logoWhen I got back from ScienceOnline, my boss asked me how it went.  (I was sort of AWOL from the first week of class, and she was not real thrilled about that.)   “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life” was my response.  That’s what I feel–but I’ve been trying to figure out WHY.

You can see the full list of attendees here–it’s a really fascinating bunch.  To name check just a few:  Wired. BoingBoing. Nature. Science. Ed Yong. Carl Zimmer. Museums. And, uh, independent blogger/social media types like me.  And so here I am, feeling like a little bug scuttling among giant writers. And I discover…that people actually read my shit. And know who the hell I am. Whoa.

Everyone was geeked about science and about communicating science.  IT WAS AWESOME.  But Why was it so awesome? I think Ed Yong nails it in his summary–we “knew” everyone before we arrived. Even though I hadn’t ever met 447 of the 450 folks attending in meatspace, I had chatted with them online, commented on their blogs, and read their books. From further discussion in the comments from David Dobbs:

“The steady message, via the unconference idea, that it’s a relatively level playing field — or, as someone put it on Twitter, that it’s not experts and non-experts, but different people all bringing different experiences in areas we’re all interested in. It’s a steady insistence that it’s not a producer-consumer model, with the audience full of consumers, but rather a conversation.

The other key, it seems to me, is that it’s a fairly balanced mix of mainly-scientists and mainly-journalists/communicators, so it’s not a single peer group, as it were — not a single discipline. There’s always this chemistry of excitement, of mixing with another tribe. To me that’s an important part of what distinguishes ScienceOnline. And I think it helps create the sense of humility and egalitarianism: Prominence in one area doesn’t make anyone top dog at this conference, because even the most distinguished people in one area are among not just their own discipline’s peers but amid those of another discipline in which they have little expertise or distinction.”

cognitive surplusJust before I went to ScienceOnline, I read a book called Cognitive Surplus.  And it kind of blew my mind.  Shirky’s central thesis is that the web and the relatively large amount of leisure time in the first world (i.e, time not spent working for the man, or raising our food) has created an amazing opportunity.

We kill a lot of that free time in very unimaginative ways.  Americans spend 200 BILLION hours each year watching television. What if all that brain power was directed toward something?  Shirky posits a surplus of creative energy exists, and is only beginning to be tapped.  For example, take the humble LOLcat:

“Formed quickly and with a minimum of craft, the average LOLcat has the social value of a whoopie cushion and the lifespan of a mayfly.  Yet anyone seeing a LOLcat gets a second unrelated message: You can play this game too.”

The internet bridges the gap between doing nothing and doing something.  Creating a LOLcat is more than passive consumption of pre-packaged TV shows…and opens the door to doing other original things.

Time and space are not a constraint to community formation–ideas or passions now bring people together, rather than physical locations.  Scientists that blog online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance.  It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.

We are creating a model for a new way of science communication.  And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us.  You can play this game too.   We are showing lots of different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.”

It’s a kind of nerdibacter called social contagion.  The internet creates social change among total strangers. Think it’s too sparkly-kumbaya to really work?  Just look at an example from earlier this month: A shark researcher calls out a company for sponsoring a shark hunt.  He manages to mobilize an amazing network via Twitter, and the company not only pulls the promotion, but blacklists the person from ever posting with them again.  And that all played out within the space of one day.

Small individual creative acts (tweets or blog posts) can become a thing of lasting value.  Shared and unmanaged effort can produce useful and meaningful results.  No one is in charge, and that’s OK. The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations, or skills, or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal.  We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there.  And the value of that work isn’t from professional production values; it’s from the sharing.

A lot of the attendees at SciOnline were people like me–folks who don’t get paid to write about science. We do our thing (write, podcast, tweet, whatever) simply for the love of it.  And we are wearers of many hats–as Bora reports in his ScienceOnline2012 wrap-up post:

According to our registration form report, ScienceOnline2012 had 243 bloggers, 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.

Even though the US is clearly falling apart politically, in a lot of ways SciOnline left me more optimistic and hopeful about the future than I’ve been for a long time.  All these people doing something because of a passion for science–it was wonderful.

Kevin is right:

“Magical things can happen when you enthusiastically open your mouth on the internet….Looking into others causes you to look into yourself. And then something really magical happens – we learn we are not alone.”

I will totally be up at 1AM next year trying to get a seat for ScienceOnline2013.  But you know what? If I don’t get a seat?  Or if I don’t have the time or energy to keep blogging/tweeting/whatevering at the same rate I do now?

It’s ok. The kids have it covered.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Dang right. It is a tribe. I was trying to explain it to my significant other and couldn’t exactly put it into words. “Why do these people get together and do that?” And: “How does an unconference work if you don’t know what you are going to present to the attendees?” I think she decided to drop it after I talked for a while about some of the sessions and the different types of people that attended. She did look fondly at the stack of books I brought home. We are each reading one now.
    Thanks for the post Bug, I hope to meet you next time.

