Links ‘n’ Thoughts on emerging science blogging networks

New Science Blogging Networks

It is gratifying to note that many people seem to have carefully read my post about the new science blogging ecosystem and the new networks (it was linked a lot over the past week on other blogs and social networks). I see some of those ideas either discussed or already implemented by various new and old networks.

Scientopia (follow them on Twitter) started off with a Bang, garnering a lot of attention and immediately producing tons of great content by excited and reinvigorated bloggers.

The emergence of Scientopia did not obscure, if anything it actually highlighted, the rapid growth of other self-governing blogging collectives. Lab Spaces had an exciting week of growth and blogging. One of my favorite new-ish blogs, C6-H12-O6, is only one of the blogs to recently move to Field Of Science network. Users of Science3point0 site are starting up their blogs there as well. And The Gam also has two great new additions – John McKay of Mammoth Tales and Chuck of Ya Like Dags?.

The corporate networks are slower – that is the nature of the beast – but they are coming soon, quite a few of them. There is a new Twitter account called GuardianScienceBlogs, with just one tweet to date: “We’re coming soon…”. Interesting times…

‘Explainers’

One of the things I mentioned in my post was a need to collect, collate and organize bloggy material in ways that makes it more long-lasting and useful, especially for people who are new to a particular topic and who need a quick introductory or refresher course in order to be able to follow the ongoing discussions.

Two blogs have tried to do experiments along these lines this week.

On their shiny new blog Child’s Play, Melody Dye and Jason Goldman had a whole week worth of posts on a single topic: pros and cons and confusions regarding the “cookie” test for measuring delayed gratification in children. Then they collected the links to all of their posts (as well as a couple of good posts by other bloggers) in one place which you can bookmark, and which Melody and Jason can keep linking back to in the future, perhaps even have a link to it handy somewhere on the sidebar so it is easy find.

Ed Yong did something a little bit different. He capitalized on his spot at Discover, thus his right to use Discover images and slideshows, to put together a collection of brief explanations, each linking to one or two of his older posts, all about Bacteria living in or on us and other animals – the Microbiome. It looks really nifty! Interesting times…

Bloggers saving magazines

It is brilliant and innovative bloggers like Ed (and others, yes, Carl, Phil, Sheril, Chris, Sean, etc.) who saved Discover magazine, or so it seems, as it managed to sell for more than $1 (paid last week for Newsweek) for a small but still respectable sum guessed to be around $7 million. In the times when magazines are folding or selling for nothing, this is nothing to sneer at, and it is the online part of it – their blogging network – that saved their skin. Which is why pretty much every popular science magazine is now expanding, building or considering building a blogging network of their own right now. Interesting times…

Diversity

Yes, I wrote at length about this in my post last week. But this does not stop the blogosphere from discussing the issue as well, and it shouldn’t – this needs to be dicsussed. See these interesting and enlightening comment threads at ScientistMother and DrugMonkey.

The fact is that most of the networks (see the blogrolls of Scientopia, Lab Spaces, Field Of Science, even Scienceblogs.com…) have around 50% or more female bloggers, and also bloggers spanning a wide range of ages (and countries, as long as they all speak the same language, usually English, but check my Blogroll on the right for other examples), but are sorely lacking in the non-White department. This reflects the situation in science as a whole.

As I am privy to many back-channel conversations, I know for a fact that all of these networks have tried really hard to attract minority bloggers. There are just a handful of obviously and openly non-White science booggers out there, and I am sure they all got inundated by invitations. And as I noted in my post, they had very good reasons to be reluctant to join, even when invited by their long-term bloggy friends and commenters. It will be interesting to see if the corporate networks coming up soon will have better luck.

But the bottom-line is: do not blame the networks for being all-White as they are trying really hard not to be, and do not blame the minority bloggers for being reluctant at this point in time to join networks, as they have quite legitimate reasons for this. Once the situation in science changes, and the situation in the science blogiverse starts reflecting it, there will be many more minority bloggers and the problem of ‘tokenism’ will slowly disappear (we all hope) as they will know they are naturally included in the community anyway, so why not join networks as well.

A much more interesting is the case of diversity of disciplines. As much as all the nascent networks are trying, they apparently cannot attract any Earth Science bloggers or Ocean Science bloggers to their networks. This makes them seem bio-medically biased despite their efforts not to be.

Ocean bloggers have happily built their own community around Deep Sea News blog and Southern Fried Science blog, and The Gam network, and the Carnival of the Blue. They feel no need to join other networks since they have their own, and it is quite visible and well-known outside of their narrow circle – the MSM watches them as well.

