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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
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Context and Identity in Science Writing #scio13ID

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As you now all know, my partner in crime Scicurious is much like the superhero Batwoman. Or maybe, she is trying to tell us something, and finally share with us her secret identity? I always wondered why she was hastily stuffing a cape into her backpack right before our Skype conversations…

My daughter dressed as Wordgirl for Halloween.

I may not be a superhero, but my daughter is. The kiddo as Wordgirl for Halloween.

Sci and I have taken pretty different approaches to our online identities. Sci keeps things close to the vest – yet many of my identities are quite clear to you. My age, gender and ethnicity are known, or easily assumed, from my profile picture. You know what I do and where I work. You know the composition of my family and the sport that is dear to my heart. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook (or the C&V Facebook page), you know even more about my life.

You know just enough about me that whatever stereotypes you hold about my various identities, depending on who you are and where you’re from, come to rest on my shoulders. This is an understandable and normal aspect of online communication – your brain wants to fill out the rest of who I am, and we’ve never met. This can have positive consequences, as the more you feel you know me the more you may trust my perspective, particularly if you feel we have anything in common. We may develop a warm acquaintance, or even friendship. Many of my closest and most valuable relationships have started or grown online. And I am constantly humbled by how some people perceive me as a role model.

The negative consequences, of course, are that if you disagree with me or aren’t a lot like me, you know exactly who to pin your anger on, and how to get under my skin. For a thirtysomething female like me, that means undercutting my authority, questioning my expertise, making sexual jokes, having an opinion on my reproductive decisions, and sometimes worse.

As Bora has recently brought up, and as I wrote about last year, moderating comments on the blog has made it so that my community has to see very little of this behavior. I can’t stop what happens on Twitter or Facebook, though. Despite the fact that setting up comment moderation on this blog helped create a brief resurgence of comments, a clunky commenting system and broader sea changes in online commenting have meant that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites are where all the conversation has gone.

To be honest, the comments that used to destroy me hardly bother me anymore. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to shrug off someone joking about how you might look without clothes when you can delete the comment before anyone else sees it. More recently, what troubles me more about these attacks is that because readers feel they know me, they may do a less close reading of my posts and make assumptions about the content.

The other issue I’ve noticed is that because I now blog for a network, whatever assumptions people hold about Scientific American also carry over to what people read here. The positive side to this is that SciAm holds some prestige, which might elevate my standing or the impact of my words. But in some cases their expectations for what readers think they should be reading at SciAm do not match the kind of material I cover here, which leads to sputtering, indignant rage.

Overall, I have found that sharing a lot of myself has on the whole been good from blogging, role-modeling and community-building perspectives. But I think the degree to which you share of yourself, and which parts of your identity you share, should be deliberate and based on the particular goals for your online presence.

And that’s really the point of Sci’s and my session. What identities do you share, and how do they enable or hold back your goals for communicating science? What identities do you hide and why – how do you curate your image? What audiences do you reach? And how does the way we control our identity online affect the diversity of online voices? What careers do you make look possible?

Our session is session 9A Saturday at noon EST in room 3. Last year was a hit, and we moderate well together (it might have something to do with the mind-clearing, crazy workouts we do — go on and scroll down), so I’m looking forward to it. We’re one of the sessions that will be recorded, so you can watch us on your own, or attend one of the Science Online Watch Parties popping up all over the country. Also follow the story at hashtag #scio13ID, and in the diversity carnival that will be hosted here after Science Online.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. scicurious 11:03 am 01/29/2013

    But…this post isn’t about SCIENCE! And by SCIENCE I mean PHYSICS or BIOENGINEERING.

    *sputters with incoherent rage*

    Great points Kate! Really looking forward to a good discussion at Scio!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Anne Jefferson 11:05 am 01/29/2013

    Really looking forward to this session. It’s something I’ve thought a fair bit about, but continue to struggle with. I’m quite interested to hear what others have to say.

    And, yes, we’ve always known that Sci is a superheroine. :)

    Link to this
  3. 3. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:34 pm 01/29/2013

    Thanks guys! I read this post the other day, and realized it might be a good one to read/think about: http://www.newstatesman.com/media/2013/01/misogyny-intimidation-silencing-realities-online-bullying

    I’d also like to look into whether there is any online bullying related to race or ethnicity. I’d appreciate any links/stories if anyone has them.

    And then Sci and I have also talked about taking on that sometimes-contentious divide in science writing between scientists and journalists. Mwa ha ha!

    Link to this
  4. 4. Anne Jefferson 5:55 pm 01/29/2013

    I think your session also has the potential to mesh in nicely with the session on using personal narrative to communicate science. (http://scio13.wikispaces.com/Session+2B) It’ll be interesting to see what different directions the two sessions take.

    Link to this

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