Are established ecology blogs beginning to fade away? (UPDATED)

Following up on my recent Ideas in Ecology and Evolution article (open access) on the role of the blogosphere in economics vs. ecology, I decided to tally up recent activity at a number of ecology blogs I keep an eye on. I was curious to see if there was any evidence of a (perhaps slow) increasing trend in ecological blogging.

Not so much. Indeed, many established ecology blogs seem to be slowing down, especially over the last few months:*

The EEB and Flow: 43 posts in 2011, 30 in 2012. 2 posts in last 2 months (and founder Marc Cadotte essentially stopped posting long ago).

Jabberwocky Ecology: 33 posts in 2011, 20 in 2012. No posts in last 2 months.

i’m a chordata! urochordata!: 3 posts in last 4 months; used to be more frequent.

Just Simple Enough: Began in Jan. 2012, 13 posts in first two months. 3 posts in last 3 months.

The Contemplative Mammoth: 21 posts in 2011 (in 6 months; blog founded July 2011), 23 in all of 2012.

Deep Thoughts and Silliness: No posts since Oct. 2012.

I present these numbers not to criticize my fellow ecology bloggers or shame them into posting more, or to make Dynamic Ecology look good by comparison. Seriously, that’s totally not my point–it’s up to each of us to decide how to allocate our time. For instance, Jarrett Byrnes (i’m a chordata! urochordata!) and Amy Hurford (Just Simple Enough) both started new faculty positions this fall, and that brings a lot of new demands on one’s time. And more recently, Jarrett’s blog apparently was hacked, which certainly will take a toll on one’s posting! I’m not out to criticize anyone else’s time allocation decisions, I’m just trying to get a sense of any broad trends.

On the other hand, some ecology blogs have been keeping up their established pace or even increasing it. Sociobiology (which isn’t really an ecology blog sensu stricto, but overlaps enough with Dynamic Ecology that I’m going to count it) has maintained a pace of about 6 posts/month for the entire 18 months it’s existed. Theoretical Ecology slowed down a bit early in the fall but seems to be bouncing back to its usual pace of several posts/month. Biological Posteriors (34 posts in 2011, 35 in 2012) is holding steady.

Of course, I’m not showing data from every ecology blog here, though I do think I’ve included many of the best-known ones. And I’m not showing data on things like the pace at which people are founding new ecology blogs (like the brand new Lab and Field, ace commenter Jim Bouldin’s Ecologically Orientated, or the very active large-group blog Early Career Ecologists), or the pace at which old ones are going dark (like Theoretically Speaking). I freely admit I’m making no effort to be systematic or do rigorous trend-detection here.

So I guess what I’ll say is that, if this is just a blip, to do with different unique circumstances at different blogs, I hope it doesn’t become a trend. And if it is a trend, I hope it reverses itself. It’s hard to see blogging becoming a key way in which ecologists communicate ideas with one another if existing blogs (especially established ones) wind down. And since there’s a stronger incentive to blog once a “culture of blogging” exists, but not before, a field can’t really develop a culture of blogging in the first place unless there are some “early adopters”, pioneers like the folks who write the blogs listed above. If the early adopters themselves give it up before enough other folks have followed their lead, it’s hard to see how you ever get a critical mass.

UPDATE: Keith Kloor of Discovery Magazine blog Collide-a-Scape suggests that ecology blogging hasn’t gotten off the ground because blogging was invented too late. Had blogging been around in the early-to-mid 1990s, US political fights like the one over the Endangered Species Act, the rise of conservation biology as a self-consciously distinct subdiscipline, and many other ecology-related news events and trends would’ve promoted the growth of a vibrant ecology blogosphere. Nowadays, he suggests, climate change and energy issues suck all the media oxygen, so there’s lots of climate-related blogging, but not much on any other ecological topic. I think Keith is probably right. As I noted in my IEE piece, one big reason why economics has a vibrant blogosphere is the financial crash and subsequent severe global recession. The economic crisis prompted a lot of academic economists to start blogging. In contrast, this blog, like all of the other ecology blogs I listed, doesn’t really concern itself much with climate change, which is indeed the issue of the day (or at least we all feel we have to say that it is). As important as issues like good teaching practice, good statistical practice, and, um, whether ecology is like billiards are, they’re not urgent in the same way as climate change, and they’re certainly not the focus of any significant fraction of the world’s collective attention. Which may explain why there aren’t all that many blogs like this one, and why those that do exist often show signs of not lasting that long. One test of this hypothesis will be when the global economy recovers. When that happens, will the economics blogosphere mostly fade away along with the urgency to discuss and debate economic ideas?