On the other hand, geobloggers appear to feel similar to the minority bloggers – always sidelined, always misunderstood, always invited as tokens, always playing the second fiddle and being a second thought. So they are circling the wagons and trying to build their own community. Read carefully the comment thread on this post on Highly Allochthonous and listen to the podcast. They are building their own network, have built a comprehensive RSS feed and all participate in the Accretionary Wedge blog carnival. But they are sorely missing from the networks! So again: do not blame the networks for not having geobloggers (they tried hard to invite them), and do not blame geobloggers for saying no to invites (they have legitimate reasons for that as well).

What some have not read in my post, perhaps, was the “exclusivity” subheading – at this day and age, a network (unless paying enormous amounts of money to the bloggers) cannot ask for exclusivity. Why not have different blogs in various places? A solo blog for ranting, plus a couple of blogs on a couple of networks – perhaps one blog on a community network for the feeling of belonging to a community, and another blog on a corporate network that pays: where you write your most professional stuff. You can even mirror the same content everywhere so you do not have to write 3-4 times as much. This is nothing new – there are a number of bloggers out there who are already writing several blogs in several places (Grrrlscientist and DrugMonkey and Jason Goldman and Dr.Isis immediately come to mind).

There is nothing wrong with having topic-focused networks, but there is no need to be only there and not help generalist networks also showcase your discipline. Or as Grant Jacobs wrote: Blogging groups, lighten up and enjoy your niche! (the text of the post is actually much smarter than the title). More the merrier, in terms of networks, does not just mean pure numbers, it also means diversity of approaches to building networks. So go forth and experiment.

To join or not to join, that is the question

I am not going to be the one to tell you how to blog or why to blog.

But I am a little disconcerted (especially after explaining the difference in painstaking detail in my farewell post – if you link to it, please link to it here, not on Sb, thanks) that a lot of people still do not see the difference between being solo and being on a network. Comments like “URL is an URL” drive me up the wall because they reveal clear lack of understanding of how the Web works.

So I am not going to tell you if YOU should join a network or not – it is up to you and your own blogging goals, but will just try to explain again what is the difference between being on and off a network.

Perhaps we can start by reading (especially the comment thread which is revealing – the post itself is excellent and thoughtful) this post at FemaleScienceProfessor. Then also read the post and comments at Academic Jungle (perhaps also this one) as well.

FSP nicely looks at several factors (that many commenters seem to miss) that play into a decision to join a network, including increased traffic, belonging to a community (see this post as well), change in the type of audience (see this comment) and potential loss of independence.

These factors are more or less important depending on who you are. If you are a FemaleScienceProfessor, or a Larry Moran, or a Rebecca Skloot, or a Jerry Coyne, or a Cliff Johnson or a Deborah Blum, or heck, even me, you can probably afford to go solo. These bloggers have been around forever, they are well known online and offline, they have built over the years a large audience (and probably nice traffic), and they are read by at least a few people in the MSM – the ‘visibility’ factor that FSP did not mention.

But even for bloggers like these, by not being on the network they have to rely for visibility only on their direct traffic, and not the indirect visibility that comes from co-bloggers on the network and the extended visibility that comes from the virtue of MSM monitoring networks quite closely. Whenever a solo blogger needs to have a message spread more widely than the usual crowd, they need to resort to e-mails, tweeting, begging big bloggers for a link, sending stuff to carnivals, etc. Those things come spontaneously and effortlessly for networked bloggers. So if your blogging often requires that as many people as possible see something you posted in order to get important information out or to effect some action (perhaps even to affect policy), being on a network is a good idea. If not, then going solo is just fine.

What if you are not a Skloot or a Coyne? What if you are a young grad student who just started a blog? Not well known online, not well known offline. You can keep posting and trying not to quit just because nobody is commenting. You can keep commenting on other blogs. You can keep linking to other blogs. You can keep posting links to your posts on social networks like Twitter and Facebook and trying to follow/friend as many other science bloggers as you can there. You can keep sending your stuff to carnivals and occasionally hosting one. All in the hope that one day somebody will finally notice you and recognize your writing greatness. And when that happens, what form will that recognition have? Probably an invite to a network!

And these days, as The Usual Suspects are either happily remaining on Sb or NN or Discover, or moving en-masse to Scientopia, or quickly getting poached by other media-hosted networks, there are just not enough of them to go around. So all the new and growing networks are now searching for new talent to fill their blogrolls. This is a good time to be good and productive on your blog if you want to join a community.

