What a difference a year makes

I attended last year’s Science Blogging conference very much as an outsider. I’d signed on at Nature Network and passed a few comments, but was not a blogger. However, the event was a turning point for me and in the warm flush of excitement that emanated from the conference, I finally decided to jump into the strange reality known as the blogosphere.

This year I came back to Science Online London 2009 (which took place yesterday) from a rather different position. For me the conference actually kicked of at the Friday evening bash organised largely by Jenny, Richard and Matt and hosted by Mendeley. This loosely-run event was held on a roof-top terrace somewhere in the Farringdon area and attracted forty-odd interested souls. The first session, led by Jenny and myself, gave me a chance to offer a few basic observations on the value of online media, blogs in particular, for getting across the narrative that is so often lost from textbook and journalistic presentations of science.

FF #solo09 on Twitpic
Spouting on the rooftop (Richard’s pic)

There followed a very interesting discussion, with vigorous participation from many members of the audience, as was the case in the subsequent sessions on Blogging as a tool for persuasion (led by Richard and Cameron) and the two more spontaneous sessions on blogging genres (Eva Amsen’s suggestion) and on PR, the latter generating some trenchant remarks from the redoubtable David Colquhoun. Suffice to say he’s not a fan.

But more than anything the event was about getting together — lubricated by free drink — and making more of a connection with people that many of us only knew ‘online’. Whatever kind of knowing that is.

The late night on Friday was not too much of an impediment to the early start at the Royal Institution on Saturday. The conference was launched with great verve and intelligence by Petra Boynton and David Allen Green (Jack of Kent) who laid out the proper ethical and legal framework for bloggers. It’s all so very clear now. “Ahem.”:http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog/2009/05/30/i-don’t-know-what-to-say

We then moved on to cover topics as diverse as Blogging for Impact, Citizen Science, Online communication for institutions, real time metrics for assessing scientific contributions and Google wave, which is apparently about to crest.

Citizen Science

There were some great contributions, from the panellists and the floor, though I was somehow content to sit back and let it flow over me. Much of the material seemed a bit diffuse or perhaps too specialist for an ordinary scientist such as myself. I have yet to be touched by any of the excitement swirling around Google wave, for example; it still seems too much like a geek toy. Some tidbits did nevertheless end up lodged in my head. I very much liked the sound of the Ask a biologist site that Paolo Viscardi talked about and it was good to hear that the editing tools at Wikipedia are to become simpler.

But more than anything and, as I had discovered last year, the greatest joy of this event is meeting the people who are the reality behind the virtual world that we inhabit online. Not only did I manage to put faces to people that I already knew (delighted to have finally met you Steffi, Eva and Maria, to name but a few), but I also met people I hadn’t known before in any medium.

Over lunch I enjoyed debating the merits of electronic lab notebook with Rory Macneil of Axiope. I’m going to need some more convincing on that one, but I’ll certainly be investigating.

I bumped into Northern Doctor on the balcony at the end of the lunch break. Down in the street we could see the smokers clustered around the front door of the institution. What’s the collective noun for smokers standing outside a building, I wondered. “A carcinoma,” he suggested, “or a wheeze?”

It is agreeably ironic that the richest experience for me was meeting these online folk in the flesh. It was a particular thrill to come across many of the community (bloggers including Jack of Kent , Dr Aust, Gimpy, Zeno and the Quackometer), who have been doing such fine work both in supporting Simon Singh and in taking rationality to the alternative medicine community.

Meeting these guys and all the other people I chatted to during the conference, and in the pub afterwards, brought home just how much joining in online has enriched my life with new connections. But it still strange to realise that these connections are best savoured in the real world.

Or maybe it was the effect of the drink.

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43 Responses to What a difference a year makes

  1. steffi suhr says:

    It was great to finally ‘really’ meet you as well, Stephen! The difference between online and real life is very puzzling – and I started typing something here three times now but it all sounds daft so I’ll leave it and do some more thinking.
    I also enjoyed Friday evening very much, although there were a couple of self-conscious moments when I saw the neighbours looking at us through their window, somewhat hoping they wouldn’t also listen to us rambling on about blogging… (is that bad?)