  2. I’d agree there is a collective intelligence that the new social media may be able to tap, but there is also a collective conformity and conformity often trumps intelligence. This has certainly been true historically, in tribes and in nations, and I see no reason why it should not be true now. By ‘conformity’ I mean a need to be seen doing the right thing, thinking the right way, supporting the right memes/leaders. Tribes are notoriously narrow-minded and strictly enforce their morals and taboos. In the social media, there are many ‘defenders of the faith’, those who feel they must crush any dissenting view – many tweets, comments and blog postings seem to have this dual aim – suppress unorthodox thoughts and demonstrate how the suppressor knows the ‘correct’ views.

    So, I am not convinced that the social media allows more ‘positive deviance’, I suggest it is simply harder to crush when it appears, since it is difficult (but not impossible) to take away someone’s blog etc. Governments and certain NGOs seems to be doing their best to exert control over the Internet, even in the US, so this may not last much longer. I seem to be naturally (rather than conveniently) skeptical, so when I read a tirade against an alternative hypothesis, I am likely to check the sources. To me that is the real power of the Internet – it doesn’t take too much effort to test what you read in the MSM, a high impact journal, or popular blog. This may lead to looking for alternative solutions to a problem, but it is no help in overcoming the inertia of conformity.

  3. There is actually a second part to this post that I split off from this, since it was on a different topic (and the post was already long). The internet also makes it far more easy for assholes to organize and share too.

    I do think, though, that over all there will be fewer places to hide bad behavior, and that more and more folks will take action about *something* as access improves. So I still view it as still more positive than negative, overall.

    I’ll probably expand on that sometime next week.

  4. I had similar thoughts as Dave. While “there will be fewer places to hide bad behavior”, I have seen time and again – to the point where I want to punch something – posts on blogs/YouTube/etc. that contain a certain level of aggression and inanity which is virtually never expressed in public or even in private conversations. For example, comments on the “Friday” video included such gems as “you should cut your wrists” and “maybe you should become anorexic, and then you will be pretty”. So yes, bad behavior may have fewer places to hide. And that’s the problem – because, for whatever reason, the internet seems to draw it out.
    Also, rather than the internet being “more positive than negative” overall, I would say that it is more meaningless, overall. While the LOLcat may be enjoyable, I’m not sure how much actual worth it acquires in being a game we can all play. Which is not to say that there aren’t wonderful things (e.g. Bug Girl’s Blog) for those who seek it out!

  5. I think part of the problem of bad online behavior is also social, though. If YouTube would take responsibility for the hateful crap on their sites, then the problem would be reduced. (as an example). I and a lot of other bloggers enforce a strict commenting policy, and for the most part are spared the ugliness (or at least don’t let it go public).

    I think this piece is spot on–if your website is full of assholes, it’s a problem we already know how to solve. We just need the will to do it. Another form of modeling positive social deviance!

  6. That’s a very nice article, thanks! I guess one of my points was really just more of a question. I wonder why the internet, unchecked, seems to allow for such frequent aggression rarely seen outside of the web. But if we all followed the rules in the linked article, this aspect of the web would surely not have its way!

  7. thank you for putting into words pretty darn eloquently why blogging and sharing our thoughts can make a difference and help us be more creative and less into our own individuals worlds. I plan to share this post as much as I can. Good job! and hopefully I can attend next year!

  8. You would LOVE SciOnline, Sarah. I suggested we invite the WhySharksMatter group to the Annual OBFS 2012 Mtg, since we’re in Florida.

  9. If you think about how you behave when you get on an elevator or a crowded bus or train, then part of the arseholery of the internet becomes easier to understand – or that is what recently research is claiming. Eye-contact or rather avoiding it is one way people defuse strange encounters. Only the biggest arseholes start spouting off when they meet strangers. Usually people become circumspect, polite, and avoid challenging those they don’t know. Unless you are skyping etc., there is no eye-contact on the internet and this important group of human behaviours is missing.

    Also missing is the fear that ‘they know where you live’. Unless you have Tourette Syndrome you probably don’t say everything you are thinking when in conservation with someone. Being online can be a bit like having Tourette’s. I think these explanations make sense and remind me of a line from a Bob Dylan song: “If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”. (But it’s alright ma, I’m only typing)

  10. And that’s why I think enforcing standards of good online behavior is so important, Dave. (see article linked in comment above.) We know *how* to make people behave, there just hasn’t been the *will* to make it happen.

    Also, believe me, people do know where I live. I can tell where all of my commenters are coming from because of their IP address; people who are way over the line can be tracked down and brought to the attention of police. Example:
    (mabus sent me death threats a couple of times, but I was just collateral hate damage. If that’s even a thing.)

    So far, none of the people behaving badly around me have been smart enough to use IP masking or blocking–in some cases using their work emails and computers. Derp.

  11. Yes, I suspect that those who spew online aren’t among the population who think before they type. I’m all for enforcing common decency online as long as it doesn’t become enforcing a monotonic point of view. It is very easy to confuse censorship with enforcing standards. I’m pretty sure that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is mentally challenged, but as long as they aren’t abusive, I think they have a right to their say. Sometimes I even realize they are right and I am wrong, but that point of view is difficult to achieve if you have to wade through a pile of abuse and threats.

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