Last week, I gave my evangelical talk about science blogging to the Physics department at Wright State, and also a lot of education students who came to the talk (which made a nice change in the sort of questions I got). It’s basically this talk that I gave at Cornell a couple of years ago, with a few updates to the slides that don’t require a new upload to SlideShare:
The pitch that I make, if you don’t want to flip through the slides, is that communicating to a broad public really ought to be seen as part of the job of a scientist, and that social media provide a relatively easy way to do that, reaching a world-wide audience with very little effort. Blogs and other social media platforms can also provide a way to hone communications skills, giving scientists practice at writing (or cartooning, or video-making, or composing 140-character haiku) for a broad audience. This can serve as a springboard for other activities for those who find they like doing whatever it is.
Over in SciAm Land, Bora has a tutorial-slash-manifesto about using social media to break into science writing. I’m sort of torn about this, because on the one hand, it’s picking up the “career springboard” aspect of what I talk up– and which has worked out very well for me– but on the other hand, it’s yet another step in the ongoing professionalization of blogging.
And again, I’m ambivalent about this– on the one hand, as blogs have become a step on a path to a career as a science writer, the average quality of blogs has gone up quite a bit. Good writers are more likely to start blogs, and people who blog are more likely to pay attention to the quality of their writing. There’s more good stuff out there to read than ever before.
But on the other hand– and there’s always another hand, it’s like a museum of South Asian religious art around here– I worry that the professionalization of the hobby is squeezing out the, well, hobbyists. One of the things I try to stress is that blogging is a low-maintenance activity– it can be done on a strictly hobby-type basis, by people who do not have and do not necessarily want careers in science writing. Blogging doesn’t have to be a career.
Why does this matter? Well, because what I think gets lost in the shift to social media as a career step is the occasional blog by working scientists. I think those sites– in physics, the best examples are probably Doug Natelson’s Nanoscale Views, Sean Carroll’s Preposterous Universe and Sean’s previous home, Cosmic Variance. These are sites that can go a long time without being updated– the last Cosmic Variance post was two months ago– but when they do post, they bring a valuable perspective.
I would like to see more of this kind of blogging, and think that the failure of social media to really catch on among the working-scientist crowd is probably my biggest disappointment regarding the way the field has evolved. This is, I think, exacerbated by the professionalization of the hobby– people with more traditional careers in science see the way that top blogs are run, and think that it requires becoming a science writer in all but name, and don’t want to put in the time. Which deprives us of a lot of potentially interesting voices.
Now, of course, I’m not without culpability in this– while I have a traditional science job, I’ve shifted most of my professional activity to blogging/ writing kinds of activities. So, as much as I tlak about blogs as a flexible hobby-type time committment, I probably look like a cautionary example to a lot of early-career scientists looking at what I do. But this is, to a large degree, a matter of choice– I’ve moved in this direction because I enjoyed what I was doing, and that provided new opportunities, etc. It’s not like I was forced to do this once my blog passed some threshold number of page views. Sean and Doug are good counter-examples in this regard– they’re both active researchers first, and bloggers second. And that’s important for people to see as an option.
In some sense, of course, this is a problem that could be improved by a kind of professionalization of blogging, in that people would be more likely to do it if there were a way to get professional credit for it. And that’s an area where I think, ironically, the kind of professionalization we’ve gotten has not necessarily been to blogging’s advantage. That is, while blogging has become more of a path to publication in the sort of outlets you can cite for (limited) professional credit, it’s also become a path that lots and lots of people are trying to follow, making it harder to get down. If you’re a scientist with a blog, you’re not easily going to turn blog posts into magazine articles, because there are a dozen people who want to write magazine articles for a living working on using blog posts to do just that. What I’d like to see is more credit for blogging in and of itself, but it’s not clear that that’s going anywhere fast– in principle, I suppose, “The PI maintains a popular science blog” counts toward the “Broader Impact” requirement for NSF grants, but I remain unconvinced that those actually count for much (largely because I’ve seen a lot of NSF proposals in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of a bad shop teacher’s hand the number of them that weren’t half-assed).
So, anyway, before this turns more rambling than it already is, let me just hit the main point one more time, and get out: Blogging doesn’t have to be a career, or a step on the way to one. You’re not actually required to post 3-5 articles every day, and write in a way that you can leverage into a glamorous career as a professional freelance journalist (and, it should be noted, Bora’s post that kicked this off doesn’t say that you have to do any of those things– in fact, he strongly urges would-be bloggers to write outside the narrow journalistic format). It can absolutely be done on an intermittent hobby basis. If it turns out to be something you really like doing, then it can open doors to other sorts of careers and activities, but there’s nothing forcing you to go through any of those doors if you don’t want to.
So, if you’re a scientist thinking about dipping a toe into the social-media waters, don’t be afraid that it’s a sucking quagmire that will eat your career. Go ahead and try it out, and see what you think. Worst case, you find you don’t like it, and abandon your blog/ Twitter account/ Tumblr/ whatever the Next Big Thing is, and get on with the rest of your regular career.