Blogging Used to Be Punk Rock, Man

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.)

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as a fellow (living) fossil blogger i have some of the same sentiments. and, i'm going to enter into the record that one thing that irritated sometimes about bora is that self-anointed himself as an authority on all things science blog when some of us were around for years before he came into the ecosystem. not to denigrate what he did and achieved, but the collective started to go cultish in the late aughts, and i found it somewhat tiresome.

but then that's why i'm a blogger and not a pro writer.

By Razib Khan (not verified) on 18 Oct 2013 #permalink

Yeah, the constructed mythology got a little hard to take. But on the other hand, Bora unquestionably put more energy into promoting and encouraging blogging than most of us coelocanths did, so it was hard to begrudge that too much.

How revolutions get co-opted: think "thermodynamics and ecosystems."

Anywhere you have an entropy gradient or potential-difference between two points, dissipative structures will form to tap the energy flow for their own gain.

This obviously works in physical ecosystems: organisms tap ambient energy flows for their survival and reproduction (e.g. plants convert sunlight to biomass; animals eat converted sunlight in plant and animal form).

It also works in economic "ecosystems." Something (a new resource or invention etc.) produces a concentrated source of money, and the flows to/from that source to/from the ambient become occupied by additional economic entities seeking to harvest some of the "energy" (e.g. large company scores a defense contract, many small companies spring up nearby to benefit from the influx of money and workers).

And it works in social ecosystems, with variables such as attention, reputation, prestige, power, etc. as the social equivalent of energy sources.

Middlemen exploit their positions in these physical and metaphoric energy-flows, to extract as much as possible for themselves without creating sufficient obstruction or depletion that the other organisms in the system shift out of the flows that were colonized by the middlemen.

So it seems to me the solution to this is to build and promote a kind of "isothermal" environment where the potential-differences between any two points in the system are sufficiently small, that any attempt by middlemen to feed off them will immediately lead to bypass on the part of the other organisms in the system.

I'm not sure I see the great problem, and I'm not sure how this could have ended up with a significantly different publishing model once the volume of traffic passed a certain critical mass.

Gatekeepers and people who function in some fashion like editors are there in blogging for at least one of the same reasons they are there in more traditional venues: There's too much stuff out there to go diving in an unfiltered pool of publications. It takes time, effort, taste, and talent to filter out the good stuff from the bad.

To put a very sharp point on this, even if someone magically turned the slush pile at your favorite SF publisher into perfectly serviceable, grammatically correct, pleasingly formatted prose, you probably still wouldn't want to go there for your leisure reading because it's too likely to be crap to warrant your time. (Maybe I'm mis-remembering you in place of someone else, but haven't we actually had that exact same conversation between the two of us?)

Likewise, if you lower the technical barrier to entry for publication-- as blogs indisputably do-- you actually increase the value of the gatekeepers of taste.

But I don't think this is cause for great sadness, because the barrier for being a gatekeeper of taste is also at least a little bit lower... possibly a lot lower. And just as lowering the technical barrier to publishing acts to democratize publishing, lowering the technical barrier to gatekeeping acts to democratize that as well.

Blogs link to each other all the time (which is part of the point of them) and every time a blogger does that, he's making the implicit claim, "Hey, I think this is worth reading or refuting; either way, it's worth attention." Every time a blogger puts together or updates a blogroll, he's doing the same thing even more explicitly.

Just because you haven't completely 100% overturned every part of the publishing model-- just because you're still bound by the same economics of eyeball-attention as everyone else-- doesn't mean you haven't changed the model or done a good thing.

By John Novak (not verified) on 19 Oct 2013 #permalink

Gatekeepers and people who function in some fashion like editors are there in blogging for at least one of the same reasons they are there in more traditional venues: There’s too much stuff out there to go diving in an unfiltered pool of publications. It takes time, effort, taste, and talent to filter out the good stuff from the bad.

Agreed, to a point. The step that I think is a problem, though, is that at some point we shifted from a model where content is posted on individual sites and linked/ aggregated by others to a model where the content is dominated by blog networks that function more or less like traditional magazines. That's what gave the blog editor at Scientific American enough power to abuse-- he was (perceived as) the one making decisions about who to invite to join the network or even guest-blog. That's why people were having pitch meetings with him at which they could be subjected to creepy recitations of his sexual history.

The alternative to this is more of a Reddit/ Tumblr kind of thing, where everybody hosts their own content, gets money from ad revenue, and the gatekeeping is more distributed-- a function of getting lots of people to like/reshare/upvote your content, rather than getting one powerful individual to buy it. That system has slightly different failure modes, but less potential for individual abuse.

Now, there are lots of different reasons for bloggers to group together in networks rather than doing everything themselves-- there are economies of scale to be exploited in things like hosting service and ad sales. I know this very well-- after all, I was one of the first to make the decision to join one of the first science blog networks. If ScienceBlogs hadn't come knocking, I probably never would've made any money off the blogging thing, because I'm too lazy to deal with setting up ad services and all that kind of crap.

But the concentration of people in a network opens a different set of possibilities for abuse. Scientific American made it a bit worse by allowing their network to be so strongly identified with a single individual-- I barely know who to pitch stories to/ beg an invite from at ScienceBlogs/NatGeo, and I doubt many people outside the network have any clue at all. But it's a problem inherent in the structure.

And it's not the only way to do things. We could have had a different model, but we chose not to. And by that choice we've recapitulated not only the advantages of the traditional journalism model, but also its pathologies.

Well, I can see your point to a degree, but I don't think it's as bad as you think it is-- bloggers may cluster together a little more formally for mutual advantage, but (and I say this as not a blogger) it doesn't seem like that's necessary.

I still think you're a little too pessimistic and hard on yourself, for the following reasons:

1) There's still been a huge democratization of publishing, because the costs have fallen so drastically at the same time the geographic reach has expanded so astonishingly. It sounds hyperbolic, but _nothing_ like this has ever happened before: For hobby-affordable costs, you can write something today, and a thousand people distributed across the planet can read it five minutes from now.

2) As you say, other models exist, and even thrive

3) To some degree, I think you're rebelling, not against publishing, but against the way humans self-organize in general. People are gonna network, and some are gonna be better or luckier than others.

4) The transformation isn't over yet. I sit next to a bunch of NLP researchers, and I find it frighteningly possible that in ten years, the gatekeepers of taste will be automatable, and five years after that, personalizeable.

By John Novak (not verified) on 19 Oct 2013 #permalink

Blogging should not be about professionalism, or outreach, or anything remotely productive. Blogging shoudl be the scientific and intellectual equivalent of going down to the pub.

Before I got too busy recently, I tried starting a blog again, just to have fun my field again. Sure, it takes a lot of time, but compared to writing a paper blogging seems like a place where you can just let your hair down and talk about science how you want, not how the "professional" world expects.