Friday, October 12, 2012

Tales of a ScienceOnline Novice

A few weeks ago I registered for the ScienceOnline2013 conference being held early next year in North Carolina. This meeting is an unconference, with moderators who lead discussions, rather than giving full presentations. It's also extremely popular, almost a phenomenon all by itself, with strong demand for a limited number of available spots.

This will be the first time I've attended this meeting, which started in 2007 as the N.C. Science Blogging Conference and has been held annually ever since. But, I've been working in publicity for the Chandra X-ray Observatory ever since April 2003, with much of our outreach being done online. So, why did I wait so long to attend a ScienceOnline meeting, when the 7th meeting is approaching? How did I secure a spot for this heavily oversubscribed conference?

Before working in publicity I did full-time research in astronomy and, when I broke away from a computer, I attended astronomy conferences, especially American Astronomical Society (AAS) meetings. When I started working in publicity a lot of things changed, but I still went to the same AAS meetings. Instead of focusing on science talks, I concentrated on press briefings and talking to Chandra users, since a major goal was, and still is, to find the most exciting new results and publicize them. I was comfortable in my astronomical world. Meanwhile, science blogging was in its infancy and Twitter hadn't even started yet.

I didn't notice the Science Online meetings when they began. I didn't hear about them from astronomers and I didn't hear about them from colleagues working in publicity. We also didn't get any suggestions from science writers to attend these meetings. I followed a few science blogs, including those of Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer and Sean Carroll and colleagues at Cosmic Variance, but I don't recall them saying much about these meetings.

Eventually I did start to hear about them, but only indirectly. One big change for me was getting onto Twitter. My colleague Kim Kowal, who had set up Chandra's popular Twitter account, had raved about how useful it was, but I had resisted. Then two things happened: I finally got my ancient, failing cell phone upgraded to an iPhone and I found out that my *Dad* had joined Twitter. How much of a dinosaur was I? This was just before the AAS meeting in early January of this year, so I decided to join Twitter so I could do some reporting from the meeting. I also found Twitter to be great for using on my train commute.

After following a bunch of science writers on Twitter I heard a *lot* about ScienceOnline2012, held later in January. Even then I didn't immediately think that I should attend one of these meetings. Most of the discussion on Twitter and in blogs was very smart, but it sometimes gave the impression of an exclusive club dominated by writers, especially when people noted how hard it was to get into this wonderful meeting. Did I deserve to have this exceptional experience?  Did it matter that I didn't have many followers on Twitter and didn't have a personal blog? Were my nerd credentials sufficiently worthy? (*)

Then I noticed Bora Zivkovic, the "Blogfather" and one of the organizers of ScienceOnline, mention a wiki for people to suggest ideas for the 2013 meeting. This is part of the unconference experience, where people suggest ideas for sessions in advance and others add comments to give their support. As the July 1st deadline for the sessions approached, Bora started posting about it with increasing frequency, but I was busy at work and didn't summon the energy needed to research a useful idea. I also wondered about originality. I'd seen people mention how certain ideas had been covered in detail at previous ScienceOnline meetings and I wasn't prepared to check over the content of all six previous meetings. Maybe I'd try the following year. It's easy to make excuses.

At some stage I saw two videos about the meeting, one a set of quick interviews with people that gave a good feel for the meeting and the second one a brilliant music video by Carin Bondar that almost won me over on the spot. I recognized a bunch of people in the video just from their Twitter bio photos, or online videos. This seemed like the place to be.

I had been wanting to share more about what I had learned doing publicity, both with scientists and with science communicators, and I also wanted to learn from others. The next ScienceOnline meeting seemed to be a great way to do this, if I could only get into it. I thought if I suggested a session and moderated it I would be guaranteed a spot. On the night before the deadline, I looked at the wiki and saw an idea to discuss press releases not being vetted by scientists before being put out. I'd seen some discussion on Twitter about it and it was interesting, but it covered just one issue and couldn't explain all of the poor press releases we had seen over the previous few months. Only a few days earlier there had been a suggestion by a communications expert for publicity people to go on a "press release diet", where they use social media to release information and phase out the traditional press release. So, I thought it would be useful to have a more general session on press releases and ask science writers what they want.

The next day I wrote a summary of this session idea and tweeted about it, but it was too late to get input from people. Because of this, I wasn't very confident that the idea would be accepted, and I didn't even bother mentioning it to colleagues. So, I was excited to receive an email from Bora Zivkovic a few weeks ago, inviting me to moderate the session I had suggested. Bora's first suggestion for a co-moderator fell through and to fill this spot I passed along the names of several talented young science writers who - as far as I knew - hadn't regularly attended ScienceOnline meetings: Nadia Drake, Lisa Grossman, Elizabeth Landau, Jason Major, Adam Mann and Rebecca Rosen. I admitted it was a biased list because all of them had written about astronomy.

Bora explained that he'd tried for three years to entice Nadia Drake to come to a ScienceOnline meeting. Nadia has been writing about astronomy and astrophysics for Science News since September 2011. Bora asked her again and this time she said yes. So, our session on improving press releases is going ahead.

I later found out that Bora turned down a number of "old hands" so that about a third of the moderators would be new. I applaud him for this, as it's important to be inclusive and it's clear that there is great interest in attending the meeting. Registration spots quickly filled up in the two windows
available and about 330 people signed up for a lottery to fill the last 75 spots.

I'd also like to commend the organizers of ScienceOnline2013, Bora, Karen Traphagen and Anton Zuiker, who have been doing an excellent job. To give you an idea of what goes into organizing a meeting like this, including finding sponsors so that costs are reasonable, please read this blog post by Anton.

I'm looking forward to the conference and meeting some of the people I've interacted with on Twitter. It's been noted that there are an unusually large number of people attending who are heavily involved with astronomy. Besides Nadia and me there is Alan Boyle, Tania Burchell, Charles Choi, Kelle Cruz, Jeff Foust, Matthew Francis, Pamela Gay, Nicole Gugliucci, Katie Mack, Kelly Oakes, and Catherine Qualtrough. A lot of science online is astronomy-related, so it's appropriate for it to be well represented.

The next steps will involve planning for the meeting. There is a wiki for starting our "session page" to begin discussion before the event. Bora emailed suggestions on how to use and promote this. I have plans for several blog posts about how we do publicity, and about my thoughts on alternatives to the traditional methods. I would be happy for Nadia to add her thoughts in guest blog posts, if she's interested.

As a kind of pre-meeting event, there are plans for a tweet-up at the next AAS meeting in January, where I'll get to meet Nadia and a number of other ScienceOnline2013 and Twitter acquaintances people for the first time. This is another good spin-off from Twitter: encouraging people to be more social.

(*) Just kidding about that one. My nerd cred is robust: just ask my wife.


  1. What a great post! Thanks for taking the time to write this - you sharing your motivations and observations encourages us to find more ways to make ScienceOnline welcoming to all.

  2. Great set of reasons for going to SciencOline2013. The organizers have done an outstanding job. Even if you did not made it for the initial registration make sure you put your name in the list, you never know when an opening will be available! I will try to join the SOSea people watching from Seattle.