There's been lots of talk lately about the future of science blogging, in general, and the purpose and nature of blogging communities or networks, more specifically. If you haven't read Bora's post, you should. Even if you aren't specifically interested in SCIENCE blogging, as it relates to new media in general.
From the outset I will state that I still am unsure about my future at scienceblogs. When I do make a decision, it will be carefully considered, and I will be confident in my decision. I have not been around long enough to feel fed-up with things here. Though I can also see that those feelings are entirely warranted and deserved. I can see that if I *had* been around here longer, I would likely too be fed-up. I feel a bit as if I've learned that there's no Santa Clause. Or at least, I feel what I *think* finding out there's no Santa would feel like.
I've only been blogging (in the current incarnation of the blog) for about 7 months. But I've been reading Sb since nearly the beginning. Like Bora said, I remember a time when I could read every post on every science blog that existed (or at least, I could read the headlines to decide if I was interested enough to continue). To get the invite to Scienceblogs was to have MADE IT. This was the destination. The cool kids hung out here. I was, understandably, extremely thrilled to have made it (and continued thanks to Dave Munger, Bora, Dr. Isis, and Sci for helping me make it). To have been invited by Sb at a time when everyone and their mother has a science blog makes it even more thrilling. But I've looked around and noticed that most of my blogging friends and mentors who were here at Sb are gone or, at best, uncertain as I am. This place is awesome, but I've also started to be aware that the place seems to be held together with velcro and scotch tape and faith.
I was recently having an (entirely unrelated) conversation (but follow me for a moment) with a friend about loyalty and fidelity within the context of a romantic relationship. She highly values and needs a considerable amount of alone time, and she needs her partner to have faith in her. She needs her partner to believe that when she is doing her alone thing, she isn't actually cheating on him, that she isn't with someone else. What I think she actually wants is not faith, but trust. And trust is built over time on the basis of evidence.
Faith is a matter of belief. Faith starts from faith. But trust starts from not-trust, and is a matter not of belief, but of evidence. And yet it seems that the the Sb community has been held together by belief. Which, when you think about it, is pretty crazy, as scientists should be used to eschewing belief in favor of evidence. If I control my variables well, I should only get a false positive in 5 out of 100 random samplings of a population. What's the statistical likelihood that the velcro and scotch tape will give way to steel and concrete? That belief can be replaced by evidence? I'm not sure.
As I've been thinking about the future of Scienceblogs.com and my own future within it (or not within it), I've also been doing some thinking about what I want from a blogging community. So, in a bit of a stream of consciousness, here's what I want and why I blog:
I don't write because it fulfills some deep inner thirst for creative expression. I like it. I write to be read. Being on a network (even a network without Pharyngula) helps drive traffic, and will help me get the word out (animals are cool! people are animals too! ants do trigonometry!) to more people than I can by going solo. Sure, there are other tools to use when you're solo, and I used them when I was: blog carnivals, research blogging, and so forth, but they're simply not as effective for driving traffic as is being on a network.
In a related way, being on a network like Scienceblogs also helps in my mission of outreach. I don't only write for people who already have this blog bookmarked or the RSS feed installed in their readers (though I love you all dearly!) If even 3 out of every 1000 people who stumbled into my blog through a random google search learned something cool about science or about scientists, then I consider that a success. Did you know that if you search Google Images for "guinea pig," two of the top ten results lead to my blog? Did you know that if you google "serotonin system," Sci's post at Neurotopia is the third result, after wikipedia? That's huge.
What else do I want in a network? Well, if its a network affiliated with, for example, a print magazine, it can be a great way to get even more exposure. Examples are the (former) SEED Magazine, and also Discover, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Wired. All have/had print magazines, and all have varying types and flavors and sizes of blogging networks. Some networks are all content and no cat pictures. Other networks (like Sb) don't mind the cat pictures, as long as there is content also. Some networks are smaller, others larger. Some appear to have some form of community; others don't.
Every print issue of Psychology Today has a "Ask PT bloggers" page. I believe that Discover, for example, is very good about allowing their bloggers to contribute to their magazine (I think Phil Plait and Carl Zimmer, at least, are regular contributors? I haven't read a copy of Discover in a while), and they also engage with their bloggers in other ways, such as at conference and events. I don't subscribe to Wired or Scientific American, though I do pick them up at the bookstore occasionally, so I can't say whether or not there is much cross-pollination between the print and online contributors. These are things that SEED is unable to provide, at least at present.
I want to think of my blog as a writing laboratory. If I'm compelled to write at 2am I can do so, and *maybe* run it through a spell check, and then possibly schedule the post for the morning. No pitching, no editing. Then, if I hit upon something I'd really like to explore, or if a post receives a good response, then I'd like to be able to take it and pitch the idea to someone. I can expand and polish it, send it through an editing staff, and then it might wind up (for example) on the pages of some publication. Of course, I can likewise pitch to (for example) Wired or Scientific American from here at Scienceblogs, it just wouldn't be as streamlined. It wouldn't be within-brand. I wouldn't have my foot already in the door. If I was blogging for Psychology Today (for example), I might be a step or two closer.
Personally, I can give or take the youtube videos and cat pictures. A blog network on which payment is predicated on pageviews engenders this sort of thing, though. And, I have fun with it. I like sharing random Israeli songs that my readers might not ever otherwise encounter. But if I was on a blog network that did not want this sort of thing, it would not cramp my style to not include it.
Maybe this isn't interesting; maybe this is the definition of "freelance writer," and I'm not saying anything new. But since my background is academic and scientific, and not journalism or writing, I come with a different vocabulary and understanding of the process.
Being on a network - depending on the network - also conveys a certain level of gravitas. Until this month, at least, being on Scienceblogs meant something intangible but weighty. And in the academic tenure-track, I think that gravitas is worth something. In a system which is built primarily upon research, citations, and fundability, you need to convince the powers that be (whether a funding agency or tenure committee, or whatever) that your blogging efforts are a valuable use of your time. Not having gone through the process myself, I can't exactly speak to this, but it seems to me that the gravitas - the clout - that a network possesses (or doesn't possess) might make this easier or harder.
What else do I want from a network?
Not to worry about the tech stuff. My job is content provider, their job is support.
If I'm on a network that pays me for the providing of content, I want to be paid on time (even if there's a three-month lag, I still expect to be paid at regular predictable intervals).
Joint projects, joint ventures, pushing the big conversations forward. At times, Sb has done this well, and at times not as well. I have thoughts for how to do it better, here or elsewhere. This, however, is particularly important to me, because I think this is one of the best ways to build, develop, and maintain community. Shared efforts, and shared purpose. And there's good evidence from the social psychology literature to support my hypothesis.
Intellectual community is possibly most important to me, as a blogger who is primarily an academic scientist. We have various forms of this in real life, on our campuses, but for some reason it doesn't seem to have the same effect for me as the sciblogosphere does. Maybe its because academics tend to move around a lot, and so avoid laying down deep roots. Maybe its because while I'm in a department full of psychologists and neuroscientists, there are only a few others whose research is at all similar to mine. Maybe its because in a department full of other scientists, not everyone shares the same vision for science within society that I do (it seems as if many more on the sciblogosphere share my approach and vision). Maybe its because in a department full of other scientists, science is not a way of life for others as it is for me (and again, it seems many in the sciblogosphere share my perspective on this as well).
Perhaps the sciblogosphere attracts a certain type of self-selecting individual, but a loosely connected group of similar people does not make a community. Being on a network like Scienceblogs can be great for lots of reasons, but unless there are joint projects and a sense of joint purpose, then each blog will exist on its own and simply share a similar visual layout.
What do you think?