No doubt, the internet has changed the way we do paleontology. Email allows faster collaborations among workers at widespread institutions, and sometimes continents. Open access journals and PDFs from "closed access" publications allow virtually instantaneous distribution of peer reviewed research. And, internet mailing lists, forums, social networking sites, and blogs allow a whole new dimension of discussion and dissemination of research results.
The role of the latter venues has had no small level of controversy, ever since their beginnings. Some professionals grumbled over the way any person with an internet connection could flood mailing lists with intellectual garbage. In relatively rare cases, this has happened. Some avocational and non-degreed paleontologists grumbled over real and perceived slights from the "Ivory Tower." This too on occasion has happened, but rather rarely (despite frequent accusations from some quarters). Despite these misgivings, the new modes of scientific communication and discourse are here to stay. But, like all new technologies, the situation is evolving rapidly.
As someone who remembers the days before the Internet, and during the early days of Internet access (for me, beginning around 1997 when the first connections were available at my school), it has been very interesting to follow (and participate in) the trends on-line. In this series of posts, I'll be addressing the past, present, and future of informal electronic communication. This is part of a broader discussion that has been happening throughout the blogosphere recently, particularly at SVP-POW!
The Glory Days of the Internet Mailing List
One of the earliest thrills in my initial exploration of the internet was something called the "Dinosaur Mailing List." Here was a fantastic place where seemingly unfettered discussion of all things dinosaurian took place. New discoveries - including the first inklings of amazing feathered(!) theropods from China - were announced on a seemingly daily basis. Reports from SVP filtered out, and were eagerly read by those of us who couldn't attend the meetings. Acknowledged experts--such as Tom Holtz, Jim Farlow, Darren Tanke, and Ralph Chapman--rubbed elbows and shared discussions with neophytes, fans, and future paleontologists alike. The DML was the place to be for anyone interested in dinosaur paleontology, at any level. You just had to sign up, in order to receive a steady stream of interesting and insightful communications direct to your email inbox.
In the 12 years that I have belonged to the DML, something has changed. The change has been subtle, slow, and creeping, but it has certainly been happening. Fewer professionals are making fewer postings (although many still follow the list). I find myself skipping or deleting 95 percent of the list's messages. Although there are some delightful exceptions, less real scientific discussion is happening here (beyond the perennial topics of the origins of bird flight and theropod systematics). I have seen similar shifts on other mailing lists and internet forums that I belong to, so it is not limited strictly to the DML, nor is it the fault of the hard-working moderaters. What, then, has happened?
Coming Up. . .Shifting Sands of Communication