Get out of the way

This tweet from the Ecological Society of America conference was interesting:

This kind of thing is not new — many conferences have 'No photos' signs around the posters and the talk sessions. 'No tweeting' seems pretty extreme though. I'm not sure if that's what the ESA was pushing for in this case, but either way the message is: 'No sharing stuff'. They do have a hashtag though, so...

Anyway, I tweeted this in response:

I think this tells you just as much about how broken the conference model is, as about how naïve/afraid our technical societies are.

I think there's a general rule: if you're trying to control the flow of information, you're getting in the way. You're also going to be disappointed because you can't control the flow of information — perhaps because it's not yours to control. I want to say to the organizers: The people you invited into your society are, thankfully, enthusiastic collaborators who can't wait to share the exciting things they heard at your conference. Why on earth would you try to shut that down? Why wouldn't you go out of your way to support them, amplify them, and find more people like them?

But wait, the no-tweeting society asks, what if the author didn't want anyone to share their work? My first question is: why did you give a talk then? My second question is: did the sharer give you proper attribution? If not — you are right to be annoyed and your society should help set this norm in your community. If so — see my first question.

Technical societies need to get over the idea that they own their communities and the knowledge their communities produce. They fret about revenue and membership numbers, but they just need to focus on making their members' technical and professional lives richer and more connected. The rest will take care of itself.


Interested in this topic? Here's a great post about tweeting at conferences, by Jacquelyn Gill. It also links to lots of other opinions, and there are lots of comments.

Image by Rob Salguero-Gómez.

What will people pay for?

Many organizations in the industry are asking this question right now. Software and service companies would like to sell product, technical societies would like to survive diminished ad sales and conference revenue, entrepreneurs would like to find customers. We all need to make a living.

I was recently asked this very question by a technical society. However, it's utterly the wrong question. Even asking this question reveals a deep-seated misunderstanding of what technical societies are for.

The question is not "What will people pay for?", it's "What do people need?". 

The leaders of our profession

Geoscientists and engineers are professionals. Our professional contributions are defined by our work and its purpose, not by our jobs and its tasks. This is essentially what makes a professional different from other workers: we are purpose-oriented, not task-oriented. We're interested in the outcome, not the means.

But even professionals benefit from leadership. Professional regulators notwithstanding, our technical societies are the de facto leaders of the profession. The professional regulator is the 'line manager' of the profession, not the 'chief geoscientist'.

Leadership is about setting an example, inspiring great work, and providing the means to grow and make the best contributions people can make. Societies need to be asking themselves how they can create the conditions for a transformed profession, a more relevant and resilient one. In short, how can they be useful? How can they serve?

OK, so what do people need?

I don't claim to have all the answers, or even many of them, but here are some things I think people need:

  • Representation. Get serious about gender and race balance on your boards and committees. There is recent progress, but it's nowhere near representative. Related: get out of North America and improve global reach.
  • Better ways to contribute and connect. Experiment more — a lot more, and urgently — with meetings and conferences. Help people participate, not just attend. Help people connect, not just exchange business cards. 
  • New ways to contribute and connect. Get serious about social media. Get scientists involved — social media is not a marketing exercise. Think hard about how you can engage your members through blogs and other content.
  • Reproducible science. Go further with open access, open data, and open source code. Make your content work harder. Make it reach further. Demand more of your authors to make their work reproducible.
  • A bit less self-interest. Stop regarding things you didn't organize or produce as a threat. Other people's events and publications may be of interest to your members, and your mission is to serve them.

Don't listen to my blathering. The AGU and the EGU are real leaders in geoscience — be inspired by them, follow their lead. Pay more attention to what's happening in publishing and conferences in other technical verticals, especially technology.

Pie in the sky is still pie

People will say, "That's all great Matt, but right now it's about survival." I get this a lot, but I'm not buying it. When times are good, you don't need to do the right thing; when times are hard, you can't afford to. True, all this would be easier if you'd started doing the right thing when times were good, but you didn't, so here we are.

Sure it's tough now, but are you sure you can afford to wait till tomorrow?


I've written lots before on these topics. Suggested reading: