Recently, the NY Times had an article discussing the concept of “ambient awareness”, or as the article puts it, “incessant online contact”. Now, first off, I have to admit that I’m one of the over-30-year-olds the article mentions, who finds the concept of subjecting others to (and being subjected to) a stream of trivial details about one’s day completely unappealing. The proponents of Twitter and FriendFeed and the like feel that they’re getting a more intimate understanding of people, “something raw about my friends,” as one user puts it. I’m more in line with the critics quoted in the article that the end result is more “parasocial” than social, and that it ends up an extension of reading gossip magazines and following celebrities from afar.

So how do these new practices apply to the world of science research?
—article continues—

The Times article reminded me of this study, which notes that much of the activity spent online is not really about social interactions, it’s instead focused on creating a digital identity, a representation of how you want the world to see you, literally a way to “write ourselves into being.” There’s something important in there for the science community, creating an online identity is of growing importance, whether you do it through your lab’s web page, your set of tagged articles on Digg, your blog about your research or personal interests or your photos on Flickr. When people are interested in asking you to give a talk, hiring you, joining your lab, or collaborating with you, they’re going to look you up via Google, and as the Times article points out, there’s a danger in not participating, and thus not controlling your online image:

“This is a common complaint I heard, particularly from people in their 20s who were in college when Facebook appeared and have never lived as adults without online awareness. For them, participation isn’t optional. If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world.”

So while I do think creating a digital identity is important, the question then becomes, should we all be constantly tweeting our daily activities (“Did 20 minipreps. Had a cup of coffee.”)? As I’ve frequently written in the past, to me it’s a question of time management and personality type. There does seem to be a growing group of biologists on Friendfeed (many are the usual bloggers and web 2.0 evangelists one seems to see everywhere). Lurking around the site, there are occasionally helpful, if shallow, discussions of methods and daily laboratory activities, but the majority of it seems to be chatting about the news, web 2.0, life as a scientist, etc. If you’re of a personality type that enjoys this sort of chatting (and yes, I am one), I can see how joining an online community like this could be fun. I’m not convinced that it’s the best tool for getting your specific question answered in an accurate and immediate manner. It seems more about social interaction than it is a practical resource for the work parts of your life.

Serendipity may allow you to stumble across new avenues of research and new colleagues, but when you need to know exactly what concentration of KCl to use in your buffer, you can’t just wait around hoping someone will come along with the answer. You’re always going to need to strike a balance between the random drift of crowdsurfing and directed inquiries and communications with trusted sources and collaborators. I also worry about the time commitment that so many seem to put into such efforts. I can’t even begin to ponder devoting time to reading the minutiae of a few hundred graduate students’ lives, let alone writing up my own. But that’s me, I’m old and stodgy.

There’s also this cautionary tale about living your scientific life in the open. Here, scientists discussed preliminary data at meetings and audience members took photos of the talk slides and referred to that data in papers before the data was published (a good discussion of the ethics involved can be found here). It’s unclear if the originator of the data will be able to publish it, now that it’s already out elsewhere. And while many will argue that information should be set free, in the practical world of building a career and sustaining a lab, losing the opportunity to exploit your own hard work is a big setback. Ethically, I suppose what matters in this case is the policy established for that particular meeting. Most meetings have specific sets of rules regarding republication of material presented, and as a speaker, you should always know the policy before putting together your talk (“caveat orator” as it were). Most conferences want to encourage the discussion of unpublished data (it’s always more interesting to hear about than older results that you’ve already seen). As an example, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has the following notice given to meeting attendees:

These abstracts should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communications and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.
Please note that recording of oral sessions by audio, video or still photography is strictly prohibited except with the advance permission of the author(s), the organizers and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

So theoretically, at least, you have some measure of protection in place when discussing unpublished results at such a meeting (assuming your colleagues are ethical or at least unwilling to face the wrath of the community). In the wild west of the internet, you have no such safety net, and your blog postings, tweets and whatever technology comes along in the next five minutes are fair game. And no, having a time stamp on a blog entry will not protect you or your career if someone else sees your data and figures out what it means before you do. Credit is given to the person who makes the intellectual leap, not necessarily the person who collected the data that enabled that leap.