Home Science CommunicationCommunity & events Geeks vs scientists, and a HoHoTo recap

Geeks vs scientists, and a HoHoTo recap

by Eva Amsen

Last night I attended the party of the year, and easily the best Christmas bash in town. It was organized in two weeks time by volunteers, managed to pack a sold-out club full of partygoers and ended up raising the city’s 5th largest donation to the Daily Bread Food Bank (over $20k).

“But Eva”, I hear you think, “You are not cool. How did you end up at a party like that?”
Well, the party was organized by geeks. Computer geeks, social networking geeks – the kind that sit at computers instead of at tissue culture hoods.

The party’s description said “It’s for geeks, phreaks, webheads, twitterfiends, techies, media, marketing, and PR types and all their friends.” And truth to be told: that did not appeal to me at all at first. “I am not a geek!”, I protested. “And certainly not a “phreak” or a techie!”

But while I was studiously immersed in the preparation for my PhD defense, I could not help noticing many of my web-geeky friends posting messages to Twitter about #hohoto. Many of them would be volunteering, and it was obvious that a lot of people I knew would be there. Besides, it said “…and all their friends” in the description as well, and the tickets were only $10, and would go up in price if I waited too long, and all proceeds were for the food bank, and I would have time to party after my defense.

So I bought a ticket and went, and I’m glad I did! It was so much fun!

The party gets RickRolled but nobody minds

The club had several screens showing a live feed of anything on Twitter that contained the tag #hohoto so people were actively sending messages through their cell phones. I had just sent a message to the screen saying that I could not find my friend Andrea anymore after I saw her walk in.

When I looked up from my phone, I saw that the screen was now showing a message from another friend of mine, Kat, who I didn’t even know was there. Only then did I turn around and I saw that she was standing right next to me. It was that kind of geeky party.

geeks tweeting at HoHoTo
One of my tweets up on the big screen during the party. The older ones fell down as the new ones appeared. (You can see the falling text in action in the video above.)

Still, there’s geeky and geeky.

Scientists are often perceived as geeks, but I would have been terribly embarrassed to tell my lab mates about this party. A live Twitter stream (“What’s Twitter?”), the entire party being sponsored by tech companies and organized by webheads, people putting photos and videos of the party online from their iPhone while still there.

I would have had to explain that I don’t quite understand the jobs of many of my friends (“Something with the internet and how to connect to people”) just as they probably don’t understand mine (“I think she worked in a lab or something, but I don’t know what she did there.”).

And yet at family gatherings, I’m sure that both my lab mates and my tech friends are considered the Smart Ones, the ones that could learn, that got degrees. But once you’re in Smart People Land, they’re totally different groups. There were extremely few scientists at last night’s geek party.

Computer scientists, yes, but not so many of the other kind.


A different type of geeks, yesterday

Are scientists perhaps scared of technology? Or, to be more specific: are biologists and other “soft” scientists scared of technology? Chemistry friends were telling me about their work computers and how they finally managed to get their own at their new place. I told them I didn’t have my own at the lab. Well, I brought my own laptop, but the lab computers were all shared, with a 5:1 people:computer ratio. And some of the machines have computers that are fancier than the ones the people use.

One time, a few years ago, I found one of the computers unoccupied, so I sat down to check my e-mail. “That one doesn’t have internet”, the girl next to me said. “Oh, is the ‘net down again?” “No, it’s working fine on the other computers, it’s just that one. I don’t know, it’s been that way for a few days. I guess it needs to be fixed.” So I reached down behind the computer and plugged the network cable back in. “Wow!”, the other girl said. “How did you know how to DO that?!” That was a grad student, but I’ve also had to help out my supervisor with browser incompatibilities and Excel graphs, and I’m (still) the go-to person to communicate with the bioinformaticians who are analyzing screen data for us. I’ve also recently been asked, rhetorically, by another biologist: “You’re good with the internet, aren’t you?”

That was a grad student, but I’ve also had to help out my supervisor with browser incompatibilities and Excel graphs, and I’m (still) the go-to person to communicate with the bioinformaticians who are analyzing screen data for us. I’ve also recently been asked, rhetorically, by another biologist: “You’re good with the internet, aren’t you?”

Yes, yes I am. And so are all the photographers, entertainment reporters, writers, social entrepreneurs, fashion bloggers, and PR people who went to that geeky Christmas party last night. You don’t have to be a computer scientist to be able to use these tools.

The mayor of Toronto recorded a video message for the party, about how proud he was of his tech-savvy city. It’s true, Toronto, is a hub of technology. It’s also a hub of science, but these groups barely overlap. Even at MaRS, the tech-science meeting place where my lab moved to a few years ago, the techies and scientists don’t seem to mix. They’re water and oil. I suppose that makes my life a colloidal suspension, much like mayonnaise. Nobody else seems to want a mayonnaise life, and I keep having to explain the internet to scientists, or science to the web geeks.

My friend Shelley, who doesn’t blog about science herself, but reads science blogs, told me she once gave a talk at the research institute where she works about how scientists can use blogs and other online tools for science. They were not very enthusiastic, and didn’t seem to get the point. The point is, of course (as you all know), that science is a community pursuit. Scientists use papers published by other labs to decide how to run their own experiments, right? And they e-mail others to ask for chemicals and antibodies. But other than that, they seem to be in competition rather than collaborating, and online tools can make science more like the coherent community it should be.
But it’s such a struggle to get scientists to accept that the internet is not just useful for checking e-mail or submitting manuscripts, and that there is a whole area of healthy human (virtual) interaction and academically interesting things in between the extremes of reading PubMed and watching YouTube.

