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Blogs: face the conversation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The 20th century was highly unusual when it comes to the media and to the way people receive and exchange information. Telephone, telegraph, telegram, telex and telefax changed the way we communicated with each other. Inventions of radio and television, in addition to the final maturation of newspapers and magazines, changed the way people got informed (and subsequently educated after graduation).

Taking a long historical view, the 20th century was an exception, an anomaly.

But several generations grew up during that anomaly. And while the return to the older communication modes ushered and modernized by the Web, presumably more “natural” to us, may make it more pleasant to receive and exchange information today than it was in the last century, for most people there is also a sense of un-ease. There are habits that need to be broken. There are conventions that need to be re-standardized. There are mental abilities that need to be re-learned.

I have touched on some of these before. For example, in this older post I argued that abilities to assign trust to sources and to employ critical thinking need to be re-learned after a century on “automatic pilot”. I am not saying that our ancestors over the millennia were perfect, but at least they tried – these abilities were part of one’s everyday mental tool-kit.

In a more recent post, I argued that people will need to re-learn to discriminate between purely information-imparting texts from narrative and explanatory texts (and non-textual media) at a glance, without making automatic assumptions like they could do in the last century, i.e., just based on the “vessel’ in which the articles were held.

Now I am going to turn to yet another change in a habit of mind that has the 20th century media as a source and that Web is trying to revert: the continuity of the story.

And for that, the best approach, I think, is to start by looking at blogs and how they are changing the type of discourse on the Web. So, what is a blog?

Blog is software

Blog is primarily a platform. It is a piece of software that makes publishing cheap, fast and easy.

What one does with that platform is up to each individual person or organization.

Some media organizations publish their daily fare – the usual stuff you expect, e.g., news articles – on a blogging platform.

Others use it for PR and marketing. Or corporate news and announcements.

Some use it to engender political action, while others use it as a personal diary. Some use it to share kids’ photos with extended family, while some use it to post travelogues.

Remember that the first blogs were collections of links, without much additional input or commentary from the blogger. The tradition continues, and many bloggers still use their platform to filter the online content, to reach out to and support each other via links, or entire linkfests and blog carnivals. Other bloggers have moved that kind of community building efforts to social networks, like Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and Google Plus.

Some use blogs to post images, be it original art, or photography, or photoshopped humor and satire, or LOLcats. Though many have since moved to image-specific online communities and platforms, like Flickr, Picassa, DeviantArt and even Tumblr (the latter still has not fixed the problem of losing proper credit and attribution to the original artist, often leading to breach of copyright or loss of livelihood to the artists, but I will let my colleagues discuss that on appropriate blogs on the network, e.g., Symbiartic and Compound Eye.)

Some use it to document their day-to-day scientific research, in what is now known as Open Notebook Science (see Rosie Redfield for an example, though many practitioners have moved to wikis as more suitable platforms for this).

Some use it as a classroom tool (either as a place for students to easily access the lecture notes, like I do with my BIO101 adult students, or as a place where students are supposed to publish their own work, e.g., see archives of Extreme Biology).

Some scientists use blogs to talk to each other. The level of detail is so great that nobody but experts in their field can understand (e.g., some math and chemistry blogs) or with the level of expertise that lay audience does not have but can understand and appreciate anyway (e.g., some paleontology blogs, like Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week). But that is OK – we are not the target audience, their peers are.

Others science bloggers write for educated lay audiences interested in science, including scientists in other fields. Yet others are trying to reach out to completely broad and lay audiences, including children, and including audiences that do not even know yet that science is cool.

Some science bloggers focus on the latest research (the Maestro of this form is Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, but many others do this and their posts are aggregated at ResearchBlogging.org).

Others avoid discussing latest research and rather try to organize and systematically explain decades of research on a particular topic (see Tetrapod Zoology for a good example).

And yet others combine the two – using a recent paper to write “explainers” that provide historical context for it (I sometimes like to do that, e.g., see this post for an example).

I am sure I forgot another million ways blogging software can be used, and is used by other people. But these examples are illustrative – one can do whatever one wants with this software (see a good presentation about science blogs here).

Just here, at the Scientific American blog network, we have the “official” blog for corporate news and updates (@ScientificAmerican), a blog for editors to write in a standard journalistic form (Observations), a blog that is all about linking and filtering and networking and community building (The SA Incubator), a blog that combines updates/announcements with linking and community building (The Network Central), several blogs that are personal writings by our editors (though they are aware that they are always going to be seen as public faces of the organization), blogs by our network bloggers who write in various styles on a variety of topics at a broad range of “reading levels”, including those who focus on art, photography, video or music, and blogs where people outside of our organization can get published, though their work is chosen and approved by us, and lightly edited (The Guest Blog and Expeditions).

