Cake or beer? I’ll have the cake, please.

Yesterday was the Science Blogging Talkfest event – photos from (the very sneaky photographer!) Rebecca Smith here, a couple of which I’ve now stolen (below). So, it was Talkfest and I’m talking in most of the pictures. Makes sense but looking quite ridiculous.

Basically some bloggers/readers of blogs/journalists/editors/Tweeters got together to have cake and tea/beer, discuss science blogging and the universe then drink the local pub dry.

A success, I reckon (even if the aims weren’t too clear, it’s sparked a lot of discussion).

So, after the sparkly cupcakes (which, as Ed Yong pointed out, were probably designed mainly to make everyone look equally ridiculous and break the ice) we sat down to have a Q&A with the panel about the purpose, merits and pitfalls of Science Blogging (and a bit about blogging in general).

The panel

In the hotseats were Alok Jha (Guardian science correspondent), Ed Yong (accomplished science writer), Mark Henderson (Times science editor), Jon Butterworth (CERN & UCL physicist), Petra Boynton (marvellous sex educator) and Andy Lewis (creator of the Quackometer). For Twitter users: @alokjha @edyong209 @markgfh @jonmbutterworth @drpetra & @lecanardnoir.

Before questions, there was a show-and-tell of people’s favourite blogs. These included:

Laelaps – a blog about excellent dead things (I used to want to be a paleontologist actually)

Genetic Future – making genetics issues accessible

Mind Hacks – on phsychology/behaviour and its relevance to everyday stuff & media stories

In the Dark – a sometimes-inspired, sometimes-written-after-dinner (not my words!) astronomy blog with personality.

Why Blog?

A question that family and friends often ask, I find.

JB: originally to explain things behind news stories (CERN and the LHC, for example) – but then it just kept going.

PB: because journalists get things wrong and leave out important information. We can bring evidence for people to use in life and get people thinking differently. Now I cover what gets requested.

MH: blogging enables you to reach quite specific audiences that clearly do exist but aren’t usually targeted by the mainstream media. Blogs often comment on stories as they unforld and add “DVD extras” (coined by Ed).

EY: to talk about science and show that it’s interesting. I love writing and explaining, making things easy to understand.

Actually it gives me a physical tingle. I think I’m addicted to it.

– Funny as it was when Ed said this, I think most people agree. It is nice when you manage to explain something that’s quite complicated in a way that elicits some kind of “ohhh, I seeee!” response from people (or indeed just a person).

A point to which most nodded was the fact that blogging enables you to avoid editors – although blogging does have a somewhat unique ability to be continually edited via comments and feedback. Alok stood up for editors later, saying that

A good editor can make your copy 100x better.

But a common Twitter-based reponse to this was along the lines of ‘well you’re f***** if you’ve got a bad one then’.

I re-started my blog, having had the original just-a-diary style one at university, because I missed having an outlet for sharing my views on things (usually that have irritated me) and I wanted to try my hand at communicating science. I mix personal entries with technical stuff because I’ve always presented myself as I am online and I don’t intend this site to be any different. I like socialising, getting to know people – I feel the best way to do that is to let people get to know me, too.

Measuring Impact

Ed told some brilliant stories he’d got from some of his readers simply by asking them why they read his blog and what they got out of it. This included a stay-at-home Dad who had little interest in science until stumbling across his site and others, who then acquired learning about science as a major hobby. Then there was the applause-earning anecdote from a previously fundamentalist christian who’d decided to become a scientist instead after being prompted to ‘think about how we learn things’.

PB: Can you really measure it?

As we discussed at the BSA SciComms conference, ‘impact’ is a difficult concept to define anyway. It’s often personal, rarely quantifiable and probably irrelevant a lot of the time.

I completely agree with Jon and others who said what really matters is your enjoyment. Many people start blogs just because they like writing and communicating with people, getting their opinions out, expressing themselves.

Alok, Ed, Alice Bell, Mark, Petra, Jon and Andy

Part of the reason I do it is that I like thinking about various issues (sometimes important, sometimes really not) and a lot of the time it seems people aren’t up for a serious discussion in person. This way, you can get down all your thoughts and it’s likely that someone out there on the web will want to engage with you. Message boards have always been good for this; chat rooms, even Facebook.

Don’t let anyone tell you blogging is trivial

Said Ed, following his impressive readers’ stories. Opinions can be changed, things can be achieved that perhaps otherwise would not have. Not everyone blogs in order to change the world, or even what a few people think, but if you are – go for it!

Anyone part of the libel reform campaign probably feels part of something effective; also 10:23, the Quacklash (which I shall hopefully write about shortly) and other achievements. Sure blogging isn’t the only effector but it’s definitely a force.

Unfortunately, as was conceded at the end of the event, not always for good.

The internet is (for the most part) a free space where anyone can say what they want. That, of course, means that people we’d rather not hear from, whose influence will never be positive, can do their share of misinforming and opinion-shifting.

‘Climategate’ is a shining example.

Tweeting to Distraction

So the Twitterfall was back with a vengeance at the event; people’s thoughts (including some of the panel’s) were displayed on the walls – we don’t usually see what goes on inside people’s minds but in this case we get some insight.

The list of tweets is available here.

It’s a bit surreal, often funny (found myself sniggering a lot, apologies to the person sitting next to me) but is it really a good thing?

I think (and I know I’m not the only one) that many people were quite distracted by it, to the point where maybe discussions were diminished because people were too busy tapping away and reading the feed. Did we really get anything extra from it? I’m not sure.

Hilarious, when an outbreak of coughing erupted, caused by Stephen Curry’s

Cough if you think Dr Evan Harris needs to be in the Geek calendar

But the problem is, now I can’t remember what was being said when this happened!

I think Twitterfalls are great for intervals and such, good for working out who you know from the Twittersphere and whose hand you’d like to shake, but not sure it’s a good idea during such an event. Any thoughts?

I’ll add the link to the official recording (if it worked!), photos etc. when it’s available.

Edit: Also covered by

@ShaneMcC questions the lack of purpose and Jon Butterworth himself gives more in-depth analysis.

Stephen Curry tackles the wider issue of (perceived?) ‘bland’ scientific prose.

Alice in Galaxyland – giving some tips for those further afield and busy with work (for the record, give me a shout if you need a sofa, fellow skeptics!)

Paula Salgado

Vivienne at Outdoor Science

In the Dark, having picked up on being mentioned as a favourite site!

6 thoughts on “Cake or beer? I’ll have the cake, please.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cake or beer? I’ll have the cake, please. « Purely a figment of your imagination --

  2. Pingback: Self Reference « Life and Physics

  3. I agree that the Twitterfall was distracting and diverted people’s attention from the main discussion – but fortunately, not only for anecdotal reasons, as an interesting discussion scientists and public engagement was developing. It might be a useful tool at intervals or during session pauses, but not as discussions are happening…

    Good sum up of key points mentioned!

  4. Pingback: Pulse on Techs » I’ve got your missing links right here (17 July ‘10) | Not Exactly Rocket Science

  5. Pingback: Some stuff what I read, innit. « Three Blog Night

  6. Pingback: Some stuff what I read, innit. « I have no idea what I'm doing.

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