Science Online and me

by Eva Amsen

On Friday I woke up to an email from Science Online, announcing that the organisation would be dissolved and the next conference cancelled. Having seen Science Online grow from the start, this made me a bit nostalgic, but I wasn’t surprised.

As a community, the online science environment has changed a lot since the first Science Bloggers Meeting in January 2007. I attended that meeting – the very first of what would later be the Science Online conferences – and I attended the last Science Online conference, and they were worlds apart.

Science blogging conference, January 2007.

Bloggers meeting at the Science Blogging Conference, January 2007.

In January 2007, there were not a lot of science bloggers, and we all sort of knew each other. Meeting in person, in North Carolina, was fun. It was putting faces to names and pseudonyms, and it was finally getting to talk to flesh and blood humans about those crazy things called “blogs” that nobody at your university understood. The ScienceBlogs network was one year old, Nature Network had either just launched or was just about to launch. Twitter was a few months old, but nobody was on there yet.

All the science startups you now know were just sketches on paper napkins, if that. PLOS One had only just become popular, and it was still early days for the big increase in open access awareness. There was no Dropbox yet. No FigShare, no Altmetrics, no Mendeley. Google Docs was not yet live. None of those things were on the forefront of our minds – we just wanted to get together to talk about science communication, and I doubt we even used that phrase. We just talked about blogging, because that was what we did, and it was fun and new and we liked it.

As people, the attendees of the 2007 Science Blogging Conference had very little in common: just a love of blogs and science. Aside from a few local grad students from Chapel Hill, I was one of the youngest people there. I was a PhD student among professors. And they knew me! They knew my name, because they had seen my blog. It was awesome.

I finished my PhD less than two years after that. I was now a blogger on Nature Network. My blog had gotten me some freelance jobs. I organised some SciBarCamp events. The economy collapsed. I moved to the UK to work  for a publisher. My job: setting up and running a blog.

In just three years, blogs had gone from a kooky quirky thing with so few scientists admitting to having a blog that they all knew each other and thought it’d be fun to hang out in North Carolina for a weekend, to a proper tool for science outreach, and something that every serious scientific organisation or publisher just had to have.


Science Online 2009, moving well into open science discussions. It’s not just about blogs anymore.

With this change in science communication online, Science Online also changed. It grew from just a blogging conference to a conference discussing all things related to science online, to an organisation with paid staff and a board of directors. The conference was no longer just for bloggers, but everyone started going. The meetings got to the point where they sold out within minutes, like a massive summer music festival.

When I went to Science Online the last time, in 2014, it was very different from that first time in 2007. There were communication specialists and YouTubers and startup founders and publishers. I was there on behalf of a publisher. My trip had been paid for. I couldn’t just have fun – I had to work. It was different now.

It wasn’t just me attending for work. Science Online was now an event that occurred on professional calendars, and several people attended as part of their job.

But not everyone. Some attendees are still bloggers who do science communication on the side, and who saved their money to go to Science Online to have fun and meet other bloggers. I still felt like that as well. It was confusing. I wanted to see my friends, but there was also work to do. I dressed up as a TARDIS for the Intergalactic-themed ball, and I participated in a discussion about post-publication peer review. I was taking notes in a session about online community management, for work, while in the hallway a small revolution took place. The people who represented what Science Online once was, a group of diverse yet like-minded individuals, with a passion for using the internet to talk about science, were discussing how that very community was falling apart as a result of the organisation and people that had once brought them together.

It was clear then that Science Online was on its last legs. Not because of the gathering in the hallway: that was the kind of thing that represented what it once was, a grassroots ragtag group of sciency chatterboxes. But because of the fact that half of the attendees were not in the hallway meeting. They were in the meeting rooms, holding the scheduled sessions, talking about publishing and online community management, because that’s what they came to do – for work.


London watch party for Science Online 2013. Local science community getting together to watch the conference sessions live on the big screen.

The problem with Science Online, both the meeting and the conference, is that it had come to represent too many different things. People still want to meet each other. I still was excited about finally meeting people in person who I had previously only talked to online, and that familiar feeling of not being entirely sure whether this is really the first time you’re meeting them, because you know them. But the online science environment has grown so much since 2007. There aren’t just blogs, there are startups and tools and people who want to talk not just about science communication, but about academic publishing and metrics and incentives. And there are so many new media within communication. Some of the best science communicators are on YouTube these days, so there were several YouTubers at the meeting this year as well.

YouTube also has its own community meeting, VidCon, which has been facing similar issues as Science Online. VidCon, too, is attended by both people for whom YouTube is a career, and those who just want to meet their friends and people they have previously only seen online. It’s also a physical meeting representing a continuous virtual community. They have their own issues with too many sessions, with harassment, with people unable to afford to attend, and with not enough tickets being available for everyone who wants to go. But to solve one of the issues, they split the meeting: there is a business-like proper conference, with industry talks, and then there is a con, where it’s all about meeting people.

