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Behold the Birth of the Giga-Borg

If you follow @ScienceBlogs on Twitter, you may have seen a cryptic tweet yesterday, just saying:

ScienceBlogs will soon be making a very exciting announcement – so stay tuned!

SciBlings (who by then knew what the news was going to be, but were asked to keep it under the wraps until the official announcement) had some fun teasing everyone else – here are some examples:

RT @ScienceBlogs: ScienceBlogs will soon be making a very exciting announcement – so stay tuned! (We are ALL Belle de Jour)

RT @ScienceBlogs: ScienceBlogs will soon be making a very exciting announcement – stay tuned! (We plan to start blogging about science) ;-p

Big announcement: @Scienceblogs rips off mask, reveals self to be mainstream media in disguise

Hahaha! Yes it is so! And our first act of evil will be to COPY AND PASTE THIS PRESS RELEASE!!! MUHAHAHAHAHAHA

Big announcement: @ScienceBlogs merging with Catholic Church, @pzmyers to be named Pope. #SbBigNews

Sb to release new ed of Origin with forward by Andy Schlafly #SbBigNews

Prominent Sb blogger revealed to be secretly on Microsoft payroll! Linux shocker!! #SbBigNews

Sb announces new policy: all bloggers must blog under real name. Turns out we are all called “Greg”. #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement. Three words – We. Are. Xenu. #SbBigNews

Sb Big Announcement: all bloggers will now be required to do piece on nitric oxide weekly #SbBigNews #daedalus2u

New Contract “..must blog in heels” WTF? Who is running this joint anyway??? #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement – All the pseudonymous bloggers are actually a 6-year-old girl called Cindy. Even Physioprof #SbBigNews

Sb Big Announcement: Modest subscription fee to be charged for sitewide access. Bloggers have 10 free for readers. Email quickly! #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement: Bandwidth unmanageable, Sb will be weekly broadsheet starting Jan 1 #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement: all posts over 300 words must now get IRB/HSC approval after successful animal trials #SbBigNews

For the sake of balance, each blogger gets a co-blogger of opposite persuasion. Orac wins – gets Jenny McCarthy #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement: At 2.14 am Eastern time, @BoraZ becomes self-aware, launches its missiles against targets in Russia. #SbBigNews

Sb big announcement: Sb to outsource blogging to Khazakstan. @BoraZ will have to deal with being called “Borat” #SbBigNews

And today the real announcement came out. And it is very interesting….a new partnership between Scienceblogs.com (run by Seed Media Group) and National Geographic Digital Media.

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You can read press releases and announcements on Page 3.14, on Seed Media news page, on the National Geographic site, on Web Wire and on Paid Content. There was a celebration at the Seed HQ. And several of my SciBlings have already commented on the news.

I spent quite a long time reading all those releases, trying to figure out what exactly all that means. But of course, these were written by experienced PR and legal teams of the two institutions in maddening legalese I don’t understand. So nobody really knows the details. What I could gather is that:

– NatGeo bought a piece of Seed Media (but not enough to control it) and will be in charge of advertising (aka revenue). This is a nice influx of cash to Seed. Plus a great branding boost for Seed.

– There will be a lot of cross-linking between the two sites in various forms (sidebar widgets, blogrolls, etc.). This will bring additional exposure and traffic to both sites inasmuch as the two sites do not really have a huge overlap of readership (which is surprising, but apparently true).

– We (sciencebloggers) will have access and free use of the incredible and enormous NatGeo library of images, movies and documents. This is good: it will inspire us to use this resource and hopefully blog better.

– Existing or new NatGeo blogs/bloggers will find a new home here at Scienceblogs.com in the near future. This will bring them exposure in a place where they will be visible.

– Our contracts remain (for now at least, as far as we know) unchanged, i.e., there will continue to be zero editorial controls on our bloggy rantings and ravings.

So, although the releases are opaque and details fuzzy and hidden, I think this partnership is a good thing (and if you take a look at my SciBlings’ blog posts and their commenters, they seem to share in my optimism, if cautiously). Let me try to think out loudly through the reasons why I instinctively felt this was a good deal.

I think the best way to think about this partnership is in terms of how complementary the two organizations are.

Offline

National Geographic Magazine, which printed its first issue back in 1888 is universally and globally loved. I remember getting, as a kid in Yugoslavia, a year’s subscription to it as a birthday present from a relative in the States (and a few years before that a subscription to National Geographic Kids), each issue of which I memorized, every word. The Serbian-language edition only started printing some years after I left, but I got a few copies (Danica brought me a couple last year, and I bought a couple on the news-stand when I last went to Belgrade).

Of all the Old Media, National Geographic is doing something right and is the least likely to go under. There is a reason people hoard the magazine, and only this magazine and no other – it is perceived to be of lasting value, not something to read once and discard like newspapers or most other magazines. Thus, National Geographic is (unlike, for example, Washington Post) a trusted brand. They have an enormous global circulation (which also means they make nice money on their print product) and very few detractors (who are not very loud or visible but mostly academic critics who did not like the allegedly collonial and somewhat condescending tone that the magazine used to have in the past towards their photographic subjects in the developing world).

And don’t forget the National Geographic cable channel, books, maps and additional magazines (like the Kids one I mentioned above). It’s a huge and popular brand.

On the other hand, Seed Magazine is a new endeavor with a spotty history. In its initial run a few years ago, it managed to put out a couple of issues before shutting down. When Adam Bly revived it, it had about four years of publication. It was glossy and beautiful with amazing graphics and some excellent and provocative articles. But if you are a subscriber you must have noticed you did not receive a copy in a while. And you won’t. The magazine, faced with economic realities and not being able to become a powerful brand, is now entirely online.