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heh. What DC hadn’t grasped is that blogging is PR. We put forward a view of ourselves, defend ourselves, tell people about ourselves.
    Conferences are the kind of public relations I like.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    @Steffi – look forward to the outcome of your thinking. However great it is to be able to encounter people online, there is no substitute for being face-to-face…
    And I’m glad I hadn’t realised the neighbours were over-looking us on Friday evening. I was feeling nervous enough when I stood up to say my tuppence-worth.
    @Richard – my guess is that DC was mainly referring to that type of university PR that seeks only to puff up the institution’s achievements (no bad thing), but which is never going to take a hard critical look at itself (something bloggers are more likely to do). His view was clearly informed by his previous experiences, which arose from the independence of mind displayed in his own blog-posts and had the univ. PR in a bit of a spin.
    Completely concur on the conference-PR link. Thanks to you Jenny, Matt and Victor for Friday!

  4. Clare Dudman says:

    Thanks Stephen – gives me a real flavour of the event, and I think you’re right. It’s mostly the meeting of other people that’s important to me at these things too. And yet I feel there has to be some ‘serious’ purposeful reason to bring us all together. It’s as though you have to eat your dinner to get to the dessert :)

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    You’re absolutely right, Clare, about needing to have a reason to get together. I like the dinner/dessert analogy! It was a real shame you couldn’t make it…

  6. David Colquhoun says:

    “Heh. What DC hadn’t grasped is that blogging is PR”
    I don’t understand that at all. Just being yourself is not what I mean by PR. I might help that I, like Stephen, rarely write about my own work so there is no temptation to advertise it Even crystal structures have more appeal to the public than stochastic matrices!

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    But what Stephen is doing is PR. Who honestly thinks that just being themselves is what they are doing on their blog?
    We all have a story to tell. A picture we want to project. Yours is being a champion of anti-quackery (which is brilliant, by the way). What I wanted to explore is how we actually do this without being unduly influenced by the corporate PR-types who want us to tell their story.

  8. Maxine Clarke says:

    On what you say about dinner and desert. I wonder, on reading (Matt Brown’s blog) about the unconference the eve before, whether in fact the appetiser might have been the best bit? It sounds a lot more interactive than the main conference itself, where (of necessity given the packed programme and limited time) there were sessions where the discussion barely scratched the surface, and in one case (managing online communities) somehow missed out any discussion of really obvious problems such as any member of an online community knows only two well eg profane and other badly behaved members). I could not stay in the pub afterwards for all that long, but I imagine that a lot more got discussed there too, than at the conference itself. I very much enjoyed the conference, but only managed even to say hello to a very small fraction of the attendees, and feel bereft of “group conversation” compared with “presentations”. Maybe next time, fewer formal presentations, more moderated group discussion? (Katherine Haxton has written a good post or two about this.)

  9. Maxine Clarke says:

    “only two well” ?! sorry! typing too fast for my brain as usual.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think that the more open aspect of the unconference was a big win, and Solo09 suffered because it didn’t have it. Attracting ‘celebrities’ made it less accessible to the normal blogger/scientist/communicator/onlineperson on the Clapham omnibus.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    On the PR question, for sure what I’m doing here is a kind of PR. I am, most of the time, choosing my words carefully. But PR covers a multitude of sins and I sympathise with DC’s objection to the type purveyed by many universities. I too have winced at the copy produced by the Imperial PR gurus that described one of our own papers but, alas, didn’t have the strength of character to insist on a retraction. Too narcissistic for my own good, perhaps…
    @Maxine – The Friday night Fringe Frivolous (here’s the link to Matt’s Blog) did have a great atmosphere and benefitted from the fact that the presentations were invariably (and laudably) brief. The smaller size of the audience may have helped, though there were no obvious inhibitions at the RI once people got the chance to speak. The discussion on google wave did eventually drill down to the point (_i.e._ that no-one is quite sure how wonderful it’s going to be!). As you say Katherine Kaxton went into more detail about the nature of the conference and made some interesting comparisons with the scio09 confernece in North Carolina).
    @Richard – there were celebrities at the RI? Damn, I missed them!

