Online/Offline Communities – Science on Line London 2011

Solo11

Image by AJC1 via Flickr

This year I had the great opportunity of participating in the discussions of one of the breakout session in the SOLO11 Conference. The topic of the session was the importance of offline communities in online networking. The session was organised by Eva Amsen and co-hosted by Paula Salgado and myself.

It seemed to us quite interesting the fact that people were coming together to an event about science online. Why not organise it solely as an online event? Is it because communities work better when there is support offline?

Eva started off the discussion with some examples of offline communities moving online. She talked about the Node,  a community that started as a suggestion from an existing network of developmental biologists. Other examples included the ArXiv, and Facebook. Here some of the things that Michael Nielsen mention in his opening presentation resonated with what was being discussed: these communities started as small groups, and that is why they worked.

Paula talked to us about her experience in the online and offline communities, including I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. Incidentally, you can listen to the interview she gave me for the Quantum Tunnel Podcast about her involvement with this programme. She also mentioned Science is Vital.

As for me, I had the pleasure to talk about my involvement with the organisation of  UKSciTweetups. UK Science Tweetup or UKSciTweetup is a quasi-regular meeting of scientists and sci-curious tweeps, usually on a weekday evening at a pub. Attendees are usually people that use twitter and who are interested in scientific topics. The tweetups are organised and followed-up using a hashtag: #ukscitweetup; anyone interested in the tweetups just need bookmark and/or subscribe to a twitter search for the hash tag. Everyone is  welcome, you don’t have to be a scientist, but you must be interested in science.

There has been some debate as to why UK is used in the hashtag since most of the events happen in London, where the events first started. The standard answer is that anyone in the UK can start their on chapter and I believe there have been some successful events in Bristol and Manchester but having more would be great.

In my opinion, there seems to be a general misconception that online communities are what it says in the can – simply and exclusively online. This is and should not be true. The thing to remember is that they are first and foremost communities: collections of people who share a common interest, aim or goal. The fact that they start coming together online does not preclude them from meeting offline, and by doing so they enrich their experience and can be beneficial as the ties between members can become more meaningful and has an impact in the way people use the community.

Meeting offline goes beyond the mere face-to-face interaction with other members as usually people tend to bring people who either are not in the online community (in this case twitter) or are users, but do not interact with other members.

In my experience, it has been very enriching to take part in organising some tweetups but I must admit that keeping momentum can be a hard thing to do. Having the meetings at a pub makes it easier for people to come and go (there was one organised to coincide with the late opening of the Science Museum, but it was a disaster trying to meet with people).

More recently I have not had as much time but that is not to say that other advocates are not active. It is important to mention that the aim of the events is simply to socialise with other people interested in science, so other than the hashtag there is no formal organisation and events tend to happen quite organically.

Having online communities is nothing new, they seem to appear and disappear like fairy lights (MySpace anyone? Google+?). The inherent connectivity provided by the web offers a very convenient way for people to meet others with common interests, or to seek out people to help them with problems or issues they face. However, there are many limitations to this end in terms of building a strong community. Meeting offline con address some of this issues. Online interactions are relatively easy to establish, but they tend to be transient – members don’t log back in or move to the latest networking tool. In that sense it becomes easier when the virtual space provided becomes a bit more tangible.

Going offline:

So why go offline? Being behind the computer screen provides with a certain sense of safety but there are benefits in going offline. First and foremost meeting people we chat with online makes them real. The anonymity of the internet provides a the ease of starting a relationship but there is nothing like a handshake to consolidates it. Spending some time actually chatting in a conversation down the pub for example, rather than reading each individual utterance in your twitter timeline, allows for what I would call true bonding. Participants leave feeling that they have truly connected with peers – for instance by learning finer details about them than an online discussion permits.

Having eye contact when someone and being able to read their body-language makes a huge difference – and can increase or decrease the interaction with that person. Given that members presumably have interacted online in the past makes it much easier than meeting complete strangers and things flow much quicker.

If I were asked about my top tips to build an online-offline community I would have to include:

  1. Define a purpose or a cause the group cares about: In the case of UKSciTweetup is science, in a very general definition of the word. The group includes a bunch of physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and most importantly their friends (as we like to put it).
  2. Build conversation: in the case of UKScitTweetup engaging with the community happens naturally (via twitter) and using the same logic of being free to follow/unfollow people. UKSciTweetup is open to anyone that engages in the conversation and turn up at the pub. This opens up the doors to the members to feel that they have an opportunity to be involved in the overall running of the events and this therefore translates into a more cohesive community.
  3. Building momentum: Momentum is a huge factor and keeping it going can be a hard thing to do. Once you get some steam, things flow much better and people get more involved. Nonetheless, this is easier said than done. Creating events and meetups for the online community is a great way to keep things going.
  4. Give people the opportunity to volunteer: If people feel like they can contribute and are keen to participate, the benefit is for the community. Things can be as simple as making recommendations, organise parts of meetups or simply disseminate information. (Anyone interested in organising the next event BTW?).

It is obvious that we are now in an era of online culture. However, that does not mean that we cannot build or leverage an offline community to help the online one or vice versa. It might sound a bit confusing, but there are common features in both and these should be exploited to benefit the community.

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