The Thoughtful Animal

There’s been lots of talk lately about the future of science blogging, in general, and the purpose and nature of blogging communities or networks, more specifically. If you haven’t read Bora’s post, you should. Even if you aren’t specifically interested in SCIENCE blogging, as it relates to new media in general.

From the outset I will state that I still am unsure about my future at scienceblogs. When I do make a decision, it will be carefully considered, and I will be confident in my decision. I have not been around long enough to feel fed-up with things here. Though I can also see that those feelings are entirely warranted and deserved. I can see that if I *had* been around here longer, I would likely too be fed-up. I feel a bit as if I’ve learned that there’s no Santa Clause. Or at least, I feel what I *think* finding out there’s no Santa would feel like.

I’ve only been blogging (in the current incarnation of the blog) for about 7 months. But I’ve been reading Sb since nearly the beginning. Like Bora said, I remember a time when I could read every post on every science blog that existed (or at least, I could read the headlines to decide if I was interested enough to continue). To get the invite to Scienceblogs was to have MADE IT. This was the destination. The cool kids hung out here. I was, understandably, extremely thrilled to have made it (and continued thanks to Dave Munger, Bora, Dr. Isis, and Sci for helping me make it). To have been invited by Sb at a time when everyone and their mother has a science blog makes it even more thrilling. But I’ve looked around and noticed that most of my blogging friends and mentors who were here at Sb are gone or, at best, uncertain as I am. This place is awesome, but I’ve also started to be aware that the place seems to be held together with velcro and scotch tape and faith.

I was recently having an (entirely unrelated) conversation (but follow me for a moment) with a friend about loyalty and fidelity within the context of a romantic relationship. She highly values and needs a considerable amount of alone time, and she needs her partner to have faith in her. She needs her partner to believe that when she is doing her alone thing, she isn’t actually cheating on him, that she isn’t with someone else. What I think she actually wants is not faith, but trust. And trust is built over time on the basis of evidence.

Faith is a matter of belief. Faith starts from faith. But trust starts from not-trust, and is a matter not of belief, but of evidence. And yet it seems that the the Sb community has been held together by belief. Which, when you think about it, is pretty crazy, as scientists should be used to eschewing belief in favor of evidence. If I control my variables well, I should only get a false positive in 5 out of 100 random samplings of a population. What’s the statistical likelihood that the velcro and scotch tape will give way to steel and concrete? That belief can be replaced by evidence? I’m not sure.

As I’ve been thinking about the future of Scienceblogs.com and my own future within it (or not within it), I’ve also been doing some thinking about what I want from a blogging community. So, in a bit of a stream of consciousness, here’s what I want and why I blog:

I don’t write because it fulfills some deep inner thirst for creative expression. I like it. I write to be read. Being on a network (even a network without Pharyngula) helps drive traffic, and will help me get the word out (animals are cool! people are animals too! ants do trigonometry!) to more people than I can by going solo. Sure, there are other tools to use when you’re solo, and I used them when I was: blog carnivals, research blogging, and so forth, but they’re simply not as effective for driving traffic as is being on a network.

In a related way, being on a network like Scienceblogs also helps in my mission of outreach. I don’t only write for people who already have this blog bookmarked or the RSS feed installed in their readers (though I love you all dearly!) If even 3 out of every 1000 people who stumbled into my blog through a random google search learned something cool about science or about scientists, then I consider that a success. Did you know that if you search Google Images for “guinea pig,” two of the top ten results lead to my blog? Did you know that if you google “serotonin system,” Sci’s post at Neurotopia is the third result, after wikipedia? That’s huge.

What else do I want in a network? Well, if its a network affiliated with, for example, a print magazine, it can be a great way to get even more exposure. Examples are the (former) SEED Magazine, and also Discover, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Wired. All have/had print magazines, and all have varying types and flavors and sizes of blogging networks. Some networks are all content and no cat pictures. Other networks (like Sb) don’t mind the cat pictures, as long as there is content also. Some networks are smaller, others larger. Some appear to have some form of community; others don’t.

Every print issue of Psychology Today has a “Ask PT bloggers” page. I believe that Discover, for example, is very good about allowing their bloggers to contribute to their magazine (I think Phil Plait and Carl Zimmer, at least, are regular contributors? I haven’t read a copy of Discover in a while), and they also engage with their bloggers in other ways, such as at conference and events. I don’t subscribe to Wired or Scientific American, though I do pick them up at the bookstore occasionally, so I can’t say whether or not there is much cross-pollination between the print and online contributors. These are things that SEED is unable to provide, at least at present.

I want to think of my blog as a writing laboratory. If I’m compelled to write at 2am I can do so, and *maybe* run it through a spell check, and then possibly schedule the post for the morning. No pitching, no editing. Then, if I hit upon something I’d really like to explore, or if a post receives a good response, then I’d like to be able to take it and pitch the idea to someone. I can expand and polish it, send it through an editing staff, and then it might wind up (for example) on the pages of some publication. Of course, I can likewise pitch to (for example) Wired or Scientific American from here at Scienceblogs, it just wouldn’t be as streamlined. It wouldn’t be within-brand. I wouldn’t have my foot already in the door. If I was blogging for Psychology Today (for example), I might be a step or two closer.