  12. Martin Fenner says:

    We intended all Science Online London sessions as discussion with just a brief introduction and told all speakers that. I guess that message didn’t really come across, even the real-time statistics session with Richard and Victor had too many slides. Sending in slides in advance (to be uploaded to Second Life) probably sent the wrong message. Oh well.
    Celebrities? I was really proud we had very different speakers from last year (only Cameron and Richard also spoke at Science Blogging London 2008 – and they also spoke at FringeFrivolous). The few unconference events I’ve been involved in often had the usual science blogging celebrities speaking/moderating.
    My pet project is still a poster session combined with beer and food as the start into the conference.

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    @Martin – I guess controlling speakers is as hard as herding cats…! You can’t please everyone, but my estimation would be that most people got a lot out of the day, one way or another. I think you — and all the other organisers — can be very pleased with how well the day went!

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. Celebrities? I was really proud we had very different speakers
    non sequitur. Sorry.

  15. Maxine Clarke says:

    I didn’t notice any celebrities and I sat through all the sessions!
    My comments weren’t intended as a criticism. It was a great day and you can’t do everything in one day. Either you have to have fewer topics to allow for more in-depth group discussion, or you have to have a longer conference, or you have to do what happened this time – several extra-conference activities. They are all good solutions.
    I thank Martin, Richard and the other organisers for a fantastic day – it all went so smoothly but I could see what a lot of work went into it all.
    Sorry for not including links earlier, I stand corrected and shamed by Stephen for so patiently putting them in.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Don’t be too hard on yourself Maxine – though it is a bit of a pain adding those links. Something for MT4, or Google Wave to fix? ;-)

  17. Sean Seaver says:

    Great to hear you had the opportunity to meet other blogs face to face. Your post inspires me to try to meet up with other bloggers in my neck of the woods.
    I am sure there are many other nuances that can be shared between those in the blogging community. I sometimes have this feeling of ‘here it goes’ before I push the publish button.

  18. Stephen Curry says:

    Hi Sean – welcome to the discussion. I know what you meant by that ‘here it goes’ feeling. In my case, it’s usually kicked into action by a ‘oh, what the hell’ sensation.
    Hope you do manage to meet up with other bloggers – as I and many others have found, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable experience. And you tend to find out that more people are reading your blog than you realised!

  19. Frank Norman says:

    I was so sorry to miss all of this (I did get to Matt’s pub crawl though). The fringe event sounded particularly good.
    Perhaps it is good to have a mix of events – more conference in London and more unconference in N Carolina.

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    I thought I had seen you lurking in the background in one of Matt’s photos.
    Then again, you were there, up on the silver screen in Darwin’s Lost Weekend, a strange and disturbing film…

  21. Austin Elliott says:

    I have to say that adding links is easier in the WordPress systems, at least IMO.
    I agree with Maxine about tweaking the format a bit next time. Moderated discussion is good, though I reckon to get it to really work requires smaller groups (like at the Friday night Unconference) and enough intrinsically mouthy/pushy people to drive the discussion along.
    I think there might be an argument for running the tech-ier stuff as a breakout group next time, rather than as a big chunk of the main lecture strand. People who are interested in the online world mainly as a way of communicating content to a wider audience(like most bloggers) tend to find the second life / online lab book / web platform-y stuff a bit dry and dusty. Personally I find that when I hear someone use the word “semantic” in a web context I tend glaze over. Obviously there are some people who find this stuff fascinating (like the infomatics and library gang), but I think they might be a subset, in the same way that the badscience gang (who are interested in talking about science but largely not about the science they do professionally) are a subset.

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

    Eva and I were talking about this last night and we reckon parallel sessions is the way to do it. We have a topic, which is dealt with in a simple and a techy way in parallel. That way people can choose their level.

  23. Richard Wintle says:

    I’m sorry to have missed FringeFrivolous. And I love the delicious irony of your observation that it’s better to meet all these online acquaintances in person, at an event about online interaction.
    Somewhere in there, there is a moral for the 21st century. Darned if I know what it is though.