So even on a single blogging network, you can see a whole plethora of ways that the blogging platform can be used. You can find many more examples if you explore ScienceBlogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org. Blog. It’s just a piece of software.

Does it mean that the medium does not affect the message? Of course not…

Blog is writing with a voice

Let’s for now ignore organizational and corporate blogs and focus only on the blogs written by individuals as themselves and for themselves.

As many have written about before (including myself, focusing on the ‘phatic’ language usually missing from 20th century-style media), individuals’ blogs are inbued with personality. This does not mean they need to reveal anything about their personal life, not even who they are, what they do, and where they live. But their personality shines from each sentence. It seeps in-between the lines. You quickly get to know “where they are coming from”.

Here you are reading a person, not a conglomerate. And our brains are attuned to listening to other people, and to evaluate how trustworthy they are by listening to their voice, their personality. The 20th century media style forces the writers to assume the impersonal form, which in the age of the Web is disconcerting – where is the voice, where is the personality, how can I possibly trust the writing of a person I cannot quite figure out? So in such cases we have to fall back on trusting the brand, the banner up on top.

Personality breeds trust (yes – honesty, transparency, generosity with links, willingness to admit errors and other signs of humanness also contribute to trust, and they are also a part of the blogger’s personality – those things tell you something important about the person). And the personality makes you come back for more, over and over again, every day, or every time your RSS feed reader tells you there is a new post. You get to know the blogger over time, and with time your trust grows (or is diminished, in which case you abandon reading it and move on). And your repeated return to the same blog over time is an important aspect of what I am talking about – the importance of understanding the continuity of conversation online.

Blogging is writing without a safety net

This is the formulation that came from Dave Winer, one of the first bloggers. The earliest mention of the phrase I could find is here.

What does that mean: Blogging is writing without a safety net?

This means that you are on your own. Your work is all yours, and it rises or falls on its own merits. Nobody is fact-checking you before you hit “Publish” (though many commenters will afterwards), and nobody is having your back after your publish – you are alone to defend your work against the critics. If you are good and trusted, you may have a community of bloggers or commenters who will support you, but there is no guarantee.

You can see, from the above paragraph, that there are two senses of “blogging is writing without a safety net”. One concerns pre-publication – there is no editor to check your work. The other concerns post-publication – nobody protects you.

How does it work on our network?

Since I got this job, I try to come up to the office once a month to participate in the editorial meetings. I find the process fascinating! It takes months for an article to go from the initial idea to proposal through several drafts to the final product that gets published in our magazine in print, on the Web, or both. Every word is parsed, every fact checked – the pre-publication safety net is big and strong.

And once the article is published, the safety net is there as well – we stand by our articles, and will defend and support the authors. They have our institutional backing (I am not sure about all the legalese and details for extreme cases, so treat this as a general statement). If an error squeezes through, we try to be honest and transparent, correct the errors, publish Letters to the Editor about it, let someone write a rebuttal on the Guest Blog, etc.

How about our blogs?

Blogging is much faster. Things get written and immediatelly posted. This is part of the definition of a blog: “software that allows frequent, fast and easy updates”. Posts written by our editors and writers on the Observations blog (as well as on their personal blogs) may get a quick check by another editor, and by copy-editor. We trust each other we’ll get stuff right. And, if there is an error, we trust each other to correct errors with transparency. Very little pre-publication safety net, but the post-publication safety net is all there, in full force.

Guest Blog and Explorations have a little bit more of a pre-publication safety net. We actively ask for submissions, and we often get proposals. Thus, we have the ability to choose whose work goes there. Quackery, pseudo-scientific rants, or angry personal attacks will not show up there (or anywhere else on our site, for that matter). Some posts get more scrutiny than others (and on a rare occasion I may ask our copy-editors to proofread a post, or even send one out for “peer review” if it is outside of my area of expertise), but there is generally not much time for fact-checking and proof-reading – most of the posts get published in more or less the same form as they arrive. The editorial decision really comes in the choice of the authors – who we trust to write a good article. Then we let them do it. If an error sneaks in – the same principle applies as always: a transparent correction, offer of a rebuttal by a decent critic, etc., but we stand by our authors and will not pull down posts just because someone says so.