What is important for you? If it is editorial independence and a belonging to a community, you should join a blogging co-op. Less likely your stuff will show up in Google News, but still an increase in visibility and reach.

If you are a professional writer or want to become one, you need to go to a place where you can showcase your best writing in the hope of getting noticed. You may get paid or not on a corporate network, you may not have 100% freedom to post whatever you want (especially if you are paid a lot – this become more of a professional job than just personal diary and ranting), but you will be seen by people who are potentially in a position to offer you a gig or a job or a book deal, people like those who read and write KSJ and CJR and NASW and editors of pop-sci magazines and science pages in newspapers.

A co-op is likely to be fast and nimble and flexible and will evolve quickly as the Web evolves. A corporate network is likely to be much more traditional, cautious and timid, and will change very slowly (several layers of bureaucracy, tons of paperwork, etc., so things like moving a widget from left sidebar to right sidebar may take five months to happen instead of five minutes: corp-time, not blog-time). But the corporate network is much more likely to be stable and long-lasting and not die off when some key person suddenly loses interest. So there are pros and cons and compromises in each case.

So it is up to you to decide what are your own best options. It may be going solo. It may be joining a blogging cooperative. Or it may be joining a corporate network. Or, as I said above, do all of it at once and take the best of all worlds.

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20 responses to “Links ‘n’ Thoughts on emerging science blogging networks

  1. Something I’ve seen go largely unmentioned in the diversity discussions are the presence of LGBT science bloggers. Samia is a great ally and blogs a lot about LGBT issues, but what about actual out LGBT bloggers? I can’t think of any, aside from myself and maybe one other. It may be that they’re out there and I just haven’t come across them.

  2. Another great post. Something else that I think we all ought to be thinking about is diversifying our method of delivery. For one thing, mobile CSS is critical. We ought to be thinking about e-readers and iPads. We ought to be thinking beyond text – podcasts, video blogging… what else? Pre-scheduled live chats? Might be interesting. Not only could you engage with a different subset of the audience, but it helps to promote between-blogs or between-networks interactions.

    For example, last month, I did a podcast with Travis, Scicurious, and Christie. At the time, we were all sciblings. If we do this again (and we’re planning on it), it will span scienceblogs, scientopia, and obesity panacea which (right now) is still solo. When Razib, Kevin Z, and Dave do their monthly ResearchBlogCasts, it draws audiences from DSN, Discover, and RB.org – and if they bring on a guest, that’s another audience to draw from.

  3. Miriam discussed diversity in ocean science here and Rick followed up with a post here.

  4. Something I’ve seen go largely unmentioned in the diversity discussions are the presence of LGBT science bloggers.

    Yes, sometimes sexual orientation feels like the forgotten diversity in the science-blogging world. Maybe part of it is that you can be closeted or non-obviously LGBT, but even pseudonymous bloggers tend to reveal their maleness or femaleness. Or, says the cynic in me, maybe people who care passionately and loudly about one issue thanks to their own personal experiences are blind to other problems.

    Samia is a great ally and blogs a lot about LGBT issues, but what about actual out LGBT bloggers? I can’t think of any, aside from myself and maybe one other.

    I’m filed under the “B” in LGBT — I’ve mentioned it, now and then, on various comment threads and such, but I doubt anyone would have noticed from a casual reading of my blog.

    Comments like “URL is an URL” drive me up the wall because they reveal clear lack of understanding of how the Web works.

    Again: people don’t recognize problems which lie outside of their personal experience. I noticed this every time ScienceBlogs.com had troubles with advertisements: the sidebars are offering Russian brides or Scientology personality tests or whatever, and the bloggers ask, “What should we do about this?” or even “Should I leave the site behind if SEED can’t clean up their act?” And the commenters start writing in: “I use Firefox with Adblock Plus and NoScript, so I don’t see any ads. Don’t worry about it!” Hooray for you, but do you ever stop to wonder if you’re not a representative sample of the Internet?

    It’s the same with the “a URL is just a URL” remarks. “I, a computer user of at least moderate technical sophistication, have followed science blogs for some time and take them seriously enough to comment regularly. I am always looking for new blogs to read, and I have customized my RSS reader so that I can read as many blogs as I can with maximum comfort. I can follow you anywhere you go, and I have the emotional investment to do so. A URL is just a URL! A URL is just a URL!”

