What Does Science Online Want to Be?

The ongoing mess over Bora Zivkovic's harassment of women writers in connection with his editorial role at Scientific American and Science Online has moved into the "What is to be done now?" phase. The most prominent and linkable of these are from Maryn McKenna and Kelly Hills, though I've also seen the edges of more ephemeral discussions on Twitter. Much of this has focused on formal organizational changes, stripping Bora of power and titles and banning him from the conference. These are entirely appropriate, though partly moot given that he's resigned from both Scientific American and Science Online-- a formal ban is the only remaining step.

At the same time, there's a sort of cultural issue at the heart of this that is one of the things that bugs me about this story. There are some discussions about making operational changes in these areas, too-- safe spaces, quiet areas, alcohol-free zones-- but I think they're kind of dancing around a bigger issue. Some of this ended up on Twitter Friday night in discussion with Razib Khan, but I don't think it was all that widely read; having said anything at all, though, I might as well get a more complete version done.

The core issue, I think, 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. This acts to confuse issues of relative power and status within the community in ways that make what we've seen in the last week more likely. I am not saying that this excuses or condones the hundredth part of what Bora did-- there should have been absolutely no question that he was wrong in every way, particularly in those utterly appalling email exchanges. But I think that the balancing act Science Online is trying to maintain contributes to an atmosphere that makes it easier for lots of people to look past what should have been obvious warning signs, as Martin Robbins noted Friday just before the shit really hit the fan. And I think that there needs to be some more global consideration of just what Science Online both specifically as a conference and more generally as an online community is and should be.

To explain what I mean, I need to go back to the early days of ScienceBlogs, after the dinosaurs but before the giant armored sloths. When ScienceBlogs was first set up in 2006, there was a back-channel forum for private discussions among bloggers, and while much of this was professional, as inevitably occurs when you give people a space to exchange messages, a lot of the forum traffic was social.

Bora wasn't one of the original fourteen bloggers, but he was in the first big wave of additions, and quickly became a significant presence in the network (which was, in turn, part of getting him to the prominence he had). I recall him as a regular participant in the forum discussions, though I recall very little of the content, which mostly seemed inconsequential (I was up for tenure review at around that time, so my primary contribution to the forums was occasionally getting in nasty arguments and pissing people off, because I was a giant ball of stress). There was never anything grossly inappropriate in the forums, but the general atmosphere was pretty loose, with a lot of jokes about alcohol, occasional sex references, and other mild adult content. I recall occasionally thinking that people were oversharing (not a widely held opinion, just a personal reaction), but I hasten to add that I have no specific memory of Bora saying anything out of line. (Mostly what I remember was a bunch of us nagging him to actually work on writing his Ph.D. thesis; I don't recall if he ever did finish that, or if the PLoS thing came along and he left ABD.)

Even if people did talk about sex, or flirt with each other, though, there's nothing wrong with that, because it was a consensual group of like-minded adults who were all in the same position. We were all just people who ran blogs, hanging out with other people who ran blogs. Nobody needed to be there, and nobody there had any significant power over anybody else who was there (other than the ScienceBlogs staff, but they quite sensibly stayed out of most of the forum stuff). In that context, it's not unreasonable to discuss sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, provided that nobody objects.

The origin of Science Online was somewhat similar. It started out as a small gathering of bloggers who happened to be based in North Carolina, and again, my initial impression was that it was basically a party thrown by and for a bunch of people who ran blogs and wanted to hang out with other people who ran blogs. A very informal atmosphere would be totally appropriate.

In the intervening years, though, roles changed. Science Online moved from being a small get-together for people with blogs to a moderately large conference (around 500 attendees) that's an important part of the professional life of the people who work in science communication via the Internet. And Bora moved from being just a guy with a blog to a community manager for PLoS and then to the blog editor at Scientific American, a person with the power to make decisions about who got to join the network or even guest blog there. And he was also one of the founding officers of Science Online, another position carrying significant prestige within the community.

Those changes in scale and role change the rules, dramatically. Once you've got a significant power imbalance, lots of conversation topics become off-limits, because people who are uncomfortable may no longer be in a position to walk away or demand to talk about something else. If someone with power starts talking about inappropriate subjects, people without power feel significant pressure to just sit there and take it. And the wrenching stories told this past week show just how damaging that can be.

So, what's the problem I'm talking about? The problem is that Science Online has made a concerted effort to obscure those power relationships. They make a big deal-- well past the point of eye-rolling for me-- about how they don't put affiliations on nametags because everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family, and so on. And they promote a party atmosphere-- the informational emails last year talked up the bar area and the liquor service available at the big evening wing-ding, and things like the disastrous DrunkScience experiment were if not officially promoted, widely known and discussed. There's also a lot of somewhat juvenile running jokes about duck penises and that sort of thing that are certainly not to all tastes.

