March 5, 2008

ScienceBlogs, science blogs, blogs about science, blogs with some science

So which one am I?

Late to the party as usual, this post is a response to the recent kerfuffle over at ScienceBlogs about a post at the BayBlab blog that was highly critical of the effect the Seed sponsored ScienceBlogs platform is having on science blogging in general.

The original post brought up a lot of issues, like being traffic whores, insularity, cliquishness, lack of focus on science and the influence being paid has on the ScienceBloggers.

If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That's right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I'm afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

As you can imagine, this provoked a storm of protest, with 70+ comments on the post itself and a lot of commentary on other blogs, especially from the ScienceBloggers themselves.

Ultimately embarrassed by the silliness and pettiness of their post, the BayBlabers recanted and said it was all just a experiment in provoking a reaction. Or something.

Two of the most reasoned commentaries on the ScienceBlogs site were, not surprisingly, from Adventures in Ethics and Science and A Blog around the Clock.

Now, I'm not going to comment too directly on the whole thing -- there's been enough spleen vented and rants ranted already. I do want to say, however, that I found the Bayblabs posts themselves to be rather juvenile and self-serving -- a pathetic attempt to garner traffic and get some notice while actually pretending to criticize those impulses in others. Not too surprisingly, the author of the posts is calls him/herself Anonymous Coward. Also not too surprising that the site is a written by a bunch of grad students. Kind of embarrassing that they're Canadian grad students, though.

Well, I've already rambled a fair bit here, so what was I trying to get at? In the post I mention above at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet Stemwedel asks herself a bunch of questions about being a ScienceBlogger/science blogger/blog about science/blog with some science that I thought would be useful to explore for myself. It's a chance to talk about why I do what I do, what I think the purpose of science blogging is and what I think about the 800 pound gorilla of the science blogging world -- ScienceBlogs. A few of the other ScienceBloggers have done the same thing. I don't navel-gaze all that much here, but some introspection about purpose and intent is always good for the non-supernatural soul.

(Note that a couple of the AiEaS questions aren't really relevant for someone not part of the ScienceBlogs platform.)

1. Why do you consider this blog a science blog?

Hmmm. I don't really consider myself solely a science blogger as I also have one foot firmly in the librarian blogger community. I'm also neither a practicing scientist nor a science journalist or communicator of any kind and as such I don't post much about new developments in science or technology. I don't really post that much about the battle against creationism or global warming denialism.

So why do I so strongly identify with the science blogger community of I'm at best peripheral to the main preoccupations of the mainstream science blogging community? Partly because I love science and enjoy the company of science people. Partly because as a librarian serving a scitech community I think it's part of my job to know what makes scientists and engineers tick and reading their blogs is an important part of that. And partly because I do post quite a bit about resources I find that help me understand the culture of science. And being a recovering software developer, I also post a lot about the culture of computer science and information technology.

When someone says, "I may not be able to define a science blog but I know one when I see it!" I think they could look here and see a science blog.

3. Why do so many bloggers at ScienceBlogs write about stuff besides science?

Because they're human. If you don't like the cat blogging or the political blogging getting in the way of the science blogging, then just ignore those posts or read another blog. Blogs are a lot of different things to a lot of different bloggers and we all just have to do what keeps us going.

Now, I'm not one to talk. I post relatively little on non-science librarian topics on my blog. I post very little on my personal life, nothing on politics or religion and only a handful of posts on popular culture, mostly as part of my Friday Fun series. But very little isn't nothing and I expect that the more personal topics are also interesting to my readers because it allows us to build a more complete and human relationship and for the parts of the community we share to be fuller and deeper.

Speaking for myself, this blog reflects my personality and my passing interests at any given time. That's going to include non-science librarian stuff too. If I tried to cut off the non-science librarian stuff I would be much more likely to lose interest in continuing blogging at all.

4. ...[Do] you make all your blogging decisions on the basis of what will drive traffic?

Only very occasionally. The vast majority of my posts serve my primary purpose -- to explore and report on the life of a science librarian in the 21st century, including trying to understand how scientists communicate.

The only case where I've really been influenced to post based on anticipated traffic was the series of year's best science book posts from this past fall. When I did it spontaneously in fall 2006, it was unexpectedly extremely popular so when fall 2007 came around, it seemed like a good idea to go for it again. And not only for traffic, but it seems that the posts were appreciated by people looking for good science books.