  24. Stephen Curry says:

    @Austin, Richard and Eva – I think parallel sessions for the more geeky/specialist aspects is a great idea. Though I guess there may be arguments as to how to define these (over to you, Eva!).
    @Richard W – for me the moral is that when the electricity finally runs out, we can all still be friends.

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    BTW – great to meet you at last, Austin. I hope you’ll forgive me for not immediately recognising you from your photo. I wished on Friday that I’d had as many perceptive things to say as you did – glad you were there!

  26. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks, Stephen. And hear hear to what Richard W just said about the irony.
    Not sure about the moral, but I could try a motto / epigram. How about:
    Only connect (*still* easier in person)
    Ha – having just written that I see that the sociologists have got to the original quotation before me.

  27. Maxine Clarke says:

    My problem with the parallel sessions suggestion is that I want to go to all of them. And I don’t think semantic cloning has yet been invented.

  28. Stephen Curry says:

    Fret ot Maxine, pretty soon there’ll be a robot in Google Wave that will allow us to be in 2 places at once…

  29. Stephen Curry says:

    Fret ot?
    Fret not. Obviously.

  30. Graham Steel says:

    Woops, wromg thread.

  31. Jim Caryl says:

    If you liked the sounds of the askabiologist, have you also come across http://madsci.org/? It’s been going since the early days of the internet; I’ve been answering questions for them, on and off, for some years now. Always interesting, keeps you on your toes.

  32. Frank Norman says:

    One problem with parallel sessions for tech and non-tech topics is that it seems to impose a separation between geek-world and rest-of-the-world. Is that really a good thing?

  33. Stephen Curry says:

    @Graham – Where did you intend to post that photo? (Simon Frantz, if I’m not mistaken).
    @Jim C – thanks for the Madsci link – looks interesting!
    @Frank – you could be on to something there. Perhaps we are worrying overmuch about the details. You’re never going to please everyone – though I think there might be general agreement about taking steps to foster more discussion.

  34. Richard P. Grant says:

    Frank, I think it makes things more inclusive. And less boring for those who don’t really need the details.
    Plus, I’m not really talking about geek vs non, just levels of experience.

  35. Martin Fenner says:

    Reading some of the reports from people participating via Second Life, that really seemed to work suprisingly well. I would like to see future Science Online conferences to do more of this virtual conferencing. And I think that a single session stream works better for this than parallel sessions. It is obviously not the same as going to a conference in person, but not everybody lives in London or North Carolina.

  36. Stephen Curry says:

    @Martin – this technology can only get better. I’ve no doubt such online participation in real events will become more ‘normal’. Well done to you guys for pioneering…!

  37. Graham Steel says:

    _”Darwin’s Lost Weekend,”:http://network.nature.com/people/henrygee/blog/2009/08/17/darwins-lost-weekend a strange and disturbing film_…
    Strange? Absolutely. Far out even. Disturbing? Not so sure about that. I was extremely pleased that ~99% of attendees actually stayed to watch the film. Here is Steve’s intro
    Martin Fenner, Henry Gee and Karen James came up with the idea about the film during Science Online’09 in North Carolina in January. Thanks again to the organisers for agreeing to show it at the end of the Conference last weekend.

  38. Stephen Curry says:

    Graham – I only meant that I was greatly disturbed to learn that the true origin of Darwin’s theory had been suppressed for so long! ;-)

  39. Graham Steel says:

    You meanz a m****ng l**k, Norfolk ?
    So it might be true after all, then? Blimey, Gov. Is there a Darwin Historian in da house ?? Frank….

  40. Duncan Hull says:

    Hi Stephen, meant to come and say Hello to you this year but ran out of time. Damn! Hopefully see you next year. Cheers (and nice write up)…

  41. Sara Fletcher says:

    Note to self: must not be too shy to attend next future unconferences…

  42. Stephen Curry says:

    Sorry to have missed you too Duncan. We’ll always have Paris. Oh no, wait – that was someone else…
    Failing that, next year for sure!
    @Sara – shy? The only thing you seemed to shy away from was the bar… we’ll have to work on that.

  43. larry cosy says:

    in year 2009 i enjoyed alot and i am doing good work and i hope in the coming next year i will in the good position
    thanks