Kicking and Screaming into the Online Age…

My friend Martin Fenner has a post up at his blog at Nature Networks, about convincing scientists to become familiar with and ACTUALLY use online tools, services and such, and this post and topic struck a chord with me.

See, since I started blogging, experimenting with Facebook, Twitter, Google (docs, apps, sites, reader… and maybe ?wave?, what WILL they think of next) etc….  I’ve realized the enormous power of the online community, online tools, online conversation for gathering information, for discussion, and for frequent communication between isolated small groups – and how much more powerful it could be if more of the scientific community participated in it.

But it’s not easy to drag what I affectionately call the Ol’ boys (and girls, basically everyone senior to me) into this new-fangled way of communicatin’. This was really in my face a few weeks ago when I was at the ASM General Meeting in Philadelphia… and I mentioned to several people… well placed people in a position to fix this grievous oversight… that ASM Journals should HAVE RSS feeds, so I can get them in my Google Reader!!!

I was universally met with:

What’s an RSS feed? What’s Google Reader?

UUUUgh. See.RSS.Definition.Here. See.Google. Reader. Definition. Here. Yes, these are wikipedia definitions… but you get the idea.

What’s my point? I suppose my point is that with this audience we can’t start the conversation about online tools with Twitter, or FriendFeed, or even Blogs, … or Nature Networks…or Scienceblogs… or whatever… Because the divide between those of us that use online technology … and those that don’t – is so deep that those of us that are online a lot have forgotten what the baseline is. Us somewhat online-savvy people (and I’m only in my infancy as far as online savvy is concerned)- forgot what it was like to start out, forgot what the activation energy actually was to learning to use this new medium…

The conversation to convince scientists to start using online communities and tools more has to begin with something much much simpler. Someplace where people can see the usefulness of spending their time online. They can’t always see the usefulness of places like Twitter right off because it is too radical a departure from the way they may be used to doing business.  But… RSS feeds,… and Google reader… might be a great place to introduce people to online technologies that have an immediate usefulness in getting journal updates immediately as they become available and collecting them all in one place.

Once they graduate from this level… their activation energy to using other online tools.. blogs,  and communities should be lower…


43 thoughts on “Kicking and Screaming into the Online Age…

  1. I got a somewhat similar reaction to my recent suggestion that a group use Google docs for brainstorming ideas for a grant proposal. I’d add gooogle docs to my personal wish list of elementary things scientists should know about on-line communication. So eminently practical for so many things.

  2. I just want to say, how awesome it is to apply the phrase “activation energy” to the input required for learning a new method.

  3. ScienceWoman- I have a colleague who is an ardent devotee of google docs and google sites. I just realized that they have academic sites and my institution has one. My colleague recently showed me how this works and that they can do all kinds of departmental type things on this site. He/she has a real command center set up in there- complete with electronic lab notebooks and much other stuff. I am trying to set up my own for my own lab, and for use with my bazillion collaborators… let’s see how many I can get to use it! I think it should be awesome to use for brainstorming on grant proposals, for editing drafts etc etc.

    Becca- Thanks!

    C PP- I’m not sayin I love twitter or anything- but I do think that people can’t fully appreciate these online technologies until they try them out and see what they are useful for. Many faculty I know are not at all interested in even attempting to use something as simple and easy to set up as RSS feeds and google reader. Which- really- if I can figure that out- so can just about anyone!

  4. Elsevier has RSS feeds for all its journals (or at least the ones that interest me), and has a sharing facility for community (group) based interaction in the mix. Use the former regularly, havnt tried the latter. google docs rules, however, particularly if you have your research group strewn across three continents.

  5. Excellent ideas. I would LOVE to see TOCs appear in my Google Reader. And I have a ton of trouble getting people to use regular lab notebooks. An online google doc thingy might do the trick. Is there any info anywhere on how exactly that works?

