We haven’t had a good navel-gazing kerfuffle around here in a while, but not to worry– Bayblab comes to the rescue with a broadside against the current state of science blogging, as epitomized by ScienceBlogs:
If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That’s right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I’m afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.
I don’t think I’ve ever attempted to conceal the fact that I get paid by Seed for doing this. That’s why I moved to ScienceBlogs, after all.
So, yes, we’re paid for blogging. Does this mean that we’re sitting around lighting fat cigars with $50 bills and chuckling at the collapse of public discourse?
Hardly. My total take from blogging last year was less than $3,000. And I’m one of the better-paid bloggers here– I don’t know hard numbers for anybody else, but the pay rates are based on traffic, and there are only about a dozen bloggers here whose traffic would’ve netted them more than I got. The vast majority of the 70-ish bloggers here make way less than I did last year.
Don’t get me wrong– an extra three grand is nice to have. But nobody is getting rich off this, and I doubt any of use are even making minimum wage from blogging. “Professional gonzo science journalists” we’re not.
That said, does the money skew the content? Maybe a little bit, but in blogging, traffic is its own reward. People inevitably tend to gravitate to the topics that generate the most traffic, whether that’s in terms of page views, links, or comments. I shifted my style and subject matter around to try to draw a bigger audience back when I was using Blogger on the steelypips.org domain, and I didn’t get a dime for that. I’ve made a few adjustments to what I post and how I post it since I’ve been here, as well, but the money isn’t really a factor in that– boredom has more to do with it.
Does the drive for traffic lead to the sort of warping of subject matter that the Bayblog people are complaining about? Probably. Nothing generates more traffic for less effort than public controversy, except maybe cat blogging. You can build a good high-traffic blog built entirely around high-quality science blogging– Cognitive Daily is consistently in the top four or five blogs on the network– but it’s hard goddamn work. Dave and Greta have earned every nickel they get for being the best science blog on ScienceBlogs.
The unfortunate fact is that good blogging about science is hard work, and generates very little immediate response. The peer-reviewed research post I did a couple of weeks ago took hours to write, and got almost no respose. A post consisting of a single ultrasound picture, on the other hand, generated 76 comments and four times as many page views (1,000 to 250). I got almost twice as many page views (450) from “What sort of beer should I drink during the Super Bowl?” It’s no wonder I don’t do more peer-reviewed research blogging.
But the money doesn’t really have anything to do with that. If you go back to my original blog archives, you’ll see that the same thing happened even before I started getting paid. In the very early days of this blog, I mostly wrote about physics, with occasional forays into politics and pop culture. By the time I moved to ScienceBlogs, the physics posts were an occasional interruption in a steady flow of more general blogging.
I mostly stay away from political topics and endless debates about atheism because I don’t like what happens to my writing when I get sucked into those topics. When I write about politics and religion, I start to sound like a tedious asshole, just like almost every other blogger on those topics who isn’t Fred Clark. But it’s a hard temptation to resist– that’s easy, easy traffic, and traffic is everything in this business.