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Why do we blog? To change the world

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


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Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List published a special 5000th issue on Tuesday. I am not sure when it will go online, but I have a text in it. Interestingly, it was easier for me to write it in English and let them translate into Croatian, than to try myself to write in Serbian – none of the terms, like “blog” existed at the time I was still living in the former Yugoslavia.

Thank you Tanja Rudez for editing, and Hela Jug for translating. Reading it now, I see that the translation is much better than the original! Here, with permission, is the original English text I sent in.

==================

Blog is software. It is a platform that is very easy and fast to use even by people with no technical skills. It is not surprising that scientists and mathematicians, people who do have some technical skills, were one of the first to adopt blogging platforms to discuss science.

As the technology, and the world as a whole, evolved over the last 15 years since the first blogs appeared, so did the science blogosopehere evolve with it. The first science and math bloggers emerged either out of technological or political blogospheres. Some, especially mathematicians, used blogs to talk to each other and crowdsource solutions to old math problems, most notably as a part of the Polymath Project. Some scientists started to use blogs for Open Notebook Science – putting their daily lab notes online for all to see. Popular science writers started discussing the beauties of space (Phil Plait), evolution (Carl Zimmer), physics (Sean Carroll), or the anti-science activities of the American political Right (Chris Mooney). Other early science bloggers emerged from old Usenet newsgroups dedicated to fighting against Creationism (Pandas Thumb, Pharyngula, Sandwalk) or Climate Change Denialism (Real Climate, Deltoid).

Political activism is not something the early science bloggers shied away from. Nick Anthis, a science blogger, discovered that George Deutch, censor appointed by G.W.Bush to NASA, faked his CV. Nick’s investigative reporting in 2006, relentlessly spread around the Web by other science bloggers, forced the mainstream media to start paying attention, which led to forced resignation of Deutch several months later. Likewise, science bloggers led the daily push for corporate media and diplomatic entities to pay attention to the case of six medics imprisoned in Libya, which eventually led to their release. PRISM, the astroturf organization designed to lobby the U.S. Senate against the NIH Open Access bill was exposed by science bloggers, leading to hundreds of thousands of people calling their senators urging them to pass the bill – and the bill passed easily. More recently, the #arseniclife affair put into perspective the tremendous power of Web-savvy blogging scientists to instantly peer-review, critique and place on the garbage heap of history a very bad NASA-funded study published in Science magazine.

As the years passed by, the science blogosphere both grew tremendously in size, and somewhat changed its focus. Apart from Nobel Prize and Field Medal Prize winners joining in, many others – junior faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and even highschoolers and kids – started using blogs to discuss science. Blogging software started getting used in the science classrooms. Brief posts, links and personal updates moved from blogs to emerging social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest and the such, leaving the blogging platforms mainly for longer, deeply-researched pieces of writing. This made blogs more serious and respectable as the signal emerged out of the noise. Nobel Prize winners were joined by Pulitzer Prize winners – reputable science writers and journalists in large numbers joined the scientists in the science blogosphere, bringing with them both the higher standards of good writing and the high standards of journalistic ethics – linking to sources, interviewing additional sources, crediting the authors of art and photography used in blog posts, and transparency of potential conflicts of interest. This resulted in a shift in tone as well – instead of pushing against pseudoscience and medical quackery, the dominant topic of the early years, most of today’s science blogging is targeting lay audience in bringing the beauty and excitement of science to as broad population as possible.

Another development placed science blogs ahead of other nodes of the blogosphere – congregation of science blogs into blogging networks. Nature Network (hosted by Nature Publishing Group) and Scienceblogs.com (run by Seed Media Group, now under National Geographic) collected science bloggers and gave them an imprimatur of mainstream media. Bloggers on such networks were vetted, thus trusted to be correct and ethical in their work. Over the past couple of years, this process accelarated, with highly reputable science blogging networks now being hosted by a variety of media organizations, science publishers and scientific societies, including Scientific American, Discover, Wired, PLoS, Guardian, Cosmos (Australia), American Geophysical Union, American Chemical Society and more. Self-organized blogging collectives that carefully choose which science bloggers can join them (Lab Spaces, Scientopia, Field of Science, etc), are also treated with the same amount of respect both by the mainstream media and by the scientific community.

Finally, the science bloggers are probably the best self-organized population of bloggers. Realizing the need to filter out blogs that do not cover science well, including blogs that push an anti-science agenda, science bloggers built specialized aggregators that can include only those science bloggers that have passed a type of “peer-review” by the other science bloggers. Researchblogging.org, Scienceblogging.org and especially now ScienceSeeker.org are “stamps of approval” for science bloggers that allow them, on occasion, to be treated as press by conference organizers, to be added to press lists of journals, and generally to be treated with respect as professionals, as opposed to the early stereotypes of bloggers being untrustworthy kids writing in their pyjamas in their parents’ basements. Somehow, I don’t think that description fits the bloggers whose books are on NYTime bestseller lists, or who are invited to give Keynote addresses at big scientific meetings. Blog is just software, but scientists and science writers are using that software in serious ways, making the world a better place.






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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 12:36 pm 06/24/2012

    Perhaps worth noting that the title “Why do we blog? To change the world” was given as a prompt, which determined the theme and the direction of my article.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 6:08 pm 06/30/2012

    Update – the Croatian-language article is now online:

    http://www.jutarnji.hr/sto-radimo-na-blogu–mijenjamo-cijeli-svijet-/1036411/

    Link to this

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