09 May 2011

#scimom reflections

The #scimom posts as a text cloud
When I introduced the #scimom meme I thought of it primarily as an outreach strategy.

I'm a firm believer in what Ethan Zuckerman has called "imaginary cosmopolitansim." People think the Internet exists as this profoundly diverse information exchange that breaks down countless cultural barriers - but in practice it serves as a force for homophily, strengthening bonds among people with similar interests while excluding people with other backgrounds or viewpoints.  Members of specific communities feel increasingly close kinship to each other - but those communities also tend to grow isolated, and view those in other online communities as more "foreign."

While Zuckerman and his colleagues at Global Voices address cultural distinctions based geographic and political barriers, I thought #scimom might look at two communities that are isolated from one another for other reasons - mom bloggers and science bloggers.  I've long held the view that moms are life's decision makers and scientists are the people who solve the world's most pressing problems, so mingling might be a good idea.  I looked at the different rankings and listings of mom blogs and I didn't see a lot of scientists there.  I looked at the large and growing lists of science blogs and science blogging networks and saw they very clearly skew male - and those written by women focus mainly on, not surprisingly, science.  I also quickly realized that as a non-scientist and a non-mom, I wasn't going to start a dialogue on my own.

So I began to do what I think Zuckerman and the Global Voices folks would do - I searched for "bridge figures."  Bridge figures are people whose experiences help them fit into more than one community and can help build lines of communication across cultures.  I had already been to my share of mom blog conferences, and I signed up for Science Online in 2010.  That's where I met Darlene Cavalier, the founder of Science for Citizens, an outstanding web portal that promotes and facilitates citizen science projects and collaborations between academics and non-academics.  It looked like (and it is) a great resource for parents who want to make science a part of their family's everyday life, and a great home for #scimom.  However, while Darlene is a great advocate, she isn't a scientist either.

I also gave an ignite-style talk at the conference where I tried to outline the need for these bridge figures - but it was clear I didn't connect with everyone, and for very good reason. I was essentially opining on the need for more mom-scientists to speak up in a room where dozens of mom-scientists were listening to me in disbelief, no doubt thinking, "then read my blog, you idiot." So I figured I'd just ask the science bloggers and mom bloggers I knew to write about, umm... you know, stuff.  And then read each other's posts. And maybe that would start getting people in the different communities talking.

So #scimom started out as the pre-planned mingling of communities - a few non-scientist moms kicked in some posts, and a few non-mom scientists did so as well, and they were all amazing - but as it grew it  evolved into this amazing virtual rock anthem for moms who work in academia.  Janet Stemwedel on bass.  Jeanne Garabino on drums. Gerty-Z on guitar. Joanne Manaster on keyboards. Emily Willingham and Carin Bondar blowing horns. And Kate Clancy on lead vocals:
I am going to tell you a secret. I do this job, I am this kind of person, because I want to be a role model for other young women, that they can have jobs and have kids and still have other things going on in their lives.
But really, most of all, I do this for my own daughter, far more than for any of you reading today.
So the #scimom bridge figures are here, they're proud, and they're great writers.  I'm thrilled that this idea may have gotten them talking a bit more about the issues they face as professional women and as scientists. I'm touched at how they've incorporated their interest in science into their parenting.  I'm gratified that maybe they've gotten a few more readers as a result of this meme.  I'm tickled that #scimom got a plug in the Chronicle of Higher Education's website for Mother's Day.  And I'm enormously thankful to all of the people who contributed posts, passed the word on Facebook and Twitter, and read or commented.

But I don't think #scimom has been an especially effective outreach tool, at least not yet.  I look at the #scimom posts and I see similarities with the discussions led by people like Liz Gumbinner, Catherine Connors, Joanne Bamberger, Julie Marsh, Kristen Chase, Susan Niebur and so many other mom bloggers I read regularly. My gut tells me the scientist  #scimoms identify more readily with science bloggers, not mom bloggers. Or maybe they're a community to their own.  Still, I don't see the interaction in ways that I can readily quantify - public discussions and/or links between recognized leaders of the two communities.

Of course I didn't expect this idea to suddenly open floodgates of discussions between online communities.  But I wonder how many people read the posts from bloggers in that "other" community and then poked around a bit.  So I hope that #scimom will continue to grow and evolve and move in whatever direction the #scimom participants want it to go.  But I also hope that people in both online communities will occasionally step out of their comfort zone and do a little exploring in an online community that feels foreign to them.

That's what I try to do every day, and I'd like to think I'm better for it.  And I'll continue to dream up goofy ways to make it happen.  Maybe someday it will work.


Jeanne Garbarino said...

David - thank you so much for the initiative. I completely agree with your philosophy and realize that moms have A LOT of muscle. Given this, it seems that scientists SHOULD be making more efforts to reach out to the mom bloggers (as well as other cohesive but isolated communities) and I am so honored to have made a contribution. Plus, the drums are my favorite instrument.

Anonymous said...

I've actually started reading several mom blogs since the #scimom meme, and even added a Mom Blog section to my blogroll. I'm enjoying the new community of mom bloggers, although it will take time I'm sure before I'm fully initiated into the fray.

It will take time, but you got this sci-life blogger to branch out of the sci community and start thinking about ways to bridge the two. I may not be a rock-star sci-mom blogger like Kate Clancy, but I'm hoping I can become a decent crossover point for the two arenas. At least, that's my current goal. ;)