Science Online Advice: Long Term Blogging

This is the second post in which I'm pulling a revise-and-extend job on some things I said at Science Online at a few panels on bloggy stuff: in the how-to-do-outreach session (posted yesterday, the blogging long term session, and the what-to-do-when-people-start-taking-you-seriously session. In order to get these out in a timely manner, while catching up on all the work I have to do, I'm splitting these up into individual posts, though really they all kind of fit together.

Blogging for the Long Haul

There were two easily misinterpretable things that I said at this one, that deserve a bit of explanation. The first came as people were going around talking about strategies for continuing to blog, including things like writing a large number of posts to be put up days, weeks, or months later, and forcing themselves (or being forced by others) to write something, anything to get back in the habit of blogging. It all sounded like an awful lot of work to me, which influenced the tone of my contribution, which was "What keeps me blogging is that it's not my job."

That was perhaps not the best phrasing, but it was as close as I could come to my general reaction to all this. And really, not being my job is kind of an essential part of my approach to blogging-- the times I've taken time off from blogging have come at points where it started to feel too much like work. When it starts to feel like I have an obligation to post stuff, I start to lose interest. I do this because I enjoy it, and because if I didn't have an outlet for my various opinions, I'd be forced to inflict all of them on Kate.

That's also my stock advice to people who ask about blogging, such as the woman who sat next to me on the bus back to the hotel after that session. I said that if you're curious about blogging, the thing to do is simple: go to one of the free blog platform sites, set up a new blog, and start typing into the box. Do that for a week or two, and if you enjoy it, you'll keep at it. If you find it hard work, and don't enjoy it, stop.

Now, on some level, this is easy for me to say, because I have a tenured faculty position. I don't need blogging to pay the rent (and it doesn't pay that well, believe me), and I don't need it to serve as a reference for when I pitch freelance stories to editors, or whatever. I get a little extra money from it, and having the blog does help a bit when I need to demonstrate my ability to generate content, but I don't really need it as a professional outlet. And when I think about encouraging other people to blog, I think about other scientists like me, who understandably tend to be very leery of taking on any additional obligations.

At the same time, though, I'm not really convinced anyone else needs to blog, either. I mean, some publicists and agents will say that you "have" to blog if you want to sell books, but I've seen a lot of these kind of publicity blogs of obligation, and they mostly suck. The generally dull content mostly revolves around book publicity, and once the book is off the new release shelves, they're usually mercifully abandoned.

There are examples where forcing some people to blog has had good effects-- Tommaso Dorigo named his blog A Quantum Diaries Survivor because he started as part of the year-long "Quantum Diaries" project of one of the big particle physics organizations. Without that, he might not have become a blogger, and the physics blogosphere would be poorer for it. At the same time, though, note that he's about the only one out of the couple dozen people who blogged for Quantum Diaries who's still at it. That's presumably because he finds blogging rewarding for its own sake; those who didn't have stopped. A newer version of "Quantum Diaries" is here, and it's instructive to look at the number of posts for the individual bloggers-- most of them are in single digits, indicating that they're not really all that strongly committed to the whole thing.

There are certainly people who have built careers for themselves out of blogging, many of whom were at Science Online. But I'd bet that they were able to put in the necessary work because at some level they enjoy the process, and don't usually have to force themselves to blog. Like most things, the key to being really good at blogging is to enjoy what you're doing; if you don't enjoy it, you should give serious thought to stopping.

In a similar vein, the other bit of advice I gave that I thought worth repeating and expanding here was to be wary of "metrics." As science-y people, we're mostly in favor of quantitative measurements, and blog stats are tremendously tempting-- it's a big pile of data!

At the same time, though, there are two ways that you can go astray with blog stats. The first is just that it's all but impossible to predict what will hit big, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to find the formula for success. Posts that I dashed off in half an hour have gotten tens of thousands of hits, while posts that I slaved over have sunk without a trace. Trying to figure out how to force something to "go viral" will drive you insane, because there's no solid rule for it. Other people at the session said the same thing, and it's one of the great frustrations of the blogging game.

The other failure mode is more insidious, though, and it ironically follows from what success is possible with traffic metrics. That is, even if you manage to stop chasing the dramatic spikes in traffic, and focus on more achievable growth, striving for traffic can have a distorting effect.

There's no surer way to draw a lot of eyeballs than to post controversial material, particularly angrily political stuff. Controversy blogging is the closest thing to a foolproof strategy for driving traffic, but before you go down that road, you should make sure that that's what you really want to do. I've seen plenty of blogs that started out with low traffic but great content turn into tedious and tendentious blogs about the same never-ending arguments that a hundred other people bang on about. I've flirted with that myself a few times, but I found that when I started doing that, I really didn't want to read what I wrote. And if even I don't want to read it, I realized, I don't actually want to write it.

So, my advice regarding metrics is, by all means, look at the data. But don't look at the data in isolation-- if your traffic is increasing, but you're no longer doing the sort of posts that you got into blogging to write, think carefully about whether that's really what you want to do. On some level, this is kind of the same central message as yesterday's post: you should keep in mind what it is that you bring to the table that other bloggers don't, and make sure that you're doing that. Or that if you've abandoned that, you're doing it with your eyes open and for some good reason.

Otherwise, you may well wake up some morning, and realize that you're no longer interested in running your blog at all.

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Nice piece. The only thing I would add is that part of what makes it fun over the long haul is the communal aspect. People look at metrics because they want to be read. When I was on my own, I had 2000 readers a day and it was nice enough but I got no comments. At Science 2.0 I get a hundred times the readers but a lot more comments, and feedback from other people in science media that would never have found anything I wrote otherwise.

So I would actually encourage people who like the communal aspect but might otherwise fade away because their personal blog is too lonely (and therefore too much pressure to produce content) to sign up here at Scienceblogs, or at SciAm (or , of course, Science 2.0) because the community reaffirms when we do good stuff.

By Hank Campbell (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink

The communal aspect is a big part, that's an excellent point. It's always a kick to know that people are reading stuff that I wrote, and on the flip side, it's kind of depressing when a post I spent hours writing sinks without comment. (The traffic metrics help there, because they can at least confirm that people did read it, even if they didn't comment...)

Hi Chad,

This piece really hits home for me. I finally launched my blog (about medical technology R&D) in January. I aim to be in it for the long haul. I thought long about the perspective of the blog and made the decision to avoid inflammatory techniques. Because I am starting out, I am particularly interested in traffic. I have seen how one post can get a spike in visitors (without any comments). I will experiment to see what helps drive traffic, but my expectation is that topic choice, quality, and frequency will grow readership over time. And if I'm wrong, then I am at least doing something that I enjoy.

Thanks for the post.

Best regards,
Kendall Waters
Useful Remedy:

By Kendall R Waters (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink

I have started a blog and I have tried to model myself at least partially on the blogs that I like to read. I like to read political invective sometimes, and sometimes I don't. The blogs I keep coming back to are the ones that avoid that kind of thing. They are the ones that make me feel like I'm having an interesting conversation with an acquaintance, or, in some cases, a friend. I can't really say that I enjoy getting my blood pressure raised on a constant basis. So as tempted as I might be to spout politics, I'm not going to do it.