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Joining Science Online London 2011 was for me my first time in real life to meet up with people working in the area of online science communication. The conference tagline “How is the web changing science?” and the title itself was as spot on and appealing as possible. But did the two days in London give answers? Did it change my views? Did it change me? As written in my previous post I did not expect Science Online London to provide a full and complete picture of online science communication and rightly so it didn’t. Although a little disappointed in parts of the conference I do actually think it changed me a little bit…

Twitter overwhelmed and exited

Science Online London will surely, for me personally be associated with me my first live-tweeting during sessions. Quite a surreal but also exiting experience.

To those who are not so familiar with Twitter, let me very quickly describe the stage. Using the assigned hashtag (#solo11) for the conference, participants can report/tweet live from the sessions. Limited to a 140 characters I was amazed of the parallel discussions that were going on. It really challenged my multitasking capabilities. Shall I follow the Twitter discussions, focus on the presentation or try to split myself between both? Fully aware that this use of Twitter is nothing new and revolutionary, it was definitely new to me.  In the beginning I found it incredibly confusing and disturbing, and although I still have not really decided on what I think of it I must admit that it has a lot of useful components to it. Below some:

1) It gives a completely different feel of the ‘vibe’ in the audience and makes it possible to interact with and identify participants interested in the same topics as oneself.

2) It gives tons of additional information as tweets very often include links to associated websites, blogs, articles etc. That said, all this additional information is also a little stressful and may take attention away from the presentation and discussion.

3) It provides a good log book to refer back to afterwards. Especially to find all those interesting links that where shared. However, with several thousand tweets it really will be a challenge to find things. Perhaps Storify, which I was introduced to can help…

4) It gives you a chance to get an insight what happens in parallel session when the meeting have different tracks. Again, it may be stressful to read about what is going on in other sessions than the one you’re in, but talking to other participants afterwards one actually has an idea or what the session they went to was about.

5) Moderators of eg. panel discussion could, by referring to the Twitter discussions, get instant feedback from the audience and use this to adjust and ensure the panelists keep to the topic. Unfortunately, this did not seem to be practiced in all sessions of this year’s Science Online where for example a panel discussion on incentives to communicate research via the net ended up being a little bit too much off track (which btw contributed to fun tweets from people who no longer took part in the session)

All in all I got a lot of out trying this live-tweeting and perhaps it did change me a little. Some scepticism towards the live tweeting is, however, intact:

1) It is very distracting and as a presenter it must be strange to have your audience staring into their smart phones and iPads rather than at you. The presenter will also have the disadvantage of not being aware of the discussions going on while presenting which makes a very unequal starting point for subsequent real life discussions.

2) I can’t help but consider whether all this tweeting is  useful for people not attending the conference but instead following it online? It did seem like there were people attending only online, but I wonder what the tweets gives them

3) It is an overload of information and multitasking does take one’s focus a little bit…

Virtual people in real life, good discussions and a little lack of focus

Well, enough about my Twitter experience, although it did change me a little. Other great take homes for me was to meet in person some of all the people who to me so far only have exited in an online world. And being recognised just by my name by Twitter champion Bora Zivkovic was exiting. The opening session and first panel discussion was interesting and gave some good discussions about how to engage with the peer-reviewed literature through blogs, science journalism etc. And the keynote talk by Michael Nielsen on Open Science was interesting.

For many of the other sessions and in general for the two days there was in my view a lack of focus. The objective of each of the parallel sessions was not always clear which again influenced the presentations and structure for the discussions. The tag line “How is the web changing science?” is perhaps a little bit too broad for a two-days event? Or perhaps the learning objective and title for each session should have been a little bit more targeted.

Public health science online?

Coming to Science Online with a Public Health Sciences approach to science communication was it then relevant to be there? I would say yes, but many of the issues that comes up in public health science communication where not really brought up during the two days i London. Although the participants included people from the health sector people and the topic for some of the discussions where health related it did seem to me that the conference had a lot of focus on science communication among scientists in the more hardcore scientific disciplines. For me, it would have been interesting also to discuss online science communication of more qualitative research where there are fewer rights and wrongs and where ethics, emotions and feelings may play a much bigger role. How does that affect communication? How does it affects researchers willingness to communicate online? This would also be interesting in relation to the borderline between scientist-to-scientist-communication and involvement of a much broader set of stakeholders.

I look forward hopefully to joining Science Online 2012 in North Carolina in January or go to London again next year and hoping to be changed a little bit more.

Curious as to what other participants have thought of Science Online London 2011? Read other blogs and comments here. I especially agree with the some of the critic in the post “Lost in a shamrock and in many other places” (wish I had been there at Science Online London 2010 – it sounds like everything came together at that conference).