  6. Oak- I’m working on setting up electronic notebooks using google docs or sites. It is a good time for this now since I had to pare down the personnel and now we are going to have an expansion again- so the timing for a transition is reasonable. I also have collaborators all over the country and around the world, so this should be useful for managing data from everywhere!

    Scicurious- I haven’t looked for info about how to set up google docs/sites as an electronic lab notebook, but I know someone who has made an art form out of this so I’m just going to pick that persons brain. I’ll post about what I learn at some point, just for you. 🙂

  7. We had a webinar yesterday in my department for using online tools for social networking in recruitment/etc. It was pretty well attended! But mostly by us young’uns.

    I just started a Facebook group for the class I am teaching this fall. I’m going to try an experiment to see if linking to course documents and the course website, providing status updates with assignment info and reading requirements for the next day’s class, etc. will help the students keep up. They spend a lot more time on Facebook than they do on the class website, heck–I watched more than one student sit on Facebook on their laptops throughout the class period last year.

  8. Arlenna-

    A ‘webinar’ -oh that’s cool. I love that.

    My colleague who uses google docs/sites academic site for his/her institution has his entire course material on that site accessible to students- with links to readings etc. It’s pretty awesome. I imagine that you could use facebook for this too- but would you have to be careful about distributing copyrighted material there? In an academic site you don’t, because it has restricted access… but I agree- key to choose tools that the kids will actually USE!

  9. From another perspective, the advances in online technology are of huge benefit to disabled people like me who have problems to communicate. I have great difficulty with telephone conversations and so at work all my communication is done either personally or via email. Sometimes it’s really tedious, takes days to solve problems that could probably be done over the phone in 5 mins and people are not always agreeable. At home though I communicate with friends and family by chatting via Skype or messenger. Funnily I’ve never really considered doing this at work as it felt inappropriate and not sure how many people actually communicate via chat for work purposes. Since many employers frown upon the use of social networking sites at work, I’m just wondering how acceptable this form of communication may be.

  10. I told my boss that I’d switched most of my TOC alerts to RSS feeds, and now he’s a convert too! (He’d heard of it but never taken the time to switch everything over). And we use Google Docs for project tracking etc.

  11. I personally wouldn’t use Google Docs for any research activities. It has nothing to do with resistance to technology for me: there’s simply no guarantee of privacy, security, or even persistence when people within Google can see your work, as is possible for Docs. There are other tools for remote collaboration (not web-based) that have been around longer and guarantee security and privacy (up to the guarantees provided by underlying network protocols).

    Of course, my research is fairly close to what some people at Google are doing, so that may feed my paranoia more than it would for someone in a completely different field.

  12. BikeMonkey, I am interested in your stated distinction. Care to elaborate?

    I’m definitely a fan of Google Docs for sharing ideas between collaborators. There are other sites that can work for this as well. On our last paper, we didn’t use it for actual manuscript writing, but more for organizing the flow of results as they came in.

    I like Google Sites too for storing information as well. I have a personal one where I keep information about reagents, protocols, etc. I just wish the integration with other Google stuff was better. Like if I could add the same label or tags to an object (email, text document in Docs, a page in sites) then I could pull them all up from a single location. That way when I was reviewing a project, I’d just select that tag, and all items with that would be in a list.

  13. What a thoughtful post! I do see a huge divide within my own department between those who are online and those who aren’t. I do worry a little about the ones who refuse to engage with any online technologies…because the times, they are a-changin’.

  14. “I am a huge believer in RSS feeds and news readers. But I think Twitter is a ridiculous distracting waste of my motherfucking time.”

    I was right with you up until the recent craziness in Iran, where (perhaps only temporarily) Twitter has gained a relevance beyond simply being another more immediate outlet for the Me! phenomenon.

  15. DSKS- Twitter is a funny place. Everyone that I talk to about it here says the same thing- that they don’t want to read about some random thing someone posted on twitter… like what kind of ham they had in their sandwich. BUT- I say, what you get from twitter depends on who you follow- what crowd you run with, as it were. I don’t follow anyone who posts excuse me tweets, about that kind of stuff-and for me the jury on twitter is still out… I’ll continue to experiment with it though.