In other words, they try hard to maintain a feeling that the meeting is just a bunch of people who run blogs (and podcasts, and videos, and other online media projects) hanging out with other people who run blogs (etc.). And this carries over a bit into the broader community interaction outside the meeting. While they make efforts to be broadly inclusive, there's very definitely a core group of people on blogs and Twitter whose conversation and interaction has a disproportionate influence on the shape of things. And again, a lot of banter about drinking and weird animal reproduction and so on.

The organizers have chosen to foster this free=wheeling atmosphere with the best of intentions, and in some ways it makes for a better experience-- I had a great time at last year's Science Online, and if things work out, would happily go again (but then for me it's strictly a party, as I don't really have anything to pitch to anybody who goes there). But while it's fun in some ways, it also contributes to problems by letting people deceive themselves into thinking that some things are appropriate when they're really not.

Again, this is not an attempt to excuse or condone Bora's actions. Those emails are utterly without justification, and would be stunningly inappropriate even if there were no power imbalance involved. But that carefully maintained just-a-bunch-of-bloggers-hanging-out atmosphere makes it just a tiny bit easier to pull off the mental self-deception required-- because I'm fairly certain that Bora wasn't calculatedly and deliberately torturing young women writers. He had almost certainly convinced himself that there wasn't anything wrong with what he was doing, and part of that process had to involve working around that power dynamic. The most obvious path to that is "we're all just bloggers hanging out," in which case it's perfectly okay to engage in a little flirting sex talk.

The obscuring of power differences also acts to produce the effect Martin Robbins noted (repeat link to save scrolling back up), where everybody else managed to overlook inappropriate behavior. As Robbins says, the whole random hugging thing from a couple of conferences ago seems way out of line. Particularly now, in hindsight, but even at the time to people who weren't a regular part of the community. To people who were, well, it's easy to write off as part of "we're all just bloggers hanging out," in which case it can be cute, and funny, and charming, and not disturbing. Again, I'm not trying to excuse Bora's behavior or shift the blame to people who "really should've said something"-- his actions are his reponsibility, and inexcusable. But again, the general atmosphere makes the self-deception needed for everyone else to overlook problems just a tiny bit easier.

So, as I said, I think there's a global issue here that probably needs to be addressed a little more directly than it is. Quiet spaces and alcohol-free rooms are good, but this is ultimately a question about what the Science Online meeting really is, and what the community wants it to be. My own inclination would be to say that since blogging has been professionalized in a way that reproduces not only the advantages but also the pathologies of traditional journalism, it probably to move toward much more of a professional society model. That means more explicit acknowledgment of power and status hierarchies, and a bit more of a professional atmosphere in general, including things like formalizing the idea submission and panel selection process, and reforming the farcical invite/lottery registration system. And this carries over into the online stuff outside the meeting as well-- when there's a sense that being part of a particular group on Twitter makes a major difference in how seriously your ideas are taken for an influential conference, that in itself is a problematic power dynamic that can make people feel they have to endure jokes and banter that make them uncomfortable.

That doesn't mean a complete abandonment of the party-with-your-friends model-- believe me, I do plenty of drinking with friends at professional physics conferences-- but a bit of official distancing from that would be a good thing. De-emphasize the boozing in the official materials, maybe go to limited drinks or even cash bar at the official events. Make hanging out in the bar more clearly an individual choice, not a quasi-official part of the meeting. Think about whether the cap on attendees is really necessary-- strictly limiting attendees to keep the event "intimate" but giving guaranteed invites to particular individuals contributes to both the party atmosphere and the sense of a secret cliquish power structure. And so on-- if this is a serious conference, and participation has the (perceived) power to shape careers, it needs to become a professional event, not just a party among friends. And if it's a professional event, that makes the lines just a little more clear regarding what is and is not appropriate.

That won't stop harassment-- there's plenty of that at professional meetings, as well-- but it would demand a tiny bit more mental work on the part of the harasser, and a tiny bit less work on the part of the people trying to spot and report inappropriate behavior. And every little bit helps.

But I'm a very small and peripheral part of the community. I hesitated a bit about whether to even post this, since I'm so peripheral, but I already shot my mouth off on Twitter, and forced my own hand. I waffled more when I saw that some of these issues have already been brought up by Kelly Hills on Twitter, but eventually decided that it was important to add what little support I can to her argument.

This ultimately isn't my decision to make, and whatever comes of this will have relatively little impact on my decision about whether to attend future meetings (I'm pretty much outside of all the relevant power hierarchies, anyway). But I think it's a discussion that ought to be had.

