|More of this, please|
Last year I had a surprisingly conflicted take on the conference. This year, I'm still a bit frustrated, but now I realize my expectations are inappropriate. ScienceOnline is a gathering of content creators - brilliant, dynamic, thoughtful and inspirational creators of science writing. I keep wanting this community to be campaigners. They're not - at least not here.
I heard and shared the frustration of many who see denialists winning political or cultural fights. I heard many comments like "we're preaching to the choir" or "we're only talking with each other" in many of the panel sessions I attended. But when it came to the important question, at least to me - the one asking how we reach more people and win these fights - the answers almost always focused on tweaking the content. Avoid jargon, use simpler words, but don't "dumb it down." Incorporate art or other forms of multimedia. Use more storytelling.
These are all important and valuable ideas, but tweaking content isn't outreach. And without outreach the most persuasive content in the world is useless.
At the session I moderated with Emily, I challenged the people in the room to develop audacious strategies and provocative tactics. I suggested things like working with state legislators to draft bills, or forming unlikely alliances with business groups, or even staging pithy publicity stunts that put denialists on the defensive. I got a decent amount of pushback - people were (quite reasonably) concerned about civility and inadequate resources, and some simply didn't think it would work.
But my biggest mistake (a.k.a., "learning opportunity") was not truly knowing my audience. I was talking with a group of mostly content creators who came to a conference to talk primarily about content creation. It's not that this group was fundamentally against campaigning - indeed, there were people there who are great at it - but this just wasn't the time or the place. This was a time where people like Ed Yong and Maryn McKenna were celebrated for their great writing. Where people learned how to embrace narrative or sharpen their skills. Where they found new sources of content and inspiration and ideas. Full-tilt, door-knocking outreach? Another time, another place.
So real outreach - real strategic, audacious, effective outreach from science communicators - remains an urgent, unmet need.
Outreach is hard. It begins with listening to a community and learning as much as you can from it. It ramps up when you ask people you don't know for something valuable - their time and attention. It often gets really interesting when you ask those people to change or sacrifice something comfortable in their lives. Outreach fails more often than it succeeds, and those who do it can expect a lot of negative feedback. To do it well you have to embrace the community you're entering, and focus relentlessly on being relevant and meeting their needs.
But here's the thing that left me more hopeful this year, and credit the conference organizers for this - there was enough time between sessions to follow up with people who shared my goals and opinions, and knew the importance of other conferences like BlogHer or LATISM and other communities. There were enough really smart, dedicated people to get a sense of what was possible. And finally, there were enough ideas that got me very, very excited for what comes next.