Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How

Continuing with the theme from my ‘farewell to scienceblogs‘ post, I want to do some more thinking, out in public, about the current changes in the science blogging ecosystem. This post is probably going to end up being just a set of meandering thoughts and I hope people continue the discussion in the comments.

So, let’s start with history and then see how it may illuminate the present.

Inception of the Scienceblogs.com model

In 2006, Scienceblogs.com grew from initial 14 to about 45 blogs. At the time, there were only a couple of hundred science blogs written in English. Thus, the proportion of science blogs that were on Sb was huge, perhaps as many as 10% of them all were hosted on the network.

In 2006, one could argue that blogs on Scienceblogs.com included some or most of the “best” blogs, as well as a representative sample. Seed certainly targeted blogs that were well written and reliable. And Seed definitely tried to collect a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices.

But Seed also biased their sample in two important ways:

First, they, initially at least, invited bloggers who already, for the 2006 standards, had large traffic. This was definitely a good strategy – the one that made them an instant success in comparison to other (some even older) networks who tried to get non-bloggers to become bloggers (and popular at that) over night. By joining the Seed’s network, these already popular bloggers brought their readers with them, immediately increasing the visibility of the network and immediately increasing the readership of the other blogs on the network. In 2006, some (though not all) science bloggers with the largest traffic, got to be popular by regularly tackling controversial topics (medical woo, pseudoscience, creationism, politics, religion, global warming, etc.) or by giving voice to groups that were up till then invisible in the society and mainstream media (e.g., female scientists, graduate students and postdocs revealing how the world looks like from their perspective, atheists, etc.). Those topics are very important, but are not representative of the broader science blogosphere any more.

Second, Seed initially invited the bloggers who posted frequently. It is not a bad idea, when starting a new network, to make sure there will be plenty of new content appearing all the time. But that kind of frequent blogging style is more of an exception than the norm. Very few bloggers naturally post with the frequency of PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, Grrrlscientist, Greg Laden or myself. And especially in science blogging, writing a detailed, high-quality post about science takes some time, research and effort which most of us cannot summon every day, let alone multiple times a day.

The popularity and visibility of Sb led many people to think “Hey, I can do this” and today there are thousands of science blogs out there. This means that even with 80+ blogs on the network (as of couple of weeks ago, now around 60), the SciBlings represented only a tiny sliver of the science blogosphere, perhaps around 0.1% (totally inventing the numbers here, but these things – what is an active science blog, for example – are very difficult to define, track and calculate).

Over the four years, the science blogging ecosystem changed. Many of us blogging at Scienceblogs.com also changed. Some noticeably reduced their posting frequency (perhaps moving some of the formerly bloggy material over to Twitter or Facebook). Others changed their interests and topics – this is normal as people change and their blogs evolve. These days I blog about scientific papers quite rarely, but blog often about the ways the Web is changing the world of scientific publishing, science journalism, science communication and science education. I completely understand that people who were reading my blog four years ago may not find my current blogging interesting any more (and vice versa).

Thus, in 2010, the Scienceblogs.com stable is even less representative than in 2006. And with thousands of science blogs out there, many of them excellent, nobody can claim that the blogs on Sb are “the best” any more. Some are among the best, but there are many more “best blogs” in the world not on Sb. But as the Scienceblogs.com network was huge, and hugely visible, and hugely respected, and hugely watched by MSM, all those wonderful science blogs outside the network were essentially invisible, living in the shadow of Sb and hoping we’d link to them sometimes (which we tried to do often, but that is not enough). It is like in the Mesozoic – all those tiny little shrew-like mammals hiding in underground burrows and foraging for seeds at night, being unable to spread into any other niches because the big, dangerous dinosaurs are roaming around the land.


[Image source]

But as the ecosystem was changing, the dinosaurs started feeling a little ill (at least for the past year or so). And then at one point, a giant asteroid (with a Pepsi logo on it) hit the Earth and the giant dinosaurs went extinct.

Now, looking at what is happening at Sb today, I feel that the network will survive, at least for a while. But it will be a smaller, more nimble network in which bloggers have a much bigger voice. The series of defections, followed by the blogger strike, and the management’s response to it suggest that from now on bloggers will be very much calling the shots, as they are the only viable part of the enterprise. Bloggers on the network are all experts in (self)promotion or they would never have ended on Sb in the first place. They can come up with fascinating ideas how to promote the network – and themselves as a part of it – that no traditionally trained PR person can even imagine. So, if the new model for Scienceblogs.com will be more along the lines of Workers’ self-management (also see), then we may see a continued evolution and continued high relevance of this network in the future – after all, dinosaurs are still around us, and they are very beautiful and nimble, though small: we now call them ‘Birds’.

But in the meantime, while Sb is rethinking itself, it is obvious that its size and reputation is smaller. This suddenly opened up the space for many other players to come in. An adaptive radiation of mammals after the K-T boundary, if you will….


[Image source]

The Present

So, there is an awful lot of evolutionary experimentation going on right now. Existing networks are expanding and changing their technological architecture to accommodate the growth. Individual blogs are turning into group blogs. Group blogs are turning into blogging networks. Brand new networks are being built. There will be successes and there will be failures, but when everything settles down, we will probably see a very different environment. Instead of one large island, there will be an entire archipelago of smaller islands. And the new ecosystem requires a new behavior in it, and a new way of thinking about it.

Take a look at my Blogroll on the right – most of that list are various science blogging networks. Some are run by big newspapers (The Guardian), several by popular magazines (National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, as well as Burda in Germany), some by university programs for science journalism (Scienceline, Elements), some by scientific publishers (Nature), some by scientific societies (American Chemical Society) and several are self-governing blogger cooperatives (interestingly, often aggregated around a single topic). Each of these networks thus has a somewhat different goal, and a different ‘business model’.

