Remember #Pepsigate?

Quick backgrounder: the ambitious science magazine SEED started a blogging network, which attracted some of the biggest names in the science blogging world. Opinionated, informed and entertaining blogging. But the whole thing collapsed in a storm of controversy around a sponsored Pepsi blog.

Barely raised a blip in Australia, though online and on Twitter it was hard to miss. For a less concise, but more insightful history see @mjrobbins’s Storify – including a series of tweets from @mims about how ScienceBlogs started.

We were looking for ways to build traffic to, of all places, #SBhistory

It was impossible not to notice all the excellent science blogs that were then scattered across Blogger and self-hosted sites. #SBhistory

Intern made a spreadsheet including estimated traffic. We sorted by that field, invited the top 20. #SBhistory

It was a success, even outliving Seed magazine. But from @mims’ tweets, doesn’t sound like the publisher ever really got it, with most of the budget going to the in-house website and publishing team, while the bloggers were out in the cold.

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at #media140 Brisbane to dissect the story, with Wilson da Silva and Becky Crew from Cosmos, Darren Osborne from ABC Science Online, and Peter Griffin from the NZ Science Media Centre and Disappointing not to have Tim Lambert from Deltoid or anyone from The Conversation. Still, a great panel. Listen to it here.

That’s two panels on blogging in a month (I was on a panel about hyperlocal/place blogs at Reclaim The City, at the University of Sydney, in April). It’s weird, blogs as news all of a sudden. Bloggers like celebrities, and at the other end of the spectrum a growing awareness of the writing and thinking on blogs. Which is great, but I feel weird getting up on panels like it’s some new thing. Still great.

(Pepsigate panel at Media 140, Brisbane – photo by UQ journalism student Pakwayne)

So the panel on Pepsigate was interesting. I guess my main point was that like blogger outcry over the fake Coke Zero blog in 2006, the idea of a digital or social media crowd getting angry about dishonesty is nothing new. People get angry when they’re misled. It’s just now social media gives people an outlet.

What’s new to me is the potential for science blogs to be a serious alternative to the often superficial coverage of science in the mainstream media. The panel talked about the way Nature/Science dominate their respective coverage. One of the most attractive things about science blogging is how by sharing ideas, by articulating ideas and by being exposed to ideas, it creates a fertile space for innovation.

Anil Dash takes this up, saying by expanding on ideas you’re reading (instead of just tweeting or retweeting), you’re forcing yourself to articulate newly conceived ideas.

One of the most hilarious things to come out of my hyperlocal blogging panel – chaired by the lovely Jesse Adams Stein – was a comment by one of the panelists that what we do as place bloggers is “elite”. If you can write an email, you can write a science blog. Any blog, really. Though great writers *are* something special. As great writers (or thinkers) are anywhere. What’s elite isn’t the blogging platform, but the potential you create by taking part.

The other issue with #Pepsigate is the rise of branded or sponsored content. It’s nothing new in the papers, but the protocols online aren’t as well established. See Wired‘s response to The Independent doing it online. Readers, overloaded with advertising, are getting better at filtering out the direct material, which is why advertisers are increasingly using sponsored content, product placement (an audience member suggested Haruki Murakami had paid products in his books, though I doubt it). And though ScienceBlogs was a very niche corner of the web, it had a large, dedicated and well educated readership. Prime for Pepsi’s (probably very good) scientists to flex their credentials.

But if it was going to be good, relevant content to the blog network, then it should have made it there on its own merits. Blurring the line is no good in magazines or papers – eg those “special supplements” in the Herald. But it’s happening as an increasing desperate publishers look for the elusive business model.

Fast forward to the end of the story, and Seed boss Adam Bly cancelled the deal after a massive outcry, and the week of the talk in Brisbane, National Geographic announced it had taken over the blogging network.

