The Science Blogging Bubble Ends?

Over at Nature Networks, Timo Hannay has posted a conference talk in which he questions the future of science blogging:

“Science blogging is growing” I confidently wrote in an essay a few months ago. Then, like any good scientist, I went in search of evidence to support my prejudice. But I couldn’t find any beyond the anecdotal. For a year or more, estimates of the number of blogs by scientists about science seem to have been stuck at about 1,500 (give or take). Services such as Alexa and Compete.com (if they can be believed) show traffic to sites like ScienceBlogs.com to have been flat for the last few months. If anyone has good evidence that scientific blogging is growing then I’d love to hear about it. But for now I’ve had to conclude that it isn’t.

I’d quibble with this a little bit, in that I think the last several months have seen the launching of a fair number of new science-oriented blogs (Shores of the Dirac Sea is probably the most prominent example). Scientific blogging as a whole could be growing, even if the audience for any particular site is not.

He’s right, though, regarding ScienceBlogs. The total readership of the site has been pretty much flat since the beginning of the year, after rapid growth in the first two years. This is partly due to the fact that the Corporate Masters have stopped adding new blogs to the site (the total number has gotten a little unwieldy as it is), so we’re no longer bringing in new readers in large chunks.

At the same time, though, I’ve been feeling as if we’ve plateaued in more ways than one recently. Things are feeling a bit stale around here– it’s the same old audience reading the same old bloggers writing about the same old topics, ad nauseam. Some of this is due to the election sucking all of the metaphorical air out of the room, but I think it goes beyond that. Nothing against the audience we have, mind– we love you guys– but there isn’t the same excitement.

And there’s clearly a larger audience out there, that we’re not tapping into. We get a lot of hits here at ScienceBlogs, but even collectively, we’re not even close to the level of the really big blogs.

So, the question is, what should we be doing to reach a wider audience than we have now?

Mind you, this is a subtly different question than what Hannay is worrying about. His concern is mainly with the failure of scientists to embrace blogging as a part of their professional activities, not penetration to the general public. I’m less worried about scientists communicating with each other– there are plenty of good ways to do that now, that don’t require posting essays on the World Wide Web– than I am about scientists communicating with the general public. Despite the difference in the questions, though, I think I share Hannay’s concern– I don’t see the expanding audience that I would really like to see.

I think it’s clear that there’s more we could be doing, but I’m not sure what. And, of course, I realize that asking our current audience how to expand our appeal to people who aren’t part of our current audience is a little silly, but, well, I don’t have anyone else to ask. So I’ll just throw it out there: Do you think that we’ve maxed out our current appeal? If so, why? And what could we be doing differently?

(Yeah, the post title is a little deceptive. Got you to look, though.)

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    October 3, 2008

    I wish he had provided a reference for that “1500 blogs” figure. Bora Zivkovic and I agree that it’s probably now somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000.

  2. #2 Charlie
    October 3, 2008

    Avoid getting hung up on the fake dichotomy of religion .vs. science, (since it’s boring) and try to write like Oliver Sachs – don’t dumb down the science, just avoid specialised jargon as much as possible and root everything in real world experiences.

    On the ‘net (although no longer in brick & mortar enterprises) building a better mousetrap will truly bring the world to your door.

  3. #3 AliceB
    October 3, 2008

    I think there’s an audience of people who are not scientists but are interested in science. E.g. me. It dates back to when I was in high school and college when I was a math geek. I moved on to law and writing, but the interest is still there.

    After I left college, the options for getting news about science were more limited, being found mostly in magazines which were expensive. Eventually, when I had a little more cash, I started reading Science News, and we now collect quite a number of periodicals. Science blogs didn’t exist. Heck, the internet was limited to academia and the government.

    I think blogs may be one of the ways you could tap into this audience, i.e. that group of young adults who drop out of the study of science when they leave high school or college but who still retain an interest. It may require some marketing skills to tap this audience — you need to understand their interests beyond science to attract them as readers. Xkcd has managed that to some extent. And Bill Nye has an incredible following among the high school science crowd. And before someone says it’s dumbing down science to present it this way — it isn’t. It’s making real science fun for a young crowd.

    The crowd will age, and move on to venues that attract a slightly older crowd. Which will probably be blogs such as this one. (No offense meant here, but you are in a different place than your students.)

    So my suggestion: provide more science based blogs/websites, but aim them younger. That’s where the audience starts and will only grow.

  4. #4 Chris
    October 3, 2008

    If Sb traffic has stayed the same, despite losing a few high-profile blogs (like Carl Zimmer’s), then I”d argue that there’s still probably growth going on.

