Defining Bloggers by Medium

Brian's got a great post about Sarah Boxer's editorial in the NY Review of Books the other day, using this quote as a jump off point:

Bloggers are golden when they're at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn't the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that's no way to blog.

Brian goes on to say how science bloggers are different, basically that we haven't fallen for the dressed up dumbed down money trap, even since the move to Sb. I'd like to riff on this idea for a bit, coming from the perspective of a writer.

First of all, I think that the qualified (if such a word can be used) science blogging community is a lot smaller than other spheres, which makes it easier to keep track of who's who. I don't even want to speculate as to how many political or sports centered blogs there are out there, even broken down into a political party or team specificity, compared to the number of science bloggers who even occasionally blog about hard science.

Second, there are built-in checks for science blogging. There are a hell of a lot of working scientists blogging out there, and writers who know their stuff either from a science curriculum in college or by plain old osmosis, being able to properly and patiently absorb the scientific method and apply it to each new story, keeping the sensationalism and the tendency to oversimplify down to a minimum. I think it could be argued that errors are a scientist's bread and butter, giving them a chance to explain and discuss why it's an error, and perhaps in the process formulate a better way to prevent such errors in the future. If something is wrong in your blog post, expect that someone in the science blogging community will pick up on it and tell you why you're wrong.

In essence, there are checks and balances built in to having an educated base for science bloggers. Fluid physics and phylogeny take an instructed understanding to discuss properly, while the ills of liberalism or war in Iraq can generally be commented upon by anyone. A political scientist or a historian might be more eloquent and be able to cite specifics, but in general, politics can be approached by anyone with half a brain.

Boxer's definition of a blog is probably very specific: She considers them brash and daring, whistle blowing outlets for the frustrated and scorned, taking advantage of a lack of format to express themselves as they see fit. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like Boxer respects blogs for their legendary standing as raw and independent, unconcerned with details like grammar, diction or spelling.

I can't help but be concerned by those things. From my perspective, if a writer in any medium has trouble distinguishing between homonyms ("board" and "bored"), splices long run ons with commas and semicolons or has an obvious and unnatural obsession with replacing commonplace language with archaic, obscure and horribly unclear terminology, I will be much less likely to take what he or she has to say seriously.

I'll be honest. There are times when I'm reading through blog posts written by respectable members of the science blogging community and cringe at these botched "details". Bloggers have the unfortunate tendency to define themselves solely by their medium, as if considering themselves "writers" would take away their net cred or even worse, in the case of science bloggers, place them in a category with science journalists.

Creative nonfiction - and I personally would consider certain types of blogging to fall under this heading, along with memoirs - is a layered craft that takes organization and focus. First and foremost, your written word needs to be solid; you should be worrying about sentence structure and word choice even if you're not being paid. Next, your content has to be solid, even if you're just giving an opinion or sharing a perspective. Lastly, it's a creative art, and I think people are looking for perspective as much as information when they zip through science blogs, as being tied to science professionally is somewhat of a mystery to the general public.

That said, there are moments when a snarky comment under a photo or a witty title with a strange quote or something akin is appropriate. But for science blogs, if there is no meat whatsoever, it's not a science blog.

I have to agree with Boxer's assessment of blogs and blog networks set up by newspaper and magazines, especially when they are written by veteran journalists. They're typically forced, boring and stink of the inverted pyramid, precisely because they did not grow up as blogs, so to speak. Blogs mature and become solid as a part of a community, not as an established requirement by the company to keep up with expanding media.

This is why ScienceBlogs is different. Seed does not force anything on us, and with the exception of a few, all of us grew up independently of a publisher. We blog about what we want, and as Bora said in the comments, the extra attention makes us pay a bit more attention to the details.

You want respect, you play by the rules. Simple as that. Fiery commentary filled with simplistic, clunky or error-ridden language only gets you so far; eventually you have to clean it up a bit if you want to be respected as a writer.


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Thanks for the link & compliment, Jeremy. I definitely enjoyed your take on Boxer's article, and it seems that the consensus is that science bloggers are a shade apart.

"if a writer in any medium ... splices long run ons with commas and semicolons or has an obvious and unnatural obsession with replacing commonplace language with archaic, obscure and horribly unclear terminology, I will be much less likely to take what he or she has to say seriously."

Surely I don't know anyone who does things like that. *whistles innocently*

If I use the term "pedantic buzzkill" does the cool of buzzkill cancel out the pedantry of pedantic? These questions keep me up at night...

Very well stated. Even while blogging, you have a responsibility to use clear concise expression, and to properly credit any sources. I did comment on Brian's post, but it might be worth restating the main point:
"Boxer's analysis does reflect much of what I see elsewhere on the web, and the reason that I read ScienceBlogs is precisely because it is so different from the norm."

Great post - I love seeing all this great blogging coming out of that Boxer piece!

I would say that making an error in a blog post has to be one of the best ways to attract commenters, second only to making a controversial statement (um, climate change anyone?). It certainly leads to delurking on my blog, on the rare, rare occasions that I make an error :-).

As for grammatical errors, I am not sure which is worse, errors in the post or the typically snarky statements about them in the comments. While I have abandoned a few blogs due to excessive unreadability, I have also abandoned a few blogs due to crowds of grammar-hungry commenters jumping on every little mistake. I haven't seen that type of community in the science blogosphere too often, thank goodness.

Good points all around. I was also pleased to see so many bloggers irked/stimulated by Boxer's piece.

Jenn, I'm totally with you; nitpicky commenters are probably more irritating than sloppy writing. We work in a conversational medium, so cliches, colloquialisms and (obviously) first person are the standard, and the knuckleheads that obsess about these classical no-nos in written language can go boil their bottoms, as it were.

PS - I <3 Bora.

Hey, is the "hanging PS" the new way to attract commenters? Are you leaving me hanging here? C'mon man! :-)

lol... that was supposedly to say...

I [heart] Bora, with a < and a 3. I guess MT didn't like that.

Sarah Boxer's blog anthology just arrived in my mailbox and I will write a review of her book combined with a critique of her NYRB article soon.