There’s a sense in which the saddest true statement I’ve read about the unpleasant events of the past week is this: Blog editor at Scientific American is a position of great power, with the ability to make or break careers.
I’m not disputing the truth of this. It’s absolutely true that the position has enormous influence, and it’s why Bora’s actions were wrong. That is not in question. But it’s sad because it’s an indicator of where we’ve ended up, and not in a good way.
I mean, there’s a limited sense, if you’re a glass-half-full sort of person, in which this could be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign that blogging is respectable, an accepted path of entry to a career in the
glamorous world of science writing. That’s a big step up from the disreputable image of bloggers as unwashed slobs typing in their parents’ basements.
But in another sense, it’s an indicator of how thoroughly we’ve squandered the original potential of the medium, or at least what seemed like the potential of the medium back in 2001-2 when I was starting out.
The whole point of blogging was supposed to be that it’s decentralized, and bypasses the gatekeepers. Anybody who can use a web browser can start a blog, and put their thoughts out there for the world to see. Anybody who’s got something interesting to say can find an audience for it on the Internet. Blogs were supposed to be a way to cut out the middleperson, and put professionals who were doing stuff directly in contact with the people who want to know about that stuff, without needing to pass through the intermediary layer of journalists and editors and media people.
When I do my evangelical talk about blogging as a tool for science communication, one of the things I try to emphasize is that it’s a low-impact, low-barrier-to-entry activity that working scientists can take up on a hobby sort of basis. You can write about what you’re doing in the lab, and communicate it to a (potentially) vast audience directly, without interference. I think that’s a very exciting and powerful idea. And I was never even all that evangelical by the standards of blog enthusiasts– back in the day, other people were far more fired up about the revolutionary potential of the medium than I was.
I still believe that blogs can be a great tool for outreach, and think blogging as a medium can be used to bypass traditional gatekeeping. But in the last several years, blogging has become less a medium than an institution. It’s not really something working scientists choose to pursue as a hobby any more, it’s a step on a well-trodden path to a career as a professional communicator. And in keeping with tradition, some of the most fervent believers of the old revolutionary model have become the most entrenched and enthusiastic supporters of the new institutional model. Bloggers are just another sub-class of journalists, now. Scientists don’t go out and write stuff on blogs, they tell it to professional bloggers who do the writing and posting.
Instead of bypassing the traditional media apparatus, we’ve chosen to replicate it. And unfortunately, that brings with it the whole problematic structure of editors and gatekeepers, and institutional power imbalances that can be abused. As we saw this past week.
And as a fossil blogger from the ancient days, that makes me sad. This was almost certainly inevitable– every revolution gets co-opted, and as the joking post title suggests, this is as close as I’ll ever come to being a washed-up indie rocker. But still, one of the many, many unpleasant things about the events of the past week has been the vivid reminder that in the transition from blogging-as-medium to blogging-as-institution, we’ve become everything we weren’t supposed to be.
(This shouldn’t need saying, but just to be perfectly clear: the opening sentence of this post is a deliberate exaggeration, a rhetorical device intended to be eye-catching and get people to read. I am not seriously suggesting that my get-off-my-lawn reaction to the professionalization of blogging is in any objective sense more important or troubling than the awful experiences of the people personally affected by this. Those are way worse than this, and again: wrong, wrong, wrong.)