I really would have wanted to be able to think of a scientist who might make a good blogger, and ask them, and have them start a blog and win the blogging challenge and go to SciFoo – I want that more than anything. But in the end it’s easier to literally plug in a biologist’s network cable than to entice them to start networking themselves. As long as I’m embarrassed towards scientists about going to the geekiest party ever, I can’t make them blog. I’m sorry. Even what seems to have been my only chance at ever being able to go to SciFoo wasn’t able to make me get a scientist to blog.

They’re not ready, most of them. Not even the students, let alone the senior scientists. They need to start reading blogs first, and watching Jove and TED. But the only people I know who do that are either already blogging or aren’t scientists. Timo Hannay says there are some entries for the challenge (in the comments, after I asked). Some – not a lot. And it has been advertised enough. There should have been tons of entries. My guess: everyone is scared to ask, or doesn’t know who to ask, or is embarrassed to bring it up. That’s not a failed contest, that just proves why it was there in the first place. Scientists are a different kind of geek.

(P.S. Ahem. On the off chance that someone reading this happens to be a senior scientist who is, as a result of this post, suddenly spurred into proving their geek-worthiness by starting a blog, please do so before January 5th and let me know about it immediately! I am only partially kidding… )

(P.S.2 – By the way, the next Toronto Nature Network pub night will probably be both blogging-themed and actually take place. So I’m not entirely lame when it comes to talking about blogging to scientists. Only partially.)

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8 comments

Cath Ennis December 16, 2008 - 7:59 PM

I’m scared to ask too…

Reply
Eva Amsen December 16, 2008 - 8:03 PM

See? That’s two data points already.
I have the sneaking suspicion that the real challenge was not “have more scientists blog” but “talk about blogging to people who might not understand. Do it! I dare you! It’ll be HILARIOUS!”

Reply
Cath Ennis December 16, 2008 - 8:09 PM

I once got stuck on a ski lift with a couple of teenage guys who kept talking about how it would be totally awesome (dude) to start a bee-log. _That_ was hilarious.

Reply
Eva Amsen December 16, 2008 - 8:13 PM

Hahaha! Maybe they just wanted to write daily updates about bees!

Reply
Ian Brooks December 16, 2008 - 9:14 PM

_Are scientists perhaps scared of technology? Or, to be more specific: are biologists and other “soft” scientists scared of technology?_
and
_once gave a talk at the research institute where she works about how scientists can use blogs and other online tools for science. They were not very enthusiastic, and didn’t seem to get the point._
Is my life right now! I was in a meeting the other day and this came up,
_The point is, of course (as you all know), that science is a community pursuit. Scientists use papers published by other labs to decide how to run their own experiments, right? And they e-mail others to ask for chemicals and antibodies. But other than that, they seem to be in competition rather than collaborating, and online tools can make science more like the coherent community it should be_
and there were just blank stares. “But what’s the point?” I was asked for the fifth time. It is very frustrating!

Reply
David Warde-Farley December 17, 2008 - 12:33 AM

You might be interested to know that computer scientists (those in academia, I mean, not the CS undergrads that go on to be Web 2.0 magnates) by and large aren’t quick on the uptake of new technology, either. In my own subdiscipline of closest affiliation there are a “handful”:http://hunch.net/ “of”:http://conflate.net/inductio/ “excellent”:http://nlpers.blogspot.com/ “blogs”:http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/blog/ on the subject, but the adoption of the format has been quite slow even in machine learning, a field that uses the web as a major source of data to do research with (see the “Netflix Prize”:http://www.netflixprize.com/ for an excellent example).
I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at #hohoto last night. Given that I work largely in the domain of the biological sciences, we would’ve had a lot to talk about. Following you on Twitter now, anyway. 🙂

Reply
Eva Amsen December 17, 2008 - 12:42 AM

Hi David! I guess you found this by following the link I left on Twitter with the hohoto tag, about an hour or so ago? (Just as example for Ian and Shelley when they’re asked “what’s the point?” again: people can find useful information so very, very quickly!)
You might/must know “Greg Wilson”:http://pyre.third-bit.com/ ? He’s the exception among academic computer scientists in that he is _very_ active in Web 2.0 stuff. I do think it’s probably easier (or at least more acceptable) within the field of CS to move into social networking than it is for bench scientists, but I know that the ivory tower just doesn’t like being social much, in general.

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David Warde-Farley December 17, 2008 - 7:26 AM

Hi again Eva. That’s correct, that’s how I found this post 🙂 I’m @dwf.
It does seem that Greg knows everyone, and I’m not an exception. If I had to guess, I would say that his ease with embracing new technology stems from his many years in the software industry (which, tragically for our undergrads, is luring him back in a year or two).
John Langford explored this sort of resistance among researchers “here”:http://hunch.net/?p=326 – it’s worth a read and by no means CS/math specific, I’d think. Also of note is a post about “using interactive web tools as a supplement to conferences”:http://hunch.net/?p=327 (discussion threads related to specific papers, etc). It was tried at a conference in June but the discussion pages ended up being a bit bare. In time, maybe, that will change.

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