I planned to write a bit more about Media 140 Brisbane, but it hasn’t happened. Fortunately there were plenty of fantastic bloggers and thinkers on hand. Click Kristin Alford, Craig Thomler, Kate Carruthers, Andrew Maynard and Peter Griffin for insights.

Science blogging, a rethink

In science media circles, everyone knew about NASA’s press conference last month. Alien life? A second branch of life on Earth? Unusually hyped, even for NASA, it was published in the premier journal Science.

(lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and Mary Voytek, Steven Benner and Pamela Conrada in a Paul E. Alers/NASA photo from the press conference)

But as UK science writer Ed Yong wrote in a post-mortem it:

turned out to be nothing more than bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, using it in place of phosphorus in their DNA and other molecules. But after the initial layers of hype were peeled away, even this extraordinary claim started falling under suspicious glances.

Despite the issues, most of the mainstream media went for it (the story was barely covered in Australia, although the Science Show had a report from a partner of one of the scientists and Stuart Gary wrote a piece for ABC Science).

Did having Science and NASA on the stand draw everyone’s guards down? Probably. And once upon a time, that’s where it would have ended.

But in the past few years, an ecology of science blogs and blogging platforms has emerged: Seed’s ScienceBlogs, ResearchBlogging, Wired’s Science Blogs, Nature BlogsDiscover‘s blogs, Science Blogging, PLoS Blogs, Scientific American Blogs, Guardian Science Blogs, Lab Spaces, SciBlogs NZScience 3.0, Scientopia, Field of Science, Occam’s Typewriter, Science Magazine Blogs, and here’s geophysicist Cian Dawson on geoscientists blogging. (There’s a smattering of science blogs in Australia, some linked to radio shows, some to international platforms. As part of the Federal Government’s gov2.0 drive, they’ve set up a government blogging platform.)

Between live tweeting of the press conference, and rapid-fire analysis from key bloggers, particularly Rosie Redfield, the issues with the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper quickly emerged.

I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

NASA and many other mainstream science communicators and journalists were quick to dismiss these criticisms as being outside the peer review process.

Do critics of the blogosphere’s reaction realise how much of the best science writing is happening on blogs? These aren’t (all) undergrads or hobbyists – when they talk about “bloggers”, they’re talking about top flight science writers and scientists. Rosie Redfield, for example, is “The Boss” of the Redfield Lab at University of British Columbia. Long time science bloggers Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders blogged about this, of course, at Science of Blogging.

In this case, it quickly spun out of control for NASA – despite their great record with blogging and social media – seems like they messed up the PR,  then got a hint of what a lot of politicians and businesses have seen in the past year or two when the social media world senses it’s being taken for a ride.

It’s a great story, but it’s not the most important story.

The real story is how much the very practice of doing science is changing. Several recent controversies have shown how conflicted the peer review process has become. It’s closed and therefore open to (perceptions of) conflict. And that closed process means there’s nothing to be learned from the interactions of peer review, which can be hilarious:

The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about,

but could inspire new ideas and avenues too.

The reverse chronology blog feed is a style of writing that is just really well suited to science. Instead of the story beginning and ending with the latest published paper, it’s ongoing, updated as new facts come to light – in many cases by writers (scientists or not) that are following the journals (often in their own discipline).

In that sense, it’s becoming part of being a scientist. Being part of a larger conversation of ideas, being able to publish thoughts in process and comments on other work. It’s communicating science, but also about doing science, and fostering innovation. It’s not for everyone, but for the right people, blogging science and talking openly about science is powerful.

In some ways, the way we think about science blogging needs a rethink. The science community tends to think of blogging as amateur or DIY media, which it can be. But I reckon it would help if scientists started to think about blogging as an extension to what they do at conferences.

So conferences are a chance to present ideas (which may not be quite ready for the breaking paper), hear them critiqued or questioned, and do the same for others. It’s good for connecting with people.

And as well as just being interesting, that conversation is where science blogging really works too.

What do you think?

