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Open Lab 2011: Blogging Comes of Age

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


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I visited a science writing class recently at a Nameless University, where the conversation turned to the changing landscape of 21st century media and the vital role of blogs and social networking within it. Naturally, I asked how many of these aspiring science journalists had blogs . They’re young, they’re hip, but they’re also in grad school, with limited leisure time, so I wasn’t surprised when more than half of them had never tried blogging. But I was chagrined at the response of one student in particular: he shrugged, with that “meh” body language so common to a Certain Demographic, and drawled, “Well, I write online. But I don’t BLOG.”

That sound you hear is my head hitting the desk. Over. And. Over. Again.

Are we honestly still having this conversation? Clearly this young man has absorbed, by intellectual osmosis, the attitude that “blogging” is somehow distinct — with a faint whiff of illegitimacy, even — from “real” science writing, even as said “legitimate” science writing moves increasingly online, and as every major science magazine, it seems, is building up its own stable of bloggers. Blogging has emerged as an essential activity for professional science writers, as I predicted back in 2008 when I spoke at Science Online that year — and it was not an especially prescient insight, frankly. The trend was clear, even then, and it’s only gotten stronger, as more and more science writers also find themselves with a professional presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. To see such a display of ignorance from an aspiring journalist (science-oriented or otherwise) about the power and importance of the blogging format was sobering, to say the least.

He’s young. We’ll cut him some slack, cross our fingers, and hope he learns the error of his ways. Because I’ve just spent the last week reading every single submission (720 total) for this year’s edition of The Open Laboratory anthology, showcasing the best in science blogging, and I am struck yet again by the sheer diversity in voice, style, subject matter, and creativity that one finds across the science blogosphere.

There is poetry. Art. Fiction. Critical analysis of new scientific papers. Personal reflections. Humor. Thoughtful commentary on science and social issues. Careful explication of complex scientific concepts written in accessible language. Meta musings on the craft of science writing. And yes, there are long-form features and investigative journalism. Above all, there are stories — drawn from history, popular culture, the laboratory, and/or the blogger’s personal experiences. How to choose from such a rich selection and winnow down the field to just 50 published entries?

I’ve compiled a “not-so-short-list” of 125 entries, and I have my trusty band of volunteer reviewers on hand to make sure my bleary editor’s eyes haven’t missed anything. Next month, we’ll move to the second round of review, after which Bora and I will start the painful process of choosing the final posts for inclusion. What are we looking for? Well, here’s the a sampling of the criteria we’ve given the reviewers:

*Is the post substantive enough for inclusion in an anthology of science blogging literature?

*Is the post scientifically and/or factually accurate?

*Does the post have an interesting and unique perspective?

*Is the writing of high quality?

*Is the “voice” unique and compelling?

As this year’s anthology editor, I’m also looking for other qualities. Does the post surprise me, delight me, or just plain move me? Does the post take risks, move out of the writer’s comfort zone,  or push the boundaries of the blogging format?  Ultimately I’m looking for good storytelling and posts that showcase the human element shining through the science — because that personal touch is what makes blogging such a powerful communication medium. (One day, perhaps, we’ll have the technology to really do justice to the blogging format, with digital books or iPad apps that allow us to incorporate multimedia in the selected posts.)

As Bora has said (repeatedly): “Blog is software.” Nothing more. What you do with that software is entirely up to you. And based on this year’s round of entries, I, for one, see great things ahead in the future of the science blogosphere.

 

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

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





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