Why are we so impatient about new web technology?

Look, I can use a web meme too! I R teh funnay!David Crotty from CSHL, who I’ve corresponded with before, has again published an obituary for Science Web 2.0. I think this is premature but typical of how the media cycle works, especially on the web where the youthful perspective predominates. I’ll get back to this, but permit me, on the occasion of Castro’s resignation, a brief philosophical detour.

I’m a scientist because I like to think about things in a critical fashion. This is entirely different from simply being a critic. A critic often simply repeats obvious shortcomings of his subject, whereas thinking critically means taking your analysis to a more detailed level, considering how well the reality of something corresponds to your conception of that thing. For example, you might look at a purple object and make the observation that the object is purple. A critical examination, however, might reveal that the object is instead composed of small red and blue subunits. If you were in a hurry to report your findings, as we so often are, you’d probably report that the object was purple and move on, and this is often the right thing to do. It could be more important to make a rapid, more or less in-the-ballpark judgment than to make a more slow, but more accurate determination. Most reporting, and in fact, most decision-making, in this fast-paced world is of the rapid, less accurate type. My nature is to tend towards the slow, careful analysis, so now that we’ve gotten the jackrabbit judgments of how well Web 2.0 works for scientists, let me add my turtle-like analysis of the situation.

There is no “out with the old, in with the new” for ideas, only for people.

No one should even expect established scientists to give up their established processes for the new way of doing things. Architects didn’t throw out their drafting tables en masse when CAD programs came on the scene, and lawyers still keep legal libraries to this day, at great expense, when the legal databases are more up-to-date and easier to search. Perhaps I’m echoing a bit of Thomas Kuhn here, but new tools are used by the people who had them available as they were learning, and greater adoption comes from a greater number of these people getting into science, rather than a greater number of people already in science becoming those people. If your service can’t wait that long, well, sucks to be you, but it really doesn’t take that much of an investment to keep a website up. I don’t know how much money Nature is losing on Connotea and related services, but I’d imagine it’s a pretty good marketing tool, no matter how much banner ad revenue it generates, so it should fit fairly nicely in the marketing budget. There’s no way to quantify goodwill and brand exposure, unfortunately.

Evolution will answer the question far more definitively than a thousand bloggers ever could.

Those with a more winning strategy, perhaps more effectively leveraging Web 2.0-type information management techniques, will be more successful, and come to make up a larger proportion of scientists, even in the absence of inter-scientist communication.

Speaking of inter-scientist communication…

It’s slow. Scientists are slow to exchange critical data with close collaborators, forget about them talking about their processes and how to be productive. I still think there’s tremendous potential in speeding up the exchange of information, and it’d be a shame to prematurely declare the death of this potential.

Web 2.0 is all about aggregating, filtering and sharing information

This isn’t the first time this has been said. Hell, it’s not even the thousandth. If you haven’t “gotten” it by now, one more post isn’t going to change anything. I could go on and talk about how I use Connotea and Zotero and what blogging has done for me personally, but before you really understand what we’re talking about (before you can become a critical thinker, instead of just a critic), you have to go try some things out. Everyone has different needs, different ways of working, and finds different things useful, so my experience probably isn’t all that applicable. Just as everyone can’t use the same investing strategy and expect to make a profit, not everyone will get the same return on the the same investment of attention, and the only constant is that an investment of nothing, a risk of nothing, can produce only a return of nothing, and who would listen to a financial advisor that doesn’t invest, anyways?

Start a blog, start bookmarking things with del.icio.us or Connotea, subscribe to a bunch of feeds from people who are saying things you find interesting, maybe even turn that online protocol site that no one visited into a wiki. You just might find something that gives you an edge.

5 thoughts on “Why are we so impatient about new web technology?

  1. Hey! I wouldn’t call it an “obituary” (I did use the present tense in the headline, not the past). My talk was meant to look at the current low levels of participation and to stimulate thought on how we can improve that. I think we both agree that better tools will lead to more adoption.

    I also think you need to look at my comments in context. They were delivered to a meeting of science publishers. Science publishers tend to need their business efforts to make money (or at least in the case of us not-for-profits, to not lose money). It’s wise for users to take the long view. That’s certainly what most scientists are waiting for, for the evolutionary process you describe to happen, for the losers to be weeded out, then they’ll put in the efforts required. From the point of view of a commercial enterprise looking to monetize these sites, that lack of participation is currently a failure in the system. No users means no content means no advertising revenue.

    And don’t kid yourself, the big publishing corporations are not creating these sites for charitable reasons. They may be hiring great visionary people but if the sites don’t make money, eventually they’ll pull the plug. If you’re a giant in the publishing world, you can probably go ahead and funnel cash into the long game like this, and be willing to lose money for many years in hopes of one day making it back and then some. That’s not an option smaller publishers can afford. It’s unclear to me if these tools will ever be profit centers for publshers, if they’ll ever see the requisite traffic and if ad revenue is really a business model that they’ll support. As you say, only time will tell, they may be better off being created by communities and grant supported rather than being run by publishers for profit. That’s one of the take-home lessons I presented to the publishing audience–despite all the hype there’s not a lot of money being made from these sites, so understand that before you jump in without a solid business plan.

  2. Thanks, David, for emphasizing that last point. We all want to avoid the scenario where everyone jumps on some new trend only to can it when the hype fades because it didn’t exceed their wildest expectations. My field is particularly sensitive to this, because of all the hope and hype surrounding stem cells. We don’t want to happen to us what happened to the adenoviral gene therapy people.

    Another likely scenario is that the sites never become huge sources of revenue in themselves, but remain very effective as marketing tools. Every time someone talks about web tools for scientists, Nature gets mentioned, and generally quite favorably. Perhaps one of my more well-positioned readers can comment on what the thinking is at Nature on this, but they’re definitely not doing it for charitable reasons.

    This stuff can be done on a community level, though, too. It’s not that expensive to host a site, and there are plenty of good web designers around. Maybe you’ll never be the next Facebook or whatever without hiring serious designers and laying out real money, but good enough is good enough until that time comes, right?

    Personally, I’m just thrilled that CSHL has someone who seems to get it, and I’m just teasing about the obituary. If El Reg can do it, why can’t I? 😉

  3. No problem, I’m certainly willing to take all the abuse I deserve. I do think there’s room for using these tools strictly for promotional purposes. I do think of my blog as a marketing tool for my journal (when I’m not spouting off on web technology, I’m usually trying to highlight published methods). I do think it’s important though, for a publisher to understand that’s what they’re doing in advance, rather than assuming they’ll create some huge community site and figure out a business model later.
    To me, community sites like FlyBase, WormBase and ZFin have succeeded in getting buy-in from users in ways that commercial sites haven’t. Perhaps there’s more kudos, more positive credit in the eyes of the community seen for contributing there than there is for leaving a comment on a paper at a journal.
    What I’m most interested in though, is creating tools that can be used now, that are compelling enough to overcome the inertia we currently see. Yes, long term these practices will trickle through to the mainstream. But is there an iPod, something obvious we could be adding to our journal sites that would immediately enhance our users’ experience. That’s a tough challenge, but we’ve got some irons in the fire, so we’ll see. I’m really trying to focus on tools that don’t require huge efforts on the part of the user, trying to get those efforts made through other channels and for the end user, they get a tool that improves efficiency rather than asks for a time sacrifice.

  4. Pingback: Bench Marks » Blog Archive » Web 2.0 for Biologists–Are any of the current tools worth using?

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