Scattered reflections about ScienceOnline 2012 (#scio12)

By Ed Yong | January 22, 2012 11:41 pm

I’ve now been to three iterations of ScienceOnline. In the first two, the conference was home to just 250 people. This year, it almost doubled in size to a 450-strong mob. I don’t think I was alone in wondering if the event would keep its small, intimate feel. And I certainly wasn’t alone in realising that it had.

The growth was a smart move. We got a bigger, more comfortable venue. With larger crowds, the sessions had more spark to them (essential when you’re going for the “unconference” style where panellists are there to rouse the floor, not speak to them). And despite all of that, the conference retained the same flavour it always has. It still felt more like a family reunion than an academic gathering. It was a place where old friends could shake hands for the first time. It was a place where people were surrounded by like-minded fellows with mutual passions and could. Just. Cut. Loose. As I wrote last year, “You spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.”

I was trying to work out why ScienceOnline was still ScienceOnline despite being twice the size. “It’s the people, stupid,” was an obvious answer, but I think it goes a bit beyond that. I think it succeeds because Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen have realised that you only really need three things to make a great conference.

One: rig things so that the most passionate people show up. Remember that the first batch of ScienceOnline tickets sold out in less than a minute. Only the people who really, really want to be there will be waiting at the starting line at the right moment. Those people also spend the year thinking about the sessions that they’d like to see, and through the planning wiki, they craft the programme that they want. They talk to each other online, so that little time is wasted on the actual days with small-talk and ice-breakers. You can just skip to the parts about cementing relationships and building connections.

Two: once you’ve summoned your ideal crowd, you arrange everything so that they have nothing to distract them from the business of talking to each other. You give them free powerstrips at the front desk if their laptops are dying. You provide free coffee throughout the day to stimulate weary brains. You have faultless and blisteringly fast wi-fi everywhere. You have constant shuttles from the various venues, so people can just wander into the hotel lobby in a zombie-like fugue (DAMN YOU, scio12 rooster) and somehow end up at the right place. And you ensure that most guests stay in the same place so they can continue their conversations well into the evening.

Three: you equalise everything. This seems to be an emergent property of the above elements: the unconference format, the fact that delegates plan their own programme, the familial feel of the thing. Through all this and more, ScienceOnline takes a rugged career landscape and, with one deft flick of the wrist, shakes it flat. Pulitzer winners rub elbows with recent grads. Noobs sing karaoke with award-winners on backing guitar. New York Times journalists apply temporary squid tattoos to the foreheads of the scientists they write about (Carl, I look forward to seeing the disclosure statement the next time you write about Jon’s work).

It. Was. F**king. Brilliant. We knew it would be.

Thanks to everyone who had a chat with me. You were all uniformly superb.

Long live ScienceOnline. See you all next year.

(After I recover from the total physiological collapse that happens when you spend months at a time writing in silence on a chair, and then spend four days on your feet talking continuously)




Comments (22)

  1. hope to be there next year.

  2. perfectly said. i covered scio while attending the previous two years. this year i just attended so i could just BE there instead of having to write about it. great decision. also, this post does a better job of sharing what the conference is like than either of the stories i wrote.

  3. GREAT summary and analysis!… and I wasn’t even there. Not to take anything away from the hard work put in by Anton, Karyn, and others, but Bora is an unstoppable force unto himself! — I’ve watched for several yrs. now how amazingly prescient his sense of science communication, networking, conferences, open access, etc. has been, and his boundless energy/enthusiasm to make it all happen, while also spreading the (intellectual) wealth around. There are good reasons he’s called the “The Blogfather.”

  4. I learned quite a bit, and have been inspired to get off my butt and take action about some of it right now, just from following a handful of conference attendees on Twitter. And I’m not even specifically a science journalist.

  5. As a n00b this year I was almost worried about the opposite problem – that the 450 people (or, 449 other people) would already know each other so well from already having been to Science Onlines, or having built strong online relationships, that I would feel like an outsider. Of course, that was silly, and everyone was amazingly nice, welcoming, and willing to talk to even the youngest of the youngin’s like myself. I only wish I had been able to meet more of the 450!

    Hope to see you all next year!

  6. I was a noob too. Invited by Bora to give a techno-blitz. It was awesome. Totally agree with all these points. The energy and the friendliness were unlike any other conference I’ve attended. A couple sessions got pretty heated, but that’s what happens when passionate people discuss controversial subjects. Seemed like after these spirited debates, people were more than able to drown their differences in Kentucky Ale and stories about pubic lice. Look forward to next year.

  7. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Razib: Do it! Would be good to have you there.