Are you finding this blog interesting?

It’s been up and running three weeks – I’d hold out asking until a month, but that will be just about Christmas and I’m sure commenting on a blog will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. What with all the eggnog, Christmas songs and time off.

So the idea is that this blog becomes a conversation about great ideas and where some of those ideas came from. It doesn’t matter what kind of ideas – I’m interested in technology, science and engineering, business and finance, art, music, architecture, writing and plenty of other aspects of creative culture – the key is how the idea developed from a diffuse idea to a real thing.

Or maybe didn’t develop into a real thing – sometimes failure’s the most interesting prism on this stuff. I’m just really interested in this kind of thing. But I also hope that some of the ideas here will prompt flights of inspiration themselves.

So what do you think. Is it doing any of that? What could I do better, differently? Do you have ideas for reviews, interviews, overviews, stories, links?

(Bribe: I have a killer mixtape of Christmas songs for any comments)

Review: Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky

Madeleine Preston lives in Potts Point. She paints, draws, illustrates, does printmaking, media art, sculptures, installations and public art: “Whatever medium or method works with the idea.” She’s been in 30-something group shows and made the beautifully nostalgic Darlinghurst Eats Its Young blog. She teaches art too. Madeleine comes up with ideas, and turns them into real things, and she teaches other people to. So she’s just right to review a new book about Making Ideas Happen.

(Scott Belsky, photographed for an interview by design association AIGA‘s Baltimore section)

In a world obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the ‘left-brain people’ and the ‘right-brain people,’ under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively – that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders. But they can…

This is the opening gambit of Scott Belsky’s new book Making Ideas Happen. Belsky is best known for founding Behance, an online creative network. Belsky argues that artists and designers and creative people have a flawed perception of themselves where disorganisation is viewed as a creative cornerstone, ‘a badge of honour.’

The myth of the artist, the romantic legacy of the nineteenth century is attractive. Someone else can deal with the detail. It is one of the hardest things to impress upon people, and in particular students: organisation and deadlines don’t hamper creativity; they push your ideas to fruition.

What successful creatives like IDEO, John Maeda and Seth Godin have in common is they deliver to deadline. Ideas that are untested and remain ideas are perfect precisely because they are not realised. Whether you are an artist working in the commercial or institutional realm you still need to make your work to deadlines: to grant or residencies’ terms, to some form of constraint.

One of the biggest often unspoken fears in making art and resolving designs is fear of failure.

Making Ideas Happen presupposes you have ideas, Belsky even suggests you probably have too many ideas. So how do you start? How do you maintain momentum? And when your exhibition, design or company has been created, how do you take advantage of the inevitable criticism? How do you use failure effectively? Making Ideas Happen seeks to address these questions.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section covers organisation and execution. Belsky introduces the ‘action steps,’ the foundation of his method, where ideas become action steps or verb-driven sentences. Consistency and routine are the keys to making the Action Method work.

One of the appealing aspects of Making Ideas Happen is the quirky examples, one such example is the Daily Routine, a blog that sources the quotes about the routines of artists and designers. The majority of those quoted on the site attest to fairly dull routines, no eureka moments, just consistency and often quite idiosyncratic routine.

Belsky’s interviews reveal different successful people’s understanding of the obstacles to delivering to deadline. Godin cites the lizard brain or the amygdala, which provides the basic functions of the brain for food, for sex and for shelter as an obstacle to realising ideas.

…The lizard brain says, “They’re going to laugh at me”, “I’m going to get in trouble…” The lizard brain [screams] at the top of his lungs. And so, what happens is we don’t do it. We sabotage it. We hold back. We have another meeting.

One of the biggest often unspoken fears in making art and resolving designs is fear of failure. I have seen many students who continue to tweak or completely change an idea perilously close to deadline because they fear failure. By not relentlessly organising the process, the final outcome is compromised by injection of idea after idea until, out of time, the project is poorly executed or unfinished.

