07 March 2014

#scio14: evolution is a thing

In 2010 science communicators watched the beloved flagship of online science writing - ScienceBlogs.com - teeter on the brink of disaster.  The popular site suffered an exodus of authors and a blow to its reputation after adding a new blog to its network.  That blog's content was written by an outside corporate interest - but ScienceBlogs didn't adequately and quickly disclose this fact.

The ensuing crisis was real and demanded accountability, and it didn't simply confront the leadership of ScienceBlogs. This was a crisis for the community of science writers who weren't immediately sure what to do once their leaders ran afoul of their values.  

That uncertainty didn't last long, however.  People responded by innovating, creating, and evolving. Within weeks new virtual homes for science writing sprouted up or gained more attention.  PLOS Blogs.  Scientopia. The Guardian. Blogs at Discover Magazine and Ars Technica and Field of Science and so many other sites were still publishing great content.  We saw big splashes from Scientific American and Wired and Popular Science and National Geographic

And yet, ScienceBlogs kept plugging along, and continues to publish content from prominent sources to this day. (At least one company estimates it gets more than a quarter-million unique visits per month.) They made some changes to management about 9 months after the crisis, but the ownership of the enterprise (SEED Media) remains in place.

During those years, nothing demonstrated the strength of this community - or the idea that no single blog, group, or brand would be its sole standard bearer - more than the steady growth of ScienceOnline. It's the annual gathering of scientists, science writers and the people who appreciate them.  Each year attention (and demand) has increased.  This year, the conference sold out in 28 minutes.

It sold out in 28 minutes despite the very public problem that hit ScienceOnline's leadership - a situation that demanded accountability and left many wondering what to do.

It sold out in 28 minutes despite the decisions that many prominent people in science communication made to skip this year.

It sold out in 28 minutes despite a weak economy and a challenging political environment for scientists and science communicators right now. 

It sold out in 28 minutes because it featured incredible people - like the woman who came straight from being honored at the White House to lead a session on diversity, and the woman who started the important online discussion that caught the attention of Fast Company, and the woman who is co-authoring the "evidence-based parenting" book moms and dads everywhere will read, and the woman who writes for Nature even though she's still in high school, and the woman who worked tirelessly to make sure everything at the conference would run as smoothly as possible. 

It sold out in 28 minutes because it offered great topics, like communicating uncertainty or using languages other than English or how you impact policy or work with the media or measure success in digital communication. 

It sold out in 28 minutes and it is moving to a larger venue next year and offering more "satellite" meetings in more places, and covering more topics, and speaking more languages, and offering more opportunities to more diverse groups, and gaining new fans.

It sold out in 28 minutes. And it will probably sell out in less time next year.

The 2015 edition will obviously look a little different than the 2014 edition. It will continue to evolve. Some of the names and discussion topics will change. Some of the policies will be strengthened and the practices refined.  It may even have "competitors" as people decide to have their own meetings in their own way.

Of course, some basic things probably won't change much. The organization won't morph into something other than a group that organizes and promotes educational conferences.  The organizers won't make sweeping or negative statements about people who aren't currently affiliated with them. (Ask a lawyer if you're not sure why.) The people who organize the conference and the people who attend will continue to innovate, to create, and evolve.

Most importantly, the 2015 conference will again provide a great experience - but not just because of the venue, or the professional development opportunities, or the speakers, or even the content. ScienceOnline will succeed and continue to grow and thrive because, despite the difficult conversations that must and will continue, the people who go there draw inspiration from each other. 

That and the Bourbon Barrel Ale is amazing.

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