    And I do also agree that we can’t necessarily predict every usefulness of twitter (and other online technologies) in advance – and I cite the recent situation in Iran -as have you. And isn’t this the same thing we are always saying about basic biological research- you should do it because you may learn something interesting, and not necessarily because you can see the end product immediately, or you can predict in advance what the end product (or the ultimate use) in this case, should be?

  16. Yeah, I got that distinction, and was confused, given my gut feeling was that RSS was a “pull” technology. Still wondering why BM thinks it’s a waste of time.

  17. “Push services are often based on information preferences expressed in advance. This is called a publish/subscribe model. A client might “subscribe” to various information “channels”. Whenever new content is available on one of those channels, the server would push that information out to the user.”

    “Pull technology or client pull is a style of network communication where the initial request for data originates from the client,”

  18. ok, so maybe an RSS feed of a pubmed search I specify (like “PhysioProf C[au]” is a pull, because I delimited what can possibly be sent to me.

    But just subscribing to some RSS feed that pushes out the entire TOCs of a journal is a push?

    I can grok that I think. What are some other science related “pull” technologies that you use? If things like article tagging and nearest neighbors worked I might be able to use that kind of set up to pull what would be interesting to me. Just seems like the network of scientists who actually use these aren’t yet sufficient to get the job done.

    I do agree that much of what rolls through the RSS feed can be irrelevant to me, I still use it because a) I don’t a priori know that it’s irrelevant, and 2) the filtering process to determine relevance isn’t unduly time consuming now. That could change though.

  19. You have a single reader and all the feeds pushed at you. That’s all I’m saying. Every kind of content. Push, Push, Push.

    In contrast, oldskoole technique of separate email updates and browser links means that you intentionally go and seek a particular kind of content at a particular time. Pull.

  20. Bikemonkey- but that’s not really how feed aggregators work- the reader periodically goes and asks the sites you load if there is updated information – this is technically a pull. TOC (table of contents for those of you that are wondering what the hell we are going on about) is a push, period. The result though is the same, you get unfiltered table of contents information. This is in contrast to having a periodic pubmed search with particular search terms dump only the content you want. I don’t like this as much because I can’t necessarily predict in advance what search terms will yield me everything that’s interesting to me. Especially when I’m working across fields and don’t really know all the best search terms to pull the information that I want.

    At some point it is personal preference, I think- and maybe some combination is the best.

  21. You have a single reader and all the feeds pushed at you. That’s all I’m saying. Every kind of content. Push, Push, Push.

    In contrast, oldskoole technique of separate email updates and browser links means that you intentionally go and seek a particular kind of content at a particular time. Pull.

    You’ve totally lost me in the distinction again.

    For both, the client subscribes. Either to the RSS feed, or the eTOC list.

    As the client, you recieve the output, but you have no control over when it’s delivered. It just arrives in your reader or you email inbox.

    As the client, you review what’s pushed out, and decide what warrants further examination. That’s a Pull.

    They appear identical to me.

    But the reader technology is much easier to mark/tag specific items for later examination.

    So, over the course of a couple weeks, as feeds of TOCs come through, I tag some with “Read_Review_TRPVs” for example. Since I don’t directly work on these channels now, I want to keep aware of the literature, but not daily. So, for an hour or so every week, I go to Reader, get everything labeled “Read_Review_TRPVs” and check them more closely, removing the tag (or altering it, as I progress).

    (And actually I don’t just get these from TOCs, but rather from a whole group of RRS Pubmed searches, “TRPV1”, “TRPV2” etc.)

    If I were to try and do that from emails it’d be a nightmare, because I’d have to search for the specific citation within a whole list. Certainly doable with gmail and labels and the excellent search, but not easier.

  22. Thanks for the post and for mentioning my blog. Most of the technologies that we talk about here weren’t even considered when we first met more than 10 years ago.

    And I agree that RSS is extremely helpful but unknown to a large number of scientists.