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ScienceOnline has always prided itself on being an "UNconference" -- I think what you're saying is that it is at a fork-in-the-road where it must decide if it will continue to be THAT or become a more traditional sort of professional conference… I haven't attended Sciox for many yrs., but always observe it from afar -- I think the UNconference aspects (and quite frankly, Bora's energy/enthusiasm/ideas, not to take anything away from the hard work of others) are what made it the incredible success it became. -- perhaps it can keep the best qualities of being an UNconference while shedding any more problematic qualities… but that's easier said, then done.
The conference is occasionally accused of cliquishness, but surely no more-so than any large gathering of people, including many who only see each other once-a-year; overall, it's the most egalitarian, open, welcoming, friendly conference I can imagine.
But interestingly (to me) a Twitterer recently called the conference "cultish" and that I think does describe the odd discomfort some folks have with a gathering that evokes (ongoing, year-round) so much self-focus, self-congratulation, self-importance… YET it has EARNED all that by being SO successful/well-done -- it's an odd catch-22, a victim of its own success.

Chad, you say you're not sure you should have posted. I'm very glad you did, even though — no, actually, precisely because — this post defines well quite quite a few issues that are difficult to know how to resolve or deal with. Very useful contribution to the List of Things We Need to Think About.

All the points of worry you raise are legit. Yet I think too, as Shecky notes, the conference still offers (at risk of sounding cliquish or self-congratulatory in saying so) a level of energy and a push toward egalitarianism and multi-discplinary participation that gives it an extraordinary energy and unusual power to stir new thought and forge new connections. No other conference I go to offers greater chances for intellectual surprise and novelty, or for watching people suddenly rise into either prominence, new connections, or new ideas.

As you note, these good things rise partly from forces and ideas that, alas, have been shown to be arguably connected to some not-so-great things, or that have simply become tainted because people have seen them as subterranean opportunity. In particular, the conference is unique and intellectually exciting because of a) the wonderful parity in number between women and men and b) the number of incredibly bright young people and slightly older but equally bright people who, moving into new professional territory or interests or phases of their thinking, bring the accelerative energy of those discovering something wonderful either within themselves or without — a Jason Priem or a Kay Thaney as they explode with ideas about how to make open science happen; an Ed Yong or Virginia Hughes as they come afire with the elusive alchemistry of original and engaging writing; a Jonathan Eisen or Rebecca Skloot or Kate Clancy or Karen James or Ben Lillie as they hit a stride of the sort you didn't know could be strode.

The energy comes partly because of the unusual youth of the attendees. It comes too because of an emphasis on egalitarianism that may be in some ways delusory, and that can seem pretentious, but that is also somewhat self-fulfilling. The push towards egalitarianism, along with the central feature of the 'unconference" format — the insistence on short presentations, on presenters as moderators rather than experts, on talking for at MOST 10 minutes or so before opening the discussion — tells the younger and lesser established that Yes, you can and *should* be heard; and it tells the better established that Yo old pro, you better be on your A game at this thing, you better be thinking fresh, because you don't get to just blab for 40 minutes and then take 3 questions; prepare to be challenged; prepare to be changed.

So, Yes, I go every year partly to see friends I won't see every year ‚ most of them friends I've made at ScienceOnline. But that alone is not and would not be enough to draw my application and energy every year. I go too because of this unique combination of energy and intellectual volatility and unexpected ideas and connections — to attend anticipating not just the possibility but the certainty that at Scio I wlll have a chance to see a new Priem, Clancy, Eisen, Raven, Lillie, Eveleth, or Hawks — and to see people thrill at and accelerate the unexpected clash of new ideas.

How do we keep that while we address the problems you and others have raised? Not sure. But I pray we can so so, and that we as we tinker or overhaul we try to see where, amidst the contradictions and over-reaches and apparent hypocrisy and obnoxious self-congratulation and constant temptation to overglorfiy this thing (am I doing that now?), the bright magic rises.

By David Dobbs (not verified) on 20 Oct 2013 #permalink

Thanks for this post. It brings up a lot of good points. I don't specifically know about SciOx but I know that at most physics conferences a lot of work gets done at the bar and if you are liked you are more likely to be invited to speak at conferences or be given other opportunities that would further your career. And if you are out socially and someone brings up topics you aren't comfortable with but you know that person has power, you just roll with it and get to hear all about their sex life or lack there of or whatever. But hey, if it means you can list an invited talk on your resume, why not? And then because it is social and you were there and had a drink, if later you decide to accuse this person of sexual harassment its your fault for spending time with him. But its important to separate these interactions from genuine ones where you know your buddy went out with some girl and you are more than willing to listen to the details, and then because you guys are friends, he invites you to give a talk. I would hate to see the latter go away because of the former, but the former is so damn dangerous and demeaning and ends with people saying "you only got asked to do that because of your legs." It is muddy and complicated and you brought up some very good points. Thanks.

