Our (ScienceOnline) Town

This past weekend I went to my favorite conference, Science Online: a yearly gathering of scientists, teachers, science writers,librarians, museum curators, press officers, and many other people interested in the communication of science online. I thought I would have two wrap up posts, the first on why I think the conference succeeds so well, and the second about what in particular I Iearned in the sessions at the conference. 

Since one of the sessions I helped to moderate this year (with the amazing science artist  Michele Banks) was on metaphors, I thought of an appropriate metaphor for the ScienceOnline conference: a small town, just like Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegon, or the kind imagined in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” or even the kind of town that I live in, here in Ashland, Virginia (pop 7225).

People from all over the world converge on Raleigh, North Carolina, but really, on two locations: the hotel and the wonderful McKimmon Conference Center at NC State.

There is one bar, where the town’s celebrities rub elbows with everyone. 

Twitter serves as the local paper, contributing to this small town atmosphere, because you don’t have to try to hard to know everyone else’s business. Unlike the local paper, this is published every second instead of every day. But many townsfolk know who is celebrating happy news, or dealing with illness, or tragedy.

The hard working town council makes sure everything goes smoothly, but they live in the town too. Just like the small town politicians I know, taking care of their small town is a labor of love for Bora, Anton and Karen. 

The conference sponsors are not just corporate outsiders who throw money around for the privilege of advertising to we academic or freelance journalist power brokers (ha!). They are much more like the small town businesses that the townspeople believe in. The representatives of these “local” businesses attend the conference themselves, and value the same kind of openness and sharing that many in the crowd do. FigShare, Science Seeker, Mendeley, Academia.edu. They attend the town meetings, they support the townspeople, but recognize that more open publicly accessible science isn’t just their business model, but a value we all share.

Like the small town I live in, newcomers are welcomed, but still feel like newcomers. I remember asking for directions, almost a year after I moved here, and the multigenerational denizen of Ashland kindly gave me directions that hinged on landmarks that no longer existed. “Go past where the Southern States used to be, then take a left where the newspaper offices closed ten years ago.” It was a map of memories, more real to him than the current, physical landmarks, but invisible to me. I was quite aware of my lack of knowledge of the place only a few blocks away from my house. At Science Online, there are inside jokes a plenty, often hinging on people who are amazing celebrities “in town,” but not always known outside of town. Sometimes small towns have local clubs where those who’ve lived in town for generations convene. I’d nominate the #DSNSuite (who needs Elks or Moose when you’ve got sharks?) for that title, a place famous (infamous?) inside this small community, but exclusive. Not exclusive in intent, the Deep Sea News people seem all to be good, caring, inclusive people, but for its small size, and the fact that wild and crazy initiation rites seem to whisper (or rather, twitter) from its closed windows.

I served as a cab driver of sorts, being one of the few with a car. Helping to deliver someone to a meeting, picking up shuttle bus stragglers, and getting to hear some of the small town gossip along the way. I’ve always enjoyed having conversations in cars, it seems to make the silences less awkward, as I concentrate on the road. I also don’t have to negotiate eye contact, which is honestly a relief, as I know I am one of those people who peers off into nothingness when I should be meeting eyes. 

The banquet night serves as a small town festival, where everyone feels generous to each other, and of course some people are overserved, Except, instead of local delicacies, a strawberry, or a tomato, there is science at the tables, science activities, and talk of science and journalism as the music plays.

The small town generosity extends throughout the conference, whether it is the unending coffee, or the fact that there is always food at The Chatterbox Figshare Cafe. The unconference style sometimes resembles a town meeting. Yes, some people do go on for a little bit, but you know what? They really care about those sidewalks, or that dog ordinance, or the importance of conveying statistical uncertainty in the context of climate science, so more power to them. And when it’s time for a town barbecue, they share their fantastic bourbon so we’ll tolerate them now. I know some people feel they didn’t learn as much from these sessions as they contributed, and I can see their point. The sessions don’t always offer tips and practical advice, or really anything that feels like learning. What it does offer me is a feeling of being in a community of people who care about communicating science. Just sitting and thinking about these questions, hearing examples from physics, from chemistry, from biology, from geology, is worth it for me. Having these people hear about an example from psychology is worth it too. And when I am discussing with my students what makes psychology a science, without realizing it, I bring up examples from this conference. My teaching is also shaped by the muscular, confident scientific feminism that I don’t normally have too much contact with. Those town hall meetings don’t always end neatly, but I think they are necessary. I hope I end up going next year, even though I certainly could see the case for vacating my spot for another.

One reason I think this conference can maintain this intimate and open feeling is by limiting the attendance to 450 people. No doubt they could easily jump to 2000, but I think something might be lost. So the town council tries to contain the development, while staying fair and true to the values of their small town.

So, here’s hoping I’ll visit that other small town again next year, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. 


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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One Response to Our (ScienceOnline) Town

  1. Liz Heinecke says:

    Love the Lake Wobegon reference.

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