….or has that boat already sailed?

I’ve read many a blog posting or magazine article declaring that scientists are behind the curve, and we biologists have been slow to pick up the new online tools that are available. I’ve repeatedly asked for examples of other professions that are ahead of the curve that we can use as models (are there social networks of bakers sharing recipes and discussing ovens?), but haven’t seen much offered in response. I tend to think that it’s not a question of scientists being slow, it’s that the tools being offered aren’t very appealing. Note how quickly scientists moved from paper journals to online versions, which only took as long as it did because of the slow progress on the part of journal publishers getting their articles up on the web. The advantages of online journals were obvious, and in comparison, the advantages of joining “Myspace for scientists” are less evident.

Are social networks (“Meet collaborators! Discuss papers!”) ever going to see heavy use from the biology community? Or are we starting to see that they’ve run their course in general, and scientists were prescient in not wasting their time?
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I have a friend who is predicting that the next, post-myspace generation is going to lead a backlash against the rampant exhibitionism of todays’ teens, the ones who grew up watching so much reality television. He’s predicting a radical privacy movement, where people start zealously guarding their information, rather than feeling a need to constantly spew it online. I’m not sure things will go that far, but we are seeing a movement away from completely open sharing and networking to smaller, more directed private efforts. Growth in social networks appears to have plateaued and is now declining. Layoffs are hitting the social media workplace. Wired Magazine has an article this month, about the death of blogs, and notes that well-known blogger Jason Calcanis has given up his public blog and now instead writes a private mailing list:

“Blogging is simply too big, too impersonal, and lacks the intimacy that drew me to it,” he wrote in his final post…That’s why Calacanis has retreated to a private mailing list. He can talk to his fans directly, without having to suffer idiotic retorts from anonymous Jason-haters.

Slashdot recently had a thread on personal privacy, and I was surprised at how many responded that they’d created Facebook accounts just so they could go in and remove tags and delete other people’s references to themselves. It reminded me of the NY Times article I blogged about here, with this warning about social networks:

“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, is there a backlash that’s beginning? Is the Myspace generation going to enter the working world and change everything, or are they already leaving these networks behind? As I’ve said often, we will see many aspects of Web 2.0 and social networking trickling into our daily lives, but only where they make sense and present a clear advantage. Most of what’s being offered to scientists right now fails on those counts. It’s not just a matter of time before the kids come in and take over, it’s a matter of having limited time, energy and attention spans and demanding they be put to something productive. While there is power in serendipity and casting a wide web, directed approaches are still more efficient and reliable, and right now, that trumps being ahead of the curve.

I’ll leave you with two opposing viewpoints, the first posted to an Ars Technica article on social networking for scientists, from the creator of LabSpaces:

“Even my boss, who is a leading researcher in the field of transcription, thinks that my website is not useful and doesn’t understand why science should spread to such media when scientific meetings, e-mail, and regular reading of literature spur great collaborations. Maybe I’m drinking my own kool-aid here, but I think these sites have a place, but I don’t think they’re going to be seen as effective until the current class of graduate students and post-docs become true scientists in their field. Technophobia is surprisingly rampant in science, I just hope the facebook/myspace generation can start to turn that around.”

The second, from writer Warren Ellis, discussing the attitudes held by his now 13 year old daughter, perhaps at the vanguard of the post-facebook/myspace generation:

Having accounts on social network services is evidently “sad.”