Why did we implement Facebook-ish “likes”?

In the MBSJ2012 system, we implemented a Facebook-ish “likes” feature. To our knowledge, this is the very first time that anyone has used a “likes” system in any kind of conference system, including areas outside of the life-sciences or even broader science.

Why did we do it? Why did we think that “likes” would be beneficial to a scientific conference? Who did we think would benefit from “likes” and in what situations? In the following, I would like to give my personal account.

Conferences are, almost by definition, social events

First of all, I would like to start by mentioning that we did not start by simply copying a popular feature on social network systems. Introducing a “like” system is the result of a team of researchers constantly thinking about how to make conferences better. It is a result of really bright people who are trying to understand the essence of scientific discovery, and how this process can be accelerated. A huge amount of thought went into this system.

That being said, there is a simple inevitableness about the “likes” system. Namely conferences, almost by definition, are social events. Conferences are where scientists come together to meet each other in person. For some people, getting together and seeing how each of us is doing is more important than the scientific program itself. Not because we’re lonely, but because getting together itself actually moves science forward.

Hence, combining concepts derived from social network systems have a good chance of being a good match. In the following, I would like to elaborate on this hunch and discuss this more specifically.

Innovation is often the result of people meeting each other

Innovation often stems from random ideas that bounce between people as they discuss an issue. These conversations can give us new perspectives or reinforce our own ideas. In fact, the idea of a new, vastly improved conference IT system itself (Ponzu) was borne out of lighthearted chatting between myself and some DBCLS people.

Steve Jobs himself regarded “random encounters” as key to innovation and creativity, and designed the Pixar headquarters so that people would constantly bump into each other.

There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.

The beauty of Facebook-ish “likes” is the extremely low hurdle; you simply push a button. You don’t have to think of any clever comments. You just push it. Because of its extreme simplicity, “likes” are probably the most effective way of creating a network between people.

However, as opposed to the easiness of pushing a “like” button, the recipients of “likes” are often genuinely delighted. They will go through the list of people who “liked” their presentations, try to find out who they are and why they may be interested in your research. They are your list of people who you might have an interesting discussion with. They are your potential collaborators.

“Likes” are as easy as saying “Hi!” when you bump into somebody in the toilet. They are the “random encounters” in Steve Jobs’ office design. Instead of “asking what they’re doing”, the Ponzu system allows you to look up their profile page and see what presentations they are going to give. If you want to “cook up all sorts of ideas”, you can go to their poster presentation and talk to them in person, or you could look up their email and send them a message.

We take “likes” very seriously. We think that they can be small catalysts of innovation.

“Likes” from high-profile researchers will encourage young people

As young researchers, we are often anxious of whether our research is meaningful; whether our peers find it interesting or not. We are worried that maybe nobody will come to our poster presentation. We want other people to recognize and congratulate us on our work.

Now imagine if you were young and a high-profile researcher “liked” your presentation. How would you feel?

I know how I would feel. I would be very happy. I’d check out what that researcher is doing and probably send him/her an email. I would very much like to ask that research what they liked about my research.

I would feel encouraged and gain confidence. Knowing that that person would likely be at next year’s conference, I would try make sure that I’d have even better results to show them. I’d put more effort into my work. I will be energized.

A simple “like” can encourage young researchers and maybe change their careers for the better. It’s worth thinking about.

“My Schedule” systems don’t get it

Although listening to presentations is a significant part of attending conferences, it is hardly the most interesting. The marginal benefit of listening as opposed to reading literature is hardly significant. The real value of conferences lies in the fact that the researcher is there in person, and waiting to reply to any question that you want to ask. Furthermore, you can discuss and you can chat. You can even go out with them for a drink.

The problem with “My Schedule” systems is that they only help you to listen. They make it easy for you to listen efficiently. They treat the presentations as books on a bookshelf. They are focused on benefitting the listeners but provide zero merit for the presenters. “My Schedules” are a one-way street. Presenters are not welcomed.

“My Schedule” systems might be beneficial if discussions are not necessary or welcome. They would be useful if each presentation was actually a product promotion where the presenters are on a prepared script. They however do not encourage bi-directional interaction and they do not promote discussions. They do not enhance the real joy of meeting researchers face-to-face, and do not heighten the magic of conferences.

In short, they don’t get it. They don’t appreciate the magic.

Conclusion

When devising the “like” system in MBSJ2012, we contemplated the meaning of conferences; what unique benefits they provide to the scientific community, where is the magic. The “like” system was simply one of the ways that we came up with to augment and enhance it.

Hence the “like” system is not an endpoint. Our goal is to make conferences wonderful and the “like” system is just a beginning. We will continue to draw inspiration from innovations in social interactions and integrate them. We will learn from people who, like Steve Jobs, created environments that nurtured innovation. There are still mountains of things to do.

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