  23. Hi Martin! Sure, it’s my pleasure! Your post made me think about this issue quite a bit- and about starting in baby steps. And… geez- I wish it was only 10 years ago when we met – email was barely even in use!

  24. I made no comment on what might work for anyone else. I am, however, correct in the fundamental analysis. Which, when it comes down to drdrA and Nat’s curious obsession with the terms I use, exists whether you like “pull/push” or not.

    you guys got way too excited over a comment intended primarily to f*ck with PP….

  25. Silly me. It’s almost as if I sincerely wanted to learn more about what you were saying BM. Thought you might have a way of working that would help me not waste my motherf*cking time. Cause with two kids ping ponging fever causing sicknesses, I sure could use that.

    I am, however, correct in the fundamental analysis.

    Sure, if you sorta completely ignore my last comment. Or any of DrDrA’s.

    Which, when it comes down to drdrA and Nat’s curious obsession with the terms I use, exists whether you like “pull/push” or not.

    Got me again! I guess I thought those terms have meaning independent of what’s in BM’s head. (which just happens to run counter to what these terms mean to, say, a lot of other people.)

    Ok, this might be unnecessarily snarky, but really BM, I don’t understand the tone of your last comment given my (or DrDrA’s) previous comments.

  26. whether you have the appropriate use of “pull/push” is just semantics Nat. and you seem hung up on semantics. this is almost always an error.

    The point of RSS feeds is that you aggregate everything in one place and as soon as you venture to Reader it all gets pushed at you at once. This differs fundamentally from the pull behavior of seeking different kinds of information from different platforms. Much easier to just categorically insulate from blogs, say, if your TOCs come by email.

  27. Nat and bikemonkey- Yikes, guys. I get your points, good ones all around. We’re just talkin’!

    It seems obvious that everyone has a personal preference where and how they want content delivered, mixed, or kept separate. For me, it’s easy to use a reader- I can still keep the feeds I want to look at separate from each other – so the content from multiple feeds and categories is not in the same folder. I’ve learned that there are certain things I just have to cut- I can’t get a feed from the NYT because it crowds up everything with so much content I never have time to look at. Less efficient than just looking at just what I know I’m going to look at, which is the front page, the science page, and the opinion page. Now for the ASM journals that I love, I want to scan the TOC, all of it. Better to have it in my reader than crowded email inbox. I’ve also discovered that I can get RSS feeds of the pubmed searches that I want delivered to my reader as well. So, now I’ve got the science stuff all in one place it helps me stay on top of things in real time.

    Bikemonkey’s way is different, hell, DrMrA’s way is different- that means only that it works for them. I describe an alternate way that works for ME.

  28. “whether you have the appropriate use of “pull/push” is just semantics Nat. and you seem hung up on semantics. this is almost always an error. “

    Wait! I have the correct use, but it’s my error to get hung up on the semantics.


    You’re one funny motherf*cker BM!

  29. no, you are incorrect Nat. See the Wikipedia articles drdrA mentioned and the quotes I pulled from them. Clear as crystal. …but still besides the point which is why I haven’t been belaboring the fact that you still have the semantics wrong.

  30. I”m not “ignoring” your comment, just failing to point out the screamingly obvious lack of logic. since you seem interested, however…

    As the client, you recieve the output, but you have no control over when it’s delivered. It just arrives in your reader or you email inbox.

    As the client, you review what’s pushed out, and decide what warrants further examination. That’s a Pull.

    By this definition, there is no such thing as Push. Because until we have to tech to involuntarily insert things into your brain, there is always the individual choice to, say, open one’s eyes, read/not read, etc.

    Now, what part of that Wiki definition of “push” does not apply to RSS?

  31. Getting back to the original intent of this post (I think), there are two other sites/services that I find hugely helpful. One is Evernote and the other is LabLife. The latter has been especially helpful to me as a newbie getting her group together.