How about the bloggers on our network? Again, the editorial decision was primarily mine: who to choose. Once chosen (out of thousands of possibilities – see the bottom part, the very end of my introductory post for how I made choices), the bloggers are trusted to do their best and are left on their own. Nobody tells them what to write about and how to write it (this is the #1 Rule Of Blogging: never tell a blogger what to write about and how to do it).

There is zero pre-publication safety net: nobody ever sees their posts to edit, fact-check or proofread before they post (though they have the open option to ask us to do it if they want – the network is young, three weeks only, so we don’t yet know how often that will happen). But, just as if they were our own editors, we stand by them. It is up to them to correct errors if needed, etc., but we will not ask them to take posts down or exert any strong editorial influence on them (unless it is as bad as a Kanazawa-size blunder, but I don’t think I hired an equivalent of Kanazawa). That is how blogging works.

What is interesting to watch are comments and letters we sometimes get. Some people, arriving to our site via links from who knows where, do not yet have the developed ability to instantly distinguish between heavily edited finalized articles, editorial blogs posts, guest posts and posts by our network bloggers. Their expectations are often different from what they see. And they are not yet able to quickly figure it out (which is one of the reasons for writing this post you are reading right now, and why we take care to clearly label everything on the site, e.g., look up: it says “Blog” there).

Especially if they are unhappy with an article, they may use their misunderstanding of the form as an excuse for angry calls for lynching (or deletion of the article). If they are activists for something, they do not appreciate the very existence of articles that do not 100% toe their line. So they often misread the form on purpose, as they think they can intimidate us that way.

So, yes, our network bloggers are SciAm bloggers. And yes, their posts are SciAm publications (yes, “real” publications: they can put those posts in their portfolios, or use them as ‘clips’ when applying for jobs or memberships in journalistic organizations). But saying “I can’t believe SciAm would publish this” or “How can SciAm possibly let this author publish this”, shows basic misunderstanding of how the modern media works and what the media blogs are – we don’t “let” them publish. They are free to do so on their own. And we back them up afterwards. No pre-publication safety net. Full post-publication safety net.

Critics are free to post comments (and bloggers are free to moderate their comments – those are their personal spaces after all), free to write their own posts on their own blogs, and if a rebuttal article is offered we will carefully vet it before publishing (we are not a priori going to refuse any offer for a rebuttal – we actually like vigorous debate, but all actors in it have to stick to the highest scientific and journalistic standards if they expect their work to appear on our site).

And of course, there is an old truism: a commenter complaining about a typo is, in reality, unhappy about the content and the complaint is there as a way to derail the real conversation. This is a typical opening gambit in the comments by various denialists (we tend to get swarms of Global Warming denialists who are well organized and some of them paid to post comments, but other kinds occasionally show up as well).

Finally, one of the frequent complaints is “why did you write about A when I really want you to write about B”. Apart from breaking the #1 Rule Of Blogging (see above), this also comes from another misunderstanding – that blog posts are NOT meant to be a final word on anything.

For examples of all such types of comments (and you can use Google Blogsearch to find blog posts written in the same vein), just wade through the comment section of this blog post by Christie Wilcox, already one of the biggest hits (at least as measured by traffic, incoming links and comments) on the new network. And read the comments while keeping this post in mind. See?

Which brings us to an essential aspect of blogging…and I would argue of all of media as it slowly grapples with the Web and the realities of the 21st century.

Blog is conversation

Many people linked to and discussed this excellent article by Paul Ford last week. It is about what he calls The Epiphanator. It is about the way the traditional media ends its articles (or radio/TV segments) with a big, black period. Full stop. Resolution.

Contrasted to that are online social networks, where everything is in constant flow, there are no sharp endings, no resolutions.

Blogs are both.

A blog post is supposed to cover a topic reasonably well. Some blog posts – the best (and usually the longest) ones, may even put a big, black period at the end. Such posts may not get much in the way of comments (there is not much to add – it is all in the post already), but are likely to have a lot of traffic, especially accumulated over time, as such posts are viewed as useful resources. They are “Explainers” of sorts.

But good bloggers know that, if they want to get comments and a vigorous discussion, they need to have some I’s undotted and some T’s uncrossed. They purposefully leave openings, leave stuff unfinished, some lines uncolored, there for the commenters to fill in with their own crayons.