  5. #5 Andrew
    October 3, 2008

    I’m the young adult AliceB is talking about, and trust me, I’m not the only one around. The problem is, of course, my peers are largely a fickle bunch…

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    October 3, 2008

    Avoid getting hung up on the fake dichotomy of religion .vs. science, (since it’s boring) and try to write like Oliver Sachs – don’t dumb down the science, just avoid specialised jargon as much as possible and root everything in real world experiences.

    I tend to agree, but it’s hard to deny that it brings in a lot of traffic. Which is part of the problem– it’s really tempting to talk about that stuff, because it drives all sorts of hits. There are blogs here that do the Oliver Sacks thing very well, and they don’t seem to draw anywhere near the attention of the ranty stuff about religion.

    It may be that we’ve hit a local maximum, reaching the limit of the current strategies, and need to do something very different to broaden the audience.

  7. #7 Becca
    October 3, 2008

    First, there is a value to the readership being small enough that small-fry commenters can get noticed.

    That said, I know it’s already unwieldy in some sense, but adding more blogs would help. There should always be more interesting posts about science than I have time to read.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    October 3, 2008

    Dave: I wish he had provided a reference for that “1500 blogs” figure. Bora Zivkovic and I agree that it’s probably now somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000.

    I wonder if he means that to be active blogs. There are lots of blogs by scientists in my RSS feeds that haven’t seen a new post in months.

    Chris: If Sb traffic has stayed the same, despite losing a few high-profile blogs (like Carl Zimmer’s), then I”d argue that there’s still probably growth going on.

    Carl Zimmer was a big name, but not a really significant traffic driver. I’m not supposed to disclose exact traffic figures, but his typical monthly numbers accounted for something on the order of 1% of the site’s traffic, roughly similar to my own.

    To be absolutely fair, I should also note that while readership is roughly flat since January, if you look at the monthly traffic figures for the full history of the site, there isn’t a clear inflection point that would suggest we’ve hit any real limit. The traffic figures for this year are consistent with a slow, steady upward trend.

  9. #9 Wilson Fowlie
    October 3, 2008

    For my part, I quite enjoy the more whimsical posts you’ve done – mostly, but not entirely, the conversations with Emmy. One of those may well have been why I put you in my daily ‘blogs to read’ list (also the fact that you do write stuff close to daily), even though I originally came here to read a post on the religion/science issue.

    I tried to read some of the technical posts about your experiments, as it seemed the sort of thing I ‘should’ read, but I just don’t have the background, training and/or aptitude to appreciate and enjoy them, so now I – somewhat wistfully – pass them by.

    Like AliceB, I’m one of those not-scientists-but-interested-in-science.

    If you want to drive up your own traffic, I think you could do worse than to have a very occasional article on the science vs. religion issue, which you could probably make shorter and less onerous (to write) by including lots of links to past entries on the subject. (And yes, I know the categories are over there on the side; care to guess the degree to which people have been trained not to look to the sides lest they see an ad?)

    To really drive traffic up, of course, do/write something that comes to the notice of PZ Myers and has him link to you. :) (Whoa, dude. I’m kidding! I know how you feel about him, I swear!)

    However, as noted by others, and from my own experience, while those articles may bring readers, it’s the good stories you tell – that make science accessible to the untrained-but-interested – that will (and do) keep us here.

    And while I don’t advocate censorship, if there’s anything you could do to make ‘Uncle Al’s’ name show up bold and red so that I – and others, I expect – don’t get halfway through a time-wasting comment (“What the h– …? Ohhhh, him.”) before realizing I can skip it, I know I for one would appreciate it. Just saying.

  10. #10 Matt Springer
    October 3, 2008

    “I’m not supposed to disclose exact traffic figures, but his typical monthly numbers accounted for something on the order of 1% of the site’s traffic, roughly similar to my own.”

    It’s hard to say much with certainty about Scienceblogs’ overall traffic in terms of the popularity of science blogging because…

    Well, this is hard to do without disclosing Seed’s numbers, but we’ll just say a large fraction of site traffic is not here for science as such.

  11. #11 scicurious
    October 3, 2008

    You know, I’ve also been thinking recently of things I can do to expand my readership. I only moved here recently, but I was small to begin with. I pretty much live on the Oliver Sachs style, and it doesn’t seem to help my views at all. What should it be? More subjects? More basic posts?

  12. #12 Ron
    October 3, 2008

    Celebrity advertising? Step 1: Get your book on Oprah…. (Or is that step 2 after boiling the ocean?)

  13. #13 Bee
    October 3, 2008

    That’s an interesting question, I’ve wondered about this for a while. At our blog, visitor numbers have been slightly increasing during the last year. This might be related to the fact that we’ve written a lot about black holes at the LHC which presently seems to be one of the major keywords that brings people to our blog.

    I kind of share Hannay’s sense that the number of science bloggers seems to stagnate. I don’t know how often you look trough the blogroll, but a considerable amount of blogs just die after a year or so. Some new ones come along, others go. I don’t have much of the impression the overall number is increasing.

    I can’t say though this bothers me much. Why? Well, ask yourself how many blogs would you read? Blogs might fulfil some kind of a community function, but if that’s the only thing you want, you can do it by other means. Though bookmark sharing, friendfeed or whatever, which usually costs less time, reaches the people you are interested in and are interested in you without all the bytaste of blogging. Blogging is a nice idea for people who like to write and who like to share their writing. That’s certainly the case for me. But it just might not be such a large fraction of people who consider writing a part of their life, why would this be worrisome?

    But what I think are further obstacle to blogging is the inappropriateness of the medium to science. E.g. blogs put by format an emphasis on novelty, which occasionally disturbs me. There’s the option to label posts, but who ever looks at this? I’d vastly prefer to be able if interesting topics stay on top, such that it would be easier to spin longer discussions around a specific topic. Not sure I’m making that very clear, but one thing I find extremely annoying is how often I just repeat myself. I really like to write, but this upon all other things is what annoys me because it seems to me like an utter waste of time.

    And then there are the points that I’ve raised several times: Blogging is a scientifically doubtful medium because it puts the author in a power-position by which he generally can skew discussions. I’m not saying I have the impression this happens very often, but it definitely is possible. Typically, the blogger can later edit posts to put him/herself in a better light, delete or even edit comments etc. That’s an unreliable basis for a scientific discussion. Besides this, there is the problem that I’ve also mentioned repeatedly that blogposts have no fixed time stamp, so you can’t even claim credits for having had an idea first. Gee, even Flickr can do fixed time-stamp, that wouldn’t be hard to incorporate. Just offer an option to time-stamp a post that will show a ‘last modified’ date which can’t be altered by the author.

    Besides all these points the goal certainly can’t be to get all scientists to be bloggers. There might be some ‘good’ level, but where is good? Who says this is not the ‘good’ level?

  14. #14 magetoo
    October 4, 2008

    You say that things are feeling a bit stale. I don’t know, but there are some advantages to that too; it makes you look for new things.

    I confess to being just as drawn to the “outrage” posts as everyone else, whether it is PZ versus Catholics or Orac versus anti-vaxers, but it’s not something that makes me want to bookmark a blog or add it to the RSS reader.

    When I get the feeling that I’m reading “the same old bloggers writing about the same old topics” for the zillionth time, I usually take a quick look at the sidebar to see if there’s anything interesting and unexpected there.

    Occasionally, there’s something good – like this blog. (But honestly, the “most active” category isn’t much use, unless you’re looking for heat with little illumination.)

    Perhaps SB could team up with Bloggingheads? Their science diavlogs seem to suffer from the same thing too – after watching for a while you pretty much know how people are going to talk about the week’s topics. And embedding their player in blog posts here would add something a bit more interesting.

  15. #15 Rich Apodaca
    October 5, 2008

    So, the question is, what should we be doing to reach a wider audience than we have now?

    Why not try to reach a narrower audience instead?

    The blogs I find least interesting try to appeal to the most general audience possible (an anit-pattern they might have learned from the publishing biz). For appealing to a mass audience, we have the popular press, which does it much better than any blogger ever will.

    Science moves forward through an endless process of specialization. But the popular press has hard limits on what can be written about – limited funds, limited number of man-hours, and limitations on what sponsors will tolerate. Many things worth writing about in science will simply never be covered by this crowd.

    A blogger has none of these limitations and so can cover science the way it actually advances – through an endless series of specializations.

    There are many ways to measure the success of a scientific blog. Unfortunately, numbers of page hits is one of the least relevant.

  16. #16 Brian
    October 6, 2008

    I agree with Alice B. that we need to reach the younger generation, which is why I try to write basic, high-school physics level posts from time to time. But I think its also important to ask not only “who can we attract?”, but also “who are we driving away?” Whack-a-mole posts are great at generating a certain kind of readership (as the popularity of PZ Meyers shows) but that type of blogging drives away an even larger potential readership. Every time a scientist writes a post which is hateful or mean we all lose ground.

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