A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem

It is with great regret that I am writing this. Scienceblogs.com has been a big part of my life for four years now and it is hard to say good bye.

Everything that follows is my own personal thinking and may not apply to other people, including other bloggers on this platform. The new contact information is at the end of the post, but please come back up here and read the whole thing – why I feel like I must leave now.

Sb beginnings

Scienceblogs.com started back in January 2006. On that day, several of my favourite science bloggers moved to this new site, posting the URL on their farewell posts on their old blogs. I took one look at the homepage – which at the time was a simple, black-on-white version of the current Last 24 Hours page – and said to myself: this is where I want to be. My instant feeling was that whoever does not get on this site will bite the dust – become invisible in the shadow of the network. I e-mailed several of the original 14 bloggers with a simple question: “How do I get on?” They all assured me that the site will add more bloggers and that my name is already ‘in the hat’. In June of that year, I was one of the 20+ bloggers in the “second wave” of migrants to Scienceblogs.com.

How the move to Sb changed my blogging

You can hide on your own little Blogspot blog. You cannot hide on a network. My first instinctive and unconscious change, something I only became of aware later, was that I changed the way I made factual statements in my posts. What does that mean?

I started thoroughly fact-checking the statements before posting instead of learning the hard way that readers will do it for you.

Of course, I started (in 2003/4) in political blogging where much is a matter of opinion, stakes are high, tempers are short, speed of blogging is important, and stating things confidently and even ferociously is important as a persuasion method. If I have heard some useful factoid somewhere, I would often boldly claim it as true without checking first.

But then I gradually switched to blogging about science. This is the domain of verifiable facts. The goal is education, not so much political action. I wrote about my area of expertise, and I wrote in a way that built on that expertise and made it accessible to the lay public. I wrote about things I knew a lot about and was very familiar with the literature. So I referenced, cited and linked to a lot of supporting documents – peer-reviewed scientific papers.

When I moved to Scienceblogs, I doubled up on that effort, even when writing on other topics. Sometimes I wrote purposefully provocative posts, stating extreme positions and playing Devil’s advocate. Such posts were written as mind experiments, or as “let’s see how far the blind following of the logic can take us, even if it sounds crazy” and I hoped that nobody would mistake them for my real positions. But I tried not to make statements of fact if I was not sure they were actually facts. I became a better blogger. My place here requires I be trusted. For that, I needed to trust myself first.

Getting invited to blog here is an honor, and the only correct response is to blog with maximal integrity, even during online fights and kerfuffles that alight in every corner of the blogosphere, including the science blogosphere, with predictable regularity. Every single blogger on scienceblogs.com, even those who I may disagree with 99% of the time, blogs here with strong personal integrity (yes, human beings sometimes make mistakes, but they correct them once the onslaught dies down and it is possible to do it without losing face). And that is one of the greatest strengths of this network – just wander around the Web randomly for a while and you’ll see some interesting contrasts to this.

How getting hired by PLoS changed my blogging

Most of you probably know that I got the job with PLoS in the comments section of my blog. It is the support for my application for the role at PLoS voiced by my commenters that sealed the deal in the eyes of PLoS. Would I have that kind of support if I was not on Scienceblogs.com?

As an Online Community Manager at PLoS, I try to model myself and learn from the experiences of people like Robert Scoble, one of the first “corporate bloggers” (and everyone who thinks there is anything new or wrong with being paid to blog, should read Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg, a definitive history of blogging which will open your eyes). I have been a supporter (and promoter) of Open Access model of scientific publishing well before I got this job and I often blogged about PLoS papers because I – and everyone esle – have access to them. PLoS is a fabulous organization to work for. Its goals match my own. And I love all the individual people working there. Working with them is a blast, and I am proud of it. It is unfortunate that, in this economic situation (and my own personal economic situation), I can only work there part-time.

I assume that many of my readers are also interested in Open Access and may also be interested in what PLoS does. So, I blog (and tweet, etc,) about news from PLoS. As I see which new papers are coming out in PLoS ONE (and other PLoS journals) a couple of days in advance, I pick those that catch my attention, that I personally find interesting, and post links to them here once they are published. Nobody at PLoS has ever asked me to blog (or not blog) anything work-related on my own individual blog (that is what everyONE blog is for). I do it because I am genuinely excited about some of the papers, or am proud of what the PLoS team at the HQ has accomplished – new functionalities or benchmarks, etc. Like everyone else, I am promoting a cause I believe in, and I am blogging what I want and like.

One of the things that changed in my blogging comes from self-awareness that I am an online public face of PLoS. I need to behave in ways that are appropriate for this role. Thus I try to avoid (as much as that is possible) getting into big online fights and I am more careful about my use of language, especially profanity. The fact that I am much less likely today to blog on very controversial topics reflects much more my own tiredness of such topics and the endless flame-wars and troll-hunting that always follow such posts. It gets really boring after a while. I just don’t have much appetite and energy for that any more (if you think battling Creationists is nasty, try debating nationalists of various stripes from the Balkans on Usenet during the wars there – those people WOULD really kill you if they could physically get at you). I want my blog to be a positive force (while fully understanding that would be impossible if others were not doing the dirty trench warfare at the same time, providing the environment in which a positive blog can exist) and I want it to be a creative place, an informative place, and a peaceful and welcoming place for everyone interested in science and in science communication. And for my Mom. Hi, Mom!

So, while this is supposed to be my individual blog, I think of it as such, and it is seen by others as such, it is impossible to completely separate the personal from the professional. I am one of the lucky few for whom life and work are perfectly integrated – I do what I love, with great support (emotional and financial) from my wife. One of the things I am is a promoter of Open Access and PLoS, so this part of my persona is bound to find its way onto my personal blog – it would be self-censorship NOT to allow that stuff onto my blog.

