It bills itself as the “Rock ‘n Roll Heart of Science Communication,” and boy is there a lot of talk about heart. And community, and openness, and collaboration—all values of the Science Online Conference community as listed in the petite, Velcro fastened orange folder that constituted our registration packet. The whole event was like that: thoughtfully designed and imbued with self definition. Smart people doing a smart conference, smartly. It was daunting.
And dazzling. The 450 attendees tended toward 20s and 30s, lots of paisley tights, nubby sweaters, and rapid fire speech. Seasoned authors mingled with post docs and bloggers over coffee (15 gallons consumed an hour). Live scribes captured the themes of conference sessions, standing at the front of the room and rendering the cross talk in artful 4’x5’ posterboard arrays of graphics and tag lines.
I was a newcomer to this annual event, which is a hot ticket in the online writing world. This year, the 450 attendee slots were snapped up minutes after the registration period opened, with watch parties around the world established for those not lucky enough to be there in person.
Twitter was the prevalent communication medium. Ninety percent of the attendees were devoted users, as shown by a pie chart in the common area. This leant a warp speediness to the proceedings. Sessions featured double layers of talk: participants joined in both a verbal exchange and a simultaneous volley of tweets that were pumped out and aggregated in real time.
This approach was great for compiling tools, and bulleted lists of options were the primary take homes from many sessions I attended. At one session, I scribbled down the names of ten different software programs that could convert data into cool graphics; the session’s free form discussion generated comprehensive referrals in a matter of minutes.
But there was a downside to the double quick pace. The sessions did not allow time for examining tough issues, and their attendant conflicts. This was a shame, because given a chance, the brainy and committed attendees could have done some serious pondering. Juicy issues arose at every session I attended but were passed over as the conversations tumbled on. For example:
· Do we sabotage science outreach from the outset if we define it as separate from research?
· Are we reaching new audiences with our science communications or just talking to ourselves?
· How do we square outreach on social media with the demands of policy work?
None of those issues was going to be resolved at a conference. But we needed to wrestle with them, owning differences and seeing what the conflicts produced. This would have required savvy facilitation and focused time—measures that encourage the public airing of divergent opinions.
Contentious exchanges would seem to fit the conference’s rock ‘n roll model. Except that for all its quicksilver flash, ScienceOnline 2013 was less a mosh pit of ideas than a love fest where sticky issues were sidestepped in favor of agreeable abstractions (“know your audience,” “the need for transparency transcends specific careers”). The tendency to play nice seemed more coffee klatch than Clash. But, as I said, there are lots of smart people involved. If they can make room for slower, messier conversations, ScienceOnline can keep its rock ‘n roll heart in the right place.