SfN the meh

August 15, 2010

The Society for Neuroscience dipped its toe into the new / social media waters last year during the Annual Meeting. The Society picked a group of volunteer bloggers to highlight on a webpage associated with the meeting. This was a great initiative but it is too bad that it was done so tentatively. There was insufficient communication about it to the members, poor wifi (and AT&T for all the iPhoners) coverage and ultimately the effort fell far short of what it should have accomplished. There were maybe a couple of dozen people that I saw on Twitter talking about the meeting, which is pathetic in contrast to the ~30,000 registrants.

We can do better for this year.

As a backgrounder, we should note that SfN has always had an interest in the teaching and communication of science. Presentations at the Annual Meeting are categorized topically by Theme and Theme H is History, Teaching, Public Awareness, and Societal Impacts in Neuroscience. Blogging and other social media coverage of the meeting fits well within this mission of the Society. The subtext here is that you should view these activities as being just as much an official part of being a member of the Society for Neuroscience as you do the front-line science part. (This is why I say “we”. This is not just about what the SfN does, but also about your behavior, DearReader. More on this in a subsequent post.)

Action items for the Society for Neuroscience for this year’s Annual Meeting in San Diego (Nov 13-17, 2010):

1) Get adequate wifi coverage everywhere, including the poster session floor. This is absolutely the biggest roadblock to advance. People need to be able to quickly glance at their Twitter feed as they are walking to the next poster on their schedule, hustling upstairs for an oral presentation or standing in the coffee line. If they are constantly fighting to get a signal from the Convention Center wifi or badly overloaded local AT&T towers then Twitter is much less valuable. Those who want to quickly note an awesome poster that they ran across cannot easily do so (after all, they are there primarily to see the posters and only secondarily to Twitter about them!) without speedy wifi access. And, of course, for those of us that use the online scheduler for navigating the meeting, this is a high demand item even without social media coverage goals.

2) Establish Twitter accounts by official SfN entities. The current President should be tapped, if willing. The SfN press office for sure.

3) Promote the selected bloggers a little better, no need to act embarrassed about it. Other societies such as the Biophysical Society and the American Physiological Society are onboard with social media promotion at their Annual Meetings. Don’t pull the links after the meeting! This page used to be the one linking the highlighted bloggers- they took the links off after the meeting concluded. Bad idea.

4) Twitterwall! This means put up a large display that just shows a Twitter search for key hashtags such as #SFN, #SFN10 and #SFNthemeH. Most of the SfN attendees probably have no idea there is an online part of the meeting going in real time. This would be a fantastic promotion strategy*.

5) Consider an official meeting blog established at a high-profile blogging site such as ScienceBlogs.com**. The APS Life Lines podcast has been extended into a resident blog at ScienceBlogs. They also have a set of blogs from research institutions such as the Weizmann Institute of Science or Brookhaven National Labs and a blog for the 2010 World Science Festival. SfN should be all over this. If you need someone to populate it, you might start with the list of bloggers that you chose as the officially-recognized ones last year.

6) Get some help. Here I am talking to whomever it was that managed to ramrod the initiative through last year and is setting up to do it again. (Oh yes, the rumor mill suggests they are getting ready to start soliciting applications for the bloggers to be listed on the Meeting page somewhere.) While I’m sure you have the best of intentions, it is clear from last year that either you don’t know what you are doing or ran up against a lot of static from SfN officialdom. I’d suggest freeing up about 40 hrs worth of consultant pay and hire Bora Zivkovic to give you suggestions. Take at least 30% of what he comes up with and this whole effort is going to be much more successful than last year.
*Admittedly this one has the potential for mischief. Twitter hashtags are not controlled and of course Twitter itself is essentially open to all. SfN runs the risk of having protesters (such as those who objected to the Dalai Lama presence a few years ago, or the animal rights extremist nutjobs) hijacking the feed. I think it is worth the risk however, we should be unafraid of controversy and in any case, hijackers will probably end up being drowned out by the real content.

**Disclosure for any new readers.