Metcalf’s Law, or why are we here at scienceblogs.com

It appears that many commenters during the recent l’affair Pepsi did not understand the difference between blogging on Scienceblogs.com and blogging independently on Blogspot or WordPress. It is not so much about the direct traffic. It is not so much about payment (I earned through Blogads, back on my old blog in 2006, the same amount as I am getting here today). It is the ‘network effect’.

Let’s say I keep blogging my usual stuff day after day. I get some regular readers, some people coming from searches, some people coming from external links, etc. I also get a lot of traffic from other blogs here, from the homepage, Last24H page, from the various widgets (e.g., Reader’s Choice, Editor’s Choice, top page banner), multiple kinds of RSS feeds (e.g., Select Feed), etc. But if I have to say something really important, something that may require action, or something that many people need to know, or an important question that I may ask, there is a group of people that I can rely on much more than just my usual daily readership – the SciBlings (the name given to my fellow bloggers on Scienceblogs.com). I know they will pick up an item, link to it on their own blogs, and dramatically increase my reach for that one particular item. I don’t need to beg, or e-mail anyone, this happens spontaneously by the virtue of me being piece. Remember that still very few people read blogs through RSS feeds – they come via searches and links. These days, some of those links are posted by my SciBlings also in other places like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook. Then others, outside the network, start linking to it and blogging/tweeting about it, spreading my message far and wide. This is something that would be much more difficult on an independent blog. This is what I call “indirect traffic” – a potential instant reach that I get just by virtue of being on this network.

This kind of network effect resulted in an explosive rise in the online reputation and ranking of Scienceblogs.com. Technorati does not count Sb as a single entity (it used to), but ranks each blog independently. The most high-trafficked blog here, Pharyngula, is ranked at number 68 today. The 68th most influential blog in the world right now. Even if Pharyngula accounts for as much as half of the traffic here (I think it is at around 40%…OK, just checked, it is 42.15%) and half of the number of incoming links to the site, the site as a whole is probably up around top 30th of all the blogs in the world. That is serious visibility and influence for all of us.

All that interlinking between us, as well as links from outside, result in all of us having Google Ranks of about 6 or 7. That is huge. Much of my traffic comes from searches (of course – I have more than 10,000 posts on many topics, some very long, using many different words and phrases). If I click to see a particularly interesting set of search keywords that brought someone to my blog, I discover that my blog is one of the top ten hits for that search string. And studies have shown that most people only check the top ten results when they do a search.

Furthermore, such a significant rise in traffic and rank of scienceblogs.com resulted in all sorts of other deals. Choice posts of ours are linked from the New York Times science page. Likewise with the National Geographic site. Our blogs are sold on Amazon.com for Kindle. And the site is indexed not just in Google but also on Google News.

This means not only that each one of us gets more direct traffic, and more potential indirect traffic from our SciBlings due to being on the network, but also an even larger and more powerful indirect traffic and visibility outside of the network. We are being closely watched, both by thousands of other bloggers and by the mainstream media. Whenever Scienceblogs.com explodes with a story, MSM takes note. It is not by chance that some of the first reactions to the Pepsi scandal, even faster than on individual’s blogs, appeared in places like The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. As Jay Rosen and Dave Winer noted in their weekly podcast, the distance between us at Sb and the global media is very small. We are not just a loose collection of individuals blogging just for fun any more.

That is huge power. I keep mentioning this power every now and then (see this, this, this and this for good examples) because it is real. Sustained and relentless blogging by many SciBlings (and then many other bloggers who followed our lead) played a large role in the eventual release of ‘Tripoli Six’, the Bulgarian medical team imprisoned in Libya. Sustained blogging by SciBlings (and others who first saw it here) played a large part in educating the U.S.Senate about the importance of passing the NIH open access bill with its language intact. Blogging by SciBlings uncovered a number of different wrongdoings in ways that forced the powers-that-be to rectify them. Blogging by SciBlings brings in a lot of money every October to the DonorsChoose action. Sustained blogging by SciBlings forced SEED to remove the offending Pepsi blog within 36 hours. And if a bunch of SciBlings attack a person who did something very wrong, that person will have to spend years trying to get Google to show something a little bit more positive in top 100 hits when one googles their name (which is why I try to bite my tongue and sleep over it when I feel the temptation to go after a person). The power of the networks of individuals affects many aspects of the society, including the media.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I am not sure that all of my SciBlings are aware of the extent of this power. A Scienceblog is not a personal diary or a hobby any more.

Scienceblogs.com is Media

Scienceblogs.com has always been the project of the Seed Media Group, thus at least a self-designated media organization. But since the moment our blogs got indexed in Google News we de facto became writers for a media organization. I am not sure some of my SciBlings really understood the importance of that day and how that changed who we are and what we do.

Most of us here do not consider ourselves to be journalists or even have goals of wanting to become journalists. A few of us are. And a few of us are not sure what we are any more. But by virtue of being searchable on Google News we are journalists, whether we want it or not.

Do we write news? Some of us sometimes do. But videos, cartoons, quotes, linkfests, etc. are considered not not to be News only if one adopts a very narrow and traditional sense of the term – reporting on an event that just happened. If you open a newspaper, you will see much more than News in that sense – there are obituaries, comic strips, classifieds, horoscopes, quotes, photos, poems, crossword puzzles….all of that is News in a sense that most consumers of news think: News is what comes in the Media.

I think it is much more productive to think of media in a different way. Media is a means to disseminate and exchange information. Some of that information is important, some is informative, some is entertaining, some is educational, some is aesthetic, some is comic, some is analytic, some is opinionated, some is relevant to many people, some is relevant to just a handful, and yes, some of it may actually report on “what event just happened”. Some of it is distributed by legacy media companies, some is distributed by individuals to each other.