Personally, I can give or take the youtube videos and cat pictures. A blog network on which payment is predicated on pageviews engenders this sort of thing, though. And, I have fun with it. I like sharing random Israeli songs that my readers might not ever otherwise encounter. But if I was on a blog network that did not want this sort of thing, it would not cramp my style to not include it.

Maybe this isn’t interesting; maybe this is the definition of “freelance writer,” and I’m not saying anything new. But since my background is academic and scientific, and not journalism or writing, I come with a different vocabulary and understanding of the process.

Being on a network – depending on the network – also conveys a certain level of gravitas. Until this month, at least, being on Scienceblogs meant something intangible but weighty. And in the academic tenure-track, I think that gravitas is worth something. In a system which is built primarily upon research, citations, and fundability, you need to convince the powers that be (whether a funding agency or tenure committee, or whatever) that your blogging efforts are a valuable use of your time. Not having gone through the process myself, I can’t exactly speak to this, but it seems to me that the gravitas – the clout – that a network possesses (or doesn’t possess) might make this easier or harder.

What else do I want from a network?

Not to worry about the tech stuff. My job is content provider, their job is support.

If I’m on a network that pays me for the providing of content, I want to be paid on time (even if there’s a three-month lag, I still expect to be paid at regular predictable intervals).

Joint projects, joint ventures, pushing the big conversations forward. At times, Sb has done this well, and at times not as well. I have thoughts for how to do it better, here or elsewhere. This, however, is particularly important to me, because I think this is one of the best ways to build, develop, and maintain community. Shared efforts, and shared purpose. And there’s good evidence from the social psychology literature to support my hypothesis.

Intellectual community is possibly most important to me, as a blogger who is primarily an academic scientist. We have various forms of this in real life, on our campuses, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to have the same effect for me as the sciblogosphere does. Maybe its because academics tend to move around a lot, and so avoid laying down deep roots. Maybe its because while I’m in a department full of psychologists and neuroscientists, there are only a few others whose research is at all similar to mine. Maybe its because in a department full of other scientists, not everyone shares the same vision for science within society that I do (it seems as if many more on the sciblogosphere share my approach and vision). Maybe its because in a department full of other scientists, science is not a way of life for others as it is for me (and again, it seems many in the sciblogosphere share my perspective on this as well).

Perhaps the sciblogosphere attracts a certain type of self-selecting individual, but a loosely connected group of similar people does not make a community. Being on a network like Scienceblogs can be great for lots of reasons, but unless there are joint projects and a sense of joint purpose, then each blog will exist on its own and simply share a similar visual layout.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 Onkel Bob
    July 20, 2010

    What do you think?

    I try not to because it hurts when I do. :^P

    The cynic in me sees a tempest in a teapot, or something substantially less. I’m a bit surprised that people who see real tragedy (Pal MD and Orac) have responded as they did, but then again to each their own.

    I don’t read many blogs, I spend more time reading the source material or reading Matlab discussion groups (Help! I’m segmenting tissue culture images! How do I get Kmeans clustering to yield useful results?!) While I liked some of the blogs that are leaving (I lived in Frankfurt 83-88, so reading GrrlScientist brought back pleasant memories) I’m not going to chase them down. Heck I don’t even read Razib any longer, and his blog was my first stop on Sb. (I dislike Discover to a great extent.)

    I am somewhat puzzled by the need for “support.” It isn’t as if coding HTML, CSS, and Javascript is all that difficult. Finding a geek on a part-time, even rotating basis isn’t that hard. Part of the problem is the popular sites attract trolls and such, but sports fan sites run with part-time administrators who deal with similar traffic patterns. So somewhere there’s a disconnect. If SMG/Sb can’t find someone to admin a site such as this one, they are far more incompetent than an HFCS vendor.

    I do not know, I do not pretend to know, and I’m not sure if I did know, whether I would be bothered by it at all. I’ll likely follow Ed Brayton if he moves on, but I may wander through here to read whomever is still here. I don’t post much, and do not intend upon changing that habit either.

    I do click on the advertisements though! I buy many of my books from adverts, and since I don’t have a TV, books are a fair amount of my disposable income dispersal. More Powell’s please :^)

  2. #2 Joseph Hewitt
    July 20, 2010

    I am somewhat puzzled by the need for “support.” It isn’t as if coding HTML, CSS, and Javascript is all that difficult. Finding a geek on a part-time, even rotating basis isn’t that hard.

    Maybe we could start an “Adopt-A-ScienceBlogger” campaign? (What are the odds that I’ll screw up the coding in this post…?)

  3. #3 harrync
    July 20, 2010

    Fact: if you break up Sb, I probably won’t follow any of you to your new websites. Mostly because I’m just too lazy; Sb provided a great service for people like me. Well, I was spending too much time on the internet anyway; probably for the best.

  4. #4 Dirk Hanson
    July 20, 2010

    “Personally, I can give or take the youtube videos and cat pictures. A blog network on which payment is predicated on pageviews engenders this sort of thing, though”

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. Love Research Blogging, by the way.

    As an actual journalist, may I say that if you work for an organization with the bad judgment to use a pay-per-page-view business model, you’re gonna get a lot of pictures of cute cats, and a lot of inflammatory bloviation about religion and atheism and other off-topic crap, the same way used car salespeople on commission are gonna move a lot of junk steel.

  5. #5 Paul
    July 20, 2010

    You’ve hit squarely on something that – watching all this from “the outside” – I’ve come to more deeply appreciate: a healthy community is an immensely important thing.

    One simply does a better, more meaningful job when you’re an active participant in a community of top notch folks all working towards a common goal. Whether that’s a community of educators, researchers, or bloggers I think this applies across the board.

    I know that’s just one part of the puzzle you’re wrestling with, but I thought it might be worth reiterating. Hopefully SMG sees the writing on the wall and takes the necessary steps to keep that community a productive and positive place for science bloggers.

  6. #6 scazon
    July 20, 2010

    I am somewhat puzzled by the need for “support.” It isn’t as if coding HTML, CSS, and Javascript is all that difficult. Finding a geek on a part-time, even rotating basis isn’t that hard.

    Pardon me, but this is laughable. First of all, what may be easy for you may not be easy for some. Some people may just want to be able to write what they’ve got to say, post it on the Internet, and not have to deal with HTML or CSS or JavaScript or anything like that. (This is part of the appeal of platforms like Posterous or Tumblr.) ScienceBlogs is a blogging platform in addition to being a blogging network, so issues with the technological aspect of ScienceBlogs need to be aired.

    But it goes further than that. There are things about ScienceBlogs’s backend that are woefully, shamefully inadequate. How can a major site like this lack content negotiation, for example? Why does e-mail to webmaster@scienceblogs.com bounce when not only is that the standard web technical contact address, but when they post it as a contact address on their very own contact page?? Admittedly, I’m only a reader here, but this doesn’t look good from my perspective.

    I think this goes deeper than needing occasional help with CSS or whatever. It’s not as simple as that (and even if it were, occasionally people do need help with such things). But these issues are more than irksome: they are actually counterproductive and deleterious to the technological integrity and health of ScienceBlogs.

  7. #7 Mike Lisieski
    July 21, 2010

    I think that blog networks, like other online endeavors, benefit (as a whole) from having a high turnover rate. Things can only grow for so long, and if it’s not evolving, it’s dying (in the blogosphere as well as the biosphere.) As an observer who started reading rather recently (since you started blogging here,) it seems to me like people are grasping at smoke when they lament what a great things Science Blogs was and how we just need to remember its original purpose and so forth. The next blog network that pops up (and it will, I trust) will be founded on the same principles and be just as great at the outset, and will be started precisely because this one has strayed from those principles. It will also be doomed to the same fate of getting old and creaky as an organization. If I sound fatalistic, it’s because I am: I’ve only been here for a few months, but already this Pepsi thing has driven away most of the authors I read here. Judging from the responses of bloggers on here, it doesn’t seem like there’s much left to save.

    In short, I think it’s just turnover; dynamic equilibrium, if you will. Nothing’s being lost – it’s just shifting around a bit, and in the end, the good writers will keep on writing, and the readers will keep on reading.

    More practically, I think that the blogosphere works well as a diffuse network. Mechanisms for consolidation (like research blogging) are great, but in the end the blogging community must be made up of individuals or small groups in which all members of the group can work comfortably and directly with all other members. Even though networks can be great for bringing in traffic, I don’t think that bloggers can easily collaborate in large groups for long periods of time, precisely because the format emphasizes such individualism and personal investment in writing. The place to put stock, in my mind, is in individual blogs, networked with each other so that any individual one is easy to find.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    July 21, 2010

    On the support issue: The situation changes with a multi-blogger blog. I can handle my own blog (gregladen.com) html/etc wise, but I am not allowed to touch much of the infrastructure on Scienceblogs.com, and none of the other bloggers are either.

    From a technical standpoint, a multi-authored blog demands a bit more expertise than a single user blog and yes, the traffic level and the fact that there are contracts and ads (and not just dicking around with adsense, most of the time) and so on matter.

    But no, it isn’t that hard. A part time tech should be able to do it. But until a couple of days ago, we apparently did not really have that.

    Which is part of the problem.

  9. #9 The Dog Zombie
    July 21, 2010

    I am still flummoxed that those who are leaving Sb don’t seem to be building a new community together. It wouldn’t be hard to set up an invitation-only group, linked together by a single RSS feed and a list of links somewhere! They wouldn’t get paid, but they wouldn’t get told what to write, either. As harrync said in this thread, it was very convenient to have everyone pooled together. I don’t think doing that requires Sb, just a little organization.

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