ScienceOnline2012 Postmortem (and a book review)

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.

I Am Science (#IamScience)

One of the many cool things that came out of ScienceOnline2012 was a meme-thingy called “IamScience”.  From Mindy, who created the video below:

On January 27, 2012, science writer and marine biologist Kevin Zelnio started the Twitter hashtag #IamScience, encouraging scientists to share their individual stories about their traditional or unconventional paths that brought them to where they were today. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of tweets pouring in over just a few days. 

I’ve collected and excerpted just a handful of them, and set them to Reckless Kelly’s “Wicked Twisted Road”, a song that Kevin mentioned in his original post as holding particular significance for his own path toward science.

You can see a storify of most of the tweets for #IamScience; or you can watch this video. Get Kleenex.

“Magical things can happen when you enthusiastically open your mouth on the internet. One of these magical things is learning how personal experience shapes people’s lives. Looking into others causes you to look into yourself. And then something really magical happens – we learn we are not alone.”  —Kevin Zelnio

Want to make the project bigger? Kevin has offered to put things together in an e-book:

I would like to curate a free e-book of submissions from people about their experiences – good and bad, whatever you are willing to share. Put your name on it or keep it anonymous, doesn’t matter, but people need to hear how your experiences in the past shaped who you are today and what you do.

If you are interested in participating in this project, I’d love to hear from you. Please email me at kzelnio at gmail dot com. Submissions are whatever is necessary for you to tell your story, up to 5000 words. Include drawing, sketchpads, poetry, whatever you need to tell your story.

You ROCK, Kevin.