Do off-topic posts put you off?

I just commented over at DrugMonkey's on a question he re-posed on behalf of a question posed by blogger, Lorax:

However, I am concerned about message. I do not want the interesting and important science to be diluted (to some potential readers) by the fact that I am an opinionated bastard. So, I have been considering starting a new blog that would contain the science- and education-oriented posts and maintaining this one until no one IWOTI.

As is common in my commenting elsewhere, my diatribe grew longer than the blogpost itself and, therefore, is now a blogpost here presented to you for your consideration and commentary:

I have thought about this very question many times over the last four-and-a-half years as my blog has oscillated in message and the need for protection of my identity has evolved.

About three months into starting Terra Sigillata and even before we were invited to ScienceBlogs, I decided to start a local interest blog that was still under a pseudonym but would speak of stuff in my daily life. But I barely have the energy to write one blog (or even read those of DrugMonkey or Lorax). It lasted about six months (but is still live) and hasn't been updated in more than three years.

Funny thing was I ended up starting to link to stuff in Terra Sig and vice versa because I realized that some ScienceBlogs readers actually care about my corner of the world because 1) a surprisingly large number of people trained here, not just US but international, 2) what happens here with higher ed, racism, music & the arts, and economic redevelopment are good examples that I like to read on other blogs, and 3) I want to show that the South has some fantastic culture & technology and that we Southerners are not a bunch of toothless, racist illiterates. (Well, I have accumulated a fair bit of dental work in my day.)

If I were a real "pro" - say, like Ed Yong has become - I'd just have a professional, one purpose blog. Then, if I wanted a personal blog, I'd just start another for that. However, part of my motivation for starting our blog was for outreach and to help the general public know that scientists are not just unidimensional creatures unable to communicate with regular folks. I also share Drugmonkey's sense of responsibility for giving back to The Boss - the American taxpayer - for those of us who live on state higher ed support and/or federal research grants.

I hesitate to make inferences regarding those who read Terra Sig but I feel that a good number of people enjoy some of the non-science or tangential stuff - in fact, our most highly-read posts are those with a personal slant (live-blogging my vasectomy, eulogizing my alcoholic father, speaking at last weekend's Henrietta Lacks gravestone dedication, being crushed when a similarly-aged co-worker dies of leukemia, reflecting on the lessons of my own illness), so I tend to think that the readers who've come around over the last few years seem to like those kinds of things. I like to think that people are interested in knowing how my father's alcoholism and my mother's battle with breast cancer informed my choices in life and in a scientific career.

And, yes, I am quietly narcissistic - so there, I said it.

This is about as hard-ass as I get but a blog is what you want it to be - no one gets to define what it should be but you. The readership who likes what you do comes along exactly because they like what you do or, as Schwa started off the comment thread, they can scroll past posts where they roll their eyes and say, "Not again, Abel." Yes, yes, I quite often write about stuff I think that our beloved readers will like, but I never shy away from saying what's on my mind because I want to journal some thoughts (although I just looked back and found some personal posts where I put in a sentence justifying the inclusion of such a post on a "science" blog.)

So, Learned Reader, why have I not driven you away?

Does it matter to you if a ScienceBlogger writes about topics not in loine with what you perceive a science blog to be?

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I like the off topic posts. You're not just a scientist living in a bubble. And if you were, I wouldn't read you. The fact that your science and writing is bathed in every day life makes you more readable to me.

I first came here (shortly after you arrived at Science Blogs) because of the pharmacognosy and natural products posts, but I've stayed because we also share other interests (music and beer) and because I enjoy most of what you write. Keep on keeping on.

There's off-topic, and then there's off-topic.

An off-topic post/comment is about something of interest to the writer. The writer may or may not think it is interesting to the readers (or even think about whether or not it is interesting), but, I speculate, the readers won't be surprised at its content. It's off-topic but not out-of-character. The writer's interest, amusement, enthusiasm, skills, whatevers, will be evident in the off-topic post.

An off-topic post/comment is utterly surprising. An extreme WTF?! moment. Maybe it's out-of-character. Maybe the writer was drunk. Maybe it shows an unexpected (and probably objectionable) side to the author (e.g., if you suddenly started spouting pro-nazi nonsense (except, perhaps, as an April Fools joke?)). In an off-topic post/comment, there's somethingâprobably multiple somethingsâthat doesn't fit.