Moreover, one does not need to be an experienced blogger who does this purposefully for this effect to happen all the time anyway. It is in the nature of blogging to take only small chunks at the time. One writes on the fly. Jotting down one’s thought at the moment. A typical blog post does not even try to cover every angle of a bigger issue. Other angles of the same issue are covered elsewhere – in other posts by the same blogger, or in posts by others.

Very few bloggers focus narrowly on a single topic and beat it to death day in and day out. Those are usually activist bloggers of some sort, paying attention to – and responding to – every little bit of the mention of their topic in the media or other blogs, fighting a good fight for their cause.

This narrow focus works for such rare bloggers, but the idea that this is the best way to blog well (and I see that advice given all the time to novice bloggers – to focus, focus, focus) is misplaced.

Most people are not so narrowly focused in their own day-to-day lives. Most people have multiple interests, and even multiple areas of expertise. It is natural, if they are active online, that they cover a plethora of topics in their postings on their blogs or on social networks. Which is perfectly fine – their readers get an even fuller picture of the person, the personality, which helps them decide if they like and trust that person.

It is also natural to comment on stuff one has no expertise on. Out of curiosity. Using a blog as a tool for exploration. Using a blog as a writing laboratory.

A journalist may have to cover many topics – whatever the editor assigns. A journalist on a science beat may have to cover topics ranging from astronomy to zoology and everything in-between.

A blogger has the luxury of picking and choosing topics of one’s own interest of the day. And science bloggers are usually reluctant to go far and wide from their own area of expertise. Biology bloggers are unlikely to write about physics and vice versa. But that does not mean they will stick to a very narrow topic, just the narrow research line they are involved with (or used to be involved with) in the laboratory.

It is natural to be interested in other topics, and to explore them by writing about them: using the blogs as a way to study, to learn, to get feedback from experts in the comments, and to get entertained in the process. Blogging, after all, is supposed to be fun (or otherwise we’d all quit after a week of doing it). One may go through ‘phases’, focusing on a single topic for a while, covering everything one can about it, then, when the topic is exhausted, moving on to something else.

Thus, many a blog post starts with a link or two that connect it to something previously written by the same blogger (see the first three links in this post, for example) or by other bloggers, or occasionally by the mainstream media. These links provide continuity – the blog post is not supposed to be a finished product that can stand on its own. It is dependent on what was said before, and it connects to all sorts of supporting information, opposing opinion, tangential information, and more. It is a part of a conversation. It is one link in a chain. It is one segment of a long series.

I link to you, responding to or following up on or adding to what you wrote. Then you (or someone third) does the same by linking back to me. Conversation keeps going.

Now think about Christie Wilcox’s post in this context. Check out the rest of her blog (both the posts she wrote so far on this network, and the archives of her old blog). How many, out of hundreds of her posts, are about agriculture? One. This one. What are the other posts about? All sorts of other biology, environment, conservation, ecology, genetics, being a scientist and more. Whatever struck her fancy on any given day, within a range of topics on which she feels at least some confidence that she can cover it well.

So, her focus on the myths about organic farming are a one-off intellectual foray into a new topic. Will she return to it one day? I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We don’t ever tell bloggers what to write about.

Does she have a right to write about it? Of course, everyone can. If nobody else is writing about your favorite topic to your liking, you have a right to start your own blog.

Does she have to also write about myths about industrial agriculture, for “balance”? No. That is up to her. But why? There is TONS of that stuff out there already. Lots has been written about industrial agriculture, nobody really likes the way it is done in the USA, and there is no need for yet another blog post about it. Her post was a part of a much broader conversation – why would anyone expect her to cover the whole issue in a complete manner? That would take a few books, not a one short blog post.

Christie, in her analysis of myths of organic agriculture, never defended the industrial kind. But for the activists, every critical look at organic is automatically a defense of industrial. Very black and white. So they demand she covers “the other side” (“I want you to write about A and not about B”), they insist she must be paid by Monsanto (heh, it would be nice if they paid for the study of genetics of lionfish), they call her names, and yes, they demand that SciAm removes her post. Sorry, but we do not tell our bloggers what to blog about and how.

When seen as a part of a broader conversation about food, and when seen in the context of what she normally blogs about and her blogging style, there is absolutely nothing she needs to change, or do different, or do in addition (there are no factual errors in her post, the quibbles by activists are mostly about her framing not being 100% pro-organic or anti-GMO). Her audience were regular folks who do not know anything about agriculture and may actually believe, as many do, the myths she was pointing out; her audience were not the activists. She had her say in the conversation. She was impartial, detailed and diligent in her research and writing. You want her to shut up? How undemocratic! And how blind about what blogging is all about.