What worries me is that so many of these networks are trying to copy what Seed did in 2006. Now, don’t get me wrong – as I stated in my farewell post, Seed did many things right. Christopher Mims who conceptualized, started and then ran the network for the first six months was a visionary – some of the things he did with scienceblogs.com are now so “normal” that nobody can think how it could possibly be done any differently. It is certainly a good idea for all the other networks to analyze what Seed did right and what Seed did wrong, then to apply those lessons to their own goals and concepts. But they should also realize it is not 2006 any more. Four years are a millennium in Internet Time. The world has changed.

What is the overall goal?

My assumption is that most science blogs are tools for communication, popularization and education of science. The goal is to turn the world (including the individual nations in it) into a “scientific” world, aka, into a reality-based world.

If you think of science communication as a series of concentric circles, at the center are data. The only readers capable of understanding raw data are computers. Once computers analyze and visualize data, those can be understood by experts. But just like dumping reams of data online by WikiLeaks does not make an impact, raw data in science also do not make an impact on their own. Just like WikiLeaks outsources story-telling to the Media, so data need someone to turn them into a story. Those stories, the next bigger concentric circles, are scientific papers, readable (as of now, but this may change) mainly by other people in the same scientific field. The discussions going on in the comments on the papers (and this will, over time, become more common-place as more journals adopt the practice and people get used to seeing it everywhere) are the next circle.

The next big step is to translate those papers and discussions into something that can be understood by people outside of the narrow discipline – the lay audience. That lay audience is also stratified. A scientist in one field is lay audience for another field, but is highly educated and tends to think like a scientist. Then there are generally well educated people who are interested in science. And then there are people who don’t even know if they would be interested in science. Thus, there need to be several different levels of presenting science to the lay audience. And there need to be both “pull” (for interested audience) and “push” (for not yet interested audience) strategies for disseminating scientific information.

The “pull” outlets are science-specific, e.g., dedicated science pages in newspapers, science channels on cable TV, science programs on radio, popular science magazines, popular science books, and science blogs. They are seen by people with interest in science, and easily avoided by those who don’t care. Such outlets span a range of levels, from kids to scientists in other fields. Communication in this outlets is generally pretty good, with bloggers doing a great job at pitching to somewhat higher levels – the educated audience that is very interested in science (including scientists in other fields). This is also the level that is not at all covered by any of the legacy media, and has been missing until recently.

The “push” outlets are general media that may throw a science story into the mix. Such stories can be in papers, magazines, radio, TV, movies, eclectic websites, etc. Such stories tend to be written by general reporters, not specialist science journalists, and thus tend to be awful. But it is the bloggers who do a great job correcting such stories and ‘schooling’ journalist who make mistakes (who may, if their egos allows them, listen and learn and get better).

Both the push and pull versions of the traditional media have a large audience. But bloggers still don’t. Congregating into networks is what turns bloggers into Media, makes them highly visible to the legacy media that will spread stories (or correct their own) and make their spread and reach much wider. Building blogging networks is an application of the use of the ‘network effect’ to make this effort more efficient, by giving the bloggers greater visibility both to casual Web surfers and to the traditional media. Just like WikiLeaks is a global, non-national, crowd-sourced media organization that needs legacy media to make an impact with their stories, so blogging networks are also global, non-national (usually), crowd-sourced media organizations that need to be visible by legacy media in order to have their stories spread widely enough to make an impact.

The mindset that the world is a competitive place, where one company or organization will win and the others will go bankrupt (think of VHS beating Betamax and V2000), is a 20th century mindset. Yes, Google is the best and most popular search engine, but there are others and those others still are used by millions of people who have their own, often good, reasons for making that choice. Today, an ecosystem in which multiple, perhaps many, producers of the same thing, coexist, collaborate, co-depend, is becoming more and more of a reality in more and more areas of life, from globalization of the world (One Remaining Superpower model is gone, if you have not noticed), to industry, to publishing, to the Web. And so it is with science communication, which includes, among else, science blogging networks – many, not just one.

Instead of one huge network, there will be a couple of dozen smaller ones. Sharing similar goals, the networks should be collaborative, not competitive. Each network should display widgets showcasing the most recent posts from all the other networks. There should be a central place that sends people to all the networks. There should be common offline events. There should be actions that all networks participate in. Any network that decides to stay out of these things would self-isolate. And just like the world itself is now interconnected and being isolated does not work for you very well (think: North Korea), so blogging networks are interconnected and being isolated will not work for you either – nobody pays attention to you, and when they do they do not say nice things about you, you cannot control your own message and cannot respond to other people’s messages.

What does it mean to be a blogger these days?

Four years ago, one’s blog was the main and probably only way to communicate online. Blogging networks being blogging networks made perfect sense.

But today, there are many other ways to communicate online. One may exchange information on Twitter, discuss it on FriendFeed, keep social connections alive with friends (and blog fans) on Facebook, post shorter ideas on Posterous, cartoons and videos and quotes on Tumblr, upload videos on YouTube, podcasts on Imeem, slideshows on Slideshare, travel photos on Flickr or Picassa, art on DeviantArt, sell art on Etsy or swag on Zazzle (or CafePress), publish books on Lulu.com, submit scientific manuscripts to PLoS journals, edit Wikipedia, review books on Amazon or Shelfari, and use the blog only for longer, original, well-researched or more thoughtful pieces.

Different people will use their blogs in different ways, for different purposes, but in most cases the blog is not the only means of communication. If you go to an independent blog, you will often see not just the content of the blog but also a whole host of buttons and widgets showing that person’s online (and offline, including professional) activities elsewhere. I just started playing with WordPress, but you can already see on the right sidebar my latest tweets, the FriendFeed widget, links to ScienceOnline and to the Open Laboratory books, and to the homepage where you can find all sorts of buttons leading you to other places I can be found online.