*I’m considering here only blogs written by individuals or groups of individuals, not those associated with journals, scientific societies, or other organizations. Nor am I counting folks who blog mostly as a way to keep notes to themselves, like Carl Boettiger and Steve Walker, though I admit that not counting such folks is debatable.

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45 thoughts on “Are established ecology blogs beginning to fade away? (UPDATED)

  1. On the other hand, it’s becoming more and more common, and easy, for any individual to start a blog, that it’s kind of expected that large group initiative will decrease, but smaller ones will emerge. As an example, most people on r-bloggers (http://www.r-bloggers.com/) will only post once or twice a month. but the large number of people there will create a steady flow of new content. We’re working on a similar initiative for ecological blogs, hopefully (i) it will launch very soon and (ii) it will help reach this critical mass, and generate new vocations!

    • The original vision for the Oikos blog was that it would be a large group blog. I agree that there’s a lot of potential in that model. You get a lot of content, and so can build a large readership, without any one individual having to write that much. This seems to be the model that Early Career Ecologists is going with. And a bunch of people each with their own blogs, but all posting on the same topic (as at r-bloggers), basically works out the same way. I’ll be interested to see if that does end up being the way lots of ecologists get into blogging.

  2. Interesting data. It’s obviously hard for some of us to compete with the excellent blogging that goes on here!

    In my specific case, Theoretically Speaking suffered from a variety of other competing interests over the last year, like applying for and moving to a new job, trying to finish up long-standing projects, wanting to spend more time with my growing family, not really being able to distil the messages I wanted to write about into short posts and the blog network moving to a new host site, which introduced unrealistic (for me) requirements for posting frequency (they wanted two posts a week initially).

    I like to think T.E. is just in hibernation, but I never really moved out of the “I’m still trying this blogging lark to see if I like it” frame of mind that I started blogging with. Who knows if it can be resuscitated. Right now I’m happy browsing the other extant ecology blogs. There’s enough interesting stuff going on that I don’t feel like investing my time in adding other stuff.

    • Thanks very much for the perspective, Mike. I’m hoping some other ecology bloggers will stop by to offer their own perspectives. If nothing else, I think it would be useful for new ecology bloggers to hear from folks who did it for a while and then dialed back or gave it up entirely.

      • I think that ecology blogs need to continue. If you study trend data from google, you can see a correlation between what’s hot in the news and the popularity of the keyword. Maybe the problem is that so many other media outlets are featuring an environment category, such as the New York Times. There is a lot of segmentation in the green industry. Bloggers should target these subniches and address those needs more directly, such as solar, or wind, or recycling. There are green subtopics such as alternative health that are often not categorized as green. Because the environment has been maintsreamed, and you can find so many articles about GMO foods, organic foods, and alternative energy, bloggers will need to be much more focused.

  3. “Nor am I counting folks who blog mostly as a way to keep notes to themselves, like Carl Boettiger and Steve Walker, though I admit that not counting such folks is debatable.”

    You actually could count me and the pattern would still hold. I’ve really slowed down lately, mostly because I’m working on things I’m finding very challenging that require prolonged periods of focus. I really want to get back to a more regular blogging schedule soon though. Thanks for the nudge.

  4. Somewhat of the same as what Steve says for me too. Not only that I’ve been spending prolonged amounts of time on single tasks, but also that these tasks have been focused and specific, and interesting blog posts are about general topics. I’m teaching this semester and I think this will be a bit better suited to thinking about blog-related things. Also, now that I have quite a few posts, I’m happy just to wait until I have something that I really want to write about rather than stick to a fixed schedule.

