensationalizing them. Scientists, on the other hand, want news articles and other reports not to misrepresent the results and to properly place those results in their larger context.

Although no clear consensus emerged out of this discussion, there were lots of prospective ideas and suggestions for both sides. For writers, it’s important to provide the detailed information that will allow your readers to evaluate for themselves both your article and the science you’re writing about. Linking to source material and leaving details in the comments, where they don’t intrude on the main article, are especially encouraged. Also, it’s important not to misrepresent an individual scientific study as representing a groundbreaking advance in the field (unless it is, which is exceptionally rare); instead, show it for what it is, an incremental advance that may be uncertain but plays a small part in leading the field toward the right conclusion. For scientists, on the other hand, it’s useful to verify that a reporter interviewing you has correctly understood what you’ve told them, perhaps by asking the reporter to paraphrase it back to you. (This works for anyone else you’re trying to explain your work to.)

For more on this session, see the Storify page and follow the #scioCritSci hashtag on Twitter. You’ll be able to watch the video of the session in 60 days (no idea why they wait so long) on the Science Online website. Also stay tuned for the related #scioStandards session on Saturday!

Discussion: Bringing Science to Popular Topics

Definitely the most fun session of the day, this post-lunch discussion was quite skillfully led by Brian Malow, the science comedian (in the sense that he is @sciencecomedian on Twitter). The focus was using everyday activities that non-scientists are already passionate about to pique their interest in science.

This session covered a wide range of ideas, too many to list here, so you should definitely check out the Twitter hashtag where everything is documented. But one of the major points to emerge was that science is involved in everything. Regardless of who you’re trying to appeal to, there’s going to be something they’re passionate about, and you can find the science underlying that and use it as a hook to capture their interest. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be recognized as science; the important thing is to get people to critically analyze something, anything. When they inevitably have questions, the scientific process has the answers.

Discussion: Healthy Online Promotion

I rounded out the day with a session led by David Wescott, a public relations specialist based here in Durham. The discussion was guided by a worksheet he uses with clients, and it actually developed into somewhat of an opportunity for self-promotion, with various attendees (not me though) identifying themselves with their names and the websites or organizations they want to promote, and others offering advice.

The #1 rule of self promotion: know your audience. A big question covered at the session was, how can you promote your content without becoming annoying? Knowing your audience is key because when you market content to the right people in the right venues, it’s a lot less likely to be considered inappropriate.

In order to find the right venues, it’s often necessary to look beyond the standard social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Those are general-purpose tools, but more subject-specific sites can be better places to share your content because you reach more of your target audience and fewer people who won’t be interested in your work. Joanne Manaster offered the helpful 60-30-10 rule: spend 60% of your time online sharing interesting links, 30% interacting with and promoting others, and 10% promoting yourself. When all is said and done, you can roughly measure success in self-promotion by how many other people are resharing your content.

For more on this session, look through the Twitter hashtag #scioSelfPR. Like the other sessions in the video-equipped room, this one will also be available for viewing on the website in 60 days.

Dinner and Game Night

After the discussion sessions wrapped up, we came back to the conference hotel, split into groups, and headed out to dinner. I was in the group at Beasley’s Chicken and Honey, which as the name suggests, specializes in various sorts of fried chicken with a hint of honey. It’s really delicious. I’m sure I’m going to gain at least 10 pounds on this trip, but hey, who’s counting?

Of course, the best part of dinner, and the conference as a whole, is meeting new people. I had a great conversation over dinner with, among others, Ryan Becker, a teacher who has some great ideas about connecting middle school science students with practicing scientists using Twitter. I also met several of the other grad students here, a sign of how far Science Online has come since its origins as a conference for writers and journalists. We’re thinking about starting a support group ;-)

After dinner, we came back to the hotel for a night of board games, lengthy discussions, and motion-activated M&M dispensers. Again, this is the best part of the conference, and I stayed out way too late (almost midnight) despite already being sleep deprived. I really like how this conference brings together people from different fields of science and even nonscientists with a wide variety of different perspectives — I could probably amuse myself talking to these people for days. But for now, I’m too tired. Time to go to bed, and rest up for another full day of conferencing tomorrow! (well today, but my definition of “day” is a little fluid) More updates to come....