For some people, their blog is their central place and all the other activity is satellite. For others, the focus may be on their MSM work, or their books, or activity on Twitter, and blog is just one of many “other places” where they sometimes do something interesting.

I think new blogging networks have to take this reality into consideration. Be networks of interesting people, whatever they do, not just networks of blogs. Help them showcase everything they do, not just blogging. And if, for technological or managerial reasons, an individual blogger is not capable of showing exactly where the blog sits in their own online work, they will not like it, and they will leave. No way to put all those widgets on the sidebar? The blog then feels isolated from the rest of that person’s work instead of as an integral part of it. The person will feel as giving up too much of their own personal ecosystem for the good of the network’s ecosystem.

Accommodate people who are infrequent bloggers, but do other interesting stuff (i.e., no frequency requirements at all). Promote their videos, podcasts, photography, art, books… Have an easy-to-find list of all of your bloggers’ Twitter feeds.

But serious content, the kind people put on blogs, still needs to be central to the project. Otherwise, it is just another social network (one of several dozen failed “facebooks for scientists”). While networking is important, good content is more than important: it is essential. I am watching Science 3.0 these days – less than a month old, thus no established blogs there as yet, but an interesting concept of putting together everything the members do.

Also, consider a way to preserve some of the content longer than the fleeting moment of a blog post. Collect “Basics” posts in one place, or have the bloggers collaborate on building so-called “explainers” on various topics. Such explainers would contain material at different levels – from kids to expert and everything in-between, including raw data and scientific papers, all clearly marked as to who the intended audience is. Such explainers would be updated (perhaps by editing, wiki-style, with preserved history of editing) as new information comes in. Such pages would also contain links to all the blog posts that the network has produced on that topic, and bloggers would likely send their readers to the Explainer page whenever they blog about that topic again. Build something more lasting out of the bloggers’ work.

Mobility and Exclusivity

This is a unique moment in the history of science blogging networks. This is the only time when people leaving a network are regarded as “hot property” and are actively courted by other networks. Being a SciBling has a certain element of reputation that other networks are now trying to capitalize on. At least six or seven networks have talked to me so far and I have yet to give a strong Yes or a strong No to any one of them. May even go solo for a little while longer.

Also, until now, it was difficult to leave the network – you leave Sb to go where? Into the dark abyss of anonymity and invisibility. Thus many people hung on….

But once there is an archipelago of networks, each roughly equally visible and respected, it will be easy to move from one to another. You join one, try it out for a month or two and, if you don’t like it, move on to another one. Networks should anticipate this, and implement a mechanism for easy move of bloggers in and out.

While networks will provide visibility and traffic, they will not automatically turn a blogger into a hot-shot any more. It is like good peer-review (or good editorial decisions in the media) – a blogger on a network has a seal of approval that s/he is OK, not spouting non-scientific nonsense, but there is no guarantee that the person is one of the elite best. For actual reputation, being a member of a network will not be sufficient any more – that, you will have to build for yourself, as an individual.

The exclusivity of the networks (“you can blog with us and nobody else”) has been eroding for quite a while now. At the beginnings of Scienceblogs.com we were expected to close our old blogs and move them to the network. Razib had quite a problem for continuing to run Gene Expression Classic. It is much more common now for bloggers to contribute to multiple personal, individual, corporate or group blogs, and even to have blogs on two or more networks. This will become even more common in the new ecosystem and any network that asks for exclusivity will not find many bloggers willing to join.

Building and Maintaining Community

With the ease of movement from one network to another, and with the ease of having a blog on multiple networks, how does any individual network get to keep anyone on board? How does one build loyalty? After all, each network is now just one node in the network, and many bloggers will feel a loyalty to the broader community but much less loyalty to the particular network they are on. It is also much easier to be a solo blogger today, as RSS is everywhere (no need to use Google Reader for it – RSS imports are on every social networking platform and more), social networking sites are busy, and multituded of networks will have to pay more attention to them now, if nothing else scouting for new talent.

One obvious way is money. If the business model allows it, and if finances allow it, pay more than the other networks, and this will persuade at least some people to come and to stay for quite a while. Bloggers on networks are media, thus they should be paid for their work, just as if they were journalists in a more traditional outlet.

Don’t pay by page-view. This creates internal hierarchies. This also creates pressures (even if there is no formal frequency minimum requirement in the contract) to post often and to post controversial stuff and to post silly stuff, diluting the science content on the network. Every month when you calculate the earnings and deduct the costs, share the rest equally among all members of the community, regardless of how much they contributed either by frequency of posting or by traffic.

Another obvious way is the opposite – promise never to have ads, never to have corporate interests involved, and never to pay anyone for anything. This is definitely appealing to some bloggers who draw salaries elsewhere and for whom complete editorial freedom and complete perception of ethical purity are essential.

Another way is to have kick-ass technical support. This is a big reason some bloggers like to be on the networks. They may have too large a traffic to be able to deal with it on their own. Or they may be too busy to deal with it. Or they may be great writers but with essentially zero technical skills. Reliable technology is a big plus. And rumors and gossip about the quality of tech support on various networks spread fast and wide.

Also, use platforms that are easy for bloggers to use and customize. These days, multi-blog WordPress seems to be in the lead. Drupal is great for developers and for making parts of the site that bloggers will not touch, but is non-intuitive and cumbersome for the non-techie users. MoveableType4 got clunky over time and requires tech support with high level of expertise and seems to be hard to be flexible with – you are building a site not just for 2010 but also a site that can nimbly change as the Web changes. One day Scripting2 will be available for everyone, and it is perfect for bloggers like me who write long posts – the asides, explanations of the basics, references, link-lists, things I inject into my posts as full paragraphs now can be hidden at first read and revealed by those who want to see them by a single click.