  8. “ScienceOnline takes a rugged career landscape and, with one deft flick of the wrist, shakes it flat. Pulitzer winners rub elbows with recent grads. Noobs sing karaoke with award-winners on backing guitar.”
    To me, as a first-timer, this was amazing to see in action. Promising to perform that feat is one thing; actually doing it is another. Plus, a whole blending of art into the thing that I wasn’t expecting.

  9. Great summary, Ed, including the part about the total physiological collapse. I had great fun at the sessions I attended as well as the time I just hung out in the Cafe and talked to folks. Not too bad seeing you in person, either :).

    The only other thing I could possibly add is that I liked the moments of tension — the points where you could tell not everyone in the room agreed with something, and then of course a bunch of hands went up to start to argue. It was exciting because we were working towards a common goal, so we weren’t adversaries. As always, good modeling by Bora, Anton and Karyn really helps make this possible.

  10. Ship

    Nice summing up. With luck, I’ll be able to convince the powers that be at NC State to provide the bigger, more comfortable venue again! I must say, it made my commute to the conference a breeze…

  11. Luckily, I was in an odd-numbered room, so I avoided the predations of the sci012 rooster (which I understand only bothered the poor folk on the even-numbered side). Unluckily, I was in a room one floor beneath the Deep Sea News Party Suite (TM). In either case, ear plugs are a SciOnline attendee’s best friend.

    I also agree with you and Kate about total physiological collapse. All I did yesterday was lay around and stuff myself with brain candy. My greatest wish for SciOnline is that it never be longer than three days. : ) I would die.

    Was great to finally meet you Ed! Can’t wait until next year.

  12. A wonderful summing up of a wonderful conference. And this is coming from someone who is known for hating conferences.

    So well done.

  13. Hear, hear! (And perhaps the reason most of us spend the whole year sitting alone in a silent room is because it takes that long to recover from the utter exhaustion that is ScienceOnline.)

  14. Well-put, Ed! This was my second year and certainly won’t be my last (assuming I can be quick enough on the draw to make the cut!).

    And one of my fondest memories will be how the conference officially started for me this year: with a warm hug from you – at the baggage claim area of the Raleigh-Durham airport, just minutes after landing. And – not at all unusual for this conference – you were someone whom I had only barely met last year and yet it felt like seeing an old friend.

    I look forward to seeing you next year.

  15. Aw, yeah, that was nice, wasn’t it? “I’ve come from foreign lands and I bring you physical contact and fresh contagion!” 😉

  16. Really, man, Patient Zero arrives. You weren’t even quarantined?

  17. aidel

    I think it works because despite the differences that do exist among us — from the fundamental ideological ones to nit-picky matters of taste — there is a strong undercurrent of unconditional positive regard that does create the mood of being with your (chosen) family. It’s the people, the passion, and the common desire to experience the unique atmosphere of Science Online. (And the ENORMOUS amount of work that goes into making the conference what it is doesn’t hurt, either!)

  18. Man, what I would do to be able to get to this one day. Damn you, NZ, for being so far away!

    Sounds like it was fantastic, and I’m certainly making sure all the science communication peeps with whom I work/who I know are aware of it.

  19. Ed, it really was. It was a great kickoff to the whole conference. And embracing you and your foreign contagions – for which I probably have no immunity – was a fitting prelude to eventually seeing Maryn McKenna.

    In reference to what Aidel says above… the thing I’ve been trying to figure out is why is this different from (and so much better than) other conferences, which are also typically built around a single subject in which everyone is interested?

  20. Brian: at least for other academic/scientific conferences, i think part of it is that scientists go to those conferences explicitly to tell other people things that they know and other people ostensibly don’t. By comparison, we all show up to #scio12 with more questions than answers. That sort of openness to opinions, viewpoints, and ideas, I’d guess, is highly correlated with the overall friendliness that exists at a conference like #scio12.

  21. I think Jason has it right: The steady message, via the unconference idea, that it’s a relatively level playing field — or, as someone put it on Twitter, that it’s not experts and non-experts, but different people all bringing different experiences in areas we’re all interested in. It’s a steady insistence that it’s not a producer-consumer model, with the audience full of consumers, but rather a conversation.

    The other key, it seems to me, is that it’s a fairly balanced mix of mainly-scientists and mainly-journalists/communicators, so it’s not a single peer group, as it were — not a single discipline. There’s always this chemistry of excitement, of mixing with another tribe. To me that’s an important part of what distinguishes ScienceOnline. And I think it helps create the sense of humility and egalitarianism: Prominence in one area doesn’t make anyone top dog at this conference, because even the most distinguished people in one area are among not just their own discipline’s peers but amid those of another discipline in which they have little expertise or distinction.

  22. Jason and David: YES. Good points.


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