We here at Scienceblogs, by virtue of moving from our individual blogs to the network, have largely left the realm of “distributed by individuals to each other”. We are the Media. Which means we need to be aware of it, and behave accordingly. This does not mean we have to change anything about our blogging. After all, we were picked and hired in the hope we would continue to do exactly what we were doing with our blogs before the move to Sb. But the same picture of a cat posted on WordPress just for fun, as a hobby, becomes News once posted on Scienceblogs.com. Gotta keep that in mind at all times.

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future. See also Jennifer’s post on this issue for a clear-headed take.

Seed is not in magazine business any more

Seed Media Group was founded in order to publish Seed Magazine. And it was a very nice magazine, glossy, lush, filled with awesome visualizations. Some articles were awesome, others a little flakier, but nothing nearly as bad as some other (don’t make me name it again) popular science magazines managed to publish under their own banners. I liked Seed Magazine. My kids liked it. It was a cool, modern and novel way to design a pop-sci publication.

In a happier time, before the meltdown of the media industry and then a general meltdown of the economy, Seed Magazine would have survived. But it was not meant to be. About a year ago, the last issue of Seed Magazine appeared on the newsstands. Its brand was not big enough, with enough longevity and reader loyalty, for any other corporation to step in and buy it out. It’s gone.

But if you think you are in the magazine business, if you think that your main product is a magazine, and if you have an office full of writers, editors and graphic designers, what do you do? You retain the mindset of a magazine publisher. Instead of rethinking the mission of the organization as a whole, Seed was only rethinking how to repackage Seed Magazine. They did not let the magazine die. They moved it online instead, retaining most or all of the editorial and writing staff. As Jay Rosen likes to quip about Washington Post, “the print guys won”. The print mindset won.

Yet, at the same time, Seed had a bunch of “side-projects”, including some cool visualization stuff and yes, Scienceblogs.com. Some of those projects, including the magazine itself, fell by the wayside. But Scienceblogs.com was going from strength to strength:

Looking at the graph (I know, PageRank measures one thing, other services measure it differently, but the take-home message is the same), it is obvious that the main product of the Seed Media Group is Scienceblogs.com.

One could argue that traffic is not the proper measure, but I cannot think of a better one. If it was a scientific journal, having a middling traffic would not be so bad if other metrics, e.g., citations, media coverage, incoming links, proportion of visits that result in a PDF download, etc., are high. But there is no such thing to measure for a magazine. Impact of an article in a magazine is measured only by traffic, and traffic is also an important metric for advertisers.

What used to be a fun side-project, Scienceblogs, became the centerpiece. Or so you’d think. But remember that the print guys won. Seed never realized that they were not in the magazine business any more. It is telling that some commenters during last week’s fiasco said they never heard of Seed Magazine until now (I had not heard of it before I moved to Scienceblogs either). It is squirreled away on its obscure website, with miniature traffic, no brand recognition, not even much linking from Scienceblogs.com to it to drive at least some traffic there. We do not hear about new articles there to help promote them (except when Dave Munger writes one and tweets the link). If we are not aware that there are new articles in the magazine, how are others going to be?

Several months ago (in the wake of a loss of a couple of our top bloggers) I suggested they move the magazine onto Scienceblogs as an “editor’s blog” and let us pitch stories for it and use the existence of in-house editors to make our stories more polished than a usual blog post. It did not happen.

What Seed Media Group is doing right now is trying to run a magazine, while treating Scienceblogs.com as a source of revenue. What Seed Media Group should be doing, what every media group should be doing, is become a tech-oriented company (one of the reasons PLoS is successful is that it is essentially a technology-rich publishing company, with an incredible and visionary IT/Web team working with the editorial team in driving innovation). Instead of trying to produce content in-house, which is expensive (all those salaries!), Seed should realize that they already have 80 (now more like 60 and getting smaller every day) producers of content. Barely paid producers of content. I know, it is really hard to fire all those wonderful people – but keeping them can just speed up the end-point so everyone ends up jobless in the end. If Seed Media Group (SMG) has money for employing twenty people, fifteen of those should be tech folks, driving innovation, serving Scienceblogs.com, making it bigger, better, more powerful.

Everything at Seed should be set up to be in service of Scienceblogs: administrators, legal staff, editors, and most importantly a large, powerful, innovative technical staff. The experiment was run, the results are in, scienceblogs.com was shown to be a successful endeavor, and the rest of the experiments, magazine included, were failures and need to be thrown out and forgotten. I guess that many people in the office are emotionally invested in the magazine, but tough luck – the thing is a corpse. Mourn for a while, and move on.

Who gets to be on Scienceblogs.com?

A couple of years ago I heard the statistic that Seed got an average of seven applications per day to blog here. That is thousands of bloggers over the years to date!

The network had a succession of several excellent Community Managers who made decisions on who to invite next. As the site grew and changed, their visions also changed, which determined what kinds of blogs they were looking for. Sometimes, they would accept a new blog, and let us know about it only about a day in advance. But in most cases they consulted with us. They would ask us to recommend who we thought were the best bloggers in a particular area, e.g., technology, infoscience, art, food, chemistry, etc., whatever they thought we lacked and needed more of at any particular time. And they would usually consider our recommendations and invite bloggers we respected. There were even times when we ganged up on them and relentlessly lobbied for a particular blogger to get invited and they would have to agree eventually.

Not everybody who was invited said yes, either, but most did. And over the years there was a natural cycle – as new blogs got added, some of the older ones shut down or left. Often life and work interfered and people decided they could not continue blogging any more. Or just got tired of blogging. Some felt too much pressure to blog more frequently than they were comfortable with. Some bloggers fused their blogs into a single multi-author blog. Some invited co-bloggers to help. Some got better-paying gigs elsewhere. Some left due to personal conflicts with other bloggers. And now several have left due to the damaged reputation of the network that started with a sale of a blogging spot to a corporate entity.

