I was somewhere over a whitewashed South Dakota when I popped open my laptop and stared blankly at the screen, trying desperately to distill my experience from the past three weeks into a post.
I left Hawaii on January 29th and headed to North Carolina for ScienceOnline 2013, a conference and unconference that feels more like a family reunion. I have been attending ScienceOnline for four years now, yet every year I approach the conference with a certain amount of apprehension. ScienceOnline isn’t like any other conference I go to; it’s a tight community of innovators, idea generators, influencers and instigators. In short, it can be kind of intimidating, even for seasoned veterans like me. This might sound ironic considering this year I gave a session on Impostor Syndrome, but there’s a certain doubt that creeps into the back of my mind when I’m surrounded by these brilliant people — like I’m a C student that has snuck into a Mensa meeting to steal the free food. Given how many people get turned away from attending, I feel like I need to earn my place at the conference. Walking into a room full of people like Maryn Mckenna, David Dobbs, Carl Zimmer, Karyn Traphagen, and Liz Neeley is a surreal and slightly terrifying experience. I imagine it’s the same feeling a hopeful musician would have if they walked into a bar and found Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven, and Elvis Presley chatting over beers while Michael Jackson is blasting from the juke box. Part of me questions whether I belong in such esteemed company — but mostly, mostly, I feel this deep, burning drive to make sure I do.
I am continually amazed by just how inspirational ScienceOnline is. Even down to the last hour on the last day, I am meeting new people, learning about incredible new projects, and changing how I think about science communication and outreach.
This year’s theme for me seems to be quantification. My thoughts are not that far from those that have surfaced before about things like echo chambers and altmetrics, but before, the answer always seemed so squishy. Are we reaching new audiences as bloggers? Do we really make a difference when it comes to scientific literacy? How do we know, and how can we make sure we are achieving the results we want? The problem was, it felt like arguments on any given side were based on anecdotes and opinions, half-answers that were never really satisfying. Now, we have science—the science of science communication. The field has been around for a while, but now, the vast data mining possibilities of social media and the internet at our fingertips have opened a whole new world of possibilities, and we can begin to ask the kind of questions that are vital to outreach efforts and determining the real impact of what we do.
If you’ve talked to me in the two weeks since ScienceOnline, it’s no secret that I am simply gushing about a new venture called ImpactStory. Introduced to me by it’s indescribable (and sleep-defying!) cofounder Jason Priem, ImpactStory seeks to quantify the online reach of a given product, whether it be a peer-reviewed paper, a blog post, a website, or whatever. How many people tweet an article? How much are people discussing a blog post? And how do my outreach efforts compare to my colleagues’? Well, ImpactStory can tell you that. Though only in a beta version right now, ImpactStory can help provide real data on outreach impact that can go on a CV or in a grant. In short, it’s the ingenious answer the most frequently asked question I get from scientists about social media: how do I know if any of this is actually working?
What I’d like to see, though, is for the science communication community to really go beyond metrics and understand the processes that lead to them. Sure, it’s great to know that a certain effort is working, but why is it working? What makes things go viral? What kinds of networks facilitate success by altmetric measures, and how do we create and foster those kinds of networks?
These were the thoughts swirling around my head as I talked to jam-packed rooms of scientists and science communicators at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, just a short week and a half after ScienceOnline. For the first time, I saw a shift in the attitude of scientists towards social media. I didn’t need to convince anyone of the importance of being online, or that we need to e-volve; what the scientists that attended my sessions wanted to know was how.
Certain parts of that question are easy to answer. I can point scientists to my wiki, which contains a landslide of resources on how to get started on just about any social media platform and advice on how to get the most out of them as an academic. For example, I can point newbies to Twitter to Anton’s fantastic 5 minute a day guide to getting started. But really, what do we know about how to create and expand the kind of networks we want? And what do those networks even look like?
We don’t even know how much of this can be taught, or how much is innate. How well can we train people to be more effective networkers? Does it require the same skill sets or personality traits as in-person networking? And if it can be taught, what are the best practices to have on Twitter or Facebook? What kinds of activities improve and foster communities and networks, and which ones insidiously destroy them?
There was a lot of chatter on science blogs about a recent paper by one of my co-panelist for my first session at AAAS, Dominique Brossard. The study examined the impact of negative comments on how readers perceived the science in a post, and found that rude comments actually caused people to think less of the science. I didn’t write about it until now, mostly, because it made my head explode. It amazes me that something like the tone of commenters can have such a profound impact on how people feel — not about the writer, but about the science they are sharing. Papers like these only affirm that we know very little about the real effects of social networks and the new media landscape that we now live in.
That’s not to say scientists and science communicators shouldn’t engage in social media — I am quite affirmed of the opposite. While most scientists think that the public simply needs more data to make informed scientific decisions, paper after paper has shown that this ‘deficit model’ simply isn’t true. Yes, we need to make more of the American public scientifically literate. But knowledge isn’t what they base their political decisions on. Studies have shown the interplay between values, religious affiliation, and the opinions of others whom they trust is much more influential than science literacy. The power of social media is that it’s about more than disseminating correct information to fight against misinformation by anti-science groups — it’s about connecting people. It’s about making scientists a part of the networks and peer groups that influence decision-making. It’s about humanizing scientists, shattering stereotypes, and nurturing a pro-science culture. Yes, we need to be out there to combat scientific illiteracy, because, as one person said on a AAAS panel, “If you don’t speak up about your expertise, you’re handing the mic to others more willing to speak but who may be less qualified.” But even more importantly, we need to foster dialogue and transparency in science to build trust, and we need to do that on the same platforms that are rapidly revolutionizing news and communication in general.
And while we do that — while we are getting scientists on social media platforms, while we are engaging the public in new ways, and challenging our policy leaders to be better critical thinkers and base decisions on science and evidence — we need to turn the lens around and really examine ourselves. We need to study what we’re doing and critically evaluate our successes and failures. We need to determine exactly what makes a great online communicator effective, and how to best integrate outreach into scientific research and discourse. Does open access publishing really break down the wall between scientists and the public? Is there a scientific echo chamber, and if so, how do we break out of it? And what role do social media platforms and these online networks play in all of this?
I hate to revert to a peer-reviewed writing cliché, but the simple truth is we need more research to understand what is really going on. We need more data. The major thing I walked away with after these past three weeks is that what we’re doing is great, but what we’re going to do — what we are going to learn, what we have yet to discover or quantify, and what the science of science communication will tell us — is going to be even better. We finally have the tools and data resources to answer some of the most important questions we have about ourselves. I am beyond excited to see the results of the research we are just now beginning to conduct. We stand on the edge of a new era of science communication, one based deeply in the science of human social interaction, one that is that is going to be championed by brilliant men and women like the ones I spent the last three weeks meeting, being blown away by, and brainstorming with — one I cannot wait to be a part of.
My head is buzzing with inspiration and the fervor of a million ideas as my flight touches down in Honolulu. I’m finally home. As much as I could go on forever about all this, I need to unwind and get my body back on island time. There is a very beautiful beach gently calling my name, and I simply cannot refuse her.
Coverage of my Impostor Syndrome session, co-hosted by Eve Rickert, at ScienceOnline:
Coverage of my AAAS panel session and workshop: