Why Do We Do This (Again)?

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Steffi Suhr, who writes Science Behind the Scenes at Nature Network, is (re)asking this popular meme in the wake of the internecine explosion that ensued after a misunderstanding at the recent Science Online 2010 conference expanded to encompass the two best and biggest English-speaking science blog sites in the world: Nature Network and ScienceBlogs. The questions;

  1. What made you start blogging?
  2. Is a sense of community an important part of blogging for you, or do you prefer blogging 'solo'?
  3. Are there blogs you never look at? If yes, why (be nice and don't name names)?
  4. Who are you blogging for/who are you talking to?
  5. Do you think you may be getting people exposed to some science through your blog who otherwise wouldn't be?
  6. Do you think any non-blogger cares about any of the above things?

My responses;

  1. What made you start blogging?
  2. Back in the early Paleocene, I was experiencing the best, most magical and joyous time of my entire life as a graduate student and then (especially), as a postdoc. At the time, I didn't know that it would come to an abrupt and ugly end by suddenly crashing down around my head. During the last few months of my postdoc, I was devastated to realize I was unable to find either a second postdoc or a tenure-track position, and would end up unemployed. I'd never been unemployed before, and I was desperate (as well as being desperately depressed and humiliated). I was also absolutely alone in NYC.

    In an effort to record what I could from this singular happy time in my life -- well, to keep from going completely insane -- I started writing a blog. Initially, as the name indicates, my blog was meant to be my record of what it was like to be a female scientist and also what it was like to be an unemployed scientist working to further develop her career. Of course, at the time, I thought I would find another position -- a postdoc at least -- but I never did. In fact, I never again found another permanent paying position doing anything at all, and the humiliation and sense of worthlessness triggered by all the smug rejections that I received was more than I could write about or, at times, endure.

    At this same time, I was devastated to find that my scientific colleagues had moved on and I was no longer a part of their professional landscape. It made me wonder if unemployment was a contagious disease instead of the gross political injustice that it truly is. Worse, due to my extreme poverty, I was also locked out of all the professional literature, so I couldn't follow any scientific developments nor even my own colleagues' work, even from afar. It was as if I had suddenly become the walking dead.

    Yet despite crushing financial difficulties, I was primarily concerned with how could I remain in the science information loop and prove my worth to my colleagues? (or, you can restate that as a defiant they can lock me out of employment, but they will NEVER lock me out of science!). Recalling all the times when my colleagues complained about the inaccuracies of science journalism, I decided that writing about science for the public might be the one way I could make myself useful: my attempt to meet my goals was to write "translations" of newly published research for the public and publish these essays on my blog as soon as I could access the original research (usually a few days after the papers had been published and had already hit the news -- a situation that mostly remains unchanged for me).

    Even though I am not a journalist, and I don't pretend to be a good writer, I still have the ability as well as the passion (honed by a lifetime of dedication, sacrifice and hard work) to understand science, and it is disrespectful as well as wasteful not to honor that, so I am using it in the only way I know; writing a blog about science. And I do love trying to help the public catch a glimpse of how fun science really is; the adventure, the discovery .. I like writing about the discoveries that are made and what they might mean to science as well as to society. I also like to describe the intellectual journey that triggers of a particular line of inquiry; the history of the problem that the researchers are investigating, the hypotheses that are being tested and how those discoveries were made. Additionally, I find great pleasure in elegant experimental design, so I try my best to describe the basic design of experiments so my readers understand the simplicity and the beauty of the scientific process a little better. By these standards, I have not yet succeeded at writing a truly good science piece, but I am always striving to that end.

  3. Is a sense of community an important part of blogging for you, or do you prefer blogging 'solo'?
  4. I started writing "solo" and then began connecting with the community of science blog writers after I stumbled across the science writing blog carnival Tangled Bank. Soon afterwards, I also found the medical writing blog carnival, Grand Rounds. Since I wrote about both topics, I sent material to them regularly and eventually began to be noticed by the blog community. My traffic increased. I received interesting emails. I even -- gasp! -- developed friendships. Sometime after that, I was invited to join the ScienceBlogs community (thereby abandoning Blogger, which had finally moved on from its tortuous daily "crash and burn" stage of development) and the rest, as they say, is history.

    But to answer your question, I think the best way to write about science on a blog is to be part of a community. The function of this community should be to provide a stable, functional blog platform as well as encouragement, ideas and traffic, and to provide connections to scientists as well as to media organizations. Community, such as ScienceBlogs, also provides credibility that I would otherwise not have -- anyone who has ever been unemployed will know what I am talking about when I say that being jobless is to be rendered completely invisible (even moreso if you are female). Credibility has provided me with valuable contacts in the scientific and medical worlds and also in publishing, so I have been sent lots of great science, medical and environmental books to review on my blog as a result of that. Being the bibliophile that I am, the fact that I have access to hot-off-the-presses books is something that I treasure.

    So in short, I think that "community" is almost required for a good science blog. Without community, a blog writer is faced with trying to provide everything for herself. This can be so daunting and time-consuming that many solo blogs fold as a result, I suspect. This community is easiest when formed around a group of like-minded individual blogs, but alternatively, it can be formed around a group of individual writers on one blog that is independent of a formal topical community site. But since I've never experienced that sort of arrangement, I cannot really comment on it.

  5. Are there blogs you never look at? If yes, why (be nice and don't name names)?
  6. Of course! I'd never get anything done if I read all (science) blogs out there! But I do try to pop in on most of them a few times per year. Considering the exponential growth of blogging (and the nearly exponential demise of blogs), I doubt I manage to do so, though!

  7. Who are you blogging for/who are you talking to?
  8. Um, me? Oh, hang on, that's not possible: I am invisible. Besides, I don't read my own blog, except to find all the typos.

    I write for anyone who will read and think about what I write and comment (or feed me).

  9. Do you think you may be getting people exposed to some science through your blog who otherwise wouldn't be?
  10. Maybe. I hope I do, and this is the reason underlying the diversity of topics and genres I use to reach people. I use video embeds, mystery birds, book reviews, online polls and photographs to attract people and then I hope that after they are on my site, they'll take a look around, and maybe read a science story. And hopefully, they'll like what they read and return to read more (science). I know, that's a lot of hoping for one hopelessly unemployable female person, but that's my current thought process underlying why I do what I do on my blog.

  11. Do you think any non-blogger cares about any of the above things?
  12. Probably not. Why should they care, especially when they have little or no frame of reference to base that concern upon? Although I suppose that, in a more general sense, writing a blog is a real-life lesson in "Marketing 101", which is what everyone does all day long, every day of their lives -- if you believe the insultingly simplistic "how to find a job" literature. So maybe non-"bloggers" (the word "blogger" makes me cringe) do care about these issues for that reason.

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thanks steffi, i hadn't read that, but i am glad to see that my loathing for the word "blogger" is shared widely.

thanks tabor (who is among my very first fans, and who has, to the best of my knowledge, been following me and commenting longer than anyone else. hey! it's like we're family!)

Excellent contribution! I'm a (relative) newcomer to your blog so it's very interesting to read your back story.

I too started my blog to try to keep myself in the science loop, although I was employed at the time (in a job that was a very poor fit for me, to the extent that I could actually feel myself getting less intelligent through neglect of the science part of my brain). Blogging helped me fix that, and the friends I made in those first few months were my motivation to keep blogging even when I managed to escape that company and move back to academia.

cath: where's your lengthy (bloggy?) contribution to this discussion? i'd like to read that!

Hey! Now that felt very honest, brava!

Through you I've discovered other science blogs, and I wish I had the time to read more and write more myself! But my interests are so diversified and I lack the time, so I just have to make do with what I come across, a lot of it thanks to you.

So thx!

(hope it's not too cold in Frankfurt!)