  5. Footnote:

    Of course, some of the people who say, “A URL is just a URL” mean it in a personal way — “I’ll keep on reading Pharyngula even if you leave ScienceBlogs, PZ!” — and recognize that leaving behind corporate sponsorship might bring decreased visibility and other inconveniences. But there is that weirdly clueless “location doesn’t matter!” undercurrent to many comments.

  6. I like the idea of doing more explainers in a deliberate way. Most of us probably end up explaining important concepts when they come up, but may not treat the posts as explainers. Even just having an “explainers” category would probably help.

    I know when I read explainer-type posts on other blogs, those are the links I’m most likely to send onto my friends.

  7. I think this is a great post, Bora, and really touches on many important issues.

    Naturally, any writer has to consider her audience. Many scientists blog to advance their work and connect with other scientists.

    Associating a blog with a network may “turn on” many readers who wouldn’t otherwise find it. I have to continually remind myself that only a tiny fraction of readers use feeds; a network really does enable “one-stop shopping” for such readers.

    I think the Pepsi problem has been underplayed in one respect. Being put in the same feed and same visual appearance, without apparent distinction, with a corporate advertisement is bad. For the same reasons, it is bad to share the same feed and look as blogs who are in large part activists for political or religious causes. Even a blogger who approves of the messages that the network is sending, may recognize the offense to potential readers. This is one way that a network may undermine a blogger’s influence.

    Many scientists work or hope to work at state-funded universities, where education/outreach efforts really must not include political or religious advocacy. Many hope to enhance grant applications with online education/outreach.

    Compartmentalizing separate blogs for these purposes is one solution — after all, many scientists are consultants and activists in addition to their primary research.

    Networks — whether cooperative or corporate — recruit bloggers to advance their own interests. What enhances *their* reputation with *their* readership? Of the goals you might have in public writing, how many will be advanced by joining the network?

  8. Thanks for this post. As a new member of Scientopia, I’ve found the amount of scrutiny about our code and our diversity (in race & topic) to be fascinating — and a little disconcerting at times. I don’t mind that folks are scrutinizing things and asking these questions, but at times it seems that there’s a lack of “charity” in the discussions — the observations have a shade of accusation, as if we deliberately excluded groups. I appreciate that you’ve pointed out that we’ve been trying, and that many of these idealistic goals are very tough to realize in practice. Not that people shouldn’t keep an eye on us, but I hope they’ll try not to assume the worst when we’re just starting out…

    By the way, speaking of “explainers”, I’ve had a long-standing and slowly growing group of posts on Optics Basics.

  9. As a new member of Scientopia, I’ve found the amount of scrutiny about our code and our diversity (in race & topic) to be fascinating — and a little disconcerting at times.

    I managed to miss most of the scrutinizing action, but I gather a good chunk of it had to do with the “respect” language in the Scientopia Code. Now, I’m as paranoid as anybody about “respect” and “civility” being used as rhetorical two-by-fours to silence the airing of unpolitic opinions. Heck, I’m probably more concerned than the median on such matters, since I’ve got a headful of unpolitic opinions myself. But, that said, either the bloggers involved in the project (Scientopics?) will misuse “civility” in that way, or they won’t, regardless of what the code says. Why fret in advance over a bit of linguistic boilerplate?

    I appreciate that you’ve pointed out that we’ve been trying, and that many of these idealistic goals are very tough to realize in practice.

    That’s what makes them idealistic. :-P

    • But, that said, either the bloggers involved in the project (Scientopics?) will misuse “civility” in that way, or they won’t, regardless of what the code says. Why fret in advance over a bit of linguistic boilerplate?

      That is a great way to put it, and pretty much in line with what I was thinking. I’m reassured by the fact that none of the people I know in the collective intend the word to be misused in a nefarious way. In the end, a community will survive or fail based on whether the people in it can work together, not by any words we put down on (electronic) paper.

  10. Bora, the RSS feed for this blog has recently switched to summary (not full text). Any chance of switching it back? If you switched it for a reason, no worries, but if the software did it behind your back, I thought you’d want to know (and I wanted to request a switch back — I hate having to click through!)

    Thanks! Really enjoying all the meta science blogging lately.

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  12. I’ve been science blogging and podcasting since 2005 and have watched the SB kerfuffle from afar with interest. I have thought of joining networks from time to time for both the blog and the podcast, but for me, the benefits of being an individual blogger outweigh the network benefits, or at for least networks such as SB. As such, it’s been fascinating to watch the frantic movement of bloggers to other networks.

