Scattered reflections about ScienceOnline 2012 (#scio12)

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I’ve now been to three iterations of ScienceOnline. In the first two, the conference was home to just 250 people. This year, it almost doubled in size to a 450-strong mob. I don’t think I was alone in wondering if the event would keep its small, intimate feel. And I certainly wasn’t alone in realising that it had.

The growth was a smart move. We got a bigger, more comfortable venue. With larger crowds, the sessions had more spark to them (essential when you’re going for the “unconference” style where panellists are there to rouse the floor, not speak to them). And despite all of that, the conference retained the same flavour it always has. It still felt more like a family reunion than an academic gathering. It was a place where old friends could shake hands for the first time. It was a place where people were surrounded by like-minded fellows with mutual passions and could. Just. Cut. Loose. As I wrote last year, “You spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.”

I was trying to work out why ScienceOnline was still ScienceOnline despite being twice the size. “It’s the people, stupid,” was an obvious answer, but I think it goes a bit beyond that. I think it succeeds because Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen have realised that you only really need three things to make a great conference.

One: rig things so that the most passionate people show up. Remember that the first batch of ScienceOnline tickets sold out in less than a minute. Only the people who really, really want to be there will be waiting at the starting line at the right moment. Those people also spend the year thinking about the sessions that they’d like to see, and through the planning wiki, they craft the programme that they want. They talk to each other online, so that little time is wasted on the actual days with small-talk and ice-breakers. You can just skip to the parts about cementing relationships and building connections.

Two: once you’ve summoned your ideal crowd, you arrange everything so that they have nothing to distract them from the business of talking to each other. You give them free powerstrips at the front desk if their laptops are dying. You provide free coffee throughout the day to stimulate weary brains. You have faultless and blisteringly fast wi-fi everywhere. You have constant shuttles from the various venues, so people can just wander into the hotel lobby in a zombie-like fugue (DAMN YOU, scio12 rooster) and somehow end up at the right place. And you ensure that most guests stay in the same place so they can continue their conversations well into the evening.

Three: you equalise everything. This seems to be an emergent property of the above elements: the unconference format, the fact that delegates plan their own programme, the familial feel of the thing. Through all this and more, ScienceOnline takes a rugged career landscape and, with one deft flick of the wrist, shakes it flat. Pulitzer winners rub elbows with recent grads. Noobs sing karaoke with award-winners on backing guitar. New York Times journalists apply temporary squid tattoos to the foreheads of the scientists they write about (Carl, I look forward to seeing the disclosure statement the next time you write about Jon’s work).

It. Was. F**king. Brilliant. We knew it would be.

Thanks to everyone who had a chat with me. You were all uniformly superb.

Long live ScienceOnline. See you all next year.

(After I recover from the total physiological collapse that happens when you spend months at a time writing in silence on a chair, and then spend four days on your feet talking continuously)