    • Interesting Amy. I’ll admit I’m curious what tasks you’ve been focusing on, and why you don’t see them as bloggable. I ask in part because Meg’s done some very popular posts for us on things like her treadmill desk, whether to hire a technician or a postdoc when setting up a new lab, etc. Topics I never would’ve thought to blog about. Not that everything anyone does is bloggable–far from it. I’ll admit that a lot of what many ecologists blog about–the conduct of their own research–I tend not to read about, just because it seems very specific to them. But one thing I’ve learned from reading other blogs, and reading Meg and Brian’s stuff for Dynamic Ecology, is that the range of things worth blogging about is larger than I would’ve thought.

      Of course, a lot depends on one’s blogging goals, too. I kind of have the sense that we here at Dynamic Ecology (well, me certainly; Brian and Meg can speak for themselves) are fairly unique among ecology blogs in caring about how big our audience is. For me, blogging isn’t just notes to myself (or my own students) that I put online just in case anyone else happens to stumble upon them and find them useful. I definitely want others to read and think and talk about what I have to say, for much the same reason that I want others to come to my talks or read my papers. I don’t want to feel like I’m blogging on a desert island any more than I want to feel like I’m doing science on a desert island. So I’m prepared to do things like post frequently (which is the number one way to build an audience for a blog), even if it’s just short quick posts that don’t really matter much. Not because having an audience is an end in itself; if I could build a big audience just with quick non-substantive posts, I wouldn’t bother. It’s that I want an audience to be there for those times when I do have something substantive to say that I really want others to read.

  5. At qaeco.com, we have irregular posts from members of the lab group (1 or 6 a month), but we also compile posts (in a sidebar feed) from individual members who write on their own blogs. It means there is a lot of new material, on a wide diversity of topics, being posted quite regularly. Check it out: http://qaeco.com/

  6. For me, the slow-down was due to finishing my dissertation, which I defended in July 2012. I also did four guest posts on another site, which I might start cross-posting on The Contemplative Mammoth. One of my academic resolutions this year is to post weekly, which thus far (one week into 2013) I’ve been successful at! :)

    Do you follow Joseph Craine’s Wild Plants Post? http://wildplantspost.blogspot.com/

    • Thanks Jacquelyn, good to hear you’re back in the saddle.

      No, I hadn’t seen Joe Craine’s blog. I know a bit of his old work with Dave Tilman, though I have the vague recollection that more recently he’s butted heads with Dave (that recollection could be *totally* off base). At a quick glance, much of the blog looks to be about his own work on biogeochemistry (about which I know he’s written a monograph)? Though there are occasional posts on other topics, and he seems to have been posting pretty regularly for several years now.

      • Yes, I was surprised to see that Joe’s blog has been around for a while and I hadn’t stumbled across it! I guess that speaks in part to the importance of Twitter as a signal-booster.

        I just posted my second post of the year today, so I’m on schedule so far. It’s on the 50 most pressing questions in paleoecology workshop– I recall that you had a post on why you think such initiatives aren’t particularly helpful. I think my conclusion after participating is that the PROCESS, for me, may ultimately be much more useful than the questions we came up with.

        I do think that your post raises an important point about the life histories of blogs. I think that there’s an initial period during which blog longevity can really be fostered, and if you don’t make it past that, efforts seem to peter out. In fact, there’s a relevant session at the upcoming Science Online 2013 conference on blogging for the long haul that I hope to make it to (and I highly recommend Science Online, as far as conferences go!).

      • It is rather presumptuous of me to post on this, given that I haven’t been blogging as long as many of the people referred to in the post. ;-)

    • It looks like you’re just aggregating previews of posts at ecobloggers, so that readers have to click through to read the whole thing? Or you’re planning to aggregate full posts?

      • We don’t plan to aggregate the whole posts. The idea is just to showcase the recent posts, in a single place (which, hopefully, you’ll check every morning). Then, you just have to pick what you want to read, and go to each site. I think it’s actually better to do it this way, because the comments will be kept at the original blogs…

  7. Hi Jeremy – I don’t think that the EEB & Flow should be counted among the dead yet. It’s more that Marc and I have been keeping the blog going, and Marc is very busy establishing the lab and preparing for his tenure review, while I’m trying to write my dissertation and apply for postdocs. Sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions…
    That said, I hope think that even infrequent postings are better than nothing – our readership is still growing, despite the recent slow down. Considering when Marc started the blog, you could say it’s just maturing and changing as it ages :)
    Thanks

  8. Errm, yes. as if by magic I posted an update on Deep Thoughts & Silliness. I’ll try to blog more (I have something incredibly specialised and boring about Preston’s canonical hypothesis half-written).

    There is a dynamic to blogs with bloggers drifting away for various reasons. I’ve been blogging less because I’m now married, with a wife and expanding menagerie. As long as new bloggers come through, it’s not a problem, and it’s good to get some new voices in the blogosphere.

    I think twitter has also changed the dynamics: there’s a lot of socialising going on there.

      • There is a place (and need!) for both, so I don’t think Twitter is better than blogging. Having little time to surf the net for interesting blogs, Twitter has been an effective (aka lazy) way for me to get links to blogs. In fact, it may be better than RSS feeds because it serves as an ad hoc screener of blog material (i.e. emphasizing interesting blog content based on the number of tweets and re-tweets). As a consumer of blog content, I think there is an ideal sweet spot for the amount and frequency. I have received RSS feeds from a number of blogs over the last year, deleting those that have bombarded me with content or lack thereof. Dynamic Ecology is a good example of content frequency and amount that is just right for me. Some of us in Canadian limnology are discussing starting a group blog, where we hope that enough contributors will keep the content flowing, but not require significant amounts of time. I tend to like those types of blogs because they serve as a one-stop shop of diverse ideas without having to navigate a variety of blogs.

      • Hi Jeremy

        I only recently started Tweeting – my graduate students kept sending me articles saying how useful it is – and certainly I have found it interesting – what it did do, very unexpectedly, as I had always been a bit sceptical about it, was to make me start a blog of my own. Strangely, I find that more satisfying than writimg scientific papers;-)

      • Hi Simon,

        Very interesting comments, thanks. I’m intrigued that trying out Twitter prompted you to blog as well, as it’s my impression that they’re quite different activities, good for quite different purposes. It hasn’t worked the other way for me–I quickly came to find blogging very satisfying, but I still feel no particular need or desire to tweet.

        I’m curious how many faculty have taken to social media at the prompting of their grad students. I don’t think my own students use social media all that much for science. Indeed, I’m not sure how closely they even follow this blog!

        You neglected to provide a link to your blog. ;-)

  9. Kloor’s argument that ecology blogging circa 1993 “would have been all the rage” is accurate, but not in the sense that he intends, “rage” being the operative word there, and it’s not clear to me that he understands the difference between the science of ecology and environmental activism.

    I for one do NOT want to see ecology blogs go the way of climate change blogs, which in many cases are just people with entrenched positions building walls and hurling insults. You can’t believe the stuff that gets said at some of these sites, including RealClimate. Nobody who really wants to understand the actual science issues wants to read that crap. Even more disturbing, certain scientists, who shall remain un-named, use blogs to defend shoddy science or biased viewpoints, and foment these types of food fights, from which they presume to gain public support. It’s a big problem, and I don’t see it likely getting anything but worse, although some, like Bart Verheggen and Nick Stokes, are definitely trying.

    So focused ecology blogging on actual science topics–imagine that!–like you guys and the others mentioned are doing, is the right track, no matter how many people read it. I’m dealing with that readership issue right now, because I’ve put up a series of serious critiques on statistical problems in dendroclimatology over the past couple months, and I’m maybe only half done, or less. These problems are *really* important to the validity of that field, and to various claims regarding the uniqueness of current global temperatures relative to the past 1000 years or so. But so far, very few are paying attention it seems, and there is essentially no engagement from scientists. But eventually they will have to, and I will continue to force the issue until they do, circumstances availing. Many of the people interested so far are climate change deniers scavenging for ammunition, as they do. When they realize I’m clearly not in that category, and just as likely to rip apart much of what they say, then they’re not so interested any more.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, it’s needed.

