Various assorted pundits have been heralding the death of the blog as a science communication medium for at least five years, probably longer. Blogs aren’t dead, indeed, as far as I can tell, they are now in a revival period in which their true utility and value is becoming more obvious.
This blog post was prompted by a post on Scholarly Kitchen in which the blogging scientist (or science-trained publisher) blogs about how scientists don’t blog (again). David Crotty titled his post: Not With A Bang: The First Wave of Science 2.0 Slowly Whimpers to an End. Crotty views the attempted monetization of the science blogosphere as the crest of the first wave. He discusses several examples of for-profit companies that exuberantly jumped into the blogosphere and other science 2.0 things but have since pulled back. I would assert that the attempted monetization and commercialization of science 2.0 is external to the movement and really a distraction from the slow growth phase of the innovation adoption curve.
First, all of the bloggers now on a for-profit host started on wordpress.com, blogger, or some similar service. They garnered enough interest to be attractive to a company that hoped to make money on page views. Many of the early adopters moved over from updating static websites, keeping newsletters, participating on newsgroups, or participating on bulletin boards. They may have continued to participate in these platforms, but saved longer discussions for their blogs. Otherwise, they might have used their blogs to re-share links they would normally have put on a static website or on the young delicious but that weren’t getting enough visibility. This was the first wave of pioneers.
The idea that a media company could get inexpensive talent by mining the blogosphere came later. In the beginning the primary for-profit (or for loss, unfortunately) was ScienceBlogs. Even at its height, ScienceBlogs was never more than a tiny part of the science blogosphere. Its limited size made it more exclusive and more watched. Others who did not know about the rich online life of scientists saw ScienceBlogs as the entire science blogosphere. Seed Media told a good story and made it look profitable so others wanted to get in. I’m not sure about Nature, but I’m sure they were clear that supporting blogs would not be a profitable effort. I think the goal for them was to support science and to get scientists to spend more of their time online looking at Nature Publishing sites. It’s not important.
When some of the shine wore off, and some of the bloggers left, the rest of the blogosphere got more attention. I still feel that the rest of the blogosphere doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but as with everything people do, there’s a long tail.
In the past few months, some of the long-time bloggers went into a blogging funk (including yours truly). At the same time, additional scientists started blogs. Some bloggers went on hiatus, some quit, but others started, and some who quit earlier came back. Societies and non-profits have stepped up to support science blogging. This is a great idea as the purpose of the societies is to support science communication in their subject area.
Some who have discussed the death of blogs originally said that wikis would take over. If you’ve used a wiki, you know they are very good for certain things, but there’s almost no overlap with what blogs are good for. Likewise, many people thought Twitter would replace blogs. Using twitter can be an art form- the concise nuggets of information or questions in under 140 characters. Recent it’s become more and more clear that the long form not only still has value, but is still needed. It’s needed to provide context and to tell the whole story.
What about the lack of or surfeit of journalism-trained bloggers. Which is it? Does it matter? The science blogosphere has always been made up of practicing scientists, people working in some area adjacent to science with some level of science training (like librarians), and non-scientists who are interested in science. There are bloggers in each of these varieties who communicate well and are good at telling a story. It’s very welcome that a lot of the very talented science journalists have taken up blogging. For them it’s not a longer form but often a shorter form. I don’t think there are too many or not enough nor do I think that they are any more important or valuable than the scientists who blog. Nor do I think that all members of the science blogosphere should have journalism training or strive to journalistic standards. We could all stand to write better, but we’re all writers. Scientists have to write for their profession so blogging really isn’t that much of a stretch.
As for the question of culture and technology. They co-evolve. Does the science blogosphere change science or science culture? Does science culture determine what technologies will be used and how? Yes. Both. All the time. Is there a lot of inertia? Oh yes.