And more are leaving, and will be leaving, due to “Bion’s effect“:

“You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?”

Yes, suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. This party is not as fun as it once was. Time to go.

Scienceblogs.com – The Good

Four years is eternity on the Web. But try to think back to early 2006 and understand how revolutionary that concept was at the time: grabbing a bunch of already popular bloggers, putting them all on the same site, paying them a little bit, and giving them complete editorial freedom. Anything goes! The editorial hand is in the initial choice of bloggers. Once you choose the people whose work you like, just let them loose.

The existence of Scienceblogs.com as a one-stop shopping place for all things science resulted in the high visibility of science and of science blogging and spurred the explosive growth of the science blogosphere. In 2006, I could read every post by every science blogger in the world. Today, there are thousands out there that I don’t even know about. And there are many other media companies who tried to emulate Seed and build their own networks, with, to be generous, mixed success so far.

The Seed motto, “Science Is Culture”, also contributed to opening science for the lay audience. Many of our readers are not scientists. The stereotypical image of scientists as socially inept recluses who speak in incomprehensible lingo was dispelled.

In many ways my feeling that “who is not here will bite the dust” was not realized. Instead of building an isolated elitist community, we felt the responsibility to be generous, to constantly look for, seek out, link to and promote bloggers who are not on the network. Instead of acting as “we are elite bloggers producing elite content”, we acted as “we are elite filters, finding and choosing the best content on the Web and showcasing it to everybody”.

Thus, much of what we did as SciBlings had, as a goal, the building of the science blogging community that is much broader than just our own internal network community. Nobody got rich from, and many put a lot of work into, the Open Laboratory anthologies which not only showcase the best of science blogging to the audience outside of the Web, but also promote new and upcoming bloggers outside the network. The ScienceOnline conferences (now a full-time job to organize, but still done for free on our own time) also contribute to a similar effort to get people on and off networks together. The DonorsChoose action every year brings us all together, as well as many other such actions. Scienceblogs.com was definitely a key player in the emergence and building of the science blogging community.

Scienceblogs.com – The Bad

The network has evolved over time. The initial offering was composed of bloggers who were already popular – they brought their readership with them. They just happened to be mostly bloggers – and this is probably why they were popular in the first place – whose blogging covered those aspects of “science is culture” that are quite controversial, from beating up on pseudoscience and medical quackery, to the relationship between science and religion, to the politics and politicization of science. This made for quite a lively discourse on the network, bringing up discussion topics that were important to have yet were considered taboo before. This did not sit well with all of the audience, many still squeamish about breaking of such cultural taboos (especially bold defenses of atheism), and the network got somewhat of a bad reputation in some circles, as a hotbed of godless, pinko-commie, liberal whateverwhatever people. That reputation, even during the most recent period when only about five out of 80 bloggers focused much on politics and/or religion, seems to persist.

Since the continuous additions of popular bloggers did not add many new readers and traffic (they were all already reading here anyway), and as the erroneous perception which Sb-haters promulgated that “there is no science on scienceblogs.com” needed to be countered, Seed invited many bloggers who never touch controversial topics and only blog about science. They also invited a couple of bloggers who are openly religious and a couple of conservatives. More recently, several bloggers who joined were reputable science writers and journalists. A new idea was to try and pick up some very new and not-yet-established bloggers, especially very young ones with talent, and bring them here and help them grow.

But none of this helped dispel the nefarious myths about Sb being an atheism network. In this effort to dilute politico-religious content with science content, Sb grew, in my opinion, too big. I think 80-something blogs with 90+ bloggers is too big. Internal rifts and formation of cliques was inevitable in such a large group, which led to some hidden and some very public fights, and resulted in some of our prominent bloggers leaving in a huff. This did not look good from the outside, I’m sure. And it did not work well for the bloggers’ morale either.

The chronic inability of the Seed management to communicate to and with bloggers did not help either (I feel the Overlords who tried to represent our interests were sidelined in the Seed newsroom). As a result, there is not much loyalty to the Seed brand. We are here for the network effect and traffic (and even the little money we get is important grocery money for some of us, including me), not because we are in love with Seed.

This is not about Pepsi

Two weeks ago, as most of you probably know, Seed started a new blog on Scienceblogs.com. It was to be not just sponsored, but authored by people from PepsiCo, a continuation of their Food Frontiers blog (go take a look). It was to be hosted, I believe, for three months, for a fee that PepsiCo would pay Seed (out of which, I guess, we bloggers would also get paid, perhaps even get up to date on payments – I just got my April check).

We have hosted a few corporate-sponsored blogs before, but the main bloggers on them were either independent journalists or some of our own bloggers. Those blogs were introduced to us in the backchannels in advance, we were consulted, changes were made as needed, and some of us still protested on our blogs or wrote posts that are quite damning to those corporations, their shady corporate behavior, and their products.

It is not well known – at least I did not see anyone mention it – that Seed tried to hire an outside freelance science journalist to host the Pepsi blog. Apparently, they could not find anyone. So, when the date came when they promised Pepsi they would start, they launched the blog without an independent host, with just Pepsi employees blogging. Huge mistake! They should have quickly asked some of us to pitch in that role, but instead they did not even tell us about it – the appearance of the blog was a total surprise to us all. Orac was the first one to spot it on the Last24Hour page and alerted the rest of us. Understandably, we all went berserk (and if you think our anger was strongly worded on our blogs, can you imagine what it looked like in the backchannels!?). This is a flagrant breach of the wall between content and advertising. A huge no-no in any kind of media. We are Media and this was the (un)ethical straw that broke the camel’s back.

