Scienceblogging: Scientopia – a Q&A with SciCurious and Mark Chu-Carroll

Hi, thank you for taking your time for answering a few questions about the past, present and future developments of the science blogging ecosystem. Let me begin with you – can you tell our readers, please, who are you, where you come from and how you got into science blogging?

Sci: My ‘name’ is Scicurious, and I started blogging in May(ish) of 2008. I have a PhD in Physiology, and I’m currently a post-doc at a rather famous MRU. I got into scienceblogging when I met BORA! I wanted to improve my science writing skills and see how the science writing world looked. My contact told me to talk to Bora. I met him at a coffee shop. The next day, Scicurious was born, first on WordPress, then on Scienceblogs, and now at Scientopia!

Mark: I’m Mark Chu-Carroll. I write the blog Good Math/Bad Math, which is pretty much about exactly what the title says. I write to try to explain good math, and what makes it beautiful and fascinating; and to show how people abuse math to deceive or distort things.

How I got into blogging was by reading blogs. It looked like a lot of fun writing them, but I couldn’t quite figure out an angle – what could I say that people would be interested in reading, that would be different from what dozens of people were already saying?

So I just kept reading. And one day, I was reading one of Orac’s posts about a really stupid vaccination/autism study. Orac had done a typically Orac’ian takedown – that is, remarkably thorough and comprehensive – and yet, it seemed obvious to me, he’d missed the stupidest part of the thing: the whole thing was based on an obviously and deliberately incorrect mathematical procedure. I posted a long comment explaining it – and then said, hey, you know what? I could write a blog about that! And so I started Good Math/Bad Math on Blogger, by copying that comment into the first post.

I thought, when it started, that I’d probably never get anyone to read it, and that I’d probably end up giving up after a week or two. Now it’s been almost five years!

Everyone seems to agree that the summer of 2010 saw some big and important changes in the science blogging ecosystem. What are your own thoughts on this? Where do you think it will go next, over the next couple of years?

Sci: I think the changes were hard on a lot of us, and really forced us to sit down and think about what we REALLY wanted from a blogging network. Did we want a place that was more like a mainstream media outlet? Did we want a close-knit community of friends and colleagues? I think for a while, people in Scienceblogs felt like it was both, and PepsiGate showed us that, in many ways, it was neither. So I think it was good in that it made people think about what they wanted from their blogging, and made them work to find ways to make it happen. And now we have all sorts of ideas forming, from little groups of bloggers who want a community, to those who are getting much more exposure on big media sites, to those forming their own social networks.

I hope that this growth and coalescing into groups will continue, I think it’s given many of us a renewed sense of purpose, and I also think it will be interesting to watch as groups begin to fill various niches that we may not have even thought about before. We may see a real diversification as to which blogging network does what. I think that might be good for the diversity of the blogsphere, but I could also see it being limiting in getting our science writing to the public. But what will probably happen? Is probably option eleventy: I don’t know what. 🙂

Mark: To be honest, I don’t know, and in some sense, I don’t really care. I think that the basic idea of people interested in science writing about it isn’t going to go away.

The exact form and mechanics of how we write and share our writing is bound to evolve. But I’m an engineer, but I’ve been around the tech world long enough to know that I can’t predict exactly how it’s going to change. Every time someone attempts to predict the future of technology, they always get it wrong and make themselves look stupid. So I won’t even try.

What matters to me is that what we’re calling science blogging today isn’t going to disappear. People like us will continue to write about our subjects for people who are interested in reading about them. We’ll continue to form communities online around our interest in science. And Scientopia will be part of that.

How do you personally read science blogs? Do you use feeds, or social networks, or some other ways of keeping track of the science blogging world? How do you find new blogs?

Sci: I’m a feed person, I go through it every day over lunch, and it includes both indie blogs and networks. I’ve also begun to utilize Twitter for a lot of the links on there, many of which have led me to new blogs.

Mark: I use Google Reader for my blog reading. I work on large hairy software systems, so I tend to have lots of short breaks during the work day when my projects are busy compiling and/or running their tests. So I keep a reader window open, and whenever I’m waiting for something to finish, I’ll read a couple of posts.

I’m not a voracious blog reader. My reading is focused on individual blogs, not on groups. I tend to stick to blogs that really, consistently interest me. It doesn’t matter whether they’re part of a network, or what network they’re part of: I read the blogs whose subject and style hook my attention.

I mostly find new blogs either by links from the blogs that I already read, or from links sent to me by people who read my blog. I don’t try to keep track of the science blogging world as a whole; it’s too big. There’s too much out there, more that I could ever hope to keep track of.

Tell us a little bit more about the Scientopia blog network. What is it about? How did it come about? By what process do you add bloggers to the network – do they apply, do you invite them, or some other way?