If you combine clunky tech-support, and no access to traffic data, with limits to editorial freedom, you get a revolt on your hands and people start leaving. If business ideas trump everything else, you’ll run afoul of the bloggers’ ethics and they willl leave really fast.

Make sure that blogs on your network have a good mobile version. Design good apps for iPhone and Ipad. Make sure your bloggers get them for free.

Provide cool swag. I have collected four Sb mugs over the past four years, one for each member of the family, and they are our favorites – I am actually drinking coffee from one of them right now. I have a t-shirt that says “Coturnix” on the back, with an Sb logo. Seed has provided, in the early years, swag for us to give to readers in contests. That is cool stuff.

Provide backchannel forums. Any platform will do, though I personally prefer Groupsite.com (formerly known as Collective X) as there is a possibility for exchanging large files, having rich profiles, having easy-to-find documents (e.g., How-To manuals for tech questions), having forums for organizing synchronized action, etc. Count on some members not participating there – there are some SciBlings who never logged into the back forums and thus never really felt like members of the community (and were also wildly uninformed about what is going on). Thus, if a network is too small (e.g., 10 or less), you’ll end up with three people chatting in the forums – that is not a community. Be a part of that forum yourself, regularly. Continuous conversation between bloggers and overlords is essential for developing trust, and thus loyalty.

Organize common actions. DonorsChoose drive every October was a great community-building activity on Scienceblogs.com, for an example.

See how your company/organization can help your bloggers’ careers. For example, if yours is a media company, you can help bloggers write for and get published in your magazine. If they publish a book, promote it. Promote the network and the individual bloggers in your promotional materials, in your magazine, on your website, etc. Also, ask bloggers to promote the network wherever they may be – especially if they go to conferences. Give them swag and let them spread the word about you.

Bloggers who come from a journalistic background want to learn how to use all these newfangled online tools. Bloggers who came from other (mainly scientific/academic) backgrounds want to widen their toolbox to include some of the traditional media. Help both groups as much as you can.

Organize offline events. Blogs are a means to finding people to do rhythmic things with. The two SciBlings meetups in 2007 and 2008 in NYC were amazing events! We gelled so well together as a group. We shared several meals, drank a lot, sang karaoke, met with our readers, met Adam Bly and others in the management, visited Seed offices, took group pictures, got tons of swag. It was a blast. It did wonders for our sense of identity as a group. Likewise, the 1.000,000th Comment parties were awesome – the NC event was at the Asheville Zoo with several SciBlings and several readers, followed by dinner.

And for the building of a broader community that includes all the networks, just come to ScienceOnline every January (the 2011 version is likely to be heavily invested in the building of the new ecosystem, so don’t miss it!), send your Overlords and a bunch of your bloggers, send swag, put up posters, moderate sessions, do a Demo of your network, promote Open Laboratory (and your own bloggers’ posts that made it into the latest edition) on your site, be a generous part of the new ecosystem and your own bloggers will love you for it.

Diversity

Make your network attractive to bloggers, feeling welcome there. If The Usual Suspects invite other Usual Suspects, A-listers invite other A-listers, a bunch of buddies who are all white men invite each other, you will have a problem. The first thing the blogosphere will notice, within the first millisecond of unveiling your network, is that there is no diversity on your network, just an Old Boys Club and an Old Clique. Instead of enjoying the attention, you will have to immediately switch into the PR disaster management mode.

Thus, make sure that at least 50% of your starting line-up are women. And hopefully not everyone’s white and middle-aged either. This will also change the internal dynamics of the community – male-dominated groups are much more competitive, and you want to foster a cooperative activity.

If you spent last few years mainly schmoozing with your buddies in science, or tech, or your neighbors in Silicon Valley, and you have no idea what women, minorities, seniors and youngsters to invite, you are a few years too late for this. If you decide to invite some of them to your network, they will probably be very polite in saying No, but to themselves they will be saying something like “Who the hell are you? What planet did you just fall from? I have never heard of you, you never read my blog, you never commented on my blog, so why this sudden interest in it, eh? You don’t follow me on Twitter, we are not Facebook friends, I am not on your blogroll, so why do you want me now? As a token to put on your pretty new network so you can add another notch on your “diversity” belt? Well, no, sirree!” And they will be perfectly correct in thinking that way.

But if you have started years ago, when science blogosphere was young, always looking around for new voices, reading the new blogs because they are fun, commenting not because it’s good for business but because you are personally motivated to say something, ask something, say Hello, than you are OK. Just by chance, half of these blogs will be written by women, some by older people, some by younger people, some by non-white people.

You would be reading them because their writing is great. You would be commenting, and blogrolling them, and linking to them, and promoting them because you love what they do, not for political motives. You would try to meet them in person when you travel, and you would invite them to conferences you organize. You would make fast friendships this way, without any ideas that this would potentially turn into anything like a business deal.

And then, if such an opportunity arises and you can start a new network, you will have a pool of hundreds or even thousands of cool bloggers to pick from, people with whom you already have a genuine friendship and mutual trust. And you would be VERY familiar with their work as you have followed it for years. Thus you will have plenty of choices who to invite in order to have a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices – and pure statistics will ensure that about half of them will be female and a few of them non-white and non-middle-aged. No need to do anything artificial, or to do something out of the ordinary in order to get “proper balance” – it will just happen.