Greg Laden was not the first one to think of it, but explained it the best the other day how the blog could have been made much more palatable to us and readers, if Seed just thought to ask us (even if that meant a delay of a couple of days before launching) to blog there. We have many bloggers here who could have contributed their expertise on various aspects of food. We have bloggers who could write with authority on obesity from physiological, medical, public health and sociological perspectives, on the chemistry of food, on poisons, on neuroscience of appetite, on nutrition, on raising one’s own food, on evolution of food plants and domesticated animals, on endangered seafood, on the economics and politics of the food industry, on useless dietary supplements, on the reason why a piece of bread always falls on the buttered side, how to desecrate crackers, and even how to roast a zebra and share it with locals in Africa. Not to mention pie recipes! That could have been fun and informative. And if Pepsi scientists contributed as themselves, not as frontmen for the company, their perspective would have been interesting as well.

Instead, we got an infomercial posing as one of us.

It is completely irrelevant that it was Pepsi.

It is completely irrelevant that it was about food.

It is completely irrelevant that they never got to post anything on the blog before it was removed under the storm of criticism by us, readers and the media.

It is completely irrelevant if their content was going to be good or bad.

What is relevant is that a corporation paid to have a seat at the table with us. And that Seed made that happen.

What is relevant is that this event severely undermined the reputation of all of us. Who can trust anything we say in the future?

Even if you already know me and trust me, can people arriving here by random searches trust me? Once they look around the site and see that Pepsi has a blog here, why would they believe I am not exactly the same, some kind of shill for some kind of industry?

Even if you know me and trust me, would you be able to trust any new addition to the network? All those thousands of bloggers who applied to Sb and did not get invited to join? What are they all thinking now about someone paying to blog here? Do you think anyone will ever apply again?

Is Scienceblogs reputation permanently damaged?

In the wake of the Pepsi scandal, other things started coming to light. Things like this and this and this and this, all adding up to the realization that Seed is not what it makes out itself to be. So yes, I think the reputation of Seed is permanently damaged. The quick reversal, under pressure, and removal of the Pepsi blog is not enough.

Will it survive? I don’t know. Probably it will, but smaller (this also depends on the biggest-traffic bloggers remaining). But the scienceblogs.com stable is shrinking rapidly, and I do not see it growing in size or reputation again any time soon. Without it – the only profitable enterprise in the SMG – I am not sure the company can survive. We won many big races, but our racing career is now over, and we should retire to some pleasure riding in the meadows now (not ready for the slaughterhouse yet, not me).

Where will bloggers go?

Some of the most prominent bloggers who have left – or will leave – can quite easily go solo. Since 2006, the Web ecosystem has evolved and now has mechanisms, including social networking sites, that can keep an already popular site from fading into oblivion by going solo. One’s blog is now only one part of one’s online presence.

Others have been approached or will be approached (as soon as they make their leaving Sb official) by many other existing or incipient newtorks out there. Field Of Science is a new network. There is also Lab Spaces. GenomesUnzipped is a new group-blog for people interested in genomics, All Geo may try to collect geobloggers, and Southern Fried Science new network may accumulate more ocean bloggers. Panda’s Thumb offered evolution bloggers defecting from Scienceblogs.com to post there (I am not sure how to think about the division by topic – does it mean that general science networks can never attract a geoblogger and an ocean blogger any more?).

SciBlogs NZ is a wonderful network, but limited by geography to New Zealand bloggers only. There are German Scienceblogs and Scienceblogs Brazil (in Portuguese). There is a growing North Carolina group science blog.

Ira Flatow offered to host bloggers on Science Friday. And so did Wired UK (and US?) and apparently The Guardian as well. Scientific American is bound to jump into the fray, picking up defecting SciBlings. National Geographic has a blog network – I guess they are watching these developments as well. These media-run blogs/networks may well be changing their technological architecture as we speak in order to absorb multiple new bloggers they are trying to attract.

Blogging on Huffington Post is an instant loss of credibility – a day of a Pepsi blog is nothing compared to years of pseudoscience, medical quackery, Creationism and Deepak Chopra’s posts there. Nobody in their right mind would want to be associated with such a cesspit of anti-science.

There are awesome blog/news networks for students of science journalism at NYU (Scienceline) and their counterparts in the UK, mainly at City University (Elements).

Nature Network whose target audience are primarily scientists rather than lay public, and Science 2.0 (formerly Scientificblogging.org, not to be confused with the similarly named but very new and interesting Science 2.0 network that does more than just blogging) seem to be pretty open and approachable and have nice internal communities, but are essentially invisible from the outside. Likewise for Discovery Networks Blogs. The Psychology Today blogs is a very big network, but they do not seem to have anything like a community, and seem to be pretty non-selective as to who they accept. I have heard of at least three new networks still in the making.

But going to any of these is potentially a step down and a big loss of visibility and traffic. The only network that has recently started to come close to the clout of Scienceblogs.com is Discover blogs, but they have a specific type of blogger in mind and do not appear to have an appetite at this point to suddenly invite dozens of new bloggers – they seem to be building the network as a small, but highly elite place for people with some existing journalistic and professional writer cred. Definitely ones to watch!

New scienceblogging ecosystem

The potential step down and loss of visibility by leaving Sb may be an illusion. It makes sense in the existing ecosystem in which Scienceblogs.com is The Borg and everyone else is biting the dust. But the ecosystem is changing. Scienceblogs.com is rapidly losing reputation and bleeding bloggers. A number of other networks are absorbing these bloggers and adding more, growing in size and visibility very rapidly. Very soon – and I mean SOON as in weeks – instead of one big place to watch, there will be two dozen medium-sized places to watch. Instead of one site that everyone reads, there will be a number of sites that will have to read each other instead. Networks that get too large will be viewed, perhaps, with suspicion they are not selective enough. Networks that are too small will get lost and invisible in such a crowded ecosystem. The trick is to find the Goldilocks solution – just the right size.