Sci: Scientopia came about largely as Mark and I began to talk about what we wanted out of a science blog network, and why we wanted what we wanted. We then just started taking the steps to get there, asking people to join us, to help us, and to give us input, and Arikia agreed to let us use the name she came up with: Scientopia. We wanted a community of people working with each other to have exciting discussions about science and life in science. Bloggers are recruited by invite only, and must be voted in by the group, which helps us to remain cohesive even as we grow, we know that whoever is there is someone the majority of us have respect for and that we want to work with.

Mark: Not long after I started my blog on Blogger, I got invited to join scienceblogs. I loved being part of ScienceBlogs at first. Before I joined ScienceBlogs, blogging was a fun hobby, but mostly a solitary one. SB turned it into something with a social element. In addition to writing my blog, now I was part of a community of bloggers, and that was a great thing.

Over time, I realized that there’s an inevitable conflict between being a community and being a business. A business is required, by law, to put its shareholders first: more than anything else, it needs to focus on paying its bills, and making a profit. A community, in contrast, is about relationships between people – about getting people together, communicating and sharing their interests and doing things together. The two things have different needs, different goals, and different priorities.

Everyone thinks that Pepsigate is really what caused us to create Scientopia, but it really wasn’t. I’d talked about setting up some kind of blogging platform for a long time. The Pepsi incident really just got me to finally really do it. I sent around an email to a bunch of people who’s blogs I read – both other people that I knew from ScienceBlogs, and people from other places that I read, and said “What do you think about setting up our own site?” Scicurious, who I barely knew at the time, immediately volunteered to help. And so Scientopia was born.

It wasn’t just me and Scicurious that built Scientopia. We had an awful lot of help. Pretty much everyone who’s part of Scientopia now contributed, and we also had help from various people who didn’t, in the end, decide to join.

Where do you see Scientopia within the global science blogging ecosystem – what is its position, how does it differ from others, what is the target audience, what unique service does it provide?

Sci: I think it’s hard to say where Scientopia will fit in. While a few months is long in blog-years, the blogsphere is still reforming. I think that we mostly differ in the way our bloggers work with each other, rather than the specific science offerings we are putting out there. But we are hoping to really bring discussion in science blogging to a new level. We are planning for user forums which will allow our readers to discuss with each other, and through which our audience (scientists, lay people, students, etc) can get to know each other as well as the bloggers, moving toward creating a wider community.

Mark: I don’t really think of things in terms of a “global science blogging ecosystem”. I think of things in terms of communities. There are lots of communities of sciencebloggers, built around blogging networks, or forums, or mailing lists, or shared twitter feeds. Scientopia is, first and foremost, a community that’s driven by the bloggers themselves. So it is, and always will be, exactly what we make it. I expect that to change over time – but the community will always be the heart of it.

For readers, I think we’re a blogging site with a bunch of really great writers. To me, that’s the real draw. Not that we’re a network, but that we’re a place where it’s easy to find a group of really good, really interesting writers. And it’s a place where there’s a community that you can be part of – whether as a blogger, or as a reader/commenter. (And eventually, and a forum participant.)

What is next for Scientopia blogs (as far as you are free to reveal)?

Sci: Bigger, stronger, BLOGGIER!

Mark: From the start, we said that in addition to the blogging platform, we want to have a set of user forums, and we want to have a wiki for basics articles. Those are in the works. Other than that, it’s up to the community: we’ll see what everyone wants to do, and we’ll grow and change according to the needs and desires of our community.

Thank you so much for your time. Best of luck on your new endeavor!

Name of the site: Scientopia
URL: http://scientopia.org/blogs/
Feed URL: http://scientopia.org/blogs/feed/
Motto, or subheading, or one-line explanation: A community writing about science, because we love it.
Owner (if corporate): Nope!
Founder(s): Mark CC, Scicurious, and many others.
Current community manager: Current Governing Board consists of MarkCC, Janet Stemwedel, Krystal D’Costa, Suzanne Franks, and Pascale Lane
Geographical location: TEH INTERNETZ
Date of launch: Serving you the SCIENCE since August 8, 2010
Number of bloggers on the day of launch: 20
Maximum number of bloggers in the history of the site: 20
Current number of bloggers: 20
Software/Platform: WordPress
Average monthly traffic (visits/pageviews): don’t know. We’ve only been around for a couple of months, and it’s varied so much that there isn’t a stable average. My best guess based on the data I have is that we’ll probably average around 200,000 pageviews/month. The number of visitors is about 1/3 of that: each visit averages about 3 pageviews.
Top Bloggers: No comment. Scientopia is supposed to be community focused; no reason to single out particular bloggers as superstars.
Key events from the history of the site: Founding Day!

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