As an analogy, this is perhaps similar to what is needed in (but does not, by itself, make) a good science fiction story: Plausible disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is required, but not too much. Only one oddity (everything else following logically), or a small collection of small oddities (with the rest following logically).

For a good OT blog post/comment, it's not plausible belief suspension, but plausible connection to the writer. That doesn't make the OT post/comment any good (by itself), but if it ain't there in the right moderate quantity, the post/comment is perhaps really off-topic.

First, my disclaimer: I'm not a "regular" reader of Terra Sigillata, in that I don't come here to read whatever has been posted. I tend to follow links and banners that catch my eye, such as this one. "Do off-topic posts put you off?" was on the Now on Scienceblogs banner, hence I'm here. I have no presence or relationship on this blog.

But with that viewpoint, I suggest that a blog offers as much of a personal relationship as the writer wishes it to offer. I follow Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer closely, and they rarely interject their presence because their mission is to showcase science. I also follow Pharyngula, where PZ is public and opinionated with everything he does (and I skip 3/4 of his posts); and Casaubon's Book, in which Sharon Astyk interweaves her personal life with the greater problems of the world in a way that shows how inseparable they really are. If your drive as a writer leads you to share your life, it would be detrimental to you and to your writing to constrain it. See your post This is why I blog:" on April 10... in fact, I archived that post. I daresay Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer won't get many comments about how their personal bravery in telling their stories helped the commenter to navigate their own life. But we need both kinds of bloggers, the formal and the human.

You should not expect to satisfy all readers with every post. With the amount of effort (i.e. trivial) a reader has to put in to find someting else to read, satisfying some arbitrary standard of what is on- or off-topic, is something I don't think you should worry about.

I suspect it largely depends on whether someone is more interested in blogging about science as a philosophical discipline, or science as it is anthropologically practiced. The former is limited to "technical stuff", the latter includes everything that scientists do in life... including writing grants, screaming at clueless undergraduate minions, or thinking about their parents.

Most humans find other humans interesting.

I started coming here... oh, a while back, in any case, when Orac made mention of you. I -like- that you are a real person. (Love the blinky box of lights, too, and have no question as to his opinion on most things, but you get what I mean [I hope]). In fact, the reason I keep coming back here is because you have a well-rounded blog. I've tried to read other blogs - Ed Wong's, for example - and while the science fascinates me, -just- science doesn't seem to hold my interest, and I generally don't keep going back. (Which is too bad, because I'd probably learn a heckuva lot more if I did.)

All of this pre-coffee rambling to say that, keep the off-topic posts coming. It keeps you real.

I think it's ok. I have a blog that is supposed to be about finance, but I post on famous deaths, songs, books, politics, and just silly stuff sometimes. I only have 15 to 20 readers though (I don't even know my hit count, but 15 subscribers and 2 followers). I think if I just posted on Finance it will get drab for both me and the readers. So I end up doing stuff that really moves me emotionally or I feel people in general public should know about. And if I feel I'm close to accurate I get very very opinionated and even curse on Econ sites. I went wild 2--3 times on baselinescenario blog. I don't like to be vulgar or crude, but if something is important to society and nobody gets it, "gosh golly darn gee wiz" just doesn't do it. I'm sure some people view me as a "base person" for doing that, but in the end I feel it's right. Even Jesus knocked down the moneychangers tables. I'm certainly not Jesus, I'm just saying.

I really liked your post on your "alcoholic" Dad. I think whatever you're doing now, it works, don't change.

By the way, how did your family get involved with the pncc?

I came (before you were at SB) for some science post, stayed for the conversation, and now ...

well, I DON'T read every post (thank you RSS feed) but scan all.

they can scroll past posts where they roll their eyes and say, "Not again, Abel."

No no no.

Sometimes you are writing about stuff that is important to you personally or professionally that's just not in my orbit.

I like your blog just the way it is. Life does not have boundaries. I went to a wedding yesterday. I had conversations that ranged from farming, to beer, to music to chemistry. There are people that read blogs to read about something specific. I come here and to other similar blogs because it give me a chance to interact with another colleague whom I have never met, but whose company I enjoy. Every time I visit, I learn something. Sometimes trivial, most times not.

It's reasonable to expect blogs published by professional organizations or publishing groups to have a more narrow focus. Outside of that, though, I'm of the opinion that the blogger gets to decide what goes into his or her blog. The "off-topic" posts interject personality and, I think, can help establish trust between blogger and readers. Plus I think it's good for the public to see that scientists are not these completely asocial, isolated, single-minded people so often portrayed in popular culture.