Life as an Extreme Sport

Is Science Online a Con or a Conference?

As is inevitable in a situation like this, the dialog around Bora Zivkovic’s harassment of women has moved beyond his actions and resignations, and is now looking at the larger community and what sort of operational changes need to be made. This is clearly a more opaque process at Scientific American, since they have remained mostly silent—one presumes on the advice of lawyers. For Science Online, it’s a debate that’s happening out in public, on blogs and Twitter. Over the weekend, Chad Orzel saw comments I made on Twitter, and it motivated him to put forth his own specific take on the core issue affecting Science Online right now. Orzel’s post is well worth the read, both for the history of this particular blogging group and the Science Online conference. Orzel’s summary of the problem is this:

Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends.

It was in talking to someone over the weekend—and my apologies, there were a lot of conversations and they’ve gotten more than a bit blurry—where I realized that for me (and I want to stress, as always, that this is my, and only my, opinion), the difference that Orzel points out, and that I was commenting about on Twitter, boils down to this: does Science Online want to be a con or a conference?

One of the reasons this is a useful question for me is that is addresses another problem that’s been heard a bit: people feeling excluded, that there is an “in club” or a group of “rock stars names,” and the difficulty in interacting with people you only ‘know’ via Twitter or blogs—especially when they’re hanging out with and talking to their friends.

It is, in short, a debate around manners.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Cons are fun! I have been to more than my fair share, and have the requisite “dumb things done in a hotel stairwell” stories (note: stay with laser tag; paintball doesn’t go over well with hotel security and staff). Cons are places to go to hang out with people who have similar interests from diverse backgrounds: that Klingon language expert in the amazing outfit works for the post office during the day; the exacting costume of a gender-swapped Fourth Doctor was made by a chemistry professor; the Matrix agent over there is an FBI agent with a really cheeky costume. You meet an amazing range of people, and you’re all there because you have an interest in whatever the topic—broad or narrow—that the con has.

Cons also have guests, people that are a draw for con-goers. There are generally meet’n’greets with these “name” guests, and chances to at least briefly interact with a con-goer. Hearing them talk, getting an autograph, having a brief bit of contact, is a highlighting point of a con. ComicCon and the long line waits is an excellent example of this.

Cons also typically have room parties, lots of drinking, lots of socializing, and more than a few complaints about how women are treated. There is generally con staff to keep things calm, and at larger cons, con security.

In short, cons are short events—3-5 days—of people getting together, geeking out over a show or topic, drinking a lot, socializing a lot, and having fun.

A conference shares a lot in common with this model, to be sure. A lot of socializing still happens in bars and around alcohol, and there are still the “names” of the field. People are coming together because of interest on a topic, although it generally involves less cosplay. The focus is more on sharing knowledge and information about new research and developments, sharing and improving skill sets, and re-establishing (or making) professional/collegial friendships and networking opportunities.

While I’ve been to (and organized) many conferences, I’ve never seen one with room parties that are clearly sanctioned, and a different set of manners tends to occupy the space.

In particular, there is a strong difference in how “names” of the field are handled. At a con, guests (“names”) will have handlers. Handlers remind the guest to get to where they need to go on time, and often function as body guards, keeping the con-goer at a bit of a distance, making sure the guest isn’t bothered on the way to the restroom or food or just a break. And con-goers acknowledge these boundaries; there are specific places to interact with these names. It might be cool to bump into someone at the bar, but there’s no expectation of it—and even if it does happen, there’s no expectation that anything other than a cool story will come of it. And if a con-goer breaks any of these implicit or explicit rules of interaction, they can easily be ejected from the con.

At a conference, the rules for “names” is a bit different. They don’t generally have handlers, and it’s acknowledged that they’ll be popular nexuses whenever they’re on the floor, whether that’s their talk, between sessions, or in the hotel lobby bar in the evening. At the same time, this ease of access and networking also puts responsibility on the conference-goer: no accosting the “name” on the way to the restroom or in an elevator, no trying to steal away time alone to ask for favours. Networking and socializing is done in the open, best manners are on display, and quite typically, the drinking is kept to a minimum (at least early in the evening) and folks maintain something of a professional atmosphere in public spaces; these are, after all colleagues and potential employers, and no one wants to shoot themselves in the foot by demonstrating impolite or “bad” behaviour.

And that, in short, is why this seems to me a question of manners and direction. At a Star Trek convention, very few people attending as con-goers expect that their interaction is anything but social and personal; it’s not a professional event for them, even if it is a professional event for the guests of the con. At an academic or professional conference, the majority of people in attendance are doing so for professional reasons and it’s a professional event, even as it brings together friends that for distance and convenience haven’t been seen since the last conference everyone was at.

Orzel’s history of Science Online clearly shows that it started out as an excuse for friends to hang out; it was a baby con. In the intervening years, it’s grown larger, and the mission of an UNconference has become more diversified. And now there’s a tipping point, where attendees and conference organizers need to have a conversation about what kind of place the Science Online annual meeting is.

Is it a con where people go for primarily personal and social reasons, with any job/networking opportunity a secondary benefit, or is it a conference people attend for primarily professional reasons of networking and education, with social and personal justifications a secondary consideration?

Either model is valid! One is not inherently better than the other, but both models require that people—from organizers to attendees to guest speakers—know what they’re participating in, because the rules become a little different. The social space and the professional space can overlap, but it’s a mistake to assume that they’re the same.

Note: I realize I am grossly generalizing about both cons and conferences. However, I am relatively convinced that the general model of primary/secondary benefits differing is accurate, even if there are conferences out there where, by midnight, you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate from a con.


  1. I asked this same question on Twitter two years ago (or maybe even last year) and everyone was all “noooo, it’s a CONFERENCE”, but yeah, to me it feels more like a con(vention). Which is fine! But it does tread the line a little bit.

    Just some unsorted observations:

    -I can easily claim at work my attendance at SpotOn London (solo, formerly Science Online London), because it’s clearly a place where publishers and academics go to talk about science online.

    -I’m probably going to pay my own way to Scio14 (I have a guaranteed spot after organising a watch party last year) because even if my work-related session gets accepted, 90% of the meeting is, for me, not work-related. It’s probably more work-related for many other people, though, and I’ve heard from science writers that for them sciox is more relevant than solo.

    -Both conferences started out the same way, as a science bloggers meetup.

    -I went to scio in 2007 (the first one!) and in 2009 and have been following all other years online. It has always felt unstructured. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing (see my point about sci foo later) but it’s part of the con-feel.

    -Some big academic conferences have a similar social scene around it, but usually as fringe events NOT organised by the main conference organisers. At SpotOn as well, the fringe programme this year is organised by StoryCollider and Science Showoff – they’re mentioned on the main program, but they’re not part of it and clearly separate from the conference itself.

    -The closest in mood to sciox I’ve been to are probably barcamps and Sci Foo, where the purpose is to make everyone equal and not have invited speakers or prescheduled talks. I think this was the kind of mood that sciox is (was?) aiming for, based on the fact that they call the model “unconference”, but the system is very different from that at scifoo, where I as a random unknown had an equal chance at getting a session (which I did) as the Nobel Laureates and famous people in attendance. At sciox there is a voting/judging system and lots of recruiting people beforehand to be part of the proposal process that tends to sway the program to the same people every year. (Also because newbies aren’t used to this system)

    1. Eva, I just wanted to say thanks, and note how blown away I was by both your thoughtfulness and the putting together of some of the problems with the presentation of the unconference model!

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