Later, once the network is live and kicking, you can do more stuff to promote diversity and especially to promote new and young bloggers. For example, you can make an “incubator” blog to which you invite a very new and young but talented blogger (or even a group, e.g., friends from a science journalism school) to guest-blog on for one month (Seed did that with a photoblog for a while). There is no guarantee, or even expectation that any of those guest-bloggers would ever be invited to join the network as individual bloggers, but that one month would be great training, great experience and great exposure to them, so once their month is over they can take their audience with them wherever they go, feeling confident in their blogging skills. You may specifically ask the readers to be “nice to the n00b” and ask your senior bloggers to keep an eye – be there to teach, to advise, and to defend against nasty commenters. And if an individual blogger really kicks butt, drawing a lot of traffic and comments with brilliant content, then you can certainly consider invitation for a more permanent slot on the network. In other words, be a factor in growing the community of science bloggers, not just defending your own turf.

Coda

There are many other ideas I have, and other people have. Each network will have to see what their goals are, what ambitions, what resources they have, etc.

I could have kept all of the above to myself, and charged a single network $100,000 to advise them and help them set up. But that would not work – it only works if most or all networks think about this the right way and do the right thing. A lone network doing it right cannot survive in the interconnectedness of the archipelago if all the other players adopt outdated ideas. It is a network or networks, and I hope that people who run or build networks right now read this, talk about it with each other, and come to ScienceOnline2011 to hatch a common strategy, because we have a common goal, and need to collaborate on reaching it.

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48 responses to “Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How

  1. I don’t have much to add other than to say that many of your ideas mirror things I’ve been thinking about lately, myself.

  2. Nice post, Bora. It’s good to get a perspective on being part of a blogging network. I especially appreciate the forward thinking considerations.

  3. I think what you mention as far as blogger self-management is key. We should think of the blogosphere in the same way we think of an ecosystem. If we selected a manager to run an ecosystem it would be a disaster. There are too many interconnected parts for any centralized structure to keep track of. What we need is a myriad of diverse forms (i.e. bloggers) all interacting in the larger community. Perhaps we don’t even need networks. We can form communities ourselves through the connections we make. Carnivals and ResearchBlogging.org will be a major partner in this. Perhaps we don’t need management at all. Perhaps, management has been taking advantage of us all along.

  4. one thing that has changed and is nice is that really long science focused posts often get few, if any, comments. BUT, they get retweeted like crazy. nice to know that the effort isn’t in vain, and it is a definite motivator.

  5. This is well argued and very astute, Bora: a Cluetrain Manifesto for the science blogging world.

    It would be interesting to discuss — with an eye toward some of the comments made during #PepSci — one other aspect of the potential diversity among science bloggers. We heard discussion of scientists working for corporations as a distinct group from scientists working in academia. We heard polarizing discussion by some who drew stark lines to separate scientists and science writers. There are K-12 educators and tenured faculty and lecturers and researchers and adjuncts and people without degrees, science journalists and science essayists, professionals and amateurs and hobbyists, and you can probably think of a few more distinct categories.

    A network that neither ignored nor polarized such diversity would offer some serious benefits to its members and its readers, I’m thinking.

  6. @Jason G. Goldman and @sciencegoddess Thank you. Please add your thoughts to the discussion.

    @EMJ yes, ability of the bloggers to direct the network to a great degree is essential. The necessity of networks, at least today, is the propensity of media to only watch blogs that are associated with other media, or are really prominent. I am not sure that carnivals or ResearchBlogging.org would be as visible outside the blogosphere as are the networks.

    @razib – yes, retweets are a wonderful way to tell the author “I have nothing to add, but I like it and I think my friends would like it as well”. Makes a motivational difference, for sure.

    @Chris Clarke – I agree 100% with you, networks should try to gather people who come to science communication from a variety of different angles, learn from each other.

  7. My assumption is that most science blogs are tools for communication, popularization and education of science.

    As an interested layman who’s been reading scientists’ blogs since before they were called science blogs, I’d like to urge you to reconsider this assumption.

    For me at least, one of the great things about blogs written by scientists is that the way they humanize scientists. Yes, I enjoy learning about HOX2 expression and hot superjupiters, but I also appreciate hearing what intelligent human beings have to say about politics, religion, family, cute animals — you know, bloggy stuff.

    Growing up during the Cold War, I remember the awe in which the public held science (or perhaps I should say, Science!). But scientists themselves were faceless authorities in white lab coats whose every announcement was breathlessly repeated in the newspapers (“Scientists Say Fruit Good For You”). They weren’t real. And you find that same kind of facelessness today in the views of scientists held by creationists, denialists, and woo-meisters of all stripes.

    The simple act of making scientists fully human makes it harder to demonize or ignore science. In terms of outreach, I think this effect of blogging by scientists outweighs research blogging (not that research blogging isn’t pretty great, too).

  8. One thing you didn’t mention, but which I can’t help think that a blog network has to take into consideration is the relative sizes of the blog readerships.

    I love PZ and Pharyngula, but it can’t have helped the group dynamics of ScienceBlogs that his blog had so much more traffic than anyone else (and we know that at least one blog moved because of him)

  9. @HP Aha! I assume that efficient communication, popularization and education of science necessarily includes being human, showing humanity and destroying bad stereotypes about scientists. Which includes pictures of cats, and politics, and everything else thrown into the mix.

    @Kristjan Wager I guess PZ is really an outlier and would be on any network. I am not sure if there are any other bloggers who would so dominate a network, at least in terms of traffic. As for the community, PZ has one voice and so does everyone else (who chooses to join in the discussion) and PZ never tried to pull his weight around on the rest of us.

  10. Bora, again a very insightful and up-to-the-mark analysis on the current state of science blog networks and the future direction they need to take to thrive. But even with the best of networks around some blogs like Mind Hacks or PsyBlog which have already built solid reputations and following will preferably opt out to remain out of the networks. Given the alternate reality of good science blogs (like mind hacks and PsyBlog) being able to rise up above the rest by organic processes , I think the inorganic growth fueled by Science blog networks is relevant for those that are not so popular/well known and thus the focus of all new networks should be on discovery and showcasing of new talent rather than on getting the big names on-board.