Many science bloggers are personal friends, and many are also heavy users of social networks like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, so the ties will remain. The popularity of blog carnivals may come back up, at least temporarily, due to their well-established effect of building and maintaining the community. ResearchBlogging.org, apart from building respect for science bloggers in the outside world, is also beginning to serve as a center of the blogging community (and I hope it survives, funded by Seed or, if that becomes impossible at some point in the future, by whoever else can be lured to do so).

Instead of one big network, there will be a network of networks. Nobody can afford now to ignore or be ignored by others. I bet we will see aggregators springing up that link to all the networks, perhaps networks will carry each other’s RSS Feed widgets on sidebars to facilitate cross-linking and traffic between networks, and thus raise visibility of all. And the legacy media will have to adjust to the new ecosystem as well, and instead of just watching Scienceblogs.com, find a way to monitor all of the networks at the same time.

When science blogosphere was young, existence of Scienceblogs.com was a boon – it lifted all the boats with it, made both the science and the science blogging visible and prominent. Today, having only one overgrown site so visible is toxic – it takes the oxygen out of the system, and makes the other networks and independent bloggers invisible. With the current process of Sb being cut to size, and concomitant process of other networks growing in size, visibility and relevance (as well as brand new networks springing up), we are reaching a point where being on Sb is not the pinnacle of one’s potential science blogging career – it is one of many places where it is good to be.

Many who are, for now, deciding to stay on Sb, are doing so because they are terrified of becoming invisible by going solo. But in the new emerging ecosystem, going solo is not necessarily going to mean invisibility. People who go solo will still be a part of the community – yes, the same science blogging community that Scienceblogs.com was a key to building in the first place.

Going solo also makes one “fair game”. Other networks will not approach Sciblings who are not officially leaving as they do not want to tread on Adam Bly’s territory or be seen as poaching. But they will approach people who go solo. And they will also approach independent bloggers who were never on a network before – because those bloggers are really good and have been left out so far, because there are not enough Sb defectors to build sufficiently large networks just out of them, and because they do not want the perception that they are growing and building networks entirely on the ashes of Seed.

A growing number of networks and growing visibility of all the networks, also means that bloggers will have many choices. Seed is not the only game in town any more. Some networks pay bloggers, others don’t. Some have advertising, some don’t. Some have posting frequency requirements, others don’t. Some are run by for-profit organizations, others by non-profits, and others are bloggers’ cooperatives. Some have complete editorial freedom, some have limited restrictions. Some have excellent tech support, some lousy or none at all. Some are smaller and highly selective as to who they invite, others are big and also accept bloggers who are not really up to par. Thus, each blogger has a range of choices and the ability to choose according to what each individual finds important for their own goals. And those bloggers who think of this as a hobby and do not want to be seen as Media, can easily go solo and remain connected to the ecosystem in a variety of ways.

What will I do?

My first impulse when Pepsi blog suddenly and surprisingly showed up on the homepage was to bail out immediately.

But I decided instead to take some time to think and decide. My wife also told me to wait and watch the events unfold instead of saying anything myself. Wise.

Not saying anything publicly also made me open to others – I was approached by many with questions, fears, confusions, and their own plans. I have heard a whole lot from various people – who is courting them, where they are going to go, what new networks are being secretly built, etc. which gives me a pretty good lay of the land. I have a pretty good grasp of what is going on out there, I think (though I can be surprised, I’m sure). Most people are quite secretive about their plans, and I will NOT reveal anything that anybody told me until they themselves go public, but I am also not ready to completely reveal my own plans just yet.

After agonizing for almost two weeks, I finally made a decision. I will leave Scienceblogs.com, effective today.

I am not making this decision lightly. A number of factors played a part in this. On one hand there are negative factors – the loss of reputation by Sb, the complete lack of technical support here, the deflated morale of bloggers here, and the indications that all the recent changes at Seed are not a sign of losing the print mindset, which makes it unlikely that meaningful changes will happen. There is also a feeling that SMG is financially a sinking ship. On the other hand are positive factors – I am excited by the swift evolution of the new science blogging ecosystem and want to position myself well within it. I feel that this is also an opportunity to make something better once the dust settles. But the main reason I am leaving is the ethical breach that has seriously placed our reputation in jeopardy.

Unlike some others, I have nothing personal against Adam Bly. We have met once and he seems to be a really nice guy. We loved going to the New York City meetups in the early years and meeting with him there and being hosted at his house. He has interesting ideas and I think his goals are quite in sync with my own – increasing the prominence and relevance of science in our society. I just think that he is consulting with (and sometimes hiring) people with the old legacy media mindset, getting outdated ideas from them, and not being aware how the world has changed even in the past four years and how those changes require a much more dramatic change in direction.

I also want to acknowledge how much being on Scienceblogs.com has meant to me both personally and professionally. This is where I got my job, many other gigs, invitations to give talks, preview copies of books, and a general prominence and reputation in the worlds of science, publishing and the Web. Without Scienceblogs.com, there probably would never be Open Laboratory and ScienceOnline. I have made many fast friends here, both SciBlings and readers, and I am optimistic that these friendships will continue, wherever any one of us end up blogging.

Though many other solutions are possible for me, I have decided that I want to be solo for a little while – I want to see who approaches me and with what kinds of offers. Perhaps something great comes out of it. With my wife on disability leave our finances are shot, and I need to find a way to get paid for all the things I do so I can support my family. And even if no good offers come about, at least when I make up (and announce) my final decision, I will be sure I had all the necessary information I need to make the best decision for myself.

So, farewell, Scienceblogs, it was honor to be a part of this community for so long.

You can find me, in the meantime, at http://coturnix.wordpress.com/. I will continue blogging at everyONE blog and Science in the Triangle blog as well. And you can follow me on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, so you will know when I make other moves in the future.

