It occurs to me that I’ve never spoken in public about Occam’s Typewriter (OT), where it came from, where it’s going—the whys and wherefores and WTFs.
I have a sneaking feeling that’s about to change. Rather at the last minute I found myself booking a ticket to Raleigh for the Science Online 2011 conference, brainchild of the Blogfather himself. I’ll say a little about the project I have in mind at the end of this post, but let me point out just now that I, and not Jenny, will be representing OT in one of the final sessions of the conference, Blogging networks and the emerging science communications ecosystem.
I guess I have just over a week to figure out what to say.
The truth is, OT doesn’t really have a strategy, or a grand plan of any sort. It’s a matter of record that several members of Nature Network had become dissatisfied with the blogging platform there. For myself, there was a huge activation barrier to writing because of the technical deficiencies of the platform, deficiencies that didn’t appear to be going away any time soon. It was a struggle to post a blog entry. And there was no payment or other incentive (apart from the usual ego-stroking you get from knowing that somebody else might want to read your posts), and as a result, I frankly couldn’t be arsed.
That was a real difficulty for me, because I have to write. Yes, I have a private blog elsewhere and yes, I’ve got short stories and poems and novels on the go, but there’s something deeply satisfying (not to say addictive) about the creative act of blogging, and that was suffering.
There were other reasons of course; the reasons I started blogging there in the first place had disappeared, for one.
So back in February 2009 I set up a private Facebook group for certain members of Nature Network to bitch about stuff. Membership grew to about a dozen, and with one thing and another we started talking about setting up an independent blogging network. Discussions were quite far advanced when Scienceblogs went into meltdown over Pepsi. We decided we didn’t want to look like a ‘me-too’ site (or ‘AOL!’ for those of you who remember Usenet), so we put plans on the back burner, warming them up a bit as summer progressed. Then, of course, Vince Cable put his sodding great size nines in it and every waking moment was spent organizing the Science is Vital campaign that Jenny initiated.
When I’d got my head screwed back on, I sat down one afternoon with a pen and paper and started thinking about names for this putative blog network.
None of us on the Facebook group wanted to limit the network to a bunch of coves who’d only talk about science. We wanted interesting people who could write, and who were, or had been at some point, scientists. So I wondered, what do all scientists have in common? After a bit, I thought of Occam (or Ockham, if you prefer) and his shaving kit. I thought of Bill sat at a computer keyboard, and then wound the clock back a bit. I mean, we’re already knee-deep in anachronism, right?
Preferring the more elegant-looking version of his name, I ran it by Jenny, and before I knew it we had a domain name registered, and a development site. I sent out a highly cryptic request on Twitter and roped a complete stranger in to help me.
Occam’s Typewriter was thus officially born (somewhat precipitously, it must be said) on Thursday 9th December 2010, despite the efforts of certain Canadian gentlemen to anticipate matters. About half of the original dirty dozen joined up—others have been invited along the way.
There are a few things about OT that I think are important, but that may not be immediately apparent. First, our regular bloggers contribute financially to the site. It’s only a small amount, and can be waived if necessary, but gives (I hope) our bloggers a sense of ownership. Second, as I hinted above, bloggers can write what they damn well please. Third, any member can nominate anybody to become an Irregular. That’s the usual route to getting a blog of your own here, but it’s not an unbreakable rule.
Finally, and let me say this as clearly as possible:
I AM NOT A COMMUNITY MANAGER.
I have built the site, I take responsibility for technical and hosting matters, I’ll probably (at least in the short term) drive changes and improvements and whatnot, but I see this very much as a community. And I don’t believe that real communities have, or need, a community leader. Yes, there are policemen (currently two other members have full admin privileges), and those who take out the trash (that’s me, really), but apart from that—well, I feel a bit like Father Christmas giving toys away. I’m not going to tell you how to play with them.
Occam’s Typewriter is, essentially, a bunch of people who have got to know each other online (and sometimes in the physical world), who appreciate the benefits of being in a network, and who, above all, want to write.
Let me close by saying a few words about the project for which I’m going to North Carolina. As you probably know if you read my blog (because you also read Mind the Gap, right?), Jenny Rohn worries about the visibility of women in science. More precisely, that women aren’t really visible in science—that popularizers and pundits are overwhelmingly male.
Jenny’s never one to sit back and do nothing (witness Science is Vital), so the plan is, at Scio11, she and Karen James (of #ISSWave and The Beagle Project fame) are going to interview female scientists about their research. In a—hopefully—reasonably accessible way. And I’m going to be videoing this. Jenny and Karen will then provide an intro and outro, and I’ll feed clips to YouTube.
So this isn’t just something Karen and Jenny are doing for themselves, but a chance for all women scientists to do a bit for science communication, and for the visibility of women in science.
See you there!