On Blogging, Aleph-Nought in a Series

It's been a banner week for blogging advice, between John Scalzi's thoughts on comments and Bee's advice on whether to write a science blog. Both of them are worth a read, and I don't have a great deal to add, but writing the stuff I'm supposed to be writing this morning is like pulling my own teeth, so throwing in a couple of brief remarks is much more enjoyable.

First, Bee's introduction raises an important issue:

I used to think there should really be more scientists blogging. That’s because for me science journalism not so much a source of information but a source of news. It tells me where the action is and points into a direction. If it seems interesting I’ll go and look up the references, but if it’s not a field close to my own I prefer if somebody who actually works on the topic offers an opinion. And I don’t mean a cropped sentence with a carefully chosen adjective and politically correct grammar. In some research areas, quantum gravity one of them, there really aren’t many researchers offering first-hand opinions. Shame on you.

This is the thing that strikes me as the biggest missed opportunity of the whole social media phenomenon. There was a point, ten-plus years ago, where it seemed like blogging had a great deal of potential for disintermediation-- that is, for scientists to talk directly about their research without the filtering of press officers and journalists. Perhaps even more importantly, blogs offer the chance to talk about life as a scientist, providing the kind of insight that's hard to get from an outsider writing a profile piece.

That has mostly failed to pan out, particularly in physics-- blogging has ended up being mostly the province of pundits and journalists. These days, starting a blog is less a thing that a working scientist might do on the side, and more a step toward a career outside of academic research. On some level, this isn't really a surprise-- as Bee notes, you need to be comfortable slinging words around to do this for any length of time, and that's a characteristic found more frequently among journalists than scientists. But it's also kind of a shame, as it's led to a sort of homogeneity among science blogs-- they're not researchers talking about their own research, they're writers writing about other people's research. Some of which is very good, but I've found myself getting kind of dissatisfied with the whole business.

(I should note that this is true not only of science, but everything else-- there used to be a lot more "day in the life of a _____" sort of blogs, providing interesting looks at what it was like to do various kinds of jobs. Most of the people writing them have either stopped, or shifted to writing careers, and become Yet Another Pundit Blog. Which, again, feels like a missed opportunity, though perhaps not a surprising development.)

I think this has led to a sort of shift in an anti-journalistic direction here, in terms of style and content. I've consciously moved away from trying to write "news-y" pieces here, because I'm sick of reading them, and I've largely gone back to writing stuff that I find personally interesting or rewarding. Another component of this is that I'm spending a lot of time in Pop-Science Writer mode working on the book-in-progress, and when I'm writing my own stuff, I don't really want to turn out more of the same.

Another thing that's happened fairly recently is a dramatic crash in the number of comments. I'm not quite sure what the driver is, here-- part of it is, I'm sure, that topics I find fascinating don't resonate as much with others, so there's less to talk about. I think there's also been some loss in the commenting ecosystem at ScienceBlogs, with a lot of the high-traffic political discussion moving elsewhere, so there are fewer people stumbling across my stuff, and the shift to WordPress and more of a login-to-comment kind of model has acted to depress commenting. Most days, I end up moderating more spam comments than real ones, and there have been days when I considered shutting comments down completely as not worth the bother. I haven't done that, because (despite what Scalzi says at one point) I think it's important to give people a space to point out mistakes or take issue with what I've written in a place where people can easily find it-- it's all well and good to say that people can discuss on their own blogs, or Twitter/Facebook/etc., but all those options kind of suck in terms of archiving and discoverability. Unless people specifically tag me into a Twitter conversation (or I happen to follow them), I'm not going to see it, and there's very little way for somebody reading the post to run across it, particularly if they come along after the fifteen-minute window in which Twitter conversations take place.

Anyway, navel-gazing aside, there are only two things I would add to Bee's advice for scientists thinking about blogging:

1) Don't be afraid to try it. The up-front investment is basically nil, and if you're not immediately put off by the time required (which is basically the same as for any other serious hobby) or the notion of writing lots of words on a regular basis (which is not for everyone), go ahead and try it. Spend a little time writing stuff and posting it, and see if you enjoy the process.

