As I mentioned last week, I spent a few days at the Science Online 2012 conference, which ended up being a terrible experience I never want to repeat.
Actually, the last part of that sentence is a total lie. Science Online 2012 is the best professional conference I’ve ever attended. To summarize: 450 people generally falling into the category of “science communication on the internet” got together in Raleigh, North Carolina to talk about our shared passion(s). For example, I moderated a session with my friend Cedar Riener about the challenge of communicating statistics across disciplines; stay tuned for a more detailed post about that later. For now, I want to talk about my other experiences, including some discoveries and resolutions that might affect the future of this blog. (Dunh dunh DUNH!)
The topics that follow are more or less in the order I experienced them.
- When I arrived, Katy Chalmers gave me the picture on the right. Admittedly, I commissioned it as a joke on Twitter, but who can turn down such a classic piece of art? (By the way, we are currently collaborating on a Sooper Seekrit Science Comic. Which I guess isn’t so Sooper Seekrit now that I mention it.)
- Though I am no longer paid to be a teacher, talking about and explaining science is really what I’m about. Marie-Claire Shanahan and Catherine Anderson led a session about scientific literacy using the sport of curling (which most of us didn’t know much about) as a metaphor. Jargon can be off-putting, but explaining the jargon in the course of teaching the concepts welcomes people into the fold of expertise.
- Janet Stemwedel and Christie Wilcox led a session about the specific issues women bloggers often face: harassment, threats, and dismissal of their ideas and credentials. It bothered me to learn how many people (both men and women) assumed it would just be a complaining session and dismissed it outright. Obviously the issue of sexism, sexual harassment, and intimidation is much too big for an hour-long discussion, and the people in the room were obviously not the problem. However, as someone phrased it (and I apologize for not remembering who said it), “Just because you aren’t part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution.”
I finally got to meet some of my fellow Double X Science cohort! Emily Willingham (AKA Our Fearless Leader) and Jeanne Garbarino are every bit as awesome in person as I expected from our online conversations.
- Jennifer Ouellette and Maggie Koerth-Baker signed copies of their books for me, but don’t expect me to go easy on them when I review the books here! I cannot be bribed. (Actually, I totally can. Both authors are wonderful people, so I’m already inclined to like both books. I hope you acquire, read, and love them too.)
- I know Bora Zivkovic makes a big deal about how we are all equals at this conference, but let’s face it: some bloggers like me are pretty small-time, and others (Ed Yong comes to mind) are veritable rock stars within the science blogging community. In other words, I know who they are, but they hardly know who I am. It was easy to be star-struck for a newbie like me, and I was thinking of listing everyone I met and talking about how great they are. However, I suspect many of my readers wouldn’t be interested and I’d almost inevitably fail to mention someone I should. In fact, I think there were only two “rock stars” I met that (politely) brushed me off; everyone else was very kind.
- My online identity is tied in with my “real life” identity, meaning that I use my real name and photo in the projects I write for. Others do it differently, for a variety of reasons. I was thrilled to meet Steve of Treelobsters fame, the force of nature known as Scicurious, Bug Girl (who made me laugh harder than anyone else I met at the conference), and the irrepressible Dr. Rubidium, putting faces and (at least partial) names to the pseudonyms. Though he isn’t pseudonymous, I also got to meet my editor at Ars Technica, John Timmer, in real life for the first time.
- Though none of the sessions were bad, my personal favorite was led by Deborah Blum and David Dobbs. They spoke about how they structure long-form stories using metaphors that are tailor-made for me. Deborah spoke about how she visualizes stories using geometric shapes, selecting the form that’s most evocative for the particular article she is writing, while David connected the structure of stories to musical pieces by Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Led Zeppelin. As a musician and scientist whose research involves geometry, I could not have been more inspired by this session. I also faced the fact that I need a lot of improvement in my writing. To quote David Dobbs, “I became obsessed with structure years ago when I realised I wasn’t using it.” (I’m using the British spelling because the quote was collected by Ed Yong.) I will muse on this point in a future post, I think.
To continue the practical theme, I also attended a workshop led by Brian Switek and Hillary Rosner on the freelance life. (I met Brian last spring at the DC Science Writers Workshop, so it was great to hang out with him again.) Their advice was very sound, and I intend to take it: be more assertive in selling yourself and your ideas. So, I will be working on my book proposal this week and a pitch for a magazine story.
I’m wrapping up now, less because I’m done than because I could double the length of the post and still not reveal every thought I have. Ed Yong and Emily Willingham both have written excellent (and shorter!) pieces that express more of what made this conference wonderful. To quote the song in my title one more time, Science Online was close to my soul, and I’m going to go back there someday.