Sunday, September 19, 2010

Overshare

The term oversharing refers to someone who lets loose into the public sphere something that would be best left elsewhere. It doesn't necessarily mean information that isn't already public, as oversharing can be the result of taking something that is already public knowledge, but isn't really noticed by most people, and shining the light of public opinion on it. Examples of the first kind are common - for instance the person who puts their social security number up on facebook. Often this sort of thing happens by accident, or out of naivete. But in the latter case, that of attracting undue or undesired attention, is something much more grey as it's the kind of thing that is often done for laudable purposes. For instance, often folks like me will speak out about things that are common place in our own professions. In particular we like to highlight things that make us passionate about our work, stuff that's cool, or anything that gives the broader insight on what it means to be one of us. Done right, we call it E/PO which stands for Education and Public Outreach, and it's an invaluable asset in the sciences where much of our funding comes from government and demands public support. Despite this, there can sometimes be "oversharing" in which material may be posted which can be taken out of context.

A recent example of this kind of EPO gone awry was posted by the good folks over at the Online Engineer Blog (www.theonlinenegineer.org/theoleblog/) in the form of a youtube video entitled "Stairway to Heaven." The video showed a couple of electrical technicians (linesmen?) climbing up a 1768 foot guyed tower and antenna to effectuate work on the upper surfaces. Like all structural engineering (at least to me, a former engineer!), guyed masts like these are very neat. They can soar to incredible heights, even reaching above 600m to send out radio signals over thousands of square miles. We don't often get to see them from the perspective of the top and many of us have wondered exactly how you would go about fixing one, should it break. Thus, the video by showing technicians ascending to the top gives us a vicarious glimpse into their work and something they no doubt find to be a very cool part of the job.

Taken solely in this way, the video is a masterstroke piece of EPO. Heck, it even went viral on youtube! If only my martian wind or telltale animations had those kind of page-views! However, one issue with these sorts of things is that people often evaluate them out of context using what they know of their ordinary lives. And success always brings things out of the woodwork. In this case, the downfall of the video was showing the technicians free-climbing. Not something that I would want to do, but something that they are trained to do and something that helps them to do their job. The video even helpfully points out that this type of work is entirely legal and is permitted by regulations that have always been available for download from OSHA. But it didn't matter. People complained that there was no way this was legal. Two TV stations, sensing controversy and a story, asked to run the video. Finally, after much controversy, the video was ultimately withdrawn by the author.

In some ways this is a bit like the unexpected hubub surrounding the "demotion" of Pluto by the IAU back in the earlier part of this decade. To this day, we still get questions about that one at the observatory. I've often been told that the pluto controversy was a good thing for astronomy and planetary science - it provided a teachable moment which gave us all an in which we could use to engage the public. Still there are those who interpret it only as an affront. Why else would Pluto still be a planet when "within the skies of New Mexico and Illinois" by legislative fiat?

Both cases are a result of what is largely an internal point of interest leaking out into the public sphere in ways that were, perhaps, a bit counter-productive. What makes the "stairway to heaven" video different is that, unlike with Pluto (with apologies to Alan Stern and the New Horizons mission), there is serious money involved with the building and maintenance of radio towers. i don't know if the technician who shot the video had the permission of his employer or the operator of the tower to release the video. Probably no one would have cared, (heck, I bet the employer and owner would have enjoyed the exposure!) had it remained a simple point of interest amongst a group of technofiles like myself.

But when it first got popular and then got controversial the forces that be aligned against it. While the site of the tower is not explicitly given, a quick 15-minute google search reveals its location (I won't be more precise then to say that it's in Texas) and the owner. And from there it would be a short trip to the identity of the climber for those involved. That climber wants to keep working. The owner doesn't want a surprise OSHA inspection which a public outcry would demand, despite a lack of wrongdoing. And absolutely no one wants a crusade for an unnecessary change in legislation and working conditions. So there was no way the video could stay up, to the chagrin of many of us who want to experience the understanding (and vicarious thrill!) of watching a well-trained engineer at work.

As for planetary science and myself, this issue goes way beyond "Pluto" and other teachable moments. The mere fact that I write this blog openly (way to infrequently, I know, loyal reader!) is somewhat of a risk. Having no public opinions is always the safer path, but eventually all successful scientists, by virtue of the constituency we serve, need a public presence. While I try to keep things as positive as possible, there is the chance that I will insult or slight others in my industry with my words here. For that I apologize in advance. But I feel the risk is a justified one. I feel fortunate to do what I do for a living and I want to get the word out, good and bad. That's why I help out on public viewing nights at the York Observatory. That's why I write these words here. And maybe, just maybe, someday some future employer will read what I write here to get some measure of this man and something about what I've had to say will tip the scales in my favour in a close race. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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