2) Don't be afraid to quit. If you try blogging, and find that you don't enjoy it, stop. There's no cost to starting, and none to quitting. There's no obligation to blog, or to take blogging seriously if you do, any more than there's an obligation to take up some other time-consuming hobby. If it's not fun, don't do it any more.

The same, by the way, goes for Twitter and Facebook and G+ and Tumblr and whatever misspelled word will be the next great social media craze. If it looks interesting, try it out. If it doesn't appeal, stop. There's no firm obligation to take part in any of these things; I drop and resume Twitter on a pretty regular basis, but other people find it indispensable. I don't get Tumblr at all, so I mostly don't bother with it, and I'm sure I'm not particularly missed.

And, really, that's about all I have to say about that. Which has taken just long enough for me to justify shutting down the computer and going to play basketball, leaving the tooth-extraction of writing the chapter-in-progress for later this afternoon. So it's all good.

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I should note, of course (and would have, if I hadn't run out of time) that I'm as guilty as anyone of shifting away from blogging about the scientific life. I used to regularly do life-in-the-lab posts, and I don't anymore, because I no longer have time to spend working in the lab.

So that may be part of the explanation for the perceived shift: the people who were at the right career stage to do life-in-X blogging have aged and moved up to positions where they no longer have the opportunity to do that kind of blogging. And the kids these days with their Facebooks and their Tumblrs don't take it up, because blogging is for old people and journalists.

I'm glad you're still blogging.

Me too!

Hi Chad,

Thanks for the link and for adding the two points. You're right of course. As to the comments: my blog too has seen a decrease in comments though not, for all I can tell, in visitors or readership. As you also suspect, part of the discussion has shifted to facebook and G+ and who-knows-what. I see that on my own fb timeline. It's unfortunate of course because it splits apart the discussion. On the other hand I have to admit that blogger's comment features are totally last century, and fb is way more convenient and functionable for commenting. (I don't do a lot on G+, there's only so many hours in the day.) Besides this however, I have to add that I myself have basically stopped commenting on blogs (yours is one of the few exceptions) primarily because it seems entirely pointless, but partly because most places want me to sign up for this or that and I'm pretty tired of signing up for places just to then get some "newslettter" and likewise and inevitably forget the password.

And while I'm at it, I've learned a lot from your blog, both about writing as well as about physics, so thanks for all the words and also for the family photos :) Best,


I could not agree with you more. Since I have been managing our blog, I have been offering (all but begging, really) scientists, students and postdocs the chance to write guest posts. This doesn't stem from my innate laziness, but from the belief that they will have something much more interesting to say about their research than anything I come up with. So far, no takers. I don't know whether this is from the fear of being seen as a) not serious or b) having enough spare time to write something as "frivolous" as a blog post.

After reading your post, however, I think I will keep offering on the slim chance that there is a scientist here somewhere who has considered blogging and only needs a gentle push to try it out.

By Weizmann Scien… (not verified) on 01 Sep 2013 #permalink

On a related point, and co-inky-dinkally, I recently saw a documentary by Sir Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) on the increasing distrust of science in the public; Sir Paul definitely recommended that scientists be more open with the public, and blogging would certainly be one way to do so.

(Here's the 1hr docco on YouTube, for those interested: http://youtu.be/gvB9EFdJ1d0 Viewer discretion advised; some scenes contain images of the manuscript for "Principia Mathematica" and a signed first edition of "Origin of Species".)

-- Steve

By Anton P. Nym (not verified) on 01 Sep 2013 #permalink

I think Tumblr has a place for serious scientists and it's a great shame more don't put the effort into it (as you allude to, it's more younger writers, I don't see why this has to be so). Approval on the site comes in the form of selective sharing, and commentary is available through Disqus. Wordpress isn't very open as you say, twitter/facebook are only for short text and websites even on networks such as ScienceBlogs can as you rightly say wane in popularity or for lesser known ones become 'orphaned'. Tagging posts on sites like Tumblr means very quickly good posts can get attention, gain a following and grow in quite a natural way. The connectivity, multimedia versatility and 'dashboard' feed should be dived into by scientists, rather than simply used as hobbies for posting pictures of an aesthetically pleasing fluorescing protein and a meme here and there. The site's CSS and HTML5 compatibility mean themes can be very dynamic with little effort. A shame imo, who knows if something else'll come along though