Eleven years ago, on a crisp autumn night when I should have been studying for my college courses, I sat in the crowded, stuffy computer lab of Rutgers University’s College Avenue campus and opened up a form to compose a blog post. It was the equivalent of a blank sheet of paper. The cursor flashed in and out, just as it does now when I need a moment to think, waiting for something, anything. I started to type. I had no idea that I was writing my way towards a career.
I started sharing my thoughts about fossils and fighting with creationists on a website called ProgressiveU. After I won a small scholarship – which I always suspected was more for my volume than my skill – I decided I wanted to keep writing. As an overdue undergraduate, I’d decided that I had to write a book about the wonder of transitional fossils and a blog would be a great way to evolve my writing chops. But what to call it? Pharyngula was the blog everyone wanted to be back then. A single, memorable scientific term seemed the way to go. I dug into the history of paleontology, my adoration of dinosaurs, and the forgotten fossils of my home state for a title. I settled on the title Laelaps – a moniker briefly assigned to a tyrannosaur found in New Jersey, later changed to Dryptosaurus because Laelaps was preoccupied by a mite. Perfect.
I blogged at WordPress for about nine months before ScienceBlogs came calling. I get a little hazy on the time markers from there, but I soon starting writing the Dinosaur Tracking blog for Smithsonian before Laelaps went to WIRED, then National Geographic, and finally Scientific American. I’ve written hundreds of posts over the years. I’m not sure how many still exist. For one reason or another, time is a steamroller that eventually gobbles them all.
And now I face the end of Laelaps.
I’ve been struggling to find something meaningful to say since I got the news that my blog would no longer have a home here. This was never just a platform. I was Laelaps. Truly. When I attended conventions, acquaintances and friends would call me Laelaps. I built a writing career from nothing – no degree, no academic clout, no expertise but what writing led me to research. Without Laelaps, I wouldn’t have written my first book, nor my second, or any of the titles that have followed. My blog has always been my own little corner of the web where I could enthuse over whatever caught me eye.
To call Laelaps a column would mischaracterize a decade of work. Laelaps was never just a blog. I put myself into almost everything I wrote. What fascinated me, what I wanted to share, and even what I felt had to change. I’ve always written about paleontology and natural history, but I’d like to think that friends and readers have been able to see me change as I’ve bounced from post to post.
What future Laelaps has – if it has any at all – is unclear. A decade ago, science blogs were the hot new way of communicating (even if we science-minded folks were a bit behind the cultural curve, with many online communities already moving to Twitter and Facebook even then). Major, national publications took notice and hired us to share our thoughts. We held conferences where we had heady conversations about whether science blogging would make traditional science journalism extinct. I put my all into my writing, making the jump to full-time freelancing in 2011.
But I knew the end would come someday. Little by little, magazine-sponsored blogs went from billboards of free expression to a way to provide short, cheap news content. When the traffic numbers and subscription fees weren’t there, blog networks got shuttered. What we wished to create, and what our hosts wished us to make, fell into greater and greater contrast, with the expenditures on bloggers becoming harder to justify with each year. I told myself that if Laelaps got shuttered, I could jump to another network. I’d done so for years. But now it seems there is nowhere to jump. Science writing has changed, reverting back to a more professionalized model that was in place before I started typing away in a College Avenue basement.
I'm not going to stop writing. I’m working on new pieces for a spate of publications, and I’m working on a new book that – Flying Spaghetti Monster willing – will hit shelves next year. I cultivated my skills and have been able to make a living as a professional writer, terrifying and spare as that living can sometimes be. But my heart still aches over seeing this blog face an uncertain future. I feel like one of the last dinosaurs, tottering around in the ashfall and devastation after the K/Pg impact. The world beyond may not be habitable by such a dinosaur anymore. There is life beyond the boundary, but what it looks like – what it will be – is entirely unknown, the glories and terrors as yet unrealized. What fragments of Laelaps will be left behind, only time will tell. Facing the end, all I can say is “Thank you for following this grumbling dinosaur for so long.”
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