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92 responses to “A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem

  1. This was the one Pepsigate I was waiting to read. It’s classic Coturnix, and shows that Seed have really have lost a star. Best of luck with whatever happens.

  2. Wonderful and rich post above, Bora. Excited you are still going stronger than ever.

    Let me know if you need any help unpacking in your new digs.

  3. I really WANTED to read this post. After the first few paragraphs, however, I noticed the scroll bar and the position of the little slider that appeared to be stuck in the upper part of it. I thought blogging was about brevity. Sorry I didn’t make it. If there is a short, concise version of this article, I’d love to come back and read it.

  4. Just popped in to say hello at the new place. It looks very nice, albeit a bit unfurnished. I’m sure Arikia would love to interior-decorate the fuck out of this place if you ask her to :-)

  5. Into the breech! I’ll follow you wherever you land.

  6. New site hereby added to the blogroll.

  7. Joining the blogwarming party. Hope you enjoy the new home!

  8. Pingback: Herding cats, ethically « Evolving Thoughts

  9. Blogroll modified

  10. I think you’ll find that we’ll all follow you wherever you go, Bora.

  11. It is so sad that Sb has self-destructed.

    It reminds me of Joni Mitchell singing Big Yellow Taxi:

    You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, they’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

    Also, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    This is the right and the only thing to do, when the power individuals put into a system is misused by that system.

  12. Well, I found you on Circadiana, followed you on SB and I’ll keep track of you here! : )

    Good wishes coming your way as you make the decision on where to go next! : )

  13. Daniel:

    If you don’t read to the end, you’ll never know if there was candy.

  14. New address is logged in my Google Reader. So sorry to hear your wife is on disability; I hope you are able to monetize your online networks somehow, and soon. :-)

  15. Once you choose the people whose work you like, just let them lose.

    Oh, for want of a nail . . .

  16. Ah, thanks. Fixed and discovered another typo while at it. Editing at 3am….

  17. Thank you all. Welcome – the house looks pretty crummy right now, but I’ll make it prettier over time.

  18. Welcome to WordPress, Bora! Thanks for a great read. All best wishes, nbm

  19. Mazel Tov, Bora. I can only imagine how sad it is to leave a community that meant so much to you, and to which you *contributed* so much.

    But I think you’re right: that community isn’t going away, only changing. It is an elegant community that the margins of Seed Media are too small to contain. I’m actually quite excited to see what comes out of all this: I think that we’ll be noticing new writers whose talents were hidden as smaller SciBlings.

    In the meantime, your announcement is a class act, typically well-observed, and well worth the more than three minutes it took to read.

  20. Nice historical perspective, great analysis. I enjoy your infectious enthusiasm for the future of online science communication, undimmed by what must be at least a slightly painful juncture.

  21. You see. I told you I’d follow you anywhere!

  22. Pingback: Blogimmuniqué: Tracking the science blogosphere | Code for Life

  23. It’s midnight here and I’ve finally managed to find time to read it all! (Hey, it’s a long post…)

    The sentiment you write and points you make strike a lot of chords with me.

    Looking at all the comments here, I doubt you’ll be lost for company!! :-)

    Maybe you’ll soon start wishing you could get enough peace and quiet? ;-)

    Just kidding…

    Seriously, best of luck for the new digs & for new money too. (Been there in other ways myself.)

  24. Nice place ya got here! I plan to visit often.

  25. Pingback: An Open Invitation to Seed’s Ex-Sciencebloggers | The Intersection | Discover Magazine

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  27. Good decision and interesting post. I think it’d be great to see many of the former (or soon to be former) sciencebloggers creating a new network with similar goals to the previous one (debating science, making science available to the public, and providing a place for rational debate about other topics), but as free as it’s possible from commercial pressure, administered by the bloggers themselves. As far from the structure of a corporation as it’s possible. If not, I fear this could keep happening, if bloggers depend on the will of a few CEOs that have to respond to the constant pressure of being economically competitive and profit making.

    Cheers.

  28. Hi Bora, I read your post on a long trainride today, with plenty of time to read and think. I understand why you are sad about leaving Scienceblogs, but I also can see that there are very exciting times ahead.
    I sure will keep following you and I am convinced that it will be a happy and educating and mind-opening experience as it has been all this time. Good luck to you and your family!

  29. Thanks for a very insightful and quite objective piece of news writing, given the circumstances. As a journalism major at Univ. of Maine-Orono, we were required to take a course on the ethics of journalism and … learn it … It is very heartening to see you explicate so well the principles we were taught . And you are also living them. It is much appreciated.

  30. Just floating an idea (which I posted at John Wilkins’s blog earlier): How about compiling some kind of blog carnival for/of the existing and recovering SMG-sciencebloggers? It’s a massive undertaking, but it might keep some of the community and variety of Sb alive. And you may be the best to do it (from testimony of others) because you’re well connected and active.

    Good luck on the new blog, and in life!

  31. Just realised that I never wished you welcome in your new digs. So welcome. Congrats on joining the ScienceBlogs diasBora. (see what I did there?) ;-)

  32. Hi Bora: I always enjoy reading your take on the print vs. blogger divide. Looking at it from the outside it appears to be classic management overstepping and not understanding the ethos of the group. Your post may end up being the classic description of a watershed event in the changing science media landscape. All the best,

    Karyn

  33. Welcome back to the land of the independents, Bora. Love the new site!

  34. Pingback: It’s time to move on, time to get goin’ [Terra Sigillata] | Medical News

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  36. Very thoughtful, heartfelt post. Welcome to your new home, Bora, which looks spare and yet also welcoming. It’s the people that make a home, and your blog is full of good colleagues.