In other cases, I post whether or not I anticipate a huge amount of traffic. My interview series is a good case in point. The big one was the Timo Hannay interview, which has gotten over 1000 page views. But the rest only add to a bit more than that all together, averaging 200-300 page views. But I keep doing them because I think they are extremely valuable both for me and for my core readership who are probably getting them via RSS.

Of course, this question also begs the question of the purpose of popularity amongst bloggers. In other words, why do I want my blog to be popular and get lots of hits? As an academic, I function in a reputation economy. If my blog makes me somewhat more famous than I would be without one, then opportunities will come my way. Now, putting it all in perspective, fame amongst science librarians is extremely relative. But nevertheless, my blog has earned me a number of important invitations and engagements and a couple of free books to boot.

Speaking of perspective, in the 12 months ending February 29, 2008, this blog received 47,547 page views and 33,655 unique visits (according to Google Analytics). My three most popular posts over the 12 months have been only slightly over 1000 page views.

And sometimes you get surprise posts that attract a lot of hits. For example, my recent post on Jeff Healey has attracted a few hundreds hits making it my most popular recent post.

5. Do the bloggers at ScienceBlogs think they're better than all the other people who blog about science? Do they think their traffic or incoming links make them the best?

At 71 blogs and probably 80+ individual bloggers, I'm sure there are a couple who think they're better than the rest of us, who blog for the sole purpose of being famous and raising their profile. I can think of a couple and I'm sure you can too.

On the other hand, who really cares. I read the blogs I like and ignore the ones that annoy me. Not only that, anyone with a lick of sense would have to recognize that the prestige of the ScienceBlogs community has attracted a disproportionate number of the best science bloggers, nurtured them, paid them a few bucks, given them a higher profile and encouraged them to keep on blogging. That's a very good thing.

6. Why so many blogs about biology at ScienceBlogs? Why aren't there more blogs about chemistry, or astronomy, or lepidoptery, or gastroenterology, or ...?

In my mind, this is a legitimate criticism of ScienceBlogs. They are quite overweighted with life science blogs (I include neuroscience loosely under this banner), most probably out of proportion to life science blogs among the whole population of science blogs. Engineering and computer science are among the least well represented areas. I have never been shy about pointing this out to SB either in their surveys or in person (Hi Ginny!).

Does this affect my appreciation for what they are doing? Only slightly. After all, they are a private company and if they think their current mix of blogs is going to drive the most traffic and make the most money, well, so be it. I believe they've also made efforts to balance things out a bit better and are working towards that goal.

7. Why don't ScienceBlogs bloggers ever link to blogs outside ScienceBlogs.

Err. This is absurd. As far as I can tell, most if not all ScienceBloggers make an effort to link to other blogs. I've benefited from some of the linking myself, mostly from Bora but also by being on a couple of blogrolls (274 referrals in the last 12 months). I myself am probably not as diligent in supporting other blogs as they are, on average.

8. Are all the ScienceBlogs bloggers BFFs?

ScienceBlogs is a lively community and disagreements and disputes do arise from time to time. The whole Framing of Science thing is a good example as there is a lot of both light and heat generated whenever it comes up. In fact, I think there are one or two of ScienceBloggers that are roundly despised by many of their associates.

But for me, I see the close knit nature of the community as a plus. I enjoy peeking inside and seeing the interactions amongst this diverse array of colleagues. It's fun and compelling, making the community as a whole more useful and interesting. And since all the blogs allow comments, no one is excluded from participating in the family discussions, if only as cousins rather than siblings.

Have I ever felt excluded or jealous of the interactions or sense of community? Possibly slightly on a very few occasions. There's a fine line between cliquishness and community and I think that they generally stay on the right side. At the conference, I certainly didn't notice any undue amount of cliquishness. People who already know each other (f2f or virtually) will always stick together a bit more than average, but that's normal and understandable.

(Disclosure: Is all this just me sucking up so they'll invite me to join the ScienceBlogs collective? Not at all. I've never been approached to join nor have I ever approached them. I'm not particularly interested in being hosted nor do I think I'd be that great a fit with their current stable. I imagine that if they did approach me, I'd give it serious thought and do what I thought was the best for me and my online presence.)