Monday, September 06, 2010

My, how you've grown. Reflections on #solo10

solo10 Last week I was at the Science Online London conference, the annual shindig where internet science nerds gather in the meatspace. This is my third Solo conference, my second manifested as flesh. And it was good - as last year, this is easily going to be the most important conference I'll attend this year, both intellectually and in terms of taking care of business. My session on the Friday was well attended and seemed to be well received.

As usual, more time was devoted to blogging than anything else, and apart from too much emphasis on blog networks, inevitable so soon after PepsiGate, it did give me time to think about why people blog. It turns out that there's a simple answer - there are as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers. As ever, that's not what people want to hear, preferring complicated answers which they can monetize. My personal reasons are largely internal, and if anyone else reads this, well that's a bit of a surprise to me. This unstartling insight meant that the braying of celebrity bloggers got slightly wearing after the first hour or so, but heigh ho, this is how we roll in this celebrity infested culture. (Andrew Marr has a good take on this in his masterpiece A History of Modern Britain. I'm excusing Ed Yong from this charge as he is a smart cookie, and the self-publicizing of the semi-professional journos doesn't count.) I'm not a huge fan of panels at conferences. If I want a discussion, I like it more free flowing than that. There were too many at this meeting, not all of them very good, and that's before the Twitpocalypse of the final session kittyclysm (see hashtag for details).

The other useful insight was the theme that emerged from the Mendeley Fringe Unconference on Friday night and from Evan Harris' keynote on Saturday: don't overestimate impact of new media. It's good for rallying the troops, but not for talking to "the public".

So, all sunshine and light then? Well not quite. Solo has out grown its original home at the Royal Institution. While the British Library conference centre is a great location in its own right (apart from the dodgy wifi - guys, you need wifi which doesn't fall over at least once a day, and in all the rooms) and paved with iPads, it is less intimate than the RI and more corporate. The VC boys love this, but I miss the intellectual edge I got from being in the Faraday Lecture Theatre. How big is too big? My gut feeling is that Solo is nearing the limit of effectiveness. The other problem, at this of all conferences, was turning off the Twitterfall projection on Friday morning, cutting the privileged attendees in the room off from remote contributors. If you find the hashtag distracting, look away now.

Where should Solo go now? While the physical element is important, as I said, I feel it's reaching the limit of what I'm interested in. If it gets bigger or more expensive, then I'll look elsewhere. But this is about science online, and it would be great to see the organizers push the envelope and return to the spirit of intellectual exploration which characterized the first two Solo conferences. Online should mean online, reaching out to people who cannot attend in person. In an era of financial stress, the technology should be used to enable new developments rather than allowing money to limit access to the discussions which occur at Solo. The problem with this is that if social media is preaching to the choir, how do we widen the pool? That's where the physical event comes in, converting the doubters into online participants.

I don't want to finish on a negative note, so I'll make it clear that if I could only go to one conference next year, it would be Solo11. Thanks go to all the sponsors and the organizers who worked so hard on this great event. Can I book my place at the next one now?