  37. An intelligent ‘at risk’ species must always take the threat of extinction seriously, and behave accordingly.

    Considering the weighty “evolutionary baggage” that impedes the mass acceptance of the very science needed to overcome the challenges before us the implosion and fragmentation of the alpha group for scientific blogs is a devastating tragedy of the commons.

    Have we not learned that “there goes the neighborhood” flight memes only leads to unsustainable inefficient (intellectual) sprawl?

    Have we not learned that “they” are us?

    Have we not learned to reverse engineer a Trojan horse? Co-opting it. Using it as a springboard platform to showcase science, where possible, and scientific debate, when not? Either way driving traffic, and awareness.

    Afterall, “where Napoleon and Hitler failed Coke (and Pepsi) have succeeded” in conquering the world. Are scientists not smart enough to pimp the populous pimps to reach the masses?

    Spare me the ‘high ground’ maneuvers … and a list to launched lifeboats. Our (space)ship (Earth) is sinking and we need ‘all hands on deck’ applying science, to have a shot at keeping her afloat. Do your collective jobs…as the team that gave us a better chance. Remember, as scientists… your in this for the species!

    The sum of your parts are not greater than the whole. And, the formation of another Science Blog planet, with comparable ‘gravitational pull’, is unlikely in the rapid expanse of cyberspace. And even if it does… will it be in time? It looks, and feels, like your blogging on the moon here.

    I’ll continue to do “my job”… of aggregating, curating and presenting… a ‘simulated team’ of posts. Its not ideal, but it helps… as I can leverage the ‘ecosystem’, ‘species’, and ‘cosmology’ namespaces to increase awareness… while driving some traffic.

    My fear is… more stops with less ‘draw’ at each stop sounds like a formula for diminishing returns.

    Nonetheless, all the best.

  38. Pingback: The Buzz of Bora « Terra Sigillata

  39. Osame Kinouchi

    Bora, could you please make a more extensive comment about

    “This did not sit well with all of the audience, many still squeamish about breaking of such cultural taboos (especially bold defenses of atheism), and the network got somewhat of a bad reputation in some circles, as a hotbed of godless, pinko-commie, liberal whateverwhatever people. That reputation, even during the most recent period when only about five out of 80 bloggers focused much on politics and/or religion, seems to persist. Since the continuous additions of popular bloggers did not add many new readers and traffic (they were all already reading here anyway), and as the erroneous perception which Sb-haters promulgated that “there is no science on scienceblogs.com” needed to be countered…”

    I imagine that although SB have 80 blogs, the fact that PZMyers is so prominent gave the impression that SB is a religion hate network.

    I am an atheist (not militant or radical), but I am not very pleased to see PZMyers to talk not as an individual but more like the “voice of science”, that is, people identify the radical atheism of Myers as if it were a consensual view from scientists. In special, I am concerned vy the fact that, from an objective point of view, Myers is not actually a living scientist: by Web of Science, his curriculum is very weak as a biologist, since he do not publish anything since the 90′s…. OK, there is a recent letter to Nature agaist creationism wich received one citation…

    Also I am concerned that Dawkins is no more an active biologist. Web of Science list of his papers is very small, with poor impact, with very few papers since the 90′s, when compared with, for example, Edward Wilson, which seems to be a very active scientist and a moderate agnostic.

    I am friend of several bloggers from Science Blogs Brazil and I am concerned that the same process can occur with a scientific blog network that I participate here in Brazil (project HAAAN). Also, perhaps this is a general phenomena worldwide, that is, that science bloggers would be automatically identified with New Atheism by the general public and accused of firstly converned with subliminar (or not) apology of atheism and not primarily with science divulgation and education.

    Have you considerations about how to manage this kind of process? Have you suggestions about this for new networks, so that they could escape from the same fate of SB?

  40. Pingback: #IOweBora, do you? « DrugMonkey

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  42. To folks like me, who went to journalism school, dealt with newsroom politics for years and watched the dinosaurs in newspaper management congratulate themselves while their houses were burning, the Pepsigate at Scienceblogs feels so familiar. It reminds me of something an editor once told me when I asked him why he left journalism after winning the Pulitzer Prize. He said, “Journalism is the most disfunctional profession.” Editors are a piece of work and I see they’re still at it even when they branch out onto the Internet. I guess that’s why journalism is a calling: You do it despite the setbacks because you have to do it.

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  46. fantastic post, Bora. I wish you the best, and am changing my link now. To write with such clarity and integrity is not easy, but you make it look so. Your energies, insights, and networking prowess will be tremendous assets for those projects and jobs you decide to accept.

  47. Pingback: It’s time to move on, time to get goin’ « Terra Sigillata

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  49. alecmuffett

    @Daniel: “I thought blogging was about brevity”

    I think you’ve mistaken ‘blogging’ for ‘twitter’.

    HTH HAND.

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  52. Just want to be apart of the house warming party by leaving a comment. Well written and hope you are able to take blogging and science to new heights whether solo or as apart of a network.

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  54. I am happy to hear that you found a new virtual home under http://blog.coturnix.org … take care of you, of your family, and of science, as you always did!

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  59. Took me forever to get through this, but this together with Ouellette’s piece has finally made me see the perhaps Sb was indeed more than just a hosting-site. Until now I’d been of the opinion that the outrage had been overblown, since it doesn’t matter to me, personally, whether a blog is on Sb or not. But I guess that that’s an artefact of my starting to read so late.

    The parallels with the ‘old’ Keenspot are eerie. Back in 2000 getting ‘spotted was it, but already five years ago smaller groups started forming for fear of getting lost in the bloat, and these days Keen is near dead, while several talented cartoonists maintain their own sites, farm out shirt production and shipping, and collaborate only loosely.

    Anyway. You’re in my feed now, for what little it’s worth. You weren’t before Pepsigeddon.

    Bonne chance!

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