The second section of Making Ideas Happen deals with community, and, as founder of a successful creative hub in Behance, he has a lot to say. To distill this section to some of its key components is difficult. In essence, Belsky argues that recognising and finding professionals who have different skills to your own can propel your ideas forward.

The power of community became apparent to me in two recent art projects, the first Darlinghurst Eats its Young gained momentum online through social networks and through its associated blog. Community helped my subsequent show, Childs Play, where the idea had stalled and was only propelled into action again after meetings with the curator Robyn Wilson. Wilson suggested I needed to work with an artist and arts writer; in this case, Bridie Connell. I was forced to engage with someone I didn’t know, someone who understood visual arts but not necessarily what I was trying to do, and then maintain a conversation in order to create a written piece that would engage the audience further.

The final and smallest section deals with leadership, and in particular self-leadership. The part that resonated with me the most here was about overhauling your reward system.

It is these insights, slight as they may seem in the context of this review, that I loved about Making Ideas Happen. The information reminded me of things that were said at art school, but were never delivered in a cohesive form. When I heard similar things, or when a moment of clarity would hit me it didn’t lead to a plan, to a methodology. Instead,I hoped like hell a method would be revealed. Many glimpses later I feel like I have a plan.

Read and see more from Madeleine Preston.

Reading #5

  1. Sometimes all it takes to be creative is a different perspective. Matthew Engel’s Financial Times report on Australian politics captures something:

    The insecurity of power is reinforced by the layout of the parliamentary chamber. Instead of nestling alongside their colleagues on the front bench, the leaders sit alone at the despatch box, on swivel chairs, unable to glimpse the darts being aimed from behind.

    Unless they swing round, which Tony Abbott does all the time, turning his back on the PM to confer with his colleagues – especially when she is speaking, a gesture of contempt that would be recognised among primates. There is indeed something rather simian about Abbott: he is a hulking fitness fetishist-cum-exhibitionist, often photographed in the skimpy swimming trunks that Aussies call “budgie-smugglers”. The other week he was spotted running through the parliamentary corridors, past the coffee shop, in his tight black shorts: “It was like watching evolution in reverse,” said one latte drinker.

    Abbott’s attitude to Gillard is understandable. She enters the House with a strange waddle, as though she were a stringed puppet (perhaps with one of the faction leaders doing the pulling). Her accent is the least euphonious variant of whining Strine, and the content of her answers mind-numbingly repetitive. I heard her accuse Abbott of opposing with “three-word slogans” at least six times, which in itself constitutes a three-word slogan

  2. Radiolab, on WNYC (I get it on podcast), is one of the best of a new breed of radio. Intensely creative, captivated by the trade of ideas, informed by truckloads of radio and science experience. This great New York Oberver piece says it shows scientists haven’t simply replaced the theologians, the metaphysicians and the social critics as posers and answerers of the biggest questions:

    They’ve also become, in a time of gene-splicing and hadron-colliding and psychopharmacology, our true avatars of creative expression, the last radical artists left.

    This show is a conversation between science and mystery. You’re right at the edge of what the science can tell you. Which to me is as much about, like, magical thinking and weirdness and poetry as the science itself.

  3. Lee Fleming, at Harvard, collected data on all US patents since 1975, and looked at the network structures around them. It’s detailed in a fascinating Harvard Magazine piece on network analysis (I got this from a piece about network analysis on Arie Goldschlager‘s blog by the way):

    Comparing the models of the “broker”—an influential person connected to many others who don’t know each other—and the “connector”—an influential individual with a habit of introducing his collaborators to each other—he found that brokers are more likely to come up with new ideas, because they are situated at the center of a group and communication goes through them.

    But brokers have a harder time getting their ideas publicized, relative to connectors. Fleming found that brokers whose ideas became influential most often were connected to a “gatekeeper” who was part of a more highly integrated network and could disseminate the idea there.