Online

There is a reason why they call us The Borg. Scienceblogs.com is up in the stratosphere compared to any other website involved in science communication. Both in terms of name-recognition and in traffic. And reputation. Each one of us tends to forget this every now and then. We just put on our blogs whatever we want whenever we want. And people love it! They keep coming back for more, over and over again. Because we are people, and obviously so. No dry press release rehashing. No “he-said-she-said” false balance. And we have expertise and we can be trusted when we talk about science.

We certainly have our detractors. People who, on one issue or another (or all) do not belong to the Reality-based community, do not like us because we expose the errors in their thinking. They tend to rant that there is nothing but politics here. Because they are not really interested in science. If they were, they would notice that there is tons of great science blogging here every day. Out of 80 or so bloggers here, only 3-4 write predominantly about politics and/or religion. Most never touch the subject. Of course, for those not in reality-based community, every explanation of science is political because their own view of science is based on ideology. So be it.

Of course, the popularity of our site and the high ranking in search engines, in part fueled by topics that anti-science forces deem controversial, ensures that correct interpretations of scientific topics, including their political, religious and social aspects, show up very high in searches and displace the rival “interpretations” driven by outdated ideologies. We have power we are not always aware of ourselves – we uncovered information that MSM could not, we taught science journalists (often after first beating them up for transgressions) to abandon HeSaidSheSaid style, we helped affect legislation by rallying the troops, we get a lot of funds into classrooms via DonorsChoose every year – we can do a lot of good.

On the day Scienceblogs.com launched in January 2006, after looking at it for a minute or so, I asked “how do I get on?” It was obvious, for reasons I could not explain except for gut-feeling, that this was going to be big and that science bloggers not here will have to struggle for recognition in comparison. Just look around – my SciBlings are all getting book deals, invitations to speak at conferences, writing gigs in MSM, jobs….(and sometimes death-threats, which comes with the territory of being influential). Seed hit on the right formula in building an online empire, not unlike the offline empire that National Geographic enjoys.

And don’t forget ScienceBlogs Germany and ScienceBlogs Brasil, also run by Seed.

A number of other networks have sprung up, trying to emulate Sb in some ways, e.g., Discover blogs, Discovery blogs, SciBlogs New Zealand, Nature Network blogs and ScientificBlogging.

Now that they are relieved of the economic burden of trying to print the magazine on paper, creative Seed folks have freedom to experiment. Not just scienceblogs. Also building the Seed Magazine in a way that is adapted to the Web, with no constraints imposed by the paper-based traditions. And things like Seed Visualizations and ResearchBlogging.org and who knows what else is still under wraps and super-secret at this time (no, they do not tell us blabbermouths about secret things).

In other words, Seed had no luck offline, in the traditional media, but are the magicians of the online world.

National Geographic is quite the opposite. While their brand is huge and their magazines and TV are very popular, I am not so sure about their online success. I am supposed to be the big watcher of the online science world and I don’t see many people tweeting or blogging NatGeo links or mentioning it much. I don’t think I even visited the site since the Nigersaurus paper two years ago.

Until a couple of hours ago I did not even know they had blogs on their site and none of the bloggers’ names are familiar to me. I just discovered they even have a cool kids blog. How come I did not know about them?

Online + Offline

I think, and may be wrong about this, that the two organizations occupy different universes inhabited by different people (there must be some overlap, but probably not huge). I assume that most of the visitors to the NatGeo site (which is nice – you should go there and explore) come there by following URLs or links in the magazine, on NatGeo channel or via links from other MSM sites. Those are traditional consumers. They are probably comfortable online, but not really active there.

On the other hand, majority of readers of Scienceblogs.com are very Web-savvy, the digital natives (regardless of calendrical age – generation is a mindset, not number of years), active users. They comment, they share links to our posts on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook etc., they often write their own blogs.

In other words, the average NatGeo site visitor is a Web observer. The average Sb visitor is a Web denizen.

We are about to start mixing the two. With all the cross-linking and cross-posting, our commenters will start going there and disturbing the orderliness of the NatGeo site/blogs which is a Good Thing – they will make the site more lively and interesting and attractive. At the same time, NatGeo readers will start coming here (w00t! Traffic! Ka-Ching!) and, some of them for the first time, encounter the liveliness of the interractive Web at its best. Some will get hooked. Become bloggers themselves, perhaps.

NatGeo brings the respected offline brand (which will also weaken our detractors’ criticism of our site and boost our reputation) and what they do best: amazing science and nature expeditions, reporting, writing, video and photography in a traditional medium. Seed brings the respected and high-ranked online brand (which will make NatGeo look more modern and adapted to 21st century) and what they do best: fast, exciting and dynamic interaction. Together, the two empires should become, if the fusion goes well, the Uber-empire of science communication over all media, online and offline in, as time goes by, more and more seamless and invisible division between the two worlds. Let’s hope I’m right about this.

Comments

  1. #1 John
    December 5, 2009

    I often link or tweet National Geographic links if they have better coverage of some story or good photos. I guess I’m in the minority on that.

  2. #2 DNLee
    December 5, 2009

    Thanks for sharing. I noticed that SEED was not on bookstore shelves lately. I tell people about the mag all of the time. This is good news and exciting. Your explanation of the win-win of the merger have me thinking about Isis’ comment to me to apply to SB. SB is wordlwide. Exciting!!!

  3. #3 becca
    December 5, 2009

    Wait, you mean I’m not gonna get a piece on nitric oxide weekly?
    *glares*

    Also, especially physioprof. I’m onto you, cindy.

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