Science Online Together: day 3 recap

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They say all good things must come to an end. I guess that’s true, but it would be really great if there were a magic pill that would keep us from having to sleep so Science Online Together a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever could go on forever.

Okay, technically that exists. It’s called speed. It’s more tempting than it should be.

Seriously though. Even with the fallout from the sexual harassment incidents over the last year hanging over everyone’s heads, it was truly a great experience for at least those of us who weren’t strongly affected by that — which probably includes most of the 200+ people who had never been to a Science Online event before. Congratulations to Karyn Traphagen and everyone else who helped pull this off!

CONVERGE session: Creating Collaboration World Wide across the Web

As the last day began, it was pretty clear from the number of empty chairs that the previous night’s sci-fi gala had taken a toll on people. Still, a sizeable fraction of the community showed up to see an inspiring and even entertaining presentation from Jon Schull and Nick Parker about the organization they work with, E-Nabling the Future, which connects people who have lost parts of their hands with others who have 3D printers they can use to inexpensively construct low-tech, functional prosthetics. Nick and Jon talked about how they adapted the specifications of full medical prosthetic hands, which can cost many thousands of dollars, to design plastic hands that cost $20 or $30. They then share the designs with people who have 3D printers, who print out and assemble the pieces, combine them with a few screws and a little string, and wind up with a functional replacement hand that can be controlled by moving your wrist or elbow joint.

The neat thing about this is that the different people carrying out different parts of the manufacturing process — the designer, the printer, the recipient — never even have to meet. It’s a great case study in how the internet drastically lowers the barriers to collaboration, even for tasks you wouldn’t think could be separated and distributed like that.

If you have access to a 3D printer, or you want to help contribute to refining the designs, E-Nabling the Future is always looking for more participation. Check out their website to see how you can help!

Discussion session: Comment Best Practices

Saturday morning started with Scicurious “Bethany” Brookshire leading a discussion session on handling comments on blog posts. Comments are like sex, she says: you don’t have to have them at all, but if you do, use a “condom” — in other words, have a plan for preventing them from getting out of control.

Fundamentally, comments are a tradeoff. If you allow them on your blog, you get the opportunity to receive feedback on content you post. This is largely a good thing when you have a knowledgeable and civil audience: they can give you additional ideas, they can prompt you to clarify difficult concepts, and they can tell you when you’re wrong. On the other hand, allowing comments opens the door to trolls and personal attacks that can make you or your commenters feel uncomfortable. Moderating comments seems to provide the best of both worlds, but it puts a lot of responsibility on you, the blog’s author, not only in terms of how much time you have to spend watching your site to prevent bad comments from sticking around, but also in terms of deciding which comments are appropriate and which ones aren’t. If your audience is sufficiently mature, you can offload some of this responsibility on other commenters by allowing them to upvote and downvote comments to distinguish the good content from the fluff.

Several people also pointed out that commenting has moved, in large part, from blogs to large social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and reddit. You can’t expect people to post a lot of comments on a blog post itself anymore. Much of the discussion happens off-site, and as an author, if you want to participate in it and guide the response to your content, you have to follow your readers to the communities where they hold their discussions, and have an online presence on those sites. Explicitly connecting your own site into those external discussions, for example by using Facebook as your commenting platform or by embedding one of those widgets that show how many people have shared/tweeted/etc. your post, can help build interest in the post and also keep you more wired into the dialogue about it.

At the end, Scicurious suggested something I really liked: coming up with a list of comment best practices, which I tweeted (roughly) under the hashtag #commentBestPractices.

  • Have a clear written policy on comments, and enforce it, but don’t expect people to read it
  • Give positive feedback to good comments (and not to frivolous ones)
  • Reserve the right to make final judgments on what comments are acceptable and to edit or delete as appropriate
  • Allow editing of comments, optionally with a publicly visible edit history
  • Limit the number of links allowed in comments to prevent spam
  • Finally, engage in the comment discussions of your own content!

I do think this was one of the most productive sessions I attended throughout the conference, and there were a lot of other interesting points which I didn’t even get to mention here. For more on this session, check out the #scioComments hashtag on Twitter!

Discussion session: Online Communities

My last session of the conference, facilitated by Lou Woodley, was about online communities: how to build them, maintain them, and help them grow.

Early on, it became clear that one of the keys to an online community’s success is having a core of motivated contributors who are committed to keeping the community healthy. Sometimes this happens naturally; for example, if a community is already backed by a large organization with a purpose that will attract like-minded people, it tends to attract a core of dedicated contributors through the organization’s efforts to promote the community. “Organic” communities that don’t have that backing have a harder time putting together that core. Successful community-building requires certain roles to be filled by those dedicated contributors, such as educating new members and starting discussions about the community’s direction, so if the people suited to fill those roles aren’t present or the community isn’t aware of what roles need to be filled, it’s probably not going to last.

Maintaining an online community’s health is, in some ways, no different than for an offline community. It’s important to understand the interpersonal interactions taking place within the community, because when a community is headed toward failure (or success), that’s where the first signs show up. But this is not a matter of keeping alert for individual bad relationships. You can get useful information from the overall structure of the network of interactions between community members. If a group of members is splintering off to form a subgroup that starts to isolate itself from the rest of the community, for example, that can be damaging to the health of the community as a whole.

Community management is a broad topic and, unsurprisingly, there was a lot more discussed than I was able to mention here. Lou’s Storify page has a lot more details, if you’re interested. And the discussion will continue, on Twitter under the #scioCommunity hashtag and in a series of community manager chats that Lou is planning for the future.

Topic Tables at Lunch

Lunch on Saturday was one of the things I was really waiting for: a chance to meet most of the other physics and astronomy people at the conference. There weren’t that many of us, interestingly enough; most of the people I talked to came from a background of entomology, paleontology, marine biology (probably not too surprising because the last Science Online conference was Science Online Oceans), or neuroscience. It was kind of a rushed affair because people drifted out of the last discussion sessions at different times, but I did get to stay at the table long enough to have a very interesting talk with Catherine Q. about dark matter, and I got some fun stories from Tom Swanson to take back to Penn State. (Did you know that visual awesomeness of a presentation is measured in milliGibbles?)

Wrapping up

All things considered, I had a great time. (The trip home is another story, which is why this blog post comes to you two days late… but let’s not dwell on that.) In general, I really love the “unconference” format where the discussion sessions are facilitated by a moderator but most of the content comes from the attendees, the long breaks between sessions allowing for discussions to spill out into the hall, and the activities designed to bring together people who have never met and get them talking to each other. It’s all very effective at breaking down the barriers between “experts” and “novices” that are apparent at other conferences (like physics conferences) I’ve been to. And breaking down those barriers is important for two reasons: it facilitates the best possible exchange of ideas, because people are less afraid of asking stupid questions, and it sucks new people in and makes them want to come back :-) After I graduate this summer I may be going somewhere where it’s going to be difficult and expensive to get back to the US, but I fully expect Science Online Together 2015 to make it worth the trip. Let me know if I’ll see you there!