  32. Well, this exchange has been useful, as I’ve learned two things. 1) What push and pull technologies really mean, and 2) That BM and Nat are not likely to be BFF anytime soon.

    BM, I was only interested in the semantics because your first comment explicitly laid out the distinction, where push was a waste of your time, and pull wasn’t. This seemed to be your main point in that comment, and not beside it. I was a little fuzzy on the difference myself, which is why I asked you to clarify.

    (And as an aside, “just semantics” is what happens when people agree about 95% of a term’s meaning, and then argue about the other 5%. This is not a case of “just semantics”)

    As for the wikipedia definitions, how did you miss this part of the pull technologies one? “…Most web feeds, such as RSS are technically pulled by the client. With RSS, the user’s RSS reader polls the server periodically for new content; the server does not send information to the client unrequested.

    Or from the push technology wikipedia page:
    Another popular type of Internet push technology was PointCast Network, which gained popularity in the 1990s. It delivered news and stockmarket data. Both Netscape and Microsoft integrated it into their software at the height of the browser wars, but it later faded away and was replaced in the 2000s with RSS (a pull technology).

    I think the confusion (and I had the same) is that you are mistaking client for the user, which is not the case in this context. The client is the software that the user uses to get stuff from the server (e.g. RSS aggregator, or email client). Push and pull technologies refer to how these two pieces of software exchange information. As such, the details of this exchange are essentially opaque to the user, and matter only to those people programming, and optimizing, the exchange.

    So, push means the server initiates the data sending, whether the client is ready or available, and whether or not the user wants it at that time. A pull is where the client sends a request for new information to the server. If there’s something new, then the server will send it to the client. Both of these presuppose that the user has installed the client software.

    Thus it’s understandable why my comparison of Feed Aggregator + TOC RSS feed and Email Reader + email TOCs is so similar. Both the RSS feed and email protocol are pull. Sometimes they seem like push, in that the updates appear to come realtime, but that’s only because each periodically polls their server to check for updates. (The simple fact that the feed aggregator as a “refresh” shows that it must not be using push; instead the refresh is a way to let the user force the client to poll the server for updates. Same as “check mail”).

  33. Nat you are correct that I was referring to the user interaction, not the tech. Which as you admit nobody gives a hoot about, save tech dweebs.

  34. I’m late to the party, but may I encourage you, if you are looking at setting up an online lab notebook, to check out OpenWetWare? ( I have my lab’s page there, see if you can find it! 🙂

    And I was looking for the term “activation energy” for ages – thanks for finding it for me, again. I used the ugly term “energy hump” instead because I couldn’t remember it:

    I can never quite remember html markup; sorry.

  35. These things will come in time … when those who are savvy enough become Editors of the respective journals and push for the inclusion of these tools.

  36. drdrA – I’m working on setting up electronic notebooks using google docs or sites.

    Yah uhhh … you may want to reconsider this if Google doesn’t have great time stamping capabilities (which cannot be tampered with) on them. If not, upon patent challenge it’ll never hold up. I’m looking into electronic notebook systems where I have control (software installed on MY server at MY location). They’re unfortunately expensive to install (~$12,000 +$1,000 per user) but become relatively cheap (~$200 per user per year) after that.

  37. Great post! Reminds me of a conversation I had when I was a grad student with a professor who was about halfway between my generation and my parents’ generation. I told him I don’t subscribe to print newspapers because I read all my news online, and he said he has tried reading them online but just didn’t like it as much as reading it in print. I think sometimes the problem isn’t failure to understand how to use the new technology, but rather not being able to get used to a different way of doing something.

    Incidentally, I use Google Reader all the time to read blogs, but still get journal TOCs by email simply because I never got around to switching to RSS feeds. Talk about lacking activation energy!

  38. @New Asst. Prof – I’ve played around with Evernote a bit, though not terribly much, as the desktop client conflicts with my choice of firewall. Can you expand on how you use it? For saving project related stuff as you browse the web, or it is easy to integrate that with other files and stuff (to organize all related items easily, regardless of what the file actually is?).

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