    The majority of my hits come from sites such as stumbleupon, digg, reddit, facebook and twitter. Social networking and bookmarking tools are the main way people find good content on the web. If they find you and like you, they will click the subscribe button. The challenge for sites is to keep people browsing on their site. SB did this by having lots of diverse blogs. As commentors have mentioned above, when you write for a network, you promote that network. SB wants visitors to click on their ads. The longer a visitor is on SB, the more chance they will click on an ad. Nature Network uses their blogs to promote their brand. This is one reason why I’ve been amazed so many people want to join up with a network – there is some loss of individuality.

    Another reason not to join a network is that it’s fun designing your own page, playing with widgets – mucking around! It is a very very simple thing to start a blog – you don’t need a network to do it for you, just head to blogger and start writing. What a network will do is provide you with instant hits because people visit other already known blogs on the network that link in. This may feel nice, but who are you writing for? Other bloggers on the network? The vast majority of good science blogs are out there on their own (IMHO). The challenge is to engage your readers past that first link in, and if you don’t, the reflected glory from other blogs on the network will stay as just that, reflected.

    It is also an old-school idea to think that people would head straight to SB or another network as their first port of call to find information on a particular topic. As mentioned above, social networking tools are one of the major ways into a blog, but so are simple google searches. I saw Bora’s post on this topic on his twitter feed yesterday, and today I googled to find it. Some people may still head to a particular site for information, but most people don’t – when I worked withPlus Magazine, we got 100,000 odd hits a day, but only a very small percentage of visitors used the browse function or dug deeply through our then-structured menus into the site. The way they navigated was through search, tags and links attached to stories, or “you might also like” type links. Whilst joining up to a network will bring you hits, you have to look at what the readers do once they enter your site to see if you are engaging them. What you want is for the reader to press “subscribe” – what SB wants is for the reader to remember the brand (and click the ads). Networks try to keep you on the network, but not necessarily on your blog.

    I liken joining a blogging network to joining the EU. Countries fight so hard to get independence, and then they join the EU and give some up! I know, I know, it’s far more complicated than that…. But you join up, you get some financial incentive (ie instant hits), but there is a price to pay. Whether it’s the threat of Pepsi-promoting blogs (which is a topic for another day – SB handled it horribly, but company-sponsored blogs should arguably be encouraged), Scientology ads popping up (always giggled at them), or simply not being able to add a widget or widen your column, there is a price.

    Personally, I think if you are a good blogger, want your own “brand” and want freedom, people will find you through social networking tools. The web has moved from structured lists to dynamic search where content will be found when its good quality. What really will make you stand out from the crowd is good content.

  13. In lots of ways I agree with you Westius,

    It just happens I’m very keen on building the brand of the (little) blog network I’m on.

    Sciblogs.co.nz is probably a little different that the other networks people are taking about, because it’s not a commercial operation and because blogs don’t have to move to be a part of it. Sciblogs is aimed at filling a real gap in the way New Zealanders read about news and ideas in science (there is next to no local science reporting) and I share that goal to the extent that I’m quite happy to spend a little of my individuality in helping it.

    So, even though my own (very little) blog actually lives on blogspot but I always write the sciblogs address in comments boxes or carinval submissions because I really do hope anyone reading my posts will click on Alison’s or Grant’s or Hillary’s or Darcy’s posts.

    I guess in that way sciblogs acts a little more like a filter than a network in Bora’s taxonomy – gathering together New Zealanders talking about science in one platform.

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  16. A note on the idea of “representative internet users”: Practically by definition, readers of sci blogs are not representative internet users, and are likely to be far more tech-literate than the average browser-wielding Joe. In other contexts it’s a reasonable argument, but I don’t think it works terrifically well here. In fact I’d guess that an unusually high proportion of sci blog readers are not just sci-literate but are sci bloggers themselves. (How many commenters on Bora’s blog aren’t bloggers?)

    I’d also like to stick up a flag for the serious/professional writer who is not looking for maximum exposure and an NASW foothold. Some of us are still quite content to spend years working quietly, developing ideas, publishing occasionally or even privately. The same goes on in fiction and poetry, though it’s understandable, given the volume level of the MFA-celebrity crowd, that an outsider might believe they’re the entire literary-writing world. What seems to happen, in general, is that the more retiring writers have friends who are in the fray and will serve as connectors to it when asked, or when the friends think they’ve done something that ought to be promoted. Which is part of why I agree wholeheartedly with westius that, in the end, high-quality blogging will out, regardless of where it’s hosted.

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