    To me aggregation tools and mechanism tailored to scientific context like ResearchBlogging should be there and should include not only networks but individual, independent blogs; however I see a big role for blog networks in showcasing and discovering new talent . I liked the analysis by Andrew Sun , that you linked to on twitter, regarding why the blog networks are more relevant to lesser well known blogs as compared to ‘famous’ blogs.

    You had a very popular independent blog earlier and then you worked as a part of a network , and are now again toying with the idea of playing solo for some time; how do you contrast the experience- does the increase in traffic/comments outweigh the restrictions (explicit or implied) that come with being part of a network? Does the outreach justify the editorial restraint? One could even argue that being part of a network increases responsible blogging(but perhaps curbs creativity or the inclination to go out on a limb and support/highlight not-so-mainstream points of views. ), but is the groupthink good or inherently limiting? perhaps enough questions to make you write another long, excellent and insightful post!!

  11. Brilliant post, thanks so much for sharing.

  12. Wonderful piece, Bora, stuffed with ideas.

    I realise you agree with him but I wanted to re-iterate HP’s point that science blogging is one of the best ways for your average punter to get a look in on what scientists really do and what they’re really like – and this doesn’t always come across in popular digests of the literature (itself an important function). It probably has to come from scientist bloggers themselves.

  13. bora: i have also thought about these issues long and hard since i was working on setting up my own network (i still am thinking about these things, mostly as a mental exercise at this point).

    i started out writing a blog while an undergrad, when these things weren’t known as “blogs.” (unfortunately, most of that writing has disappeared.) after two-year hiatus when i had a postdoctoral fellowship, i once again started writing as a lone blog writer on blogspot. a couple years later, i was recruited by scienceblogs. the early years at scienceblogs were great — lots of excitement, vision, experimentation — but the last two years were not.

    interestingly, when i left scienceblogs, i was absolutely shocked at the intense loneliness that i experienced and my near-complete collapse of self-identity. it was almost as bad as those days when my postdoc funding ended and i could not find another job. this situation was made much worse because i had no idea where i was going to land (and things are still up in the air). i didn’t want to return to wordpress, blogger or typepad because i don’t particularly like them and importing my Scienceblogs writing and reader comments into any of them is nearly impossible — and i missed my readers terribly.

    sandeep: even though some people did indulge in “group think” and cliquish behavior at scienceblogs, other people did not. it is true that there are constraints that come with being part of any community (these were mostly implied at scienceblogs), i think these real/implied constraints, cliques, and “group thinkers” versus “independent agents” and the like are the same sort of thing that you see in real life; in corporate life, in research institutions and in university departments for sure.

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  15. Brian Glanz

    Thank you Bora, WordPress Multisite is just, finally ready to do this right, and integration with BuddyPress as in http://opensciencefoundation.com and http://www.science3point0.com is what really makes sense of it. OSF has been contributing to that platform since late 2008 and we are now helping science3point0 take flight in its own direction — keep an eye on both. After a few pilot projects and having improved our architecture, we are gearing up to host more sites and blogs ourselves.

    We are also looking to SocialRiver and other distributed, open approaches including federation of WordPress based sites. We do not want to build a Facebook for science. We want to tear down the walls. We want to be to ScienceBlogs what Wikipedia was to Nupedia. Closed approaches can do, but Open can do so much better. BG

  16. An excellent starting point. Thank you.

    I particularly like the idea of greater interlinking. As a reader I like to construct and change my own network of sources, and at the moment I seem to be spending as much time on locating and sorting out what I want to look at as reading.

    “I think my friends would like this as well”!

  17. Thanks for writing this. I plan on rereading over and over.

    Do you think agents, like writers and actors have, are helpful to creative people? or are they just middle men stealing a unfair percentage?

    Could good tech support for bloggers be described as 24/7 telephone and responsive email support?

    What are some bad tech support experiences you’ve had?

  18. isisthescientist

    You are exactly right about increasing diversity on your network. I am surprised how many of my friends cannot name a blog written by a person of color. I worry that building diversity in the new networks is going to be very challenging.

  19. Nice analysis, I do think just using wordpress / movable type / Drupal for your back end is lazy though. The whole point should be to be innovative and nimble. I don’t think a real network can be that using someone else’s technology. Sure, they’re easy to get up and running, but they’re a pain to customize. I thought about using Drupal for LabSpaces and realized that to be what I wanted it to be, I’d have to 1) learn Drupal and 2) Learn PHP/JavaScript/MySQL to code my own modules. It just seemed easier to re-invent the wheel to make the code fast and without a lot of extra crap that I didn’t want hogging memory on the server. Although, using a wordpress et al backend does make moves easier (but a script should be able to be whipped up pretty quickly to dump the data from one RDMS schema to another).

    How in demand are bells and whistles? I’ve had a lot of the new bloggers ask for very basic widgets, but beyond that I haven’t seen a demand for pop-up footnotes etc. Maybe those things are more important for a longform blogger such as yourself? Additionally, I don’t see those features as being terribly hard to incorporate or implement.

    I guess my point from the technical side is that if you’re going to run one of these networks, you need to know what you’re doing on the coding end. You can’t just sit back and wait for the wordpress / Drupal plug-in to come out ;) Being technically capable at that level also allows you to better respond to problems that arise.

    As far as the blogging atmosphere, I really think the bloggers who saw significant traffic could go solo and could do so very effectively if they found the right hosting company willing to babysit them through the process of setting up shop. Their social capitol should be built up enough to sustain their traffic and grow. I know of one that’s very good with this and has helped a few friends of mine with business blogs. I can point you to them if you email me.