  4. Google has been one of the past decade’s most fiercely innovative companies. From my experiences and reading, it seems that innovation stems from a mix of connectedness and disconnectedness. Their work is online, so there’s obviously connectivity. But they work in small teams that find their way to each other when they do. Several people I know went to ‘Google Under The Hood’ days in Sydney and Melbourne over the past few weeks.  I reckon the best insights come from failures, not successes, because you can see things in a cool, dispassionate way – the obvious recent example would be Wave, and I’d love to hear more about that. There’s nothing about Wave in this short review, but it does go into Google’s guidelines for innovation (it’s by Alex Roberts from the Federal Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research’s Innovation blog – which I hadn’t seen before, but am glad to have found):

    One of the other things mentioned was Google’s guiding principles ‘10 things we know to be true’. These principles include: that if you focus on the user, all else will follow; that great just isn’t good enough; and you can be serious without a suit.

    On looking at these principles I also came across their 10 design principles. These include ‘Dare to innovate’ – “Google encourages innovative, risk-taking designs whenever they serve the needs of users. Our teams encourage new ideas to come out and play. Instead of just matching the features of existing products, Google wants to change the game.”

    The APS has its Values which articulates our philosophy for the public service. But I was wondering – what could an APS philosophy for innovation look like? What should it look like?

  5. Gary Hamel’s business management blog at the Wall Street Journal is annoyed by lists of ‘most innovative companies’, which he says fail to distinguish between the five types of innovative businesses: young tyros like Spotify and Hulu; Nobel laureates like Intel and Cisco; artistes like IDEO and Grey New York; cyborgs like Google, Amazon and Apple; and born again innovators like Proctor & Gamble and Ford. He says the difference isn’t abstract, it’s structural (and it’s just as relevant to, say, a research institution or government):

    What limits innovation in established companies isn’t a lack of resources or a shortage of human creativity, but a dearth of pro-innovation processes. In too many organizations one finds that . . .

    1. Few, if any, employees trained as business innovators
    2. Few employees have access to the sort of customer and industry insights that can help spur innovation
    3. Would-be innovators face a bureaucratic gauntlet that makes it difficult for them to get the time and resources they need to test their ideas
    4. Line managers aren’t held accountable for mentoring new business initiatives or lack explicit innovation goals
    5. Innovation performance isn’t directly tied to top management compensation
    6. The metrics for tracking innovation (inputs, throughputs and outputs) are patchy and poorly constructed
    7. There’s no commonly agreed-upon definition of innovation and hence no way of comparing innovation performance across teams and divisions.
  6. I love this… taking the hack day concept and putting it to work in science. Science Hack Day happened earlier this month at San Francisco’s Institute for the Future:

    About 100 people gathered to learn from each other, tinker, form collaborative teams, and build projects that combined ideas from particle physics, molecular biology and bioinformatics, data science, astronomy and space science, robotics, geography, microscopy, software hacking, and web design. NASA was there, with an exuberance of marketing schwag and an eagerness to make their stores of data more accessible to citizen scientists; Mendeley was there to raise awareness of their open API, which grants access to Mendeley’s academic research data and web of scholarly relationships; YDN was there to show YQL, the query language that makes it easy to manipulate and mashup data from all over the web. There were Arduinos, LEDs, double helix legos, duct tape of course, a DNA tie, a $512 Polymerase Chain Reaction machine to enable DNA amplification for biohackers everywhere, plenty of cameras, plenty of refreshments, and a superabundance of smart, friendly people. Here’s the complete list of projects built.

Have you seen this telegraph pole?

This telegraph pole provides power and telecommunications to the street, would it kill you to look at it once in a while?

This poster is on Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, almost at the corner of Oxford Street.

It’s the kind of sign we wouldn’t be surprised to see on a new local blog called Signs Around Darlo, which hosts photos taken of signs that people leave for each other around Darlinghurst.