The State of Science Blogging

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jennifer Ouellette
    February 27, 2008

    This attitude came up at the NC Blogging Conference during my closing talk, and I was genuinely surprised at how resentful some bloggers are about the format becoming more professional and mainstream — someone actually complained that if people get paid to blog, it would attract “the wrong element.” As if somehow, this means amateur blogging doomed, when the two can co-exist perfectly well. It’s a big blogosphere out there.

    And as you rightly point out, the “payment” is so small as to be laughable, even for a science blogger with heavy traffic.

    As of now, I don[‘t get paid to blog. I don’t have ads on my site. And I opt for less traffic to focus on more substantive, science-related posts, since my attitude is that my blog is more of a writing lab, and if people enjoy it, that’s great. As for the kinds of posts that generate traffic, Chad is right on that count also: pictures of cats, rants against religion and ID, and so forth are always going to be more popular that, say, a 1500-word post about rat whiskers and neural networks. Taking a broadside at ScienceBlogs for this is like shooting the messenger.

    Sounds to me like Babylab has a slight case of sour grapes. :)

  2. #2 andy
    February 27, 2008

    I’ll make sure I post a comment whenever you write a physics post! (Even if just to say “well done, Chad!”)

  3. #3 rob
    February 27, 2008

    I think your attitude to the post on bayblab is one of the best I have read. It is not a personal comment attacking the bloggers. The point is that calling yourself a science blog when in fact science is not the majority of content is a strange trend. Not just on scienceblogs BTW. Your point that it’s all about traffic suggests a lack of mission statement on scienceblogs. If blogging is coming down to (ease of post/hit) then doesn’t this say something about the science blogosphere.

  4. #4 Åka
    February 27, 2008

    I don’t know if I count, since my blog is very insignificant — or maybe it’s interesting just because of that? Anyway, I write because it helps me think about things, and because I enjoy writing, and because it’s a way to communicate with a small number of friends. I post maybe twice a week, because I’m not interested in posting without having anything to say. At times I obsess about traffic and readers, but I try to stick to my original intent to blog mainly for my own sake. When I write about physics it’s an exercise in science communication, to develop a skill I hope to use in the future to get published elsewhere (and that can be useful for teaching). That’s how I think about it.

    So I don’t try to boost traffic. Physics posts nevertheless often never really happen. I have ideas, but they get stored as drafts and I don’t always finish them. It’s easier to write about other things.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    February 27, 2008

    he point is that calling yourself a science blog when in fact science is not the majority of content is a strange trend. Not just on scienceblogs BTW. Your point that it’s all about traffic suggests a lack of mission statement on scienceblogs.

    There is no mission statement for ScienceBlogs, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a Good Thing. When I signed up, I was promised that there would be no editorial interference in the content of the blog, and that was an important factor for me.

    I blog about what I want to blog about, and that’s the way I like it. The ScienceBlogs address does make me feel a faint sense of obligation to post regularly about science, even though scouring through EurekAlert to find physics-related news releases is something of a chore.

    But if they told me I had to blog in a certain way, I’d probably quit.

  6. #6 James Hrynyshyn
    February 27, 2008

    Seems to me that anyone who wants to look for specific topics on scienceblogs.com has that option thanks to the categories/channels. So anyone complaining about what they consider an inappropriately low signal-to-noise ratio can avoid what they don’t like. Sour grapes indeed.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    February 27, 2008

    Seems to me that anyone who wants to look for specific topics on scienceblogs.com has that option thanks to the categories/channels.

    Yes and no.
    The channel feeds are sub-optimal, I think, because they’re still pretty unbalanced. There are many more Life Science types than Physical Science types blogging, so you get a lot more material in some channels than others.

    Cross-listing between channels also makes for some signal-to-noise problems, particularly for those who regard creationist-bashing as noise. Many of those posts are cross-listed between the Politics category and one of the science categories.

    My personal solution is to subscribe to the Select RSS feed, which gets a good cross-section of stuff, and a big list of individual blog feeds excluding the blogs that primarily post stuff that I find irritating. I used to subscribe to the full combined feed, but I dropped it because there was too much crap.

  8. #8 SEK
    February 27, 2008

    an extra three grand

    Can I be a Science Blogger?

    Please?

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    February 27, 2008

    Can I be a Science Blogger?

    Can you talk about evolution, and make fun of creationists?

  10. #10 SEK
    February 27, 2008

    Can you talk about evolution, and make fun of creationists?

    I can! All professionally like! Check out this bit I just wrote in my dissertation:

    Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, debates as to the classification of infusoria persisted. “Though the term Infusoria has usually been applied to all the Protozoa provided with cilia or flagella,” declares A.S. Packard in 1875, “it is not restricted to the highest [Ciliata] division of the Protozoa” (87). In the same issue of The American Naturalist in which Packard’s essay appears, noted evolutionist T.H. Huxley places them within the category of “Endoplastica,” which “while not forsaking the general type of the single cell, attain a considerable complexity of organization” (66).

    Wait, do you mean contemporary stuff?

  11. #11 Matt Penfold
    February 27, 2008

    With regards the posts you, and others bloggers, do on actual science, I mostly enjoy reading them but seldom comment because I look on them as learning. When I do comment it is normally to ask a question about something I am not clear on. I will admit that I do not add a comment thanking the author, maybe I should.

    Chad, would a comment from a reader just saying they read your post and enjoyed it be something you would like to see ?

  12. #12 Dave Briggs
    February 27, 2008

    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.

    I think the reason ScienceBlogs is so great is because you get to see posts and congregate with other science lovers. The religion and politics may be a big part of it but there is the pure science along with views about how it relates to politics etc. If people wanted pure politics, etc., there are probably places they could go.
    We all live in the big, real world. Politics, etc., is a part of that, but we come here to get the scientific view of it all!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  13. #13 Harry Abernathy
    February 27, 2008

    As long as the blog regularly (not necessarily predominantly) mentions science and the blogger identifies himself/herself primarily as a scientist, I’m willing to consider it a science blog.

    As Chad pointed out, writing true science-based posts requires a lot of time. They require research and accuracy. As such, one shouldn’t expect daily in-depth posts about science. The ScienceBlogs that come close to that goal are usually co-written or feature short posts (Molecule of the Day is one of my favorite ScienceBlogs).

    One should expect that day-to-day posts vary more in content. That’s the blogging aspect of it. The audience gets to see a more complete picture of the author, the more personal side of the scientist.

  14. #14 Scott Spiegelberg
    February 28, 2008

    When I come out with my semi-annual top 50 list of Classical Music blogs, there is always complaints about including Terry Teachout. The majority of his blog is on drama, dance, and art, but he was once a prominent music critic and still has considerable influence in that field. For an example, see his article in the Wall Street Journal about the New York Philharmonic trip to North Korea. It has been widely quoted in MSM and blogs, thus showing he still has an impact. But since only about 10% of his writing is about classical music, they don’t want him on the list. Frankly, many other blogs on my list spend much of their posts on politics, personal life, and non-classical music things. On my own blog I’m happy to write about film music, rock music, and theories that apply as much to non-classical as to classical music; not to mention politics and personal life. Does that make me less “classical”? Like one of your commenters above, as long as the author identifies as a member of the community (classical in my case, science in yours), that should be enough.