    Of course I’ve been asking past Sbers if they’d like to join my network because it’d bring good content to the site and they’d bring their followers with them to help expand our reach. The site may not be massive, but I think my site offers a unique opportunity to be a part of the building process. I might be biased though ;)

    Thanks for the interesting read, Bora.

  20. This was really thoughtful. I second (third?) the comments about collaboration between networks, and for diversity in voices and authors from the beginning, not as an afterthought.

    Two other thoughts: I am a biological anthropologist, but study human reproductive ecology, evolutionary medicine and women’s health. I never found any blog specifically devoted to women’s health or women’s biology on SB (I tweeted about it recently), or even on human biological variation in modern populations. Yet I am desperate to find that community, and to share some of my thinking.

    What has ended up happening is I follow some women’s health spaces (Our Bodies Ourselves, RH Reality Check, which are both truly awesome, but are usually not written by working academic scientists) and places like SB. For my contribution, I blog very very infrequently and tweet a lot. Which leads me to my final appreciation of this post: I think you make a great point that these aggregates/networks/what-have-yous need to be following MINDS not BLOGS, that the idea is that someone who is filtering information, challenging ideas, sharing thinking as well as writing substantive science blog posts is someone from whom we can learn. I would love to write more long pieces, but I’m just starting my third year on the tenure track, my husband is as well, and we have a toddler. So I use Twitter as a microblogging mechanism as well as for life and mindcasting.

    Thanks as always for your great thinking Bora!

  21. Thanks for the call-out! One thing to add to your history: the notion that Scienceblogs would be strictly a self-encapsulated network was not my idea. Bly wanted a separate editorial enterprise, I think for business reasons (it was incorporated as a subsidiary of Seed from day 1).

    My vision was different – put the bloggers in the mix on Seed’s “main” website, and have bloggers and journalists writing alongside one another as equals. It’s nice to see that hybrid model finally happening.

    The convergence is changing both blogging and journalism – a hybrid genre is emerging, but that’s a dissertation well beyond the scope of this comment.

    As for the archipelago of blog networks: diversity is good, but I would be surprised if a power law didn’t eventually emerge, with someone occupying that top slot and the amount of traffic going to other networks falling off exponentially.

    There is so much potential here, it’s kind of overwhelming.

  22. I’m a med student from Chile. I’d love to start a blogging Network of physicians/students in the future. I find this really inspiring. (sorry if my english grammar isn’t so good).
    In spanish we have nothing like sb, or like any other networks in english out there. I know portalesmedicos.com, not very organized to my point of view, and diariomedico.com, very succesful, but not because of it’s blogs. In both sites you can create a blog and start it just like that. That’s one of my concerns, is the recruiting format the best for a network? Can it work if I let anyone create a blog? Work in the sense of quality content, creating media.
    And, If I can make this happen (to build a blogging network), following my ideals and all your very interesting tips, I feel I could create something like what was sb in 2006, something big, but I would be isolating the rest of the medical bloggers cause, as I said, we don’t have blogging networks about science or medicine. I hope you can help me a little bit. Thanks in advance and thanks for this great post.

  23. Also, consider a way to preserve some of the content longer than the fleeting moment of a blog post. Collect “Basics” posts in one place, or have the bloggers collaborate on building so-called “explainers” on various topics. [...] Build something more lasting out of the bloggers’ work.

    Yes, please.

    There might not be much immediate, emotional incentive to write a “basic concepts” post — without that “someone is wrong on the Internet!” factor, it can be harder to put a post together. Then, too, covering a “basic concept” can be quite intimidating: “Gosh, if I screw up my explanation of what a gene is, the reader will be in quite a pickle, won’t they?” Networking the task might address both of these problems. There’d be more assurance of feedback and a greater sense of building something important, visible and lasting. Moreover, if two or three people each blogged about the same topic, I expect they’d each worry less about having to cover absolutely every angle in their own individual posts.

    • I agree there is a need for basic “explainers.” But how would these “wiki-style” posts be better than, or different from, Wikipedia entries? Why not simply encourage more scientists to write/edit Wikipedia entries, which are used by so many people?

  24. As for the archipelago of blog networks: diversity is good, but I would be surprised if a power law didn’t eventually emerge, with someone occupying that top slot and the amount of traffic going to other networks falling off exponentially.

    Maybe not a power-law distribution per se, but a long-tailed curve of some kind, yes; that wouldn’t be surprising.

  25. Heather Etchevers

    I second and third and n’d what many have written above, Bora. Well thought out, and thank you for using your own deserved notoreity to give voice to many otherwise fragmented discussions that are going on, in a recursive manner, in a number of other locations at this time.

    Build something more lasting out of the bloggers’ work.

    Good advice, and I presume you mean something with permanent-like hyperlinks that is archived, as opposed to a print book? ;-)

    I liked your archipelago metaphor, having used one very similar just yesterday, or was it earlier today?

    Looking forward to the follow-up, but I won’t ask for notification by e-mail as I know you will be taken by storm and I will just dip a toe into the deluge from time to time to test the temperature of the runoff water.

  26. The idea of creating “basics” sets and such resonates. I blog for lots of reasons, but one of them is the development of a resource that people (middle school students? grad students? parents? high school teachers?) can use when doing online research.

    Having a searchable database of old posts is useful only inasmuch as someone knows what the proper search terms are, i.e. they need to come with a certain vocabulary and a prior knowledge. Bloggers try to help the cause to greater or lesser extents by e.g. using tags or categories or (on a network) channels, but this is still limiting. In any of these examples, these “sets of posts” only exist after the fact, after they are written. They are not usually written with the express purpose of creating a usable resource. It would be nice to have some sort of vision or plan to create these sorts of resources with purpose and intention, from the beginning – without, of course, going so far as mandating content.

  27. Maybe we could start a blog carnival on the theme of explaining the ideas in your field which are most essential to understanding lots of other ideas — the “chapter one carnival”, as it were.

