ScienceOnline 2013: Post-Conference Blues Explains Why I’m Posting This Recap A Week Late…
… which really tells you how awesome this year’s ScienceOnline unconference was.
On the surface, it seems ironic that an unconference with “Online” in its name actually refers to a conglomeration of 450 fleshy human beings interacting with one another in the real world. But when you take a closer look, there is nothing ironic about meeting friends in the real world. As part of the science communication community, we’re all friends. And when friends meet up, the fun is so much greater.
ScienceOnline is full of interesting people who get a kick of doing seriously weird things. Some people didn’t seem bothered to be stalked by an octopus. Others were Google Hangout-ing with friends far away across the table. A roomful of predominantly white people who write and edit for a living turned colour blind and grammatically inept as they were merrily chanting “I’m A African” with rapper Baba Brinkman. I’m sure the editors who joined in the chorus were secretly kicking themselves inside but if there’s one thing that can strip editors of their much maligned (and praised) redaction tick, it’s this unconference. At ScienceOnline you talk about work without thinking about work.
This year’s unconference carried on with similar themes as last year’s, which I was lucky enough to also attend: the state of the science blogosphere, use of new media (multimedia, data visualisations) in science communication, discussions about writing. Sessions which looked to provide up-and-coming and less experienced writers with advice and tips were possibly the most popular ones. Experienced writers such as Carl Zimmer and David Dobbs drew the crowds while the illustrious David Quammen was one of the brighter stars of ScienceOnline 2013.
Carl Zimmer, with countless books and ebooks to his name, provided a useful insight into the world of ebook publishing, including self-publishing. He argued that science ebooks should not necessarily just be the digital counterparts of print editions but have an identity of their own: shorter than the typical science book but longer than the magazine article. And there’s a market for such ebooks. David Dobbs bounced off ideas about the use of narratives in science writing. Narratives make for engaging reading which can instantly turn science reporting from a mere collection of wow things to a flowing story of wow scientists and wow things. David Quammen gave a masterful talk about the power of synecdoche in science writing. The talk was too brilliant for my even attempting to describe it here. But in short: he painted a story of Ebola’s transmission from Gorillas to humans and linked everything to a blue curtain.
But ScienceOnline 2013 had its subtle innovations too. It was evident that there was a bigger focus on the arts and gaming! The session by two science comic artists, Kate McKissick and Maki Naro, was possibly my favourite session of the entire unconference. McKissick and Naro drew attention to many comic artists who communicate science in their own creative way. While many articles and blog posts are bound to word limits or the inverted pyramid style, comic artists were communicating science in a refreshing way by combining fun and wit with the complexity of science.
As per its unconference root, the ScienceOnline experience relies deeply on the social aspect. People who know each other online group around a table or two and get a chance to talk, only separated by food, beer and air rather than keyboard, screen and internet. The talking leads to laughs and frequent gasps of amazement because the attendees are so awesome.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s ScienceOnline. And I’m not alone. Having been part of the science communication sphere for the past three years or more, these people are my people and once every year, ScienceOnline becomes a pilgrimage (the travel), a temple (McKimmon where the unconference is held) and a Bible (knowledge).