I agree that the "un" part of the unconference format is a real tricky point here. Going larger and more formal would risk losing some of that.

Of course, the other thing you could do would be to more fully embrace the "unconference" format-- go to a full lottery method of selecting attendees, and then put the program together around the strengths and interests of whoever you end up with. That probably doesn't work too well at 500 attendees, though. But then, I don't really know-- how big do the major "unconferences" get?

That would also be a shift, of course, and would run the risk of not getting any of the "rock stars" who show up now, if the random number algorithm is unkind that year. But it would keep the looser format for the meeting itself.

Excellent post, Chad. This mirrors quite a bit of what I've been thinking and saying lately in private conversations. I think some of the challenges you raise are growing pains that are to be expected as an organization and event that started as frontier, in which it's participants felt they were pioneers. But now, Science Online has to deal with the fact that it has transitioned in many ways from frontier to metropolis. Not to belabor the analogy, but there's a reason that cities have institutionalized bureaucracy and not a single sheriff. I agree with David, though: if Science Online loses the unconference-ness of it all, then what's the point?

By Jason G. Goldman (not verified) on 20 Oct 2013 #permalink

My own inclination would be to say that since blogging has been professionalized in a way that reproduces not only the advantages but also the pathologies of traditional journalism, it probably to move toward much more of a professional society model.

But isn't that actually what causes all of these incidents? Money and hierarchies? It seems to me that harrassment incidents would be _less_ likely to occur in an informal gathering of individual bloggers than in a semi-pro, career oriented gathing of wanters and havers, with the havers now in a position to trade favours for their own wants.

And I wonder why I don't like going to conferences.

The problem is that, like it or not, we have the money and the hierarchies. While I would be all in favor of a different model, the moment when that might've happened has passed, and we have to work with the situation we actually have.

Money and hierarchy are part of it, but only part. Even in a 100% social (whatever that means) situation there's a right way and wrong way to flirt, and doing it the wrong way can indeed produce profound discomfort. Maybe you want to use some word other than "sexual harassment" for it, if that word is now reserved specifically for professional situations where employment law applies, but it's still an unwelcome and deeply discomforting advance.

The fact that it's now professional just means that you shouldn't be flirting at all, but let's not say that there'd be no such thing as harassment without money and hierarchy.

While I would be all in favor of a different model, the moment when that might’ve happened has passed, and we have to work with the situation we actually have.

Woah, woah, woah. Let's not get fatalistic here. Remember where blogging originally came from after all. Independent Scientists and other writers, going online, on their own time, dime, and initiative, publishing what they wanted, when they wanted, in a manner they saw fit.

Sure, after a while some elements of conglomeration and professionalisation (suit-and-tie-alisation? ) crept up on a certain segment of blogging, but this does not mean that the core concept of writers in charge of their own blogs somehow went away. A blog does not have to be, and never needed to be, a professional thing.

My own opinion is that "professional" blogging, something people do as work, or worse, that they feel they have to do as part of their work, hobbles the freedom of the medium and ultimately reduces the quality of the blogs themselves. I read blogs to be informed in ways I never would from a paper or press release, and to a lesser extent a specialist book.

Blogging is a medium created for the specific purpose of breaking free of exisiting conventions and restrictions. Trying to rope blogging back into existing professional conventions doesn't sound like a good idea to me. Eventually, the incogurities will simmer to the surface, and I think this Bora incident is one such symptom.

If a ostensibly free-spirited medium adopts the conventions of "The man", I think the result will be a flashy, sometimes useful, but ultimately wierdly cultish quasi-corporate enterprise(See also; Apple).

Remember where blogging originally came from after all. Independent Scientists and other writers, going online, on their own time, dime

why are you telling chad? he was there at the beginning. years before bora came on the scene.

great post. don't know if i agree with everything, but i haven't thought about it in detail. the issue about power is interesting and real. bora was one of the first to see the power of collective action as people banded together. but as a leader it gave him power. like a protestant minister who preaches the priesthood of believers, but rules his parish with an iron fist, an egalitarian ethos can coexist with a hierarchical reality.

By razib khan (not verified) on 20 Oct 2013 #permalink

Thanks for this post. It articulates a lot of things that I've been thinking over the past week. I think one of the problems is that the established people are still thinking egalitarian and the origin of the conference - but the newer attendees may be thinking of the conference as more formal with some possible job opportunities. This disconnect could lead to some horrible misunderstandings.
I do think ScienceOnline will need to choose one path and make it clear to the attendees.