Posted by: Administrator | 19/01/2010

Edmund Harriss: The LMS on the internet

[Article prepared for the LMS council retreat, originally published here: http://maxwelldemon.com/2010/01/03/lms-internet-communication-2/]

Currently the LMS has two main mean of communication. The first is the newsletter and the second the website. It has already been mentioned many times that the website is in need of a redesign. I will therefore concentrate on the options available for more general communication, in a way the modern version of the newsletter. Although one of the ideas here might inform decisions on the redesigned website.

What options are available?

The first option is a blog along with RSS/web feeds. Using these people can subscribe to the stories from the LMS and then let the system take over. The stories would then come in automatically mixed with their other news in the reader. If this is set up as a blog people will have the ability to comment back on stories and announcements. The futurelms blog has shown that their are people willing to engage in this manner, and have good comments to make.

The second option to consider is twitter. This is a new system and has been the subject of plenty of hype. The important thing to realise is that although much that travels over twitter is meaningless noise people can choose what they follow. It is reasonably easy to find the signal. Twitter has therefore attracted a large number of people who are worth following and talking to (whatever your definitions of those). I would single out in particular Lord Drayson (@lorddrayson) the Science minister who has used the system well, getting feedback and reacting to the concerns of scientists as well as simply broadcasting his messages. This engagement, as an example, generated a debate on science journalism between him and Ben Goldacre.

The final option are wikis. These obviously take their lead from the wikipedia. Essentially they provide a means for a community to jointly create web pages.

How can the LMS use these?

I want to start with a general comment. Whatever options the LMS decides to follow two things will be necessary for success (unfortunately they are not sufficient). The first is to commit to the system, with the suggestions below I will give some of idea of what this means. The second is to make the system as open as possible. If there are problems with spam inappropriate content etc, then these can be dealt with at the time, but trying to address all possible problem can easily create an unworkable system.

Another general comment is that all the communication should consider the entire community of mathematicians and maths related people in the UK. This will have a positive effect on membership as it will make the importance and role of the LMS clearer to everyone.

A blog for LMS news is the first, obvious option. In many ways this will take over from the newsletter (I will discuss that further below). This will enable news to come out in a more timely fashion (the newsletter can be a long way behind due to the constraints of printing and a monthly schedule). It will also allow comments in response to articles. As I mentioned above this would need commitment. There should be a dialogue, not just a broadcast. It would be important for the commentators on the blog to feel that their views are listened to, and regular responses to comments are therefore essential.

Taking the dialogue a step further would give the LMS an active twitter feed. Again this should not be considered a broadcast. This could be a way to get opinion and feedback from a variety of people both within and outside the LMS. Watching replies and responding would therefore be essential.

A final, and more radical step would be to open up the process of creating policy. This is where a wiki can come in. In draft form policy documents can be freely edited and discussed. Anyone with an interest in the topic can therefore express their view. This is something that might need to be restricted to members alone. Obviously the final document would be the work of council or the committee involved. The initial stage however could draw more people into the descision making process and allow the society to tap as much available expertise as possible, not just the (admittedly great) expertise of those who can commit themselves full time to council.

Going slightly beyond the idea of communication within the LMS the world is currently lacking good computer based news streams for mathematics. This is something that the LMS is perfectly positioned to provide. The stream could be a mix of simple links to important papers or events combined with the occasional specifically written article. Members of the LMS would form a natural pool to write these! It would of course help if they could be given some level of LMS blessing as a publication. The systems for dialogue (twitter and blogs) would give an excellent basis for this as people could put forward the stories that they felt were important.

How to implement this?

I have said above that commitment is an important part of these ideas. Unfortunately as it is the nature of things this does cost money. Some of the money is already spent. There are people involved in writing the articles and gathering news for the newsletter for example. Some more money can be found by stopping the newsletter itself. The cost of printing and distribution can therefore be put into maintaining the online presence. This step will of course leave some people out of the loop as not everyone is using online newsfeeds. A half-way house option would be to produce the newsletter as an email (or pdf). This would be made up of the stories and events that had been posted during the last month. With a little investment in programming it could even be automated.

To conclude I would say it is wrong to think about the internet as a cheap way to communicate. To make things work requires consistency and commitment. There are however several options that could help create a greater online community around the LMS.
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