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.
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….
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.
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.
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.