  28. @Sandeep Gautam I agree with everything you say. For now, the importance of networks can be summed with two words: Google News. Networks, especially those associated with media organizations, can successfully persuade Google to get indexed. Individual blogs – not so much. An individual blog has to be a real monster in popularity and traffic (and Pharyngula is the only science blog even close to approaching that level) that can go solo AND be regularly monitored by the MSM folks. As for self-restraint – it comes with working for PLoS, not with being on a network or solo. Being on the network teaches one to be more careful, but that does not disappear once one leaves the network.

    @Lisushi Thank you!

    @Stephen Curry Yes, I agree.

    @GrrlScientist Interesting how our experiences differ – I feel so much freedom, so much relief. I did not even realize how much pressure I was putting on myself to post frequently. Yet I still have the community – on Twitter, on Facebook, in commenting sections of various blogs, etc.

    @Jac A one-stop shopping page for all the networks + some individuals will be available soon.

    @brianr – difficult questions. Agents are still useful for some particular goals, e.g.,. getting a book published by a reputable traditional press. But in many areas they are becoming obsolete – it just takes more time and effort for an individual to make a name for him/herself without an agent, but it is possible. Good editors are much more important than agents.

    As for tech-support, yes, having it 24/7 (in the early days of Sb, we had a special BatSignal e-mail for calling in the cavalry at odd hours) is what bloggers are pretty much expecting these days. Audience comes from all time-zones. For the last several months, there was NO tech support at Seed, but luckily the system did not totally collapse during that time. We helped each other as much as we could.

    @isisthescientist Yes, it is terrifying how normal, intelligent people who have been blogging for a while are totally oblivious to the broader sphere than their own little circles of buddies.

    @Brian Krueger WP is good because: a) it is easy to use (and learn to use) by complete non-techie n00bs, b) it is easy to export and import archives as bloggers come and go, c) most bloggers are already familiar with it, d) it requires the least amount of tech-support which is important for self-governing collectives where the most techie of the bloggers essentially helps everyone else. Frankly, I did not understand half of the technical terms you just used in your comment, so I cannot expect others to be so tech savvy either. BTW, your network is growing fast and beuatiful!

    @KBHC Thank you. Women’s Health? I am not sure. Can someone else chime in? And I agree, minds, not blogs.

    @Christopher Mims That is a VERY interesting piece of information! So, we could have had bloggers+journalists four years ago (and thus avoid all the silly bloggers vs. journalists debates).

    @Cristhián Carvajal Mery Do you know a number of individual, independent science or medical bloggers who write in Spanish? There must be at least hundreds from around the world. Perhaps you can find them, contact them, self-organize a network?

    @Blake Stacey I agree on NOT power law but more of a long tail. We will never againg have the situation where one network is everything and all the others are nowhere. The slope WILL be more gentle.

    @Blake Stacey @Heather Etchevers @Jason G. Goldman – this is the idea of http://www.futureofcontext.com/ – several interesting articles in there to ponder about.

  29. On the subject of basics posts, is John Wilkins still maintaining the list of basics posts that he started long before he left Sb? That list covered pretty much all branches of science and was not devoted exclusively to Sb posts. That might be a good starter point for a more exhaustive set that could be developed.

    As to indexing/categorizing entries for optimal searchability, can’t we enlist some help from our librarian/info science bloggers?

  30. @chezjake I think Wilkins still has the collection. But I was thinking something more spiffy, like when a magazine makes a cool Explainer of something, but with links, many links. Perhaps color-coding for “reading level”. Or layers of difficulty – the easy one being on top, requiring digging more and more to get to the more technical stuff, with papers and data at the very bottom.

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  33. Looks like we’re on a similar page.

    I’d add a few more thoughts on how blogs fit into an ever changing landscape. While there will probably always be a market for all-inclusive sites like Facebook, I think the novelty is wearing thin, and the more web savvy the general public becomes the more sites like Facebook and twitter will seem restrictive and cloistered closed societies. Blogs on the other hand have that unique flavor to them, a sense of being out there on an equal footing with the rest of the internet. This I think is going to become more and more appealing over time. An internet where everyone may not be an island, but they’ll own one in the form of a blog of their own. And when I say “blog” I’m really talking about the blog being the core component around which website utilities are being built. So a key in building new, future proof, science blog networks will be to balance the network integration without sacrificing that sense of individuality, of being exposed to and one of the elements.

    I also believe that there is a limit to how connected/complex people are capable of being. Just as our brains are really only wired to manipulate 4 limbs, there’s a limit to how many online tentacles we can manually utilize with any efficiency. We’ve already surpassed that limit. The proof of this is in the growing popularity of automated updating. The example being when I manually post to my blog, my twitter feed and Facebook page are automatically updated. So the idea is not to equip yourself with a thousand tentacles, it is to limit yourself to the few tentacles that you can reasonably manipulate (and/or monitor). For bloggers, their primary limb is their blog. That’s where they’re happiest. Helping them to reach those who are happiest on Facebook is important, but the distinction is you want them to be Facebook friendly, not on Facebook. That could be better explicated, but I think the point is buried in there somewhere.

    Anyway, gotta run. Nice post. Cheers.

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  37. Hi Bora – I’m probably not the first to suggest this (and perhaps the idea is inherently heretical): When will you be considering a book deal for your seminal works on the history and evolution of science blogging? Just a thought…

  38. You are right that you are not the first to suggest something like that. The questions are: how broad/narrow the topic (just history of science blogging, or broader about the way Web changes science communication, education and media), a traditional publisher or Lulu.com, and when can I find time to put it all together!?

  39. Selfishly, I’d say traditional because not only would I like to read it, I’d like to cite it! But I know that route has many downsides as well.
    As for time, I’m in no position to offer advice on that one…

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