Category Archives: Media

Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?

 

Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.

PressThink:

The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.

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Image: Nadja Popovich

3 Science Questions to Ask U.S. Presidential Candidates

As you may already be aware from my previous posts, The Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab have teamed up to push a project called The Citizens’ Agenda into the media discourse surrounding the U.S. presidential 2012 election. The idea: find out what you–the citizens–want the candidates to be discussing over the next four months – usually meaning questions of substance about policy rather than horserace and gotcha questions so pervasive in mainstream media.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for the Scientific American community to provide us with the three most important science-related questions that they would like to see the candidates asked by the media or during presidential debates in the fall. The Scientific American community is one (actually the first to have this finished) of a number of topical communities providing questions. Naturally, our readers are interested in science, so we are focused on  the science topics here.

Our Facebook page post soliciting question received over 120 comments (as well as 104 Likes and 61 Shares). The blog post itself got an additional 18 comments. We asked you “What three science questions do you think the U.S. presidential candidates should answer before we vote on November 6?” and since some comments included multiple questions, we got a grand total of 246 questions!

I am extremely happy with the quality and quantity of the submitted questions. You took this seriously and came up with a number of excellent questions.

An informal scan of the questions leads me to categorize questions by focus. There are: questions that ask for candidates to state science facts; questions that ask candidates’ stances on hot and politicized science issues; questions that ask about the role of science in governing; and fun/silly/provocative questions

There is value in all four types of questions. Each one of them is multi-layered and is actually trying to examine the following:

- are candidates reasonably educated in basic science?
- are candidates well informed about current understanding of various aspects of the world?
- to what extent will candidates apply scientific knowledge and advice by scientists in shaping policy, as opposed to interest groups that may or may not adhere to empirical knowledge in their agendas?
- to what extent will candidate’s style of governing resemble scientific method: observing and studying the world as it really is (as opposed to what one wishes it to be), collecting and analyzing data, and applying best available remedies to the problems?

In short, all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?

But for purposes of our effort, we also had to classify the questions by topic.

Interestingly, the topic of greatest interest, judging from your responses (23 questions clearly and solely in this category), is Science Education – its value, its role in society, the role of federal government in regulating it, and the need for its reform and funding. Interestingly, Role of Government in Science (22 questions) is also mostly about science education, so we fused the two categories into one.

This question, by our reader Cherry Kersey probably captures it the best:

How important do you feel science and science related education is in young children and how would you affect change so that U.S. students are competitive with the rest of the western world in these key subjects?

Some other examples are:

Do you think that promotion of critical thinking is a primary goal of education?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

From media reports, it seems the U.S.  lags behind many other developed countries in protecting the populace from harmful chemicals and substances. Our laws and regulations seem to be designed to protect business interests first and foremost, and only to protect the populace or environment when it has been clearly proven (for example, from a lot of people/animals dying or being sickened by something that has been on the market for a number of years) and there is public outrage. What would you do to address this?

How will you help the USA recapture its #1 place in the STEM sciences, and how is education part of this important agenda?

Do you support evidence based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?

What is the cost of American college education relative to its value to students and to the nation at large? Please describe that cost/benefit ratio in terms of its distribution throughout the current population of students who are in college or who are about to attend. Is that ratio favorable or unfavorable? If less than favorable, what actions would you recommend as President to make it more favorable?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

Can the decline in U.S. ranking in science be directly attributed to the anti-science policies of today’s conservatives, and what affects will the continuation of these policies have on the standing of the U.S. as a leader in science in the future?

Do you believe the federal government should place more emphasis on increasing the number of young Americans who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or not?

Are you going to seriously fund scientific research? How will science help you develop policy? What are you going to do to make the benefits of scientific research benefit the American people?

In your opinion, who gets to decide the truth of a scientific concept? The people, the experts, or the well-funded?

What are you going to do to increase the number of scientists in office, ensuring the people making scientific decisions are in fact qualified to do so?

Will you support reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?

How will science help you develop policy?

What government body do we have to thank for the most inventions applicable to modern daily life in the last 50 years? (Answer is NASA)

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The second topic, with 18 questions focusing entirely on it, is Evolution, still a hot topic in this country. Our chosen question is by our reader Joseph Yaroch:

Explain why you think voters should care about your stance on evolution.

Here is a sampling of some other related questions:

Do you understand the role natural selection has played in the development of complex life over the last several billion years?

What is your opinion on the debate of evolutionary theory vs creationism?

Do you accept the theory of evolution? If so, do you accept that simply saying so is counter-intuitive to our current legal financial subsidies binding church & state?

Do humans and apes have a common ancestor?

What actions will be taken on school boards across the country that are eliminating scientific evidence of evolution from the curriculum?

Are you willing to defend separation of church and state and support the teaching of evolution in schools?

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The third most exciting topic to our readers, with 17 questions clearly and solely in this category, is Climate Change. The most representative question comes from our reader Eli Hernandez is:

Is global warming and climate change significantly and negatively affected by human industrial and fossil fuel consumption activity and if so what is our Government’s Role and Responsibility in mediating a solution?

Some more examples:

What should the US role be in controlling climate change and what would you do to advance it?

Even the most devout global warming advocates grudgingly admit that proposed regulations would only delay the inevitable (if global warming is in fact occurring), while the political/economic costs of such regulation would be devastating to the United States. Are you factoring the cost vs. the benefits of global warming regulation in your policy decisions? Will you publish this analysis?

How does the greenhouse effect work, and do you think that humans are interfering with its proper function?

Do you accept the scientific consensus on climate change and what policies do you propose to prevent and mitigate its effects.

Do you agree with over 90% of the world’s climate scientists that humans are at least CONTRIBUTING to global warming?

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The topics that follow are Space Exploration, Energy, Science Funding, Environment+Sustainability, Economics, GMOs, and general science questions (of the “what is an electron?” type), as well as a number of other categories with just 1-2 questions.

Finally, there was a “Silly” category, with only 12 questions (yes, guys, you were serious about this project!). Our favorite in the Silly category is this one, by nouseforaname.

Was Jar-Jar [Binks] possible through evolution?

Now I really wish someone would ask that question in the debate!

~~~

Now that the questions are out, watch the The Guardian U.S. site for updates. Spread the word. Let’s all try to push for these questions to actually get asked of the candidates in the debates, or in other media outlets.

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?

 

As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

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How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Yesterday I skyped into Czerne Reid’s science journalism class at University of Florida to talk about breaking into science writing as a profession, and especially the use of blogs and social media as tools for accomplishing that goal.

Just a few days before that, as a part of our regular Question Time in preparation for our panel at WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, we tackled the same question:

What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?

Rose Eveleth collected and organized the responses we received on Twitter (using hashtag #sci4hels), but here I’d like to provide, all in one place, a bunch of links to resources, other people’s thoughts about it, and a few brief thoughts of my own.

Ways of becoming a science writer

There are two basic trajectories: one more traditional, which I like to call “vertical”, and the other one I call “horizontal” which, though it happened with individual writers for a long time, seems to be a much more frequent, if not dominant trajectory these days.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. They major in journalism in college (perhaps double-major in a science as well), work on their school paper, start internships early in their local papers (or radio or TV stations), then go to a Master’s program in science journalism. By the time they graduate from that, they already have lots of experience, several internships, many clips, perhaps some local awards, and are ready to start making a living as staff writers or freelancers.

The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers. The most direct horizontal trajectory involves starting a science blog while still doing research, becoming known for good writing there, then start pitching stories for online (and later print) magazines, and gradually leaving the lab bench and starting to make a living by writing alone. Brian Switek, John Timmer and Ed Yong are probably the best known examples of people who took this path. Heck, I am one of those examples, too. Many more are somewhere along that trajectory right now.

Of course, those are extremes, too neatly cut apart. Many people will do something in the middle, combining the two approaches in some way. For example, they may pursue a career in research while also taking summer internships at science magazines, or editing the science section of the college newspaper. Some may major in science, then go to j-school for Masters. Also, not all of the new entries into science writing are young. Sure, some make the switch after college or Masters in science, but others make the switch later, after getting a PhD, or finishing a postdoc, or after years of teaching as adjunct faculty with no hope of ever getting a tenure track position, or even after many years as full faculty, once grant money dries out and there are no more resources to keep running the lab.

Either way, there comes a time when one becomes a professional science writer/journalist and has to make a living that way. What does one need to do to succeed?

Understanding the new media ecosystem

It is important to be aware that 20th century media ecosystem is a very unusual aberration in the way people communicated throughout history. Means of production were expensive. Very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence.

Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free.

This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There is only so much time and energy anyone can invest into consumption of the media. In the flood of information coming out every second, how does one get science to the audience? Specialized science media outlets cannot see each other as competition any more – they are now collaborators, helping each other toward the same goal: trying to, at least occasionally, displace trivia, Hollywood gossip, and dangerous pseudoscience with good science news. Individual science writers, as equal participants in the media ecosystem, should do the same: replace the notion of competition with the idea of cooperation.

How does a new science writer succeed in this new ecosystem? In the 20th century, one would try to ingratiate oneself with the gatekeepers, the editors. As they are still part of the ecosystem and probably will be for some time in the future, this strategy is still valuable, but it is only one of many. More important, if anything, is to build support networks with your colleagues, peers and buddies. The concepts of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Horizontal Loyalty’ are not just theoretical – put them to practice.

You may think of two potential career routes: getting hired as a staff writer somewhere (getting harder with each passing year), or to freelance. But there is a third way now: start and build your own media empire.

Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, BoingBoing started out as unknown person’s personal blogs – after turning into group blogs, then adding functionalities that let readers contribute, today they are media organizations that make money, hire and pay editors, and more. Perhaps your own blog can turn into something like this. But teaming up with your own Friends In Low Places may make such a start-up more successful.

First you have to write

People who want to become professional writers are, I assume, people who always liked to write. Childhood diaries. LiveJournals filled with teenage angst. Long Facebook updates. It’s time to take this seriously and do your writing in a more serious, organized, professional manner. Start a blog. This is your writing laboratory. Start blogging about science. Nobody will know about your blog until you start promoting it, so don’t worry that your early posts are clumsy (you can even delete the first few embarrassing posts later, once you are happy with your blog and start promoting it).

Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you.

Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic.

Ignore the “professional” advice about having to blog daily. It was a necessity a decade ago, not any more. In the days of RSS feeds and social media, it does not matter for your readers any more – they will find your posts no matter how infrequently you post. It only matters for you and your own writing habit that you blog with some regularity.

Also ignore the “professional” advice about writing relatively short blog posts. Leave that for brief news articles. Blog posts are longform, at least most of the time. And longform works online much better than short articles – the traffic keeps on giving for years, as people rediscover long posts, see them as resources, and share with their friends.

Also important to remember: You’re A Human, So Write Like One. How do I write? First I read and study the topic. Then, I compose text in my head (usually during dog walks, often over a number of days, sometimes even months), imagining I am explaining something to a good non-scientist friend. Then I sit down and quickly transcribe that. Quick proofread. Click “Publish”.

Like every other skill, writing needs practice. Write every day, something, anything. That’s what makes the blog useful – you have a platform for your words every day. You’ll get better. When you write something for publication, watch carefully what the editor changed in your manuscript and learn from it. Read a lot of good writing, paying attention to how other writers accomplish their goals.

The hard-line “never write for free” slogan is a hold-over from some old, outdated times. Early on in your career, you will write for free quite a lot, especially on your blog. Your blog becomes your portfolio, your PR material. As you become a professional, you will learn how to reject offers to write for free, and will mostly write for pay. But even then, there will be times when you will want to write for free – on your own blog (or your Mom’s neighborhood newsletter). You will want to experiment with a new form, or a new topic. Or you will want to write something that would be hard to sell. Or you wrote something on commission, got rejected, got paid your kill-fee, and now want to see your work out there, meeting the readers.

Or, if you are a natural born writer, every now and then there will be a story inside of you, fighting to burst out of your chest and get expressed in words or visuals, and you won’t care if it’s paid or not, you want it out, and your blog will be there waiting for just such pieces.

Getting started with your blog

It’s easy. Go to WordPress.com (or some other platform, but WordPress has recently become a standard and is probably your best bet) and start one. Pick a name (and a URL) that is catchy, memorable yet informative about the main topic of the blog. Make at least some minimal effort to make it look pretty. Fill out the ‘About Me’ page, put buttons for your various social media accounts on the sidebar, and provide a method for readers to contact you. Start posting.

Get in a rhythm – decide you will post something on your blog every day or every week and stick to it. Sometimes, it will just be a few links or a YouTube video. Other times, you will write something more substantial. Start with book reviews – those are relatively easy. Do Q&As with scientists. Cover new papers in “ResearchBlogging” fashion. One day a seriously good post will come out of all your daily thinking in the shower and during dog walks.

Learn about science blogging, its theory and history. Learn about best blogging practices. Learn about the ethics of online writing and blogging, including the ethic of the link and the ethic of the quote.

If you make a statement, link to the source or to additional information. If you quote somebody, provide the link to the original context (including audio file or transcript if you yourself did the interview). A quote with a link increases your trust with the readers. A quote without a link decreases your trust with the readers – it’s a red flag that you are trying to manipulate them. And always try to link to the scientific papers you write about, even if they are behind paywalls.

Decide if you want to have commenting on your blog or not, and what kind of (technological and human) comment moderation you need. Come up with your moderation policy. Be prepared to be present in your own commenting threads in order to keep them constructive.

Another option is to join a group blog. Double X Science, Last Word On Nothing, Deep Sea News, Southern Fried Science, Science-Based Medicine, Real Climate, Biofortified and Panda’s Thumb are a few examples of excellent group blogs with high visibility, which authors can use as springboards for their writing careers. This reduces the pressure on any individual blogger to post with high frequency, as collectively they will produce plenty of new material on the homepage every day.

It is also OK to just write guest posts on other people’s blogs. A number of science blogging networks have designated guest blogs for just such occasions. We here have two such blogs – Guest Blog and MIND Guest Blog – but other bloggers on the network may also sometimes accept a guest post.

Even if you run your own blog, it is not a bad idea to occasionally write a really good one for a Guest Blog on a media-owned network. A post on our Guest Blog counts as a clip in your portfolio, is highly visible, will show up high on Google searches for your name, and thus will serve you well as your promotional material when you start pitching or applying for jobs.

You can find a number of good links about getting started, and about running your blog, on this wiki page.

Get some professional training

If you are further along in your career (e.g., research career) you may feel too old to waste another year or two of your life by going back to school. But if you are younger, e.g., just out of college, you may want to consider getting a Master’s at one of the specialized Science, Health and Environmental Reporting/Writing programs. There are several excellent programs to choose from, e.g., NYU, UCSC, MIT, UGA, UNC, USC, City University (London), UW-Madison and several others.

If that is too long (or expensive) for you, spend a summer at a science writing workshop, e.g., Banff or Santa Fe.

Or, if you are still in school, take some writing or journalism classes despite not needing them officially for your major.

Try to get an internship, perhaps in one of the popular science magazines. Nothing prepares you better than learning on the job.

Attend meetings with professional writing and journalism workshops, talks, panels and discussions, e.g,. ScienceWriters (NASW/CASW), ScienceOnline (either the annual flagship meeting in Raleigh, or one of the growing number of satellite events), AAAS annual meeting, SpotOn, or WCSJ. Use the opportunity to get to know (and get known by) editors and others whose careers are well in advance of yours, but also to meet your own peers and start forming your own posse of ‘Friends In Low Places’. Many of those events also have “Pitch sessions” where you can pitch your story ideas directly to editors.

Start reading, regularly and closely, sites that discuss journalism (especially science, environmental and health journalism), provide writing tips, provide media criticism, or provide information about unreliable scientific papers. These should probably include KSJ Tracker, CJR Observatory, NASW, Nieman Journalism Lab, The Open Notebook, The Science Writers’ Handbook, Embargo Watch, Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview, SpotOn Blog, Communication Breakdown, and right here – The SA Incubator (I’d have listed the NYT Green Blog here, but sadly, it is now dead).

Read good science blogging by setting up ScienceSeeker as your homepage. Find out which blogs you like, subscribe to them, post comments, perhaps start out your own blogging by emulating their style until you develop your own.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If a blog post is published in a forest,….?

OK, you’ve been blogging for a while and now you are happy with your posts. You are ready for readers and their feedback. How do you get the readers to your blog? Good readers, with relevant interests and backgrounds, those who can provide valuable feedback?

First things first. Make your blog an official science blog by applying to have it aggregated at ScienceSeeker. ScienceSeeker is a portal for science writing and blogging, a result of fusion and then further development of Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org (COI: I am one of the founders of ScienceSeeker, which is a ScienceOnline project). It keeps getting developed and adding new features.

Neither Google Blogsearch nor Technorati are good at filtering science blogs. They pull in spam blogs, blogs with a science tag that have no science content whatsoever, as well as blogs that push pseudoscience, anti-science, medical quakery and other silly or dangerous nonsense. As only approved science blogs can be found at ScienceSeeker, it has unofficially become a ‘stamp of approval’, a way to filter out the noise and focus on the quality content that one can filter in various ways, from topical filters, to only posts covering papers, to ‘Editors’ Picks’. A number of journal publishers and media organizations are now using ScienceSeeker to get metrics on how much their articles were blogged about. In its effort to preserve science blogs for posterity, Library Of Congress is using Science Seeker as the filtering mechanism guiding their decisions what to preserve. So get your blog on there. It will bring you reputation, traffic, and just the right kinds of readers to provide you with feedback.

Nominate your posts for various awards and collections, e.g., Open Laboratory, 3QD science prize, ScienceSeeker Awards, Science Studio (podcasts and videos) and others. This will give them visibility as people check out all the nominations.

Register and become a respected user on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Stumbleupon and/or Fark. Be sure you know their policies well (e.g., Reddit will let only a small proportion of your links be to your own work). Don’t waste too much time on those sites, but you can use them to find interesting links to share, to share other people’s work, and to occasionally share links to your own posts and articles. If one of your posts catches fire on one of those sites, make sure your server can take it, and be present – you will be busy for a few hours moderating comments, deleting especially obnoxious, snarky, nasty or idiotic ones. But some comments will be good, and a small proportion out of those tens of thousands of visitors will bookmark you, keep coming back and will become your regular readers.

Have a nice-looking homepage (you can make it with WordPress, or use a specialized platform like About.Me, or pay a designer friend to make you one). Your homepage should have a short, easy to remember URL so you can shout it out on the street and people will be able to spell it, remember it, and find it later when they go online that night. This is your single most important URL that you will place everywhere – on your business cards, and on profile pages on all the social media and other sites that let you have a profile. Everywhere you are online should link back to your homepage. And your homepage should link to everywhere else you are online.

Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts.

If you are lucky, you will be invited to join a blogging network, which makes your blog even more visible. If you are VERY lucky, you will be invited to move your blog to a media site as a blogger/columnist, like Ezra Klein at Washington Post, Nate Silver at NYTimes, or the Phenomena quartet at National Geographic.

If you are just embarking on the professional career in science writing, we can help right here at The SA Incubator. Khalil and I post our weekly “Picks” – if you have written something you are proud of, don’t be shy to send the link to us. If we like it, we’ll link to it. Then we may ask you to do one of the “Introducing” Q&As, a great opportunity to present your past career, skills, links and goals that will turn out very high on Google searches once potential employers start googling you.

The necessity of social media

There are many social networks out there, some general some specialized, as well as platforms which include some social media elements. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantArt, Instagram, Pinterest, FriendFeed, Branch, Quora, Goodreads, MySpace, LiveJournal, Orkut, Diaspora, SoundCloud, Slideshare, Storify, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley, FigShare, CiteULike, and many more. Which ones to use? I suggest you use one or two that fit you best, but also take a few minutes to set up profiles on many other networks. That way, people who find you on those sites can click on the link and find themselves on your homepage, where they can see where you are really active.

This wiki has a lot of great resources for starting out and using a number of those sites professionally, as a scientist or a science writer. Pay special attention to the pages about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, as those are the three biggies you should probably pay most attention to.

Let’s focus on Twitter now. It is essential for a journalist. Not having – and using – a Twitter account today is like not having an email address ten years ago (and yes, some cutting-edge people are completely abandoning email and doing all of their communications over social media).

Big companies have suffered losses because their old-timey PR teams were unaware of the backlash on social media, and then incapable of responding correctly on social media. Businesses can lose money if they are missing key information that appears only on social media. Academia is especially horribly insulated and way behind the times. But nowhere is use of social media as important as in journalism. Don’t be this guy who was completely oblivious that his newspaper was in the center of national maelstrom of harsh criticism, because “I only deal with what’s on paper”.

When an airplane skidded off the runway in Denver, I knew it, along with 100,000s of other people, 12 minutes before everyone else. A passenger tweeted about it, and it spread like wildfire, including his updates, blurry photos, etc. CNN had a brief piece 12 minutes later. The accidental “citizen journalist” scooped them. Sometimes, for some news, these 12 minutes may be crucial for you.

Twitter and Facebook were key methods of communication not just between participants, but also to the outside world, during the Mumbai attacks and the Arab Spring.

People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.

Journalists on deadline quickly find expert sources for their stories.

Journalists who observed the massive, instant, intense and scathing reactions of experts to #arseniclife or #Encode did not make the mistake of filing their positive stories and then having to backpedal later.

If all you see on Twitter is garbage, you are following the wrong people. You have to carefully choose who to follow, and then learn how to filter. Unfollowing is easy, and polite. You are not dissing your Mom, as if you would if you unfriended her on Facebook.

Don’s use Twitter.com. Use an app. There is a lot of outcry right now (by myself as well) about the imminent demise of some Tweetdeck apps (version 0.38.2 is by far the best, if you can have it and keep it indefinitely – other apps are OK on smartphones, e.g., HootSuite or Twitterific). It is important to me not to have Twitter/Tweetdeck as yet another tab in my browser, a place where I have to go and spend time. Twitter is not a site to go to and spend time on. Twitter should be a part of the workflow, silently running in the back, behind my open browser.

Tweets show up in the corner and 99% of the time I do not even notice them. I am busy with something else, and I mentally block them out. But I have a “search image” (a term from ethology – a bird does not systematically scan every inch of tree bark, instead it has a search image for the shape and color of its prey insect and automatically homes in on it). If a tweet shows up with my name in it, or a specific word in it, or by a specific person, I will notice and take a glance. If there is nothing important, I only lost 1/10th of a second and can go back to what I was doing. If it seems important, I will Favorite the tweet (if unsure of the quality of content) or Retweet it (if it comes from a trusted source), so I can have it saved to read later. If it seems important and urgent, I will click through and investigate. Perhaps this is information that is more important to me than whatever else I happen to be doing at the time. And even then, I will probably spend only a few minutes on it before returning to whatever I was doing before.

In Tweetdeck (or any similar app), one should have a number of columns – move them around: the default position may not the the best one for you (I move “All Friends” far away to the right so I don’t have to see it almost ever). Mentions and Direct Messages are your more important columns, but also make several that follow Lists (your own, or other people’s), or display tweets that contain particular words or hashtags (your “Saved Searches”). I will add a column for an event hashtag while the event is on, then delete the column afterward. Play around until you refine your filtering this way.

Here are some good lists to get you started – follow them, and also follow some of the listed people directly – you decide who is useful to you:

ScienceSeeker Members
Best mindcasters I know
Young Smart Newsies
Top Journalism Linkers
Young science writers
ScienceOnline 2013 attendees
Blogs and bloggers on the Scientific American blog network
SciAm Contributors

If there is something I’d like to tweet out, that is easy, too. No need to go to Twitter. Get some kind of Bit.ly or AddThis bookmarklet for your browser and you can tweet any link in two clicks (perhaps with a little editing, to add/remove stuff from the tweet so it’s just the way you want it).

What kind of stuff you can – and perhaps should – do on Twitter? There are several different things. First, you can just use it to find information, to pick up good links, or to eavesdrop on conversations. Treat it as a river of news – sometimes you dip in, sometimes you go away. You won’t miss much while you are away. If information is really important, it will have staying power – many people will still be linking to it, retweeting it, and discussing it next time you log in. If you missed it – it’s not important.

You can, of course, post your personal musings, but if you are going to use Twitter like a professional, keep that to the minimum. I bet less than 1% of my tweets are in this vein.

You can retweet others. Your followers do not see everything tweeted by everyone you follow. Twitter is very asymmetrical – you don’t follow those who follow you, not automatically. You follow those who are useful to you, and you are followed by people who find you useful. Thus, if someone tweets, and you retweet, this will be fresh to many of your followers. If they RT in turn, they will spread it to their followers and so on, in concentric circles, spreading the message out further and further. A tweet can go a long way.

You can engage in conversations. It’s OK to butt into other people’s conversations, but be polite and be useful and constructive. If you know the answer to someone’s question, provide it. If you are at a University and have library access, you can help your freelance colleagues in search of papers – they will use the hashtag #Icanhazpdf (but first carefully read the comment section of this post to understand the legal, moral and etiquette aspects of it).

You can be a useful filter for others. Post links to good articles and blog posts. Everyone tweets links to NYTimes, BBC and The Guardian – you don’t have to. Instead, set up Google (and Google News and Google Blogsearch) alerts for the keywords in the domain of your expertise and interest. It can be “watersheds” or “science+superheros” (one of mine is “circadian”, naturally). Some of those links in the alerts will be very interesting, yet from obscure publications. People will soon realize you are the “go to” person for that topic. Follow a few good by less-well-known blogs. Tweet out links to their posts.

Broadcast links to your own posts. But do it politely and judiciously. Tweet once in the morning. Then again that day “for the afternoon crowd”, then once next day “for those who missed it yesterday”. That should be sufficient. DM (direct message) the link to a few people with more followers than you have but who are aware of you and know who you are. Ask them to take a look, provide feedback, and they are likely to retweet it if they like it.

Here are some quick rules you should memorize on how to be a useful and respectable contributor to social media.

And finally, if you are really well organized and dedicated, you can truly use Twitter as a part of your journalistic flow – from individual tweets, to aggregations of tweets – both your own and replies you got (e.g., on Facebook or Storify), to longer blog posts, to magazine articles, to books.

Moving on to Facebook, the strangest animal of them all, undergoing a metamorphosis every year or so, often abruptly changing people’s privacy settings, expectations and experiences. That makes many people uneasy about it.

You have to be sensitive that there are two main styles of Facebook use. One is personal, the other is professional. It is perfectly OK to keep settings to ‘Private’ and to friend only family and best friends, share vacation pictures and not much else. It is perfectly OK if you prefer to use it that way. But perhaps you should set up another Facebook Page for your professional outreach. This is where you post interesting science links, urge other scientists, writers, journalists and bloggers to follow your page. Keep the two worlds separate.

Many people, including myself, do not separate the two worlds. Yes, I occasionally post personal stuff, but I mainly post links to science stories on my personal profile, which is set completely on ‘Public’. I have many FB friends, and of them many are not inherently interested in science. By being my FB friends, they get served their daily dose of science anyway. Many are thankful for this. This is the so-called “push” method of science communication, where you push science onto unsuspecting audiences. The reverse is “pull” method, in which people who are already interested in your stuff will know how to seek you and find you if they know your stuff is good (people interested in science know where to look for Scientific American).

There is a lot of scientifically incorrect information floating around Facebook. One of your roles can be as a “downer” – the person who brings in a link to the scientific information that corrects the pseudoscience. And yes, your aunt may get really angry at you because of it, but at least some of aunt’s FB friends will learn something from your link, perhaps share it elsewhere.

And now the elephant in the room – Google Plus. It is not easy to figure out what it is and how to use it and how to find good stuff on it. But if you are using any Google product (e.g., Gmail) you are already on G+ even if you are not using it. Thus, it has tons of people on there already. And unlike some past Google experiments (like Google Buzz and Google Wave), this one does not appear to be going anywhere – it is here to stay, and it’s a monster. I have more G+ subscribers than Twitter followers or FB friends. Most of them have zero background in science. The least you can do is throw some science links at them, even if you do not have time to engage further. Lots of traffic comes from there, so it’s worth a second or two to plop in a link.

What is important to know is that scientists, science bloggers and writers were some of the early invitees to the Beta version of G+ before public launch. They have explored the platform from the very early days. There are many of them there, and many are active. They are experimenting with new functionalities, especially cool uses for Google Hangouts. Find “Scientists” circles and start following people. Even if you don’t engage with it fully now, keep an eye on it, keep your presence on it, I would not bet against Google that this will wither and die.

Next step

You are writing every day. You are blogging regularly. After six months of regular Twitter use, you now have some followers and interaction. Perhaps you joined a popular group blog or even a blogging network. You have a few guest blog posts elsewhere, perhaps a few clips from school or local papers, or when you did an internship. It’s time to start pitching.

Different editors have different preferences for pitches. But many will explore your blog, your prior clips, your social media activity (potential employers for staff jobs will do that very thoroughly).

If you pitch me for the Guest Blog, for example, and I have never heard of you before, you need to write me a longish, polished pitch. Show me that you can write, that you can write a pitch just as perfectly as you will write the article itself later on.

But if I know you from your blog, from Twitter, perhaps some previous work, you don’t need to do that. You can DM me on Twitter with a very brief pitch and I am likely to say Yes.

Now go and write.

Stories: what we did at #WSF11 last week

As you probably know, I spent last week in New York City, combining business with pleasure – some work, some fun with friends (including #NYCscitweetup with around 50 people!), some fun with just Catharine and me, and some attendance at the World Science Festival.

My panel on Thursday afternoon went quite well, and two brief posts about it went up quickly on Nature Network and the WSF11 official blog.

But now, there is a really thorough and amazing piece on it, combining text by Lena Groeger (who also did a great job livetweeting the event) with comic-strip visualization of the panel by Perrin Ireland – worth your time! Check it out: All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

More about the trip and the Festival still to come…

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.

Is education what journalists do?

We had a great discussion this afternoon on Twitter, about the way journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young. Also as sources of judgement in disputes over facts.

While journalists strongly deny their educational role, as part of their false objectivity and ‘savvy’, everyone else perceives them as educators – people who should know and then tell, what is true and what is false, who is lying and who is not. People rely, as they cannot be in school all their lives, on the media for continuing education, especially on topics that are new. And people are then disappointed when, as usually happens, journalists fail in that role by indulging in false balance, He-Said-She-Said reporting, passionately avoiding to assign the truth-value to any statement, or self-indulgent enjoyment of their own “skill with words” in place of explaining the facts.

Fortunately for you all, you do not have to wade through all the tweets to see the entire discussion, as Adrian Ebsary has collected it all using Storify – read the whole thing (keep clicking “Load more” on the bottom of the page until you get to the end):

Informer or Educator: Defining the Journalist’s Role

As you can see, while there is some snark and oversimplification here and there due to short format, the discussion was pretty interesting and constructive. This is also a demonstration that useful discussions can be had on Twitter.

Whenever someone says “you cannot say anything in 140 characters” I respond with “who ever said that you only have 140 characters?”. To their quizzical look, I add “You are not limited to one tweet per lifetime – if you need 14,000 characters, you can write 100 tweets”. But, by writing 100 tweets, and making sure that each tweet – not just the collection of 100 – makes sense, has punch to it, and is hard to misunderstand or misquote out of context, one has to write and edit each tweet with great care. Twitter does not allow for sloppy writing!

Picking a theme for a few hours or days, and tweeting a whole lot about it during that period, is usually called ‘mindcasting‘. But it is even better when a bunch of other people join in and mindcast together – everyone learns something from the experience.

Now read the Storify and, if you have time and energy, respond with an essay on your own blog, as a continuation of the mindcasting process.

Update: And the first responses are in:

Whose Job is Public Science Education?

Are Journalists Educators? Does It Even Matter?

Interview in Italian (but you can listen in English)

About a week ago I was interviewed for Jekyll, an Italian science journalism blog. The interview is now up – you can read it here if you can read Italian, and if not, all the audio files are in English, the recording of the phone interview itself, in its entirety. We cover a lot of ground on science blogging, media, etc. Listen/read when you have time.

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

 

Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:

 

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.

Respectfully,

Albert Einstein

Or this one:

 

John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at ResearchBlogging.org or Scienceblogging.org or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

Blogging. What’s new?

UPDATE: I have greatly expanded on this post in this article written about a month later.
============

Last night on Twitter I asked:

OK, who were the best bloggers and Twitterers from before the WWW, perhaps before the 20th century? Letter writers, pamphleteers, diarists – who of old would have been a Natural Born Blogger?

This is what people came up with in responses:

Samuel Pepys (yes, click on it, it’s a blog, also on Twitter)
George Orwell (yes, see his blog)
Darwin (here, on Twitter),
Aldous Huxley (on Twitter)
Richard_Owen (on Twitter)
Mark Twain
Oscar Wilde
James Boswell,
Nellie Bly
H.L.Mencken
Leonardo da Vinci
Ezra the Prophet
David Hume
Alexander von Humboldt,
Aldo Leopold,
Walt Whitman
Socrates,
Plato,
Aristotle
Galileo
St John
Michael Faraday
Nietzsche
Ben Franklin (That would practically be Boing Boing)
Jesus’ apostles
Maimonides
Confucious
Einstein and Freud wrote some interesting letters back and forth that were published at some point.
Virginia Woolf,
Samuel Johnson,
Emerson,
Graham Greene
Robert Scott,
Admunsen,
Joseph Banks
Anne Frank
Jane Austen
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël
Montaigne
Walter Cronkite
Joseph Priestley
H.P. Lovecraft (who wrote more correspondence + commentary than he did fiction)
Albert Camus,
all the great war correspondents were proto-bloggers,
Various diarists

Also all of these guys (watch the animation, play with parameters):

And read: What Bloggers Owe Montaigne.

Letters and diaries were meant to be public, shared, read, saved, then published (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook today….

Many wrote letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read).

I bet a lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets, right? With geolocation apps (RT @Cdarwin Just became mayor of HMS Beagle). And those are still very useful today.

Nothing new under the Sun. Apart from technology (software instead of writing/printing on paper), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image on the left) and number of people reached (potentially millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging is nothing new – this is how people have always communicated.

It is the broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – that is an exception in history, for just a few decades of the 20th century.

It took 150-250 years or so between the invention of printing press by Gutenberg until we get to the first examples of something similar to the 20th century system of communication. London Gazette of 1666 is usually thought to be the very first newspaper. First English-language scientific journal was the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665.

But until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course there were no radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper which, then, had to serve everyone, so had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers and thus advertising revenue.

All we are doing now is returning to (old but important link to revisit) a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, but using much more efficient ways of doing it. And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well.

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, look for additional sources.

But that is not new, either. The only thing that was really wrong is the way so many people unquestioningly accepted what 20th-century style broadcast media served them. Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition. In the 20th century we lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CNN.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted. With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception.

Sigma Xi pizza lunch lecture – Science in the current media environment

Next Tuesday at Sigma Xi:

Hi all. Normally we aim to hold pizza lunch on the 3rd Tuesday of each month. In November, that date conflicts with the ship date of the January-February 2011 issue of American Scientist. So we’ll convene a week later. Still, I think you’ll find the session—something different this time—worth the wait.

Join us on Tuesday, Nov. 23 to hear one of our own, veteran science blogger Bora Zivkovic, talk about the shifting ecosystems within his craft. Zivkovic has had a front seat to much of that change, as author of the influential A Blog Around The Clock, as co-founder (with Anton Zuiker) of the international conference ScienceOnline in RTP, as the former online community manager at Public Library of Science and, now, as the new blog and community editor for Scientific American magazine. For a long time, people spoke of the day when print and online media would converge. In a growing share of the publishing world, that convergence has occurred. And Bora, when it comes to science journalism, has been a catalyst in that change.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to cclabby@amsci.org

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here: http://www.sigmaxi.org/about/center/directions.shtml

ScienceWriters2010 – NASW/CASW meeting this week

ScienceWriters2010 is starting on Friday afternoon at Yale University in New Haven, CT. This is a joint meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW).

I am not exactly sure, but I think most sessions will be recorded in some fashion and made available online later.

It is much better, if you want to follow live, to bookmarks the official ScienceWriters2010 blog where recipients of the travel grants – mostly science journalism students or young freelancers – will cover all the sessions in as close to real-time as is possible.

The fellows will also tweet from the meeting, and you can follow them by subscribing to this Twitter list. Or you can follow everyone from the conference by saving a Twitter search for the #sciwri10 hashtag.

I will be on a panel Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape, put together by David Dobbs. My co-panelists are Emily Bell and Betsy Mason. That should be fun!

Definitely check out the rest of the schedule – it is awesome. Everyone’s biggest problem is that all those great sessions are happening simultaneously, so we’ll all also have to wait for recordings of our colleagues’ sessions afterward.

And if you are there and you see me, please come and say Hi!

‘Social Network’, the movie

Finally saw ‘Social Network’, the movie. I was primed by all the reviews to hate the movie. But I didn’t. I found Mark Zuckerberg to be the only sympathetic character in the entire dog-eat-dog, sexist tech-biz world as portrayed in the film – which is not that far removed from reality.

A brilliant, talented, socially awkward kid with at least mild Aspergers has a vision and a feel for what he needs to do and can do. He may not be interested in money, women and fame, but people who are necessary for him to fund his vision are interested in these, and sometimes he falls for their sweet-talk, makes mistakes, falls and gets up again, and is driven to move on and pursue his dream.

Yes, the movie has factual errors, and yes the movie tried to slander him badly, and yes, what Facebook really means (which is important) is totally lost to the movie-makers who emphasize, like every dinosaurian curmudgeon worth his salt has to, the least important but most offensive (to old-time Puritanical tastes) aspects of Facebook (e.g., the potential for finding suitable dates, or changes in the meaning of privacy they don’t grok).

But in the end it is the old-timers – the lawyers, the old-money guys, the keepers of old traditions, the vile, sexist business wheelers&dealers (including Larry Summers) that come off the worst in the movie – you end up loathing them all by the time the credits roll.

In the end, the only one remaining standing, unscathed and even likable is the visionary, the one who changed the norms of the world to be a little more up-to-date: Mark Zuckerberg. It is easy to identify with him. It is easy to root for him when he uses his intelligence to talk back to the elders who imagine they have authority over him and to put them in their proper place. Who of us was never a kid, confused by the scheming of adults, falling into their traps, and hoping to learn from those negative experiences and go on and change the world for the better?

How to be a new-school (mostly TV) journalist, in some time very soon (video)

The video in the previous post, though it may seem like parody today, was actually produced in full seriousness. This one, on the other hand, was produced as a satire, but cuts close to the bone – the trick is: one does not need to invoke social networks or new gizmos&gadgets to talk for five minutes on air without saying anything. The current crop is perfectly good at doing exactly that without any need for new technology.

How to be an old-school (mostly male) journalist, in some time long ago (video)

[From, via]

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour 68: Taking Science Online (video)

An hour-long show with Dr.Kiki last night, about science media and blogging, ScienceOnline conferences, science communication in North Carolina and more – you can download the file here, watch as mp4, or just watch here:

How “truthy” is Twitter? (video)

Information spreads quickly online, especially in the age of social networking. The ‘Truthy’ project, based at Indiana University, seeks to map the spread of ideas on services such as Twitter and help identify artificially-created memes. By examining how messages get bounced from one member of a network to another, and by examining the context around those messages, the researchers think they can identify ‘astroturfing,’ the creation of false grass-roots political movements. Want to participate in an mini-experiment? Tweet using the key words ‘#truthy, @scifri, and @truthyatindiana’ and the project leaders will try to track their spread.

More about the Truthy project at http://truthy.indiana.edu/

[Hat-tip: Leslie Taylor]

The recording of the Skeptically Speaking show about Science Journalism is now available online

You can download it or listen to it here.

Science Journalism at Skeptically Speaking

This Friday at 6pm MST (8pm EST) I will be a guest on the Skeptically Speaking radio show. The topic is Science Journalism. Send your questions in advance and tune in on Friday.

Mythbusters – yes, I got to meet Jamie and Adam

Last week, Mythbusters duo of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman came to Chapel Hill and did an event at the Dean Dome on UNC campus as the starting event of the NC Science Festival.

I am not going to recap what happened, as Tyler Dukes, Ross Maloney and Maria Gontaruk did it masterfully last week. I want to think a little bit more about Mythbusters and what their show means in the ecosystem of science media and communication, so please continue reading here….

I went to Block By Block conference….

…and wrote about it at ScienceInTheTriangle.com.

Block By Block

Next two days I will be at the awesome Block By Block conference in Chicago.

You can see the list of participants, check out the Program and tune in to the live stream of the event.

You can also follow on Twitter – hashtag is #bxb2010.

It is about local, community, online journalism. I am going mainly as a representative of our local science news site – Science in the Triangle.

This is exciting – I am sure I will tweet and blog from there, but mostly I am excited about all the things I will learn and all the forward-thinking people I will meet.

Rebooting The News, on science blogging and media

Rebooting The News, the cannot-miss weekly podcast about the current state and the future of media, hosted by Dave Winer and Jay Rosen, will have special guests this coming Monday at 10am EDT – Arikia Millikan and myself. The topic will be the current state of science blogging and science journalism. I hope you tune in on Monday at 10, and if you miss it, the podcasts are recorded and will be available shortly after at the homepage.

Branding Science Blogging: Cooperatives + Corporate Networks

Two recent posts by John Rennie, Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? Part 1 and Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? Part 2, prompted me to respond – first in comments there, and then an expanded version here (and to turn a long post into something more manageable, I omitted a lot of stuff I already wrote in painful detail before, so scroll down to “additional links” for background information that may SEEM to be missing from this post).

The question is about branding. How do incipient science blogging networks manage their public image. John, for example, is not sure if SEED got what it wanted (or initially envisioned), image-wise, from Scienceblogs.com brand. But it is important to remember that Scienceblogs.com was somewhat an anomaly in many respects – it was the only game in town for a long time.

The current situation is different. There are two types of networks arising. In the new ecosystem, we are now seeing cooperatives collecting bloggers who cherish freedom, replicating some aspects of the Scienceblogs.com experience. At the same time, professional/media organizations appear to be following the Discover blogs model of exclusivity for a small number of highly respected writers/bloggers. And it is quite possible that these two types will end up being quite different animals: the blogger cooperatives vs. corporate-owned networks. One way in which Seed Scienceblogs.com was an anomaly is that the atmosphere on the site was Indie, while Seed probably expected Pro.

Blogger cooperatives

Blogger cooperatives, like Scientopia, Lab Spaces, Field Of Science, The Gam, Science3point0 and Genomes Unzipped, for example, are unlikely to have long committee sessions charting their long-term strategies, debating their image and branding, and fine-tuning their budgets. They are run on the cheap, and the essential factor is the feeling of community.

Indie networks like these are likely to collect bloggers who are not interested in being The Media, or, as individuals, breaking into the MSM. Their chances of getting indexed by Google News are slim. They cherish freedom. “Don’t you tell me how to blog” is a very important sentiment.

Freedom is essential – bloggers on indie networks are likely to post whatever the heck they like, whenever they like it, at whichever frequency they want. They will cross-post their stuff wherever else they may be online – from other blogging networks, to personal blogs, to Facebook. They will post some kick-ass science, of course, but they will also cover a lot of personal stuff. And when I say ‘personal’, I don’t mean ‘private life’, I mean using their personal experiences and views to discuss all sorts of things, from scientific findings, to life in academia and careers in science, to politics and religion. They will get into vigorous debates and occasional blog-wars. But they will also use their community spirit to accomplish important stuff, from getting a political appointee hired or fired, to having a media article corrected, to having a paper retracted, to having a successful fundraising action for someone who needs it.

They may make all the decisions as a collective, or there may be a benevolent dictator at the helm, usually the tech-savvy person who runs the server, who is likely to be very responsive to the community.

The indie networks can also be very nimble. There is no paperwork, no dinosaurian CFOs to appease. They can completely redesign the homepage in a few hours, just to do it all over again the next day. They can fix technical glitches in five minutes, not five months. As the Web is changing, they can swiftly change with it. If one day everyone abandons Twitter for some other new shiny thing, the site can start reflecting that over night. Which is why they will always run circles around the corporate networks.

Most of them do not now (except for Science 2.0, as far as I know), and probably never will, have any advertising and any income. Bloggers write for free, and the benefits are intangible – being a part of a community, and as such, being able to further one’s goals (e.g., science education) better than being alone (and no, Blogger and WordPress are not networks, they are software). It will be interesting to see if and how dynamics change if some of these indie networks start advertising and making money – will that change the internal dynamics as well as the outward-facing image?

Indie networks tend to be very interested in building and maintaining diversity – both in the traditional meaning of the term, e.g., gender, race, age, ethnicity, geography, and the more science-blogging focused sense of diversity, e.g., scientific disciplines, topics, formats, styles and voices. It is a difficult thing to accomplish, but they constantly think about it and try to do better all the time.

Indie networks are probably rather easy to join – friendly bloggers and commenters just need to apply, and the procedure is probably quite simple and easy. Thus, cooperatives may grow to be quite big over time. As the sense of community is essential, cooperatives will be joined by friends. This may seem cliquish from the outside, but it is important for the long-term health and survival of the network. On the other hand this may be an undoing for some networks in the future, as friends get in a fight….time will tell.

Without a big corporate brand behind them, there is no telling how long these networks will last. A couple of years or a couple of decades? Or longer? Will the complete archives be saved for posterity once the network dies?

And looking from the outside, what kind of image will these collectives garner? Probably as a fun and rambunctious bunch, smart people who can explain science very well, but who are also all quintessentially human, the good and the bad of it. The new collectives have no established brand to improve or tarnish – they are building their own new brands from scratch, and the brand will be defined by the self-selected and friend-selected bloggers themselves, by what they do, by their voices. No long-term strategy writ in stone – just keep blogging and the branding will evolve on its own.

Corporate-owned networks

Why would a media company want to host a science bloggers network? Good question!

I think they learned from Seed (and they are now rushing into the vacuum left by the implosion of Seed after PepsiGate, whereas they would have suffocated if they tried to do much with bloggers before). Of all the endeavors that Seed Media Group tried, only Scienceblogs.com was successful and survived. Bloggers are so much cheaper to pay for their writing than are professional writers and journalists. An online-only plaftorm is so much cheaper to run than printing a magazine or a newspaper. And bloggers are so much more fun, they bring traffic and deliver the eye-balls to the advertisers.

Bloggers are also useful in another sense. The audience has become more enlightened over the past couple of decades. The readers are bored and unhappy with, and grew mistrustful of traditional, formulaic, impersonal, “view from nowhere”, “he-said-she-said” writing. Once they discovered bloggers, why would they ever want to go back to the dry matter? Especially if they discovered expert, trustworthy bloggers who both know their stuff much better than journalists do AND are much more fun to read. You know where they are coming from, and you know you can trust them (and why), and you establish a relationship with the personality of the blogger. There is a bond that just does not exist between a reader and a professional journalist who is just a name under the headline, not a real person. What’s there not to like?

So, launching a blogger network is a good idea – a sign that the media house is trying to keep up with the times, to evolve, to remain relevant. To do something a little bit risky and experimental. But not too risky and experimental….

Well, there is this thing called The Brand. The Image. Many of those companies have been around for years, decades, even centuries. The Guardian, Wired, Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American, Discover, Discovery Channel, Psychology Today, The New Scientist, Animal Planet, etc. – old and popular brands all. They have carefully built up their brands over time. Having a bunch of unruly bloggers change that image over a short period of several months is a disconcerting idea.

So, what is one to do? Make the network small, and carefully pick the bloggers, choosing the people who are the least likely to do something provocative and tarnish the brand. Go safe.

I can just imagine a committee meeting in every single one of those companies these days. Someone suggests “How about PZ Myers, Ben Goldacre or Orac? They are hugely popular and have enormous traffic to bring to our site. A sure win?” To which the others in the room start rolling their eyes…. “Uhm, I love these guys, but they are just too risky for us. We’d gain a lot of traffic, but also alienate a lot of people. And our legal department (if we have one) would constantly be busy dealing with libel suits and death threats and such, which we cannot afford. Can we find someone safer?”

Yes, the most popular bloggers became so by being fun. And they are fun because they are provocative and uncontrollable. And a corporation needs control over the image. So how do you accomplish that?

Being a brand, you start looking for people whose names are also brands. Being a media entity, the biggest brands in your mindset are a) people who are well known science writers and journalist who also blog. You may also consider b) people who are well known in the world of science and academia, who also blog. Finally, you may also consider c) people who are well known in the world of blogging, who may also be scientists or, even better, who may be interested in a career as science writers/journalists and are thus very self-conscious about their own reputation as calm, impartial and even-handed.

Ideally, you will find people who are spanning two or all three of those worlds. But such people are rare, and probably already taken by your competitors. Or due to heavy competition, they may get too expensive for you.

So you start going down the list… and find journalists whose writing you admire, in a journalistic sense, but who may not have any experience with blogging and you are just hoping would eventually adopt the bloggy style and understand the blogging norms and mores. You give them the training wheels and hope they learn to ride the bike really fast.

What you are probably not looking at are youngsters – n00b bloggers who may actually have the greatest enthusiasm and spunk – but they have no brand names yet. Perhaps your company just does not have anybody who is intimately familiar with the vast science blogosphere beyond the Usual Suspects, someone who has been reading hundreds of science blogs for years, so you do not even know any of those young ‘uns.

And in this conservative approach – looking for ‘safe’, uncontroversial, respected bloggers who are good writers – you are likely to forget about diversity and end up with a ridiculously white, male, middle-aged lineup. And the next millisecond after the celebratory launch of your brand new network, you will have a PR disaster on your hands…blogosphere is very sensitive to this and will punish instantly.

It is interesting to look at this from the point of view of a blogger. If you are paid $200 per month or $100 or zero, you expect to have zero editorial control over you, total freedom to use the blog any way you wish, and total freedom to cross-post or mirror your content wherever the heck you want.

But if you are paid substantially more, you mentally start thinking of your blogging as “a job”. You start writing more professionally. You dig deeper into the literature and documents before writing your posts. You fact-check your own ass more thoroughly before posting. You clean up your language (including not using the word “ass” in the previous sentence). You resist getting into blogwars. You start valuing your own work more, so the idea of mirroring that paid content onto other free places where you also blog (personal blog, co-op network, Facebook) becomes less attractive – you WANT to separate your more professional work from your rants. You want all the traffic to go to the place where you are paid (especially if the payment scheme is linked to pageviews). You may link to it from all sorts of other online places, but you do not want to duplicate it in places that do not pay.

If you are paid substantially, and start thinking of your blogging in a more professional light, you will probably also be much more cognizant of the inert bureaucracy of a large corporation and much more tolerant of its slowness. If you understand that everything requires paperwork and approval by several levels of corporate hierarchy, you may fume inside, but you are less likely to protest loudly (and publicly, on your blog) if a glitch takes five months to fix instead of five minutes. It will take a lot of accumulated grievances for you to finally explode. And if you are paid very little (think Seed) or nothing (think Nature Network), then there is nothing stopping you from getting mad at your host in a very public manner. It is not your job, you are not an employee, in other words the host is there to serve you, not the other way round.

The lesson for all the new media-run networks: pay your bloggers well and they will naturally behave professionally and will not tarnish your brand.

I should clarify that “pay your bloggers well” is not necessarily to be taken literally. The pay can be in $$, but it can also be (entirely or partially) in other ways – have the bloggers associated with a very prestigious brand (yours, if you are lucky to have one), treat your bloggers as professionals, as celebrities, give them a lot of support, give them perks (e.g., exclusive right to use your image/sound/video archives), promote them, help them get their best stuff published in your magazine, give them inside information, send them to conferences on your dime (e.g., to ScienceOnline or Science Online London), etc. – some of those intangibles are worth as much or more than cold cash in the mail arriving once a month. If you cater to their whims, including fast and competent technical support, bloggers will be proud of their association with you and will do their best not just to produce quality work, but also to promote your brand wherever they go online and offline. It’s worth it.

More on the topic – long musings:

A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem
Thank You
Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How
Links ‘n’ Thoughts on emerging science blogging networks

More on the topic – additional links:

Is this something that NYTimes editors proudly allowed to get published?
Ha! We got cartooned (again).
Welcome Scientopia, a new science blogging network
Bloggers, Evolving
Weekend Readings
Quick Links
Quick Links 2
Quick Links 3
Quick Links 4

Tentative conference schedule for Fall 2010

For various reasons, mostly financial, I had to say No to a number of invitations to meetings throughout the summer (including, unfortunately, the Lindau Nobel conference and Science Online London). But in Fall I will be busy again. This is the tentative schedule. Let me know if you will be at any of these meetings so we can meet up there.

August 21st, 2010, Raleigh NC. Science Communication Conference at the Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh. See the organizing wiki (Note: I was somewhat involved in advising during the early stages of organization, will attend but will not be on the podium – as it is an Unconference, I am likely to speak up from my comfy chair in the audience). Edit: I will give the Concluding Note at the end….

September 14th, 2010, Boston MA. 140 Characters Conference. I am currently on the “reserve” list in case one of the targeted bigwigs declines the invitation. If given a chance, I will talk about real-time science communication online.

September 16th, 2010, Raleigh NC. PechaKucha Raleigh #4. I will not speak, but intend to attend. The #3 was excellent.

September 23-24th, 2010, Chicago IL. Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010 organized by Michelle McLellan and Jay Rosen, about community news online. I accepted the invitation but am not sure yet about the format and if I am expected to say something from the front or the back of the room. I am assuming that I was invited at least in part due to the local science coverage efforts here in NC, especially Science In The Triangle.

October 1st-2nd, 2010, Greensboro NC. ConvergeSouth. Very tech and business oriented this year, under a new management. But still an occasion to meet my Triad friends.

November 3-4, 2010, Greenville SC. 2010 Conference on Communicating Science. I will do the session “New Tools for Communication (Use of “New” Media)” on the 4th in the morning.

November 5-9th, 2010, New Haven CT. ScienceWriters2010 co-organized by National Association of Science Writers and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons in Science Briefings®. I will be a part of a panel on November 6th, Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape, together with Emily Bell and Betsy Mason, organized and moderated by David Dobbs.

December 2-4th, 2010, Raleigh NC. W.M.Keck Center for Behavioral Biology Alumni meeting. As I am an alumnus, I will definitely attend to see all my old friends from grad school and am also likely to give a talk about Open Access.

And then, it’s ScienceOnline2011 crunchtime….

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Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

The other day, Ed Yong asked science writers, journalists, bloggers and communicators to write their ‘origin stories’, i.e., how they got into science writing plus advice to people who are interested in pursuing this line of work. He received 100 comments so far which is (almost) 100 responses, from some of the top science writers in the world. I find the entire thread fascinating!. In the end I could not resist, so I posted my own comment, reproduced (with mild edits) here:

I think I need to look at the influence of my family. My grandmother was Czech. She got a degree in Philosophy at the University of Prague (at the same time as Franz Kafka and Max Brod). My grandfather came to Prague from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He received two degrees at the University of Prague: in architecture and in civil engineering. The two met at the University, fell in love, and upon graduating got married and settled in Sarajevo where my grandfather designed and built a number of buildings, some of which (including the first skyscraper in the Balkans) are now under protection as cultural and historical monuments. Being a part of elite circles of Sarajevo, they lived under the illusion they were safe. Thus, unlike their siblings who fled the city (and even the country) at the beginning of WWII, they were caught by the Nazis and placed in the concentration camp where they perished close to the end of the war.

Through smart and fast action of some friends and relatives, their daughter (my Mom) was saved and many years later she wrote a wonderful piece about her memories of the War which was published in a book. At the end of the WWII, at the age of twelve, she was adopted by her uncle (her father’s brother) and brought to Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). Thus it is my great-uncle and great-aunt who were the “grandparents” I actually knew and grew up with. They both had a profound influence on me. She was a Czech-born ballerina, a world-famous ballet choreographer, and the founder of the first and (still to this day) most influential ballet school in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. He was an Army colonel, with two degrees from the University of Prague: chemistry and chemical engineering. They were both world travelers and fluent in several languages.

My parents met at the University of Belgrade. My mother was studying English, and my father was studying Philology. They both also studied a variety of foreign languages. My mother taught English for a while, but spent most of her working career working in the depths of the Serbian government. My father, together with a few friends, owned the only printing press in Serbia right after the War. After it was nationalized, he worked as editor and copy-editor for various technical publications. Occasionally he would take me with him to the printers, where they treated him like God (“one of the last old-school copy-editors who does it right” they would tell me) and where I could stare for hours at the printing presses, marveling at the engineering, enjoying the sounds and the smells and smudges of ink on my fingers.

Needless to say, both our house and grandparents’ house were full of books (as is my house today). We were all big readers of books (I swallowed massive doses of science fiction as a teenager). And we were all big readers of newspapers and magazines as well. When I was very little, I would just read the comics page, the weekly kids section, the weekly nature section, perhaps the movie and TV schedules, but as I was growing up, I made sure to turn every page and read whatever piques my interest, which was more and more as I was getting older.

My father was a language perfectionist and he made sure my brother and I learned to speak and write perfect, grammatically correct Serbian. My mother made sure we were started on English as a foreign language early on (when I was about 5). My father was also a choir singer and taught us proper diction, which is why my favorite medium is radio.

Both our house and our grandparents’ house were always full of fascinating people. Theater people, of course, from opera singers to ballet dancers to directors to composers to conductors. Artists. Art photographers. Linguists. Mining engineers. Gay couples. Writers. Physicians. Journalists. A professor of anatomy at the vet school. A food scientist who spent her entire career doing research on chocolate. A philosophy professor who later got elected into Serbian Parliament and ran for President. Many an evening the guests stayed late into the night discussing politics and all sorts of other topics, with my brother and me allowed to stay up late and listen and soak up all of that interesting intellectual discourse.

I always loved animals and planned to do something with them, perhaps become a biologist or a veterinarian of some sort. But I was also always reading and writing and discussing stuff, so a career that involved the use of language was not an unthinkable proposition. And I had a brief stint in journalism – in my middle-school newspaper where my job was to draw doodles and line-drawings (usually of animals) as fillers of empty spaces. I translated two equestrian manuals from English to Serbian. And I bought hay and oats for my horse for a year using the money I earned translating Disney comic strips (Mickey, Donald…) for a weekly.

Life interfered – I was in vet school when the war broke out in 1991. I escaped the country a week before, on one of the last trains out before the borders closed, sanctions were imposed, and the country descended into a decade of chaos. I found myself in North Carolina and, after a couple of years of getting my bearings, decided not to pursue veterinary medicine any more, but to go back to basic science – biology at North Carolina State University.

After ten years of grad school, I realized that things I was good at – thinking, connecting ideas from disparate research traditions, designing clever experiments, observing animal behavior, animal surgery, discussing, teaching, placing my work in historical and philosophical context – were going out of fashion. Instead, biology was becoming more and more an exercise in things I was bad at – pipetting all day and running gels, following recipes, doing what I am told to, working at the bench in complete silence for 13 hours a day seven days a week, getting all secretive and competitive.

So I bailed out. While I was still finishing up my last experiments, I started blogging politics. When the Kerry/Edwards ticket lost in 2004, I switched to blogging about science. The rest is history.

While much of what I do these days has something to do with writing and publishing and the media, I still find it strange to think of myself as a science journalist. I don’t even blog about recent scientific papers very often any more. I write more meta-stuff, e.g., about science communication, science blogging, science journalism, science publishing, science education, media in general etc. I have not published any articles in legacy media and while I am open to that possibility, I am not actively doing anything to make that happen – I feel at home on the Web.

Yet just last week I was granted membership in the National Association of Science Writers (my initial application was rejected as they had to follow their old “printed on paper only” rules, but this prompted them to revisit and revise their rules to allow for online-only publications). So I guess I am now officially a science writer (and will be on a panel at the NASW meeting in November).

Advice? No idea what to say. I write what I feel the urge to write, and it seems some people like it and appreciate it. Perhaps that can work for others as well, I wouldn’t know.

Is this something that NYTimes editors proudly allowed to get published?

A certain Virginia Heffernan (not known for being a zealot about great accuracy) published a piece in the New York Times Magazine section that is probably the very worst ever written about Scienceblogs.com, about science blogging, about blogging in general, about science, and about journalism – Unnatural Science.

Not much to say there – fisking line-by-line would be a useless pursuit and would take too much time.

Brief summary: society is suffering because science is taking over and fuzzy thinking is in retreat; Scienceblogs.com = science blogs, but she wouldn’t know since she doesn’t read them (but can write about them nonetheless); bloggers are mean, especially to the poor innocent religious types; peak oil is not a serious problem; a few misquotes; an open admission that she does not care about journalistic ethics very much; suggested readings: Derrida and the biggest climate change denialist blog. ‘Nuff said.

But if you want to read more, check out excellent responses by Zen Faulkes, Jason Goldman, Scott Rosenberg, P.Z. Myers and David Dobbs. Update: Also see commentary by Chad Orzel, Tim Lambert, ERV, Daniel Lende, T. Ryan Gregory, John Wilkins, Dave Wescott, Mike the Mad Biologist, Paul Raeburn, Dave Winer, Steve Mount, Joe Romm, Kathy Gill, Cheryl Rofer, Sharon Astyk and David Orr. Update 2: Also Andrew Sullivan, Jamie Vernon, David Wescott, Zen Faulkes, Chad Orzel, Jason Rosenhouse, gfish and Brian Switek.

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.

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.

Another interesting graph….

Click on image to check stats, play around…

MSM Orientation (video)

Future: News From The Year 2137 Trailer (video)

Future: News From The Year 2137 Trailer
For explanation, read this.

On media articles linking to scientific papers (and other sources)

There are fascinating threads of comments developing on these two posts:
Science journalism pet peeve
and
Do arrogant, condescending, and dismissive attitudes contribute to the journalism crisis?
If you have bookmarked the quick guide to the maxims of new media you will easily find the origin of the phrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” – Jeff Jarvis in this 2007 post.
For the origin of the reluctance of MSM to link outside their own websites, watch this video.
For my own thoughts on this topic, informed by my experiences as “media tracker” for PLoS ONE, see Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers, the follow-up: Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor?, and related: The Ethics of The Quote.
Discuss.

The continuum of expertise

Over the weekend I stumbled upon two phrases, new to me, which I instantly loved – “monitorial citizenship” and “temporary experts”. And I thought they both say something important about the role of expertise in journalism as a whole and in science journalism in particular.
Temporary Experts
If you are a very regular and careful reader of my blog, you may remember that I totally adore the student journalists now in charge of UNC’s Daily Tarheel – they ‘get it’! I follow them on various online places, read some articles online, occasionally pick a hard copy of the paper from the news-stand. So I saw, on Facebook, this video they made of themselves and their own trials and tribulations in the newsroom:

Yes, young and new, occasionally making mistakes, but taking journalism seriously, working hard, thinking outside the box, and having fun at the same time. I would not be surprised if some of them did something like this every now and then – that’s what journalism is about, right?
But what really made me stop and think is what Kelly Poe says in the video, starting at minute 2:18: “you become sorta like a temporary expert on whatever you are reporting on”.
This is actually incredibly insightful and self-aware. On any given topic, most people know nothing.
A very few people are true experts – they spent years studying, reading, discussing, doing their own research, getting smackdowns from colleagues and serious talk-to’s from mentors, passing difficult tests and rites of passage, having proposals shredded to pieces, grants not funded then revised then funded, manuscripts gone through five rounds of peer-review, and other horrors that turn a lay person, over an extended period of time, into an expert.
What a diligent reporter becomes, through studying, learning, reading, digging through documents and interviewing experts is exactly what Kelly just named – a temporary expert. You are aware you are not a real expert, but you are also aware that your work put you up there into the top percentile of people in regards to understanding that topic for the moment – you may know less about it than 1% of the people who are true experts, but much more about it than the remaining 99% of the people. And if you keep covering the same topic for years, you eventually become an expert in a way.
Unfortunately, many journalists are not as self-aware, and are perfectly explained by The Dunning-Kruger effect – less you know about something, more confident you are about your expertise, or, “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. This explains why TV weather forecasters, chosen for good looks and quickly trained to read National Weather Service computer models, spout off on climate science as if they knew anything about it. This explains why someone like Chris Matthews thinks he knows something about the way U.S. Congress works or about Afghani culture.
As a citizen of Chapel Hill, but not in any way connected to the UNC campus (or in any way interested in local sports), when I pick up a copy of Daily Tarheel, I tend to focus on articles about the town. Kelly Poe happens to be the summer editor of the City section, so I have read a bunch of her articles recently and all are well written and, as far as I know, well researched and factually correct.
But what happens to such bright young journalists when they get jobs in newsrooms of big papers, with all the tight deadlines and stress and not sufficient time to do thorough research? Do they pick up from their elders there something from the newsroom culture, some bad habits, some short-cuts they deem acceptable?
Or do they, because this is what they learned at forward-thinking outfits like Daily Tarheel, operate with the knowledge that My Readers Know More Than I Do (phrase by Dan Gillmor)? Opening up a two-way conversation with readers, some of whom may be experts on the topic, or just serendipitously in possession of important information or a handy link. When Kelly was writing a story about hair salons collecting hair to send to the Gulf for the oil clean-up, I just happened to have a factoid and a couple of useful related links handy. I sent them to Kelly (on Twitter or Facebook, I forgot which one, but nothing like an off-putting and formal “Contact Us” page) and she appreciated it. She may continue operating in this way in the future, when deadlines get tighter, despite the newsroom culture that allows for much more slack (and thus errors, or a form of writing that minimizes potential for errors by being indecisive). Or she may strengthen those skills even more by going through a program like Studio 20 first. And hopefully the same can be said of many other young journalists just coming up, if they are lucky to attend good j-schools and cut their teeth by doing journalism there.
Which brings me to the second phrase of the weekend:
Monitorial Citizenship
I first saw the term in this excellent article by another young journalist, Alice Bell. In it, she credits the origin of the term to Michael Shudson, in Chapter 4 in this book. Alice explains:

Bring on the bloggers, do. Some of them are very clever. But you have to admit that they are also a bit weird. Even those without much formal training have expertise built up over time and devotion to their cause. The weirdness of bloggers’ skills and knowledge is what makes them valuable, but it also betrays what a limited section of the public they are. Sociologist Michael Shudson has a useful term, “monitorial citizenship” (like pencil monitors in school), where different citizens can keep an eye on different parts of information fed to us. This is not a technocracy, ruled by experts; citizens still check, but neither does it expect everyone to be able to know about and contribute to everything.

Generalist know a little bit of everything, but nothing very well. Expert knows one thing, but knows it really well. And for each area of life, there will be a small group of experts available online to ask questions of.
In other words, there are two kinds of experts. One kind is pretty reclusive – they do their work, do not spend much time online, and they are so immersed in their worlds it is difficult for them to fathom how far above everyone else their expertise is. In interviews, they assume that people know things that to them seem so basic, but are not. They may have trouble explaining things in a language accessible to lay audience. The interviewing journalist will have trouble making sense out of that as well. The overall experience may be quite negative and the resulting article is probably going to be bad.
But there is the other kind of expert – the kind that spends a lot of time communicating their expertise, online or offline. This includes expert bloggers as well. They usually “go direct“, i.e., communicate directly to the lay audiences. But they are also the best sources of information and expertise for the “temporary experts”, the journalists writing stories about the topic for an even more lay audience than the usual blog readership. The journalist can come to the blogger, or the blogger can come to the journalist, and they can much more easily understand each other and bridge across the levels of expertise, resulting in a much better understanding by the journalist, and a much better final article coming out of such a collaboration. Such a collaboration requires the reporter to understand what is true expertise, requires the reporter to become a ‘temporary expert’ and also requires the expert to understand that the reporter is, or is becoming, a ‘temporary expert’ and needs help in that process, not automatic dismissal.

Why can’t they do this on Meet The Press? (video)

Republican candidate for Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction and current State Senator John Huppenthal gets schooled by Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School student journalist Keith Wagner during an interview about the state legislature’s vote to cut career and technical education funding by 99.9%.

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No, blogs are not dead, they are on summer vacation

It is always funny to hear how “blogs are dying”, being abandoned in droves as bloggers are all moving to Twitter. It’s funny how that works – you see fewer posts on a blog, or a couple of bloggers going on a summer hiatus, and the sky is falling!
In response to the latest such lament (which includes a seed of an idea that many have already developed at length and detail), I wrote this in the comments, and thought I’d repost it here for more discussion:
It is June. Blogospheric summer slump has been observed every summer since blogging started. Nothing surprising: kids are out of school and the weather is nice, so it is much more fun to go to the beach than to blog. Many bloggers make official summer breaks in blogging, others ease up and put up filler material like YouTube videos.
The very first blogs were linkblogs. Web was young and most of the stuff on it were static pages. Bloggers would discover interesting pages and link to them from their blogs for their audiences – they served as filters (what years later moved to digg, redditt, stumbleupon, etc.).
Soon after, as the blogging software improved, people started using their blogs for all sorts of things. Some continued linkblogging. Others started writing in long form. Most did a mix of little bit of everything.
Today, there is a plethora of different platforms that are more suitable for various activities that in the past had to be done on a blog. Quick links or brief statements can be placed on microblogging platforms like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook. Some things that are a little longer, or a little different (photos, videos, quotes) are best posted on mesoblogging platforms like Tumblr and Posterous. The good ole’ blog is now free from all that small stuff and remains the platform for long form essays only, at least for some bloggers.
So, what a blogger used to do only on a blog is now distributed across several platforms. It is pretty short-sighted to judge a blogger’s output by the blog alone – one needs to evaluate the activity of the person across all the platforms: short form on microblogging services, medium form on mesoblogging services, and long form on macroblogging services.
Mindcasting is a process of using all those services in a fashion that is not disjointed. One starts with the idea, and gathers feedback (crowdsourcing) on microblogging places, develops the ideas further, incorporating feedback, on mesoblogging platforms, and puts together the final long-form product on the blog. If one is interested, one can go even further – pooling several blog posts into a magazine article, and several such articles into a book. That coordinated and systematic use of multiple platforms towards development of a single idea, is called Mindcasting.

Quick & dirty: misleading sex surveys in women’s mags (video)

Christine Ottery, on her awesome new blog Women’s Mag Science (check older posts) did a very interesting interview with Dr. Petra Boynton about the way sex surveys in women’s magazines are done, and how misleading they often are. Watch the video:

The quick and dirty world of women’s magazines from Christine Ottery on Vimeo.

‘Going Direct’ – the Netizens in former Yugoslavia

Back in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Belgrade, Salon.com bragged that they could send a reporter to Serbia – the first online-only magazine to do such a thing. That was a sign that online-only journalism was maturing. But Dave Winer, while agreeing this is a sign of maturity for a US-based outlet, voiced the opinion that the Web was already there, in Yugoslavia, and that the people were on it, using it. Last week, Dave remembered that episode in a different context and I have, in a few posts before (regarding Mumbai attacks and Iran revolution), wondered why would American audience put more trust into an American reporter parachuted into a foreign country with no knowledge of local geography, history, culture, language and politics, instead of trusting the locals who are steeped into that knowledge – by reading multiples of them, you can quickly learn to detect (and thus ignore in any individual person’s writing) varieties of local political biases and use the collective reporting to get a clear picture and deeper understanding of local events – much deeper than the American reporter can ever dream of doing.
Anyway, I think Dave was right even back then in 1999. So I posted this in the comment of his blog:
Yugoslavia was on the Web in 1999! It just looked different from the Web we are used to seeing in the USA.
Urban centers in former Yugoslavia had a whole bunch of people who were excited about computers. Not having money to buy PCs or software, they built their own and programmed their own. I remember, as early as 1980, young programmers were sending their software to the big Belgrade radio station as audio files. Each day at 10am and repeated at 4pm, the announcers would warn us to get our tape recorders ready to record the audio to get the programs. Most were simple text or image processing programs but some were quite nifty. And nobody ever thought those should be anything but free for everyone to have and use (and read them into their Sinclair ZX Spectrums).
In March of 1991, the first big anti-Milosevic demonstrations were essentially organized and coordinated by a bunch of people in the city center via e-mail (those e-mail messages were later collected and published in a book). I did not have a computer of my own, but I knew some of the guys who did. I lived in the part of Belgrade, at the edge, towards the side where all the military barracks were. One day, during the demonstrations, I heard a distant rumble. March not being a time when we have thunderstorms, I immediately knew what that meant. I got on the phone and called one of the e-mailing organizers, telling him to tell the rest of the network that Milosevic is sending the tanks to the city. I opened the window and counted 40 tanks passing by my house. In the meantime, demonstrators hijacked a few fire-engines and blocked the narrow city streets in the center, effectively preventing the tanks from reaching the majority of demonstrators (I am not taking this as a sign that my message make a difference – I am sure I was just one of many doing the same thing – calling friends in the center to tell them about it). In other words, you don’t need everyone to be online, you just needed a small network of connected folks who can then use phones and f2f to convey information and organize the thousands in the streets (sorta like Iranian revolution two decades later).
In June of the same year, I came to the USA. I immediately got on Usenet where I could see all the reporting from the ground and from the global media. There were instant translations of reports by journalists on the ground writing for various media outlets in countries like Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Japan. There were messages by UN peacekeepers on the grounds. There were messages by locals: Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims (not that any of those groups were monolithic – there were 52 political parties just in Serbia at the time, ranging from ultra-left to ultra-right with social-democrats in the middle, each with different interpretation of events and different visions for the future). By the end of the day, from all of these sources, I could piece together a pretty reliable story of what happened that day. Then I would turn on the TV and watch ABC, NBC and CBS anchors straight-out lie about it during evening news, every single night for ten years, just parroting what Albright, Cohen, Clark and Christopher were saying in their press conferences. So did CNN, and so did the NYTimes next morning. That is how I learned not to trust the US media.
Today, Serbia is still one of the least connected nations in Europe (a colleague of mine, Danica Radovanovic now at Oxford University, did a comparative study for her MS on this a few years ago, with hard numbers and all). The most important factor is a huge disparity between city and country – people living in big cities are as connected as you and me, on blogs and social networks and everything else, while rural inhabitants don’t even use e-mail yet.
The second factor is that many of the computer geeks left the country during the 1990s, being well educated, speaking English, and having salable skills – mad programming skills. They got jobs at IBM and such companies around the world, leaving the country to less tech-savvy folks.
But just because they left physically, does not mean they left emotionally, and are now acting as a huge network of the diaspora, and a conduit of information about the old country around the world. They inform their neighbors about the realities of the Balkans, disabusing them of lies they heard from Peter Jennings and Christiane Amanpour back in the 1990s, and they communicate with the people in Serbia (or Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, etc.) and help them develop the Web there.
My deal is Open Access publishing in science and medicine and I have done my part to seed the idea there (two trips in 08 and 09, each time giving two public lectures, three long radio interviews and in 09 also a short TV interview), gather a small bunch of pioneers and feed them information they need to change local system from within. I could not have done that if I remained in Belgrade.
Finally, many people from around the former Yugoslavia have sent their kids abroad during the wars of the 1990s. Those kids are all on Facebook, all friending each other despite ethnic differences, joining the same fan pages of old rock groups or Balkan-only candy brands. Their parents may have killed each other, but kids are OK.

The Essence of Online Science Journalism

From a lecture by Miriam Boon

Am I A Science Journalist?

OK, a busy day, mostly offline, so here’s another provocation for you to trash in the comments ;-)
There are several different aspects of science communication. If we classify them, somewhat artificially, by who is the sender and who is the receiver of information, we can have something like this:
A) Scientists to scientists – mainly via scientific journals, also conferences, and recently via blogs and social networks.
B) Scientists to traditional media – mainly via institutional press releases, now also blogs and social networks.
C) Traditional media to interested (“pull” method) lay audience – in newspapers, magazines, on radio and TV, also movies and plays.
D) Scientists to (probably) uninterested (“push” method) lay audience – in the classroom, for credit and grades required for graduation, these days often using the Web as a classroom tool.
E) Scientists to interested (“pull” method) lay audiences – in popular science books and recently via blogs and social networks
F) Scientists to highly interested and involved lay audiences – offline via Citizen Science projects, also museums, science cafes, public lectures, unconferences, and online on blogs, computer games, and social networks.
For a very brief period in history, roughly six decades from 1940 to 2000, the term “journalism” was assigned, for technological and business reasons, only to the C above (not ‘since Gutenberg’ – it took 150 years from Gutenberg to the first newspaper, and not until early 20th century was there anything resembling the broadcast-only, one-to-many, corporate media ecosystem we are all familiar with and some people erroneously assume is “the norm”). This is unnecessarily narrow. For several centuries before this period science journalism was, and the last decade or so after this brief aberration in history is again, essentially equal to ‘science communication’, thus, “all of the above” applies, not just C.
If anything, that C is the weakest link – the worst form of science communication of all of the above choices as it is the only one performed by people who are unlikely (yes, I know, there are some fantastic but rare exceptions) to have sufficient expertise to understand and explain the science. Journalism requires expertise in the topic, and science journalism is a prime example of this requirement.
It has been only a couple of decades that it has become a norm to become a journalist by going through a journalism program in college – before that, science journalists tended to come from science backgrounds. Such science journalists had the ability to understand the science news and to translate them into lay language. Of course, science news was never reported only by specialized science reporters – there are examples throughout the history of media of regular beat reporters and op-ed writers covering science, usually quite disastrously.
Now back to the self-centeredness from the title of this post….
I try to be as complete a science communicator as I can be, trying my hand at all of the above as much as I can:
A) I have published several scientific papers, including one quite recently (and still have enough unpublished material for four manuscripts) and presented at a number of meetings.
B) As a blogger for PLoS, I often highlight some of PLoS ONE papers, distilling them for lay audience, mainly for the benefit of the media.
C) I have never attempted to publish in traditional media, a priori frustrated by length limits, headline writers, and potentially ignorant editors. But I am willing to try. And I am also an outside advisor to the PRI/BBC/World experiment in connecting science stories on the radio to the Web.
D) I teach Biology 101 to non-science majors in non-traditional education at college level.
E) I write this blog (yes, including real science posts) for which I am paid. I write for ScienceInTheTriangle blog, for which I am paid. I post interesting science links on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook and am ready to answer questions from non-scientific audience on such platforms. I try to practice the new journalistic workflow. And people think I am not that bad at it. And I edit and guide the collection and production of Open Laboratory anthologies.
F) I am very interested in getting involved in these kinds of “engage, don’t lecture” projects in the future. And organizing ScienceOnline conferences is one of the ways to engage.
And I read, think and write a lot about the current changes in the world of journalism.
So, am I a science journalist, in a 21st century sense of that word? I think I am (and there is also an undisclosed business reason why I am claiming this, but that is peripheral), and if not a journalist at least a ‘science writer’, but people who internalized by osmosis the 20th century ideas about journalism may beg to differ.
Are you a science journalist?

In newspapers, therefore I am

You may have heard that, about six months ago, Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer started a new Monday Science/Technology section.
Among other articles, there is also an ongoing weekly feature – a brief interview with a science blogger (usually, but not always, located in North Carolina), conducted by amazing and unique Delene Beeland (blog, Twitter).
Today was my turn (actually not – the blogger who was scheduled for this week had a good reason not to be interviewed in this particular week, and I was glad to help in a hurry).
You can now read the interview with me at Charlotte Observer and News & Observer sites.
The picture was taken by John Rees at the Triangle Tweetup last Thursday.

Best posts on Media, (Science) Journalism and Blogging at A Blog Around The Clock

Reposted, as I needed to add several of the most recent posts to the list – see under the fold:

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Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor?

Ever have one of those times when you have a cool new blog post all ready in your head, just needs to be typed in and published? Just to realize that you have already published it months ago? Brains are funny things, playing tricks on us like this. I just had one of such experiences today, then realized that I have already posted it, almost word-for-word, a few months ago. It’s this post. But something strange happened in the meantime: that post, in my head, got twice as long and changed direction – I started focusing on an aspect that I barely glossed over last time around. So perhaps I need to write this one anyway, with this second focus of emphasis and instead of retyping the first half all over again, just ask you to read the old post again as it provides background necessary for understanding this “Part II” post today. I’ll wait for you right here so go read it and come back….

Are you back?

OK, so, to reiterate, about four or so months ago, I started monitoring media coverage of PLoS ONE papers and posting weekly summaries and linkfests on the everyONE blog. In the previous post (the one you just read and then came back here) I focused on the importance of linking to the papers, and why bloggers tend to provide links while traditional media does not. There is also a good discussion in the comment thread there. Here, I’ll shift focus on the quality of coverage instead.

Expectations before I started:

Before I was given this task, I was already, of course, aware of a lot of coverage, just not in a systematic way. After all, I needed to read the coverage on science blogs in order to make my monthly pick.

Reading science blogs of repute, or those editorially approved by the editors of ResearchBlogging.org, or those editorially chosen to join the networks like Scienceblogs.com or Discover, I assumed that I was predominantly seeing the best of the best of bloggy coverage of science stories and that there is probably some lesser stuff out there that I just did not pay attention to. If I noted some really bad coverage, I usually discovered it via science blogs on posts that debunked them – such bad coverage I saw tended to come from specialized anti-science or pseudoscience blogs whose political agenda is to misrepresent scientific findings in a particular area of science (e.g., blogs of Creationists or Global Warming Denialists). I assumed that there was also a bunch of stuff in the middle, OK but not brilliant.

Likewise, without specifically looking for coverage in traditional media, such coverage would often find me, either if a blogger linked to it, or via TwitterFriendfeedFacebookverse. Again, it was either excellent coverage of a big story of the week, or such egregiously wrong explanation that it was the duty of science bloggers to do the fact-checking and correcting in a public place – their blogs – so the audience googling the topic would hopefully see those corrections. Again, I assumed I saw only the best and the worst and that there must be a lot of middlin’ stuff in-between.

So, if I designed a scale to measure the quality of reporting, ranging from Amazing to Excellent to Very Good to Good to Average to Meh to Poor to Atrocious, I expected to see both blog posts and MSM articles spanning the entire scale in pretty proportional distribution, more of a flat line than a bell curve.

That’s not what I found.

What I found surprised me….and depressed me.

So, let me classify coverage by quality:

1) Anti-coverage.

Anti-science and pseudoscience blogs actually rarely post about specific scientific papers. They are essentially political blogs, and thus most of their posts are broad, opinionated rants. When they do target a new paper, they tend not to link to the paper, which makes it difficult for me to find the post in the first place (my previous post describes detailed methodology I use to find the coverage).

There is plenty of anti-science and pseudoscience ranting in what goes under the heading of traditional media as well. Just like blogs, they tend to make broad opinionated rants and not focus on specific papers. HuffPo is notorious for pushing medical quackery and pseudoscientific NewAge-style woo. The things that look like media but are just well-funded AgitProp fronts for RightWing organizations sometimes focus on science they hate, especially Global Warming which they deny. Interestingly, unlike their cable counterpart which is pure ideological propaganda, the FoxNews website has relatively decent science coverage as far as traditional media goes.

It does not matter to me that many of those outlets are indexed in Google News – PLoS is a serious scientific organization and I will not reward anti-science forces with a link from our blog or legitimize them by mentioning them.

2) Non-coverage.

Some blogs are personal RSS-feed aggregators, automatically importing feeds from various sources, or with specific keywords. If those include links to the original, they are legitimate, if there are no links, they are splogs (spam-blog), but either way they are useless – that is not coverage of our papers, so I ignore it. In case of a very big story, sometimes I see a blogger who is not a science blogger post something about it – usually just a copy and paste of some text from ScienceDaily, rarely with any editorializing (e.g., a funny title, or a LOL-cat-ized picture) – also not to be considered original coverage, thus ignored safely by me.

Likewise, often dozens or hundreds of newspapers copy and paste (sometimes abbreviated) text coming from AP or Reuters or AFP or TASS. They are essentially equivalent to feed-blogs (since they usually say that this was from Reuters, etc.) or even splogs (since they never link to the original scientific paper) and only a technicality saves them from being considered outright plagiarism. Thus, I link to the Reuters original (which since recently started adding links to papers – Yay!!!) and safely ignore all the others – they are not considered coverage.

Sites like EurekAlert! and ScienceDaily collect barely modified press releases. If I can find the original press release on the University site I may link to it in my weekly post, but I do not link to these secondary sites – they are just aggregators, not sources of original coverage.

3) Poor-to-average coverage.

This comes 100% from the traditional media. Bloggers are either experts – scientists themselves (or science teachers or science writers) – and thus do a good job, or are not experts in which case they are not interested in science, do not blog about it, and certainly have nothing to say even if they copy+paste something sciencey from the MSM. So they don’t even try to write original blog posts with their own opinions. The middlin’ gray area just does not seem to appear on blogs. But there is tons of it in the MSM – the range of my quality scale from Average down to Atrocious is filled with MSM articles. They are bad, but they are “original reporting” at least to some extent (though probably warmed-up press releases, rewritten to use different words and phrases) so I include the links in my posts anyway.

4) Good to excellent coverage.

This is interesting. Many PLoS ONE papers get covered on blogs, and are usually covered wonderfully well. On the other hand, good MSM coverage happens only for the Big Papers, those that are covered everywhere (like Nigersaurus, Maiacetus, Green Sahara, Darwinius….). And then, those excellent MSM articles are written by well-known science writers in top media outlets (e.g., Guardian, London Times, NY Times….). Traditional media pull their Big Guns only for a rare Super-Paper, while bloggers cover everything well, big or small – whatever is their interest or area of expertise. Finally, I should point out that the websites of magazines and public radio (NPR or PRI) tend to cover science better than the websites of newspapers and TV outlets. At the latter, science is covered better by their resident bloggers than by the main news-site.

Why does PLoS treat bloggers as journalists, has bloggers on press list, and highlights the blog coverage? You can say we are nimble and ‘get it’, or that we want a perception of being cutting-edge, or that we’ll try to get whatever coverage we can get. But really, the most important reason we do this is because the coverage of our papers by bloggers is just plain better than MSM, and significantly more so.

So, when British Council only suggests science pages of newspapers for science coverage, or when KSJ Tracker puts together linkfests of coverage of science stories that is composed entirely of media organizations that existed 20 years ago, they are not just out-dated (and thus look like dinosaurs), they miss the very best coverage out there.

What is the difference between Good and Poor coverage?

I have been looking and looking and looking….and I think I finally figured it out. Scientific expertise or experience in covering science by the journalist (or blogger) is a relatively small factor in determining the quality of the article. Much more important is availability of space! Bad articles are short, good articles and blog posts are long.

A couple of inches is just not enough to cover a new scientific paper properly.

Let’s dissect this in more detail….piece by piece.

Lede – an MSM article will always start with it. But from a blogger’s sensibility, lede is weird. Strange. Artificial. Unnatural – nobody really talks like that! It is also superfluous – a fantastic waste of limited space. And it also feels so pretentious: if you are reporting on a scientific story, why start with a paragraph hinting you think you are some kind of Tolstoyevsky? Bloggers either jump straight into the story with a declarative introductory sentence, or start with providing context (including copious use of links) or occasionally start with a joke or personal story or a funny picture, then segue into the serious coverage (but bloggers have endless space so they can afford to waste some of it).

Human Interest paragraph – an MSM article always has it. Bloggers will have it if there is a strong human interest aspect to the story (though never interviewing Average Joe on the street to get a useless quote). Science stories are either “cool” or “relevant” or “fishy”. The latter two often have a human interest aspect to it which a good article and blog post with explore. But many ‘cool’ stories do not – the human interest starts in the reader’s mind while reading the story – the human interest is in reading the story about cool animal behavior or some wonder of the cosmos. There is no need to artificially invent a human interest aspect to such stories – those are often misleading, and always a waste of space.
Main conclusion of the paper paragraph – of course bad articles, good articles and good blog posts will have the main conclusion clearly spelled out. But good articles and blog posts have sufficient space to explain those conclusions – from methodology (is it trustworthy, novel, creative…), to authors’ conclusions (do they follow from the data, miss some important alternative explanation, or over-speculate). They have enough space to explain how those conclusions differ from similar conclusions reached by previous studies, etc. A brief article has no space for this, thus the summary conclusion is either too blunt and short to be accurate, or is too similar to conclusions that the reader has already encountered many times before.

Context – there is no space for context in a short article. Yet it is the context that is the most important part of science coverage, and of science itself – remember the “shoulders of giants”? Placing a new study within a historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context is the key to understanding what the paper is about and why it is important, especially for the lay audience. Even scientific papers all provide plenty of context in the Introduction portion (and often in the Discussion as well) which is sprinkled with references to earlier studies.

Quotes – even the shortest article will have a brief quote from one of the authors and/or another scientist in the field, as well as sometimes another scientist who is a naysayer or skeptical about the results. Names of these people who are quoted are usually completely unfamiliar to the lay reader, so invoking them adds no heft to their claims. This is pure HeSaidSheSaid journalism and, again, a colossal waste of space. Not to mention that there are no links to the homepages or Wikipedia pages of these quoted scientists for the audience to see who they are. And we know that a cherry-picked quote that does not link to the entire transcript or file of the interview is a huge red flag and sharply diminishes reputation and trust of the reporter and the media outlet.

Why don’t science bloggers quote other scientists? Why should they? A science blogger is simultaneously both a reporter and a source. If there is a new circadian paper that I find interesting enough to blog about, I am both reporting on what other scientists did AND am a source of expertise in evaluating that work. Why quote someone else when my entire post is essentially an interview with myself, the expert – not just a quote but the entire transcript? The chances I will get something wrong about a paper in my own field are tiny, but if it happens, other people in the field read my blog and they will be quick to correct me in the comments (or via e-mail, yes, it happened a couple of times and I made corrections to the posts). Why add redundancy by asking yet another expert on top of myself?

So, a brief article contains a lot of unnecessary stuff, while it leaves out the most important pieces: the details of methodology and the context. Those most important pieces are also most interesting, even to a lay reader – they situate the new study into a bigger whole and will often prompt the reader to search for more information (for which links would be really useful).

If you are a journalist whose editor gave you plenty of space to cover a Big Story, you can have all of the above in your article, which makes it good. If you are writing for a magazine, it is to be expected you will have plenty of space to give the study sufficiently complete coverage. If you are a blogger, space is not an issue so you just write until you are done. When the story is told, you just end the post and that is it.

But if you are a beat reporter with gazillions of stories to file each week, under tight deadlines, and a couple of inches for each story, then at least try to think how to best use the space you got – is that lede really necessary? The quotes? Can you squeeze in more context instead? And end with a URL to “more information on our website”? Then write (or have someone else write) a longer version on the website, with more multimedia, and with plenty of links to external sources, explainers, other scientific papers, bloggers who explained it better?

How to rethink the Space Restrictions

Once upon a time, buying a newspaper or magazine was an act of getting informed. What was printed in it was what information you got for the day.
Today, a newspaper is a collection of invitations to the paper’s website, a collection of “hooks” that are supposed to motivate the readers to come to the website. Different stories will hook different readers, but they will all end up online, on the site (where they may start clicking/looking around). Why? To see more!!!!

What a disappointment when they come to the website to see more…only to find exactly the same two inches they just read on paper!!!! Where is “more”? Where is the detailed explainer, the context, the useful links? Not there? What a disappointment! But the reader is still interested and will Google the keywords and will leave your site and end up on a wonderfully rich and informative science blog instead, never to come back to you and your poor offering.
Public radio folks – both NPR and PRI – have long ago realized this. Have you noticed how every program, and often every story, ends up with an invitation to the listeners to come to the website to see more – images, videos, documents, interactive games, discussion forums, even places where the audience can ask questions (and get answers) of the people they just heard as guests on the radio? Radio understands that their “space” (time) is limited and heavily rationed (seconds instead of inches) and they use their programing as a collection of hooks produced specifically to pique interest in people, as lures for the audience to go to the website to ‘see more’. And there is a lot of that “more” on their sites for people to keep coming back.

Very few newspapers have realized this yet – some have, but their online offerings are still not rich enough to be truly effective. Let’s hope they start doing more of that if they want to retain the trust and reputation of their brand names and to retain the audience that is loyal to their brand names.

Jennifer Ouellette: Matchmaker for Hollywood and science (video)

Scientists: Don’t ask what Hollywood can do for you, ask what you can do for Hollywood!
Jennifer Ouellette is the Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, and a popular science writer. She also writes for her blog – Cocktail Party Physics.
She spoke with The Plainspoken Scientist about how scientists can best help Hollywood.

Jay Rosen: How the News is Made Now (video)


Jay Rosen talks to World Bank, about “how the powerful cope with public scrutiny.” He talks for 30 minutes and the Q&A is another 30 minutes. Worth a watch.

Public vs. Publicized: Future of the Web at WWW2010

Last week I attended the WWW2010 conference in Raleigh. I posted my summary of the event over on Science In The Triangle blog so check it out.

Open Laboratory – old Prefaces and Introductions

One difference between reading Open Laboratory anthologies and reading the original posts included in them is that the printed versions are slightly edited and polished. Another difference is that the Prefaces and Introductions can be found only in the books. They have never been placed online.
But now that four books are out and we are halfway through collecting entries for the fifth one, when only the 2009 book is still selling, I think it is perfectly OK to place Prefaces and Introductions that I wrote myself online. I wrote Prefaces for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 book, as well as the Introduction for the 2006 one. The introductions for the subsequent editions were written by the year’s guest editor, i.e., Reed Cartwright in 2007, Jennifer Rohn in 2008, and SciCurious in 2009.
So, under the fold are my three Prefaces and one Introduction. See how the world (and my understanding of it) of the online science communication has changed over the last few years:

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Web 3.0 (video)

Get all the information about people and concepts mentioned in the video here:

Web 3.0 from Kate Ray on Vimeo.

Explaining Research with Dennis Meredith

Dennis-Meredith-pic-200x300.jpgLast week, at the SigmaXi pizza lunch (well, really dinner), organized by SCONC, we were served a delicious dish – a lively presentation by Dennis Meredith about Explaining Research, the topic of his excellent new book – in my humble opinion the best recent book on this topic.
His presentation was almost identical to what he presented on our panel at the AAAS meeting in February in San Diego, and you can check out the slideshow (with the audio of his presentation going on with the slides) here.
Dennis and I are friends, and he attended 3-4 of the four ScienceOnline conferences to date and you can read my interview of Dennis here.
His presentation last week mainly focused on the power of the image – be it still or video. Research shows that words (auditory) and images (visual) work synergistically – presenting information simultaneously via auditory and visual channels results in greater recollection of facts than words-only method and picture-only method added up. Yet scientists are extremely devoted to purely textual communication.
Explaining-research-book-cover-196x300.jpgIt is important for researchers to keep this in mind and remember to make pictures and videos of themselves, their lab groups, their equipment and experiments. Those can be placed on the lab webpage, on social networks (like Flickr, Facebook and YouTube) and blogs where they help the audience understand the work better and get more interested in the work. Slideshows can be placed on Slideshare or MyBrainShark and thus made available to the public outside the small audience at a conference where the original presentation happened.
The current digital technology has improved so much recently that a relatively cheap digital camera, something that any individual can afford, is capable of producing photographs and videos of sufficiently high quality for most of the researcher’s needs. There is a plethora of programs, free or commercial, that one can use to ‘photoshop’ or edit pictures, to record and edit audio, and to record and edit video files, as well as to produce attractive graphs.
Yet there are situations when it is worth hiring a professional photographer – not just because the professional will have much better equipment, but because the professional has the knowledge and skills concerning lighting, framing, and editing. Thus, if a lab expects their paper to be deserving of making the cover of a scientific journal, it is worth hiring a professional to produce the image. For producing more complex (and hopefully more lasting) videos for sites like Scivee.tv and JoVE, again it pays to hire a professional to make the video as best as it can be.
The way scientific publishing is evolving, with journals rethinking the way they format and publish the articles with the Web in mind, it will be more and more feasible – and important for the authors – to embed high-quality images, audio, video and animations in the papers themselves, not just as supplemental information. Thus it is important for researchers to understand this and keep learning and practicing the art and craft of producing compelling images, graphs, audio and video.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle

WWW2010 conference this week in Raleigh, NC

2010-logo-small1.jpgWWW2010 is starting tonight. Interested to know more about it? Sure, here’s the brief history:

The World Wide Web was first conceived in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. The first conference of the series, WWW1, was held at CERN in 1994 and organized by Robert Cailliau. The IW3C2 was founded by Joseph Hardin and Robert Cailliau later in 1994 and has been responsible for the conference series ever since. Except for 1994 and 1995 when two conferences were held each year, WWWn became an annual event held in late April or early May. The location of the conference rotates among North America, Europe, and Asia. In 2001 the conference designator changed from a number (1 through 10) to the year it is held; i.e., WWW11 became known as WWW2002, and so on.
The WWW Conference series aims to provide the world a premier forum for discussion and debate about the evolution of the Web, the standardization of its associated technologies, and the impact of those technologies on society and culture. The conferences bring together researchers, developers, users and commercial ventures – indeed all who are passionate about the Web and what it has to offer.

Yup. this is the Web conference. See the schedule. And this year it is in my backyard, in Raleigh NC. Now, I do not have time nor money to attend the whole thing. But, the WWW2010 has a few simultaneous conferences happening at the same place and time, for more affordable prices, featuring some of the same people (and others one can bump into in the hallways) and some very exciting topics.
So, there is a Web Science Conference 2010 which has at least two interesting papers presented:
Understanding how Twitter is used to widely spread Scientific Messages (PDF) by Julie Letierce, Alexandre Passant, John Breslin and Stefan Decke, and Studying Scientific Discourse on the Web using Bibliometrics: A Chemistry Blogging Case Study (PDF) by Paul Groth and Thomas Gurney. Both papers will be given tomorrow, on Monday at 2pm. But I did not register for this part, so I cannot see these.
But I will go to the FutureWeb conference on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – the registration also works for the Plenary Talks of the main WWW2010 conference. And I will livetweet and then blog from it all three days.
FutureWeb is on Twitter and Facebook. They will have daily video/written coverage and a blog. The hashtag is #fw2010.
The official hashtag for the main WWW2010 conference is #www2010 and for the other two co-conferences is #websci10 and #w4a10.