But this also illustrates something else. Her post can be seen as an Explainer. With a big, fat period at the end. But, because it was an explainer on a very limited topic, it is also a part of River Of News – the constant stream of updates. It can stand alone for a narrow topic. But it is also a part of a bigger conversation on a broader topic. It serves both functions, depending on scale.

And it certainly did not end the conversation with a big, fat period. Several blog posts have appeared in response to hers, some praising her, some attacking her, some dissecting it to death, and some being just plain insulting (I linked to a few of them above). And most do not understand how media and blogs work in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the conversation is not over even on our own site. We will publish a response to her post on our site, probably next week. She may, if she wants to, respond to the response. And I also asked several other people to contribute their angles for the Guest Blog. So the conversation will continue. This is the 21st century and this is how it’s done. And hopefully people will, sooner or later, regain their mental abilities to distinguish, at a glance, between ‘finished’, stand-alone stories and stories that are parts of a larger conversation. And then respond to it accordingly and appropriatelly.

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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 11:29 am 07/29/2011

    Aside…

    See how important proper terminology is for this post. “Blog” is a website that is composed of “posts”. A “post” is a single unit of publication on a “Blog”.

    Some people fuzzy this all up, using the word “blog” for both.

    Now try to re-read my post while leaving every occurrence of “blog” in place, but replacing every “post” and “blog post” with “blog”. Does anything make any sense any more?

    A big pet peeve of mine (and not just mine – every time I voice it online, many people join the chorus, and nobody pushes back). But this post, I hope, demonstrates why this is important.

    Link to this
  2. 2. aidel 12:20 pm 07/29/2011

    Excellent post. I wish every visitor that comes to the Scientific American website and stumbles upon the blog network (perhaps a first-time blog reader) would read this post for clarification. I hope it is linked to often when commenters say things like “I can’t believe Scientific American would…”

    Although nothing in your post suggests this, I’d like to reinforce the point that not all blogs exist to entertain you (surely you will find some masquerading as science blogs that are more like gossip columns). I look forward with great anticipation to the publication of Michael Nielsen‘s book Reinventing Discovery, which promises to be excellent.

    All of the bloggers on the SciAm network were obviously meticulously chosen for their excellent work and adherence to the highest possible ethical standards. Disagreements here seem to be welcome — as long as they contribute to the conversation and refrain from vicious (not to mention tacky) attacks against the person.

    Link to this
  3. 3. kclancy 4:29 pm 07/29/2011

    First: yes, I am with you Bora. The words blog and post are important in their different meanings, in terms of developing the narrative and tone of a blog.

    And I too want everyone to read this post. I know very little of the history of journalism or communication, but what you are saying here resonates. I do think that this filtering and critical thinking work is one of the big tasks ahead of us in the 21st century. Most of the big institutions where we used to trust the source are crumbling or are gone. The reader needs to do a little more work now. And she needs to engage.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Symbiartic.km 5:05 pm 07/29/2011

    Cool, Bora. This beautifully articulates many of my thoughts on blogging and underscores why I am so proud to be a part of the network. Thanks to you and SciAm for providing a platform for these ongoing conversations!

    Link to this
  5. 5. notscientific 12:03 am 07/30/2011

    While it is great that bloggers on Sciam can publish whatever they want, ultimately Sciam is responsible for whatever content bloggers come up with. Sciam trusts bloggers to come up with high-quality content but if it so happens that a completely erroneous blog post is published on the Sciam network by one of its bloggers, Sciam first and foremost will have to be held responsible. Whatever happens to the blogger will be up to Sciam and is secondary.

    I think this is an important point to mention. Sciam’s (and any other publications who have independent bloggers under their wings for that matter) name, integrity and reputation, is on the line with each and every blog post that is being published.

    As such, the distinction between who blogs and who is accountable for the blog posts is not that clear-cut as it may seem. Leading to some confusion from readers. To remove any such confusion, it is important to clearly define the role of both the bloggers hosted by Sciam and Sciam itself.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 12:06 am 07/30/2011

    Yes, those things are clear in the language of the bloggers’ contracts ;-)

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 12:07 am 07/30/2011

    …and I did mention the Kanazawa example….

    Link to this

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