I’ve never attended VidCon, but as far as I can tell, they’re very aware that they represent both serious professionals as well as people who are there for fun, and that these people might be the same people. I think that Science Online was missing awareness of these two roles in its own meeting for too long (because it just gradually happened over the course of a few years) and not handling it properly when they did realise it.


The talent show at Science Online 2014 that I snuck in and out of while trying to also be at work-relevant talks.

At the last Science Online conference I felt compelled, yet conflicted, to skip a serious panel about something related to science publishing, to watch people I like do a science talent show. First I thought that the problem was me, that I shouldn’t be interested in such different things, but these two different worlds both came out of that initial community of science bloggers. That’s why they were both at Science Online and why I ended up in both. We naturally both branched out, but having everything in one place was confusing.

In seven years, we changed so much, Science Online and me, but we were also so alike. Both trying so hard to combine all the aspects of online science that we developed over the years: fun science community hangouts and serious science communication thoughts. I’ve learned that you can do both sequentially, but not at the same time. Like VidCon, I think Science Online should have more explicitly separated “industry” talks from the social part of the conference. It got too confusing, too awkward, too unfocused. Meanwhile, other geographically dispersed spin-off Science Online-branded meetings throughout the year were never consistently and structurally made a part of one whole organisation. By trying too hard to do everything, Science Online ended up not being very good at anything anymore. That’s fine for a human, like me, but less so for an organisation that tries to represent hundreds of humans. We need focus, and Science Online lost that over the past few years.

I’m sorry to see the organisation go, but I remember very well that the very first Science Online meeting predates the Science Online organisation. You don’t need a board and a logo to be a community, you just need other people with similar interests. Science Online is dead, long live science online.

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Laura Wheeler October 15, 2014 - 3:52 PM

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eva! Having attended the last three years – i feel a lot of sadness and agree with many of your thoughts too. But I am hopeful for the future too!

Rose Hoban October 15, 2014 - 5:38 PM

Since I’m local to NC, I watched SciO grow, attended a few times and know most of the folks who organized it. I’ve always been on the periphery of the organization, attended three times and got things each time I attended.

What you describe is what I’ve experienced in several grassroots organizations I’ve been involved in, including NC Health News which I started in 2012.

It’s called growing up. It’s called institutionalization. It’s called – in many ways – survival.

It was the same way when I helped start a soup kitchen in a church basement in New York in 1982. We were renegades, we did it by the seat of our pants, it was wild, tiring and fun. We played the music loud and got everyone to pitch in. I was also 20 and had that kind of energy!

That soup kitchen (ahem, “community lunch program”) is still going in 2014 and it’s waaaay different. They have paid staff. They have certificates from the Department of Health. They employ a development person. I go and work there when I go home for holidays and it’s sure not as much “fun.” But they’re still feeding people – not the gumbo and chocolate cake I managed to pull together back in ’83, but it’s still nourishing folks.

It’s happening for me today too. I frequently joke that I started NC Health News so I could write MORE about health care in our state, not to fundraise, administer, manage freelancers, etc, but there you are. In order to do the writing (that no one out there is willing to pay for, BTW), I’ve had to do all the other stuff. That stuff isn’t fun and it takes time. I work, on average, 60 hours a week, even as I’ve been ill this past year with cancer. I NEED my board (who volunteer their time), and I NEED the freelancers who I spend all this time fundraising for so I can pay them.

And I’m watching the slow death of a similar journalism organization, Raleigh Public Record, because it’s prior ED didn’t do the fundraising or the donor relations, etc.

Unfortunately, its all of a piece.

So, while it may be fun to “revolt” out in the hallway, someone still needs to do the work, people like Karen and Anton and David Kroll (from your top photo) and yes, for years, Bora. I remember a conversation with Anton in 2011 after SciO, where he talked about working 16 hour days for months leading up to the conference – half at his day job and the other half at organizing SciO. He was utterly drained and so grateful for the patience of his wife Erin Shaughnessy (a totally unsung hero of Science Online), who carried the load with their two, then three kids, as she worked full time. Meanwhile Anton volunteered upwards of 35 hours a week so others could have a good experience. (My husband, Steve Tell, is the unsung hero of NC Health News, believe me.)

So, yeah, while going for “fun” is great, someone has to do the work to make that fun possible. And that takes boards and fundraising and lawyers and W9s and paid staff (just so you don’t lose your mind) – all in a communication environment that’s rapidly shifting under our feet.

So, I’m waiting to see who next decides they’re up for the 16 hour days…

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