05 February 2013

#scio13: Tweaking Content Isn't Outreach

More of this, please
I thoroughly enjoyed ScienceOnline 2013.  It was great to catch up with acquaintances, meet new people, and address some important topics. I was grateful for the opportunity to co-moderate a panel with Emily Willingham, and to meet many of the editors of the online publication Emily is leading, Double X Science.  And of course, the #scio triumvirate of Bora, Karyn, and Anton deserve so much credit and thanks.

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.


KateClancy said...

David, you rock. Thanks for writing this. I really appreciate your perspective, and particularly your generosity as you notice the insular way we talk about the joys of creating content, without enough of an action plan about how all this fun content is going to change the world. I'm really looking forward to talking to you more about this.

I was talking with a few other folks at those great in-between session times, and another issue we noted is that we spend so much time delighting in the fact that we're finally in one room together that we don't always get as far in sessions as we'd like. We get to the personal storytelling, without moving to how that storytelling is going to be implemented in our writing. We share frustration, without figuring out how to orient it towards a greater purpose. So I think you might be identifying something that is a continuing issue at an in-person conference full of on-line friends desperate to catch up and be real life friends.

I do always take some pleasure in the fact that we often have big reflection posts and some positive change in our community for at least a month or two after scio each year. But it would be nice to figure out how to do more of that at sessions, and how to prolong our excitement and actions through the year.

Thanks again!

GeoffHunt said...

David, I shared your exact frustrations during several of the outreach-themed sessions. Lots of questions, few answers. What do you think about getting the #Scio13 communicators together with actual outreachers? I think this would be a great way to connect the circle and break free of this cycle of lamentation. Shoot me a tweet @GoodbyeShoe if you'd like to talk more.

@eric_bowen said...

I absolutely identify with the frustration you feel when a community exists insulated from the places where they can effect the most change. I'm currently stuck with one foot in the door of academia, which is so much more frustrating in this regard than the #scio13 community. (I have had major problems finishing my Master's thesis while farming and entrepreneuring).

Myself, I'm on the side of building huge broad coalitions where it's not the hardest uphill battle. If we can find where that middle ground is (parenting forums come to mind) where #scidenial and #chemophobia and other battles are being subtly fought, there's often a big receptive audience. The "halls of power" may be another example, but in my field, local food, I see huge opportunities to build coalitions and do something innovative that changes the way we (all of us) eat. The legitimacy of policy and governments as a vehicle for major change is the rustiest cog in the system and one I think we can eventually replace.

To me, this is the same debate that was encountered during Occupy Wall Street. Do we fight the hardest fights now? Or do we build the broadest coalition and try to extend the umbrella out into those middle spaces where #scidenial seems to be taking a stronger hold than we've seen in the past. I think the answer is that we dont' really have to choose, but need to build coalitions/networks of people that are focused within each strategy. Optimists like myself may be highly concentrated in the coalition building, while others may be driven to use innovative tools that bring the fight to "them" whoever them is.

Hoping this comment is intelligible and looking forward to our next meeting! (whenever that may be)

SandraMChung said...

David, thanks for this post. I've also started to notice that SciO is starting to feel a lot like the annual NASW meeting with a sprinkling of artists and scientists. Kate and Geoff, I'm inspired by your comments as well. I've gone to the wiki and proposed an outreach session with an action item: forming, tracking and evaluating true science outreach projects.

Melissae Fellet said...

David, I'm so glad to read this. I watched Science Online from afar this year and wanted desperately to be there talking with all of you. I'm a chemist-turned-writer who wants to create a different way to talk about controversies involving science (think vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc).

I heard a post scio13 call for more communication between science studies folks and us science communicators. I've been reading broadly around the social studies and science studies for a longform narrative project about science policy. I I'd love to help bridge the communicators and scholars -- and bring the ideas to a larger audience. I'm @mfellet if you want to talk more.

rachie d said...


Yes! Totally!

I came into the conference not knowing what to expect. I, like Eric, have my food in more than one door. The door I most often find myself walking through is the one of outreach. I'm a campaigner at heart. I always want to ask "so what?" and "what can we do?".

I came to Science Online representing Upwell, where our ultimate goal is to get more people talking about the ocean and the issues it faces in online and social media. One of the best ways we can do this is to connect people with the great content - the excellent writing by the hoards of people I met in Raleigh.

We also do the hard work of listening to conversations, so we know how to intervene. We measure the current attention to ocean science so we know what we're dealing with, what works, what spikes a conversation.

And, in most cases, we are not just curating excellent content - we are contextualizing it and repackaging it so it flows well in social media and energizes lay people to say something.

We currently do this for free. Our client is the ocean and pays us in beauty and (declining) abundance. We are effectively PR agents for these writers, with the philosophy that if we can find the ways to connect people with good, science-based content, we will be in better shape as a society to take action when it's needed.

I'd love to find a way to interject this idea, this train of thought that I think was missing, into next year's conference. I'll admit, as a newbie, I was shy to interject it this time around.

Thanks for voicing this!

-Ray Dearborn

Liz Heinecke said...

I had similar issues. Like everyone, I was inspired by the writers and artists, but had hoped to glean more insight into how to do more outreach to under-served kids and parents. The info on Blogalicious and Latinism was helpful, but it's too expensive to travel around to meetings doing outreach as a volunteer. I was hoping to leave Scio13 with an action plan, but I'm feeling more scattered than ever. Science Online session for next year on how to get grants for outreach?

Jacquelyn Gill said...

This is fantastic! As a scientist keenly interested in effective outreach, I worry about both preaching to the choir and making sure that our outreach efforts actually reach the intended audience-- and one sure way to do this is getting away from content creation.