    • Hi Jim,

      Hmmm, I see what you mean, even if I’m not sure I entirely agree. I suspect that both you and Kloor are right. Had blogging been around in the 1990s, my guess would be that we’d have seen both more ‘activism’ blogs and more ‘serious science’ blogs, and blogs that mix the two. I say that just because that’s a reasonably good description of the economics blogosphere. There are econ bloggers who stick very close to the data, econ bloggers who are political hacks who want their side to win at any cost to facts, logic, and intellectual honesty, econ bloggers who are intellectually honest but who come from a particular political viewpoint, and econ bloggers who seem to have split personalities, mixing intellectually honest work and hackwork. So while your dismay at the overall state of the climate change blogosphere is well taken and understandable, I don’t know that it’s inevitable that intense policy debate necessarily leads to a low-quality blogosphere.

      Re: readership at your own blog, give it time Jim! It took many months for me to build an audience at the Oikos blog, and I had some advantages that you (and most new ecology bloggers) don’t have. For instance, the association of the Oikos blog with the journal attracted some journal readers to the blog. I’ll actually be giving your dendrochronology posts a plug in our linkfest on Friday, so that might kick a bit of traffic your way.

      The other thing I’d say is that it’s much more difficult to draw in a very specific, pre-defined audience than it is to draw traffic in general. Insofar as it’s important to you that active dendrochronology researchers read your posts, you’ll probably need to email them or something and ask them to have a look. It’s quite possible that a lot of the people you want to reach don’t even read blogs! For instance, a lot of people read my original “zombie ideas” post on the IDH–but I’m not sure if any of them were researchers actively working on IDH-related research. I have no idea if the leading lights of the IDH (folks like Michael Huston and Phil Grime) have ever read my post.

      • Good points all Jeremy. I’m 100% unfamiliar with economics blogs but your description reasonably well applies to climate change I think. On the target audience issue, I’ve found myself in a sort of nether-land, trying to target everyone. This creates some challenges, but I do think it should at least be attempted, time and energy permitting, and then changed if need be. The problem in climate change is that there are some serious mutual distrust issues between some scientists and the public in certain sub-fields (dendro being perhaps the poster child for this) and so you really have to try to explain the nuts and bolts carefully to everyone interested.

  10. It looks like you’ve jump-started lots of us back into activity, Jeremy! :)

    I like your vision of blogging as a communication tool for ecologists. The twitter momentum seems fantastic for sharing important articles and links, but the blogs seem like the place to try out new ideas and get feedback on hypotheses.

    • “It looks like you’ve jump-started lots of us back into activity, Jeremy!”

      Behold the power of Dynamic Ecology! Now you will dance for me! Dance, dance I say! :-)

  11. I resemble that remark! Yeah, *sigh*, first year is a doozy. The more I have been thinking about this, the more convinced I have become that blogging in academia may better be a group endeavour. I’ve been impressed by multipel graduate group blogs as of late, actually, like those from the Northeastern Marine Science Center or Moss Landing. As I crawl out from under my first semester of teaching (which involved students blogging their experience), I’ve been rethinking how I use my blog, and how I can make it a bigger contribution from my lab as a whole instead of just my semi-irregular ramblings when I come up for air. It’s an interesting conundrum, and I’m constantly impressed by how you all manager it here.

    • Hi Jarrett,

      Interesting that you’re thinking about how to tie your blog more closely to your lab. I know that’s an increasingly common thing for labs to do. But in my admittedly-limited experience, such blogs mostly comprise posts about the lab’s work (lab news, summaries of the lab’s latest papers, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with that. But personally (and I emphasize this is purely my personal view), I don’t see much reason why anyone outside the lab would bother to read that sort of thing (am I totally off base in thinking that?) Do you see your blog as turning into something like that–basically just a “news feed” about the lab (which I suppose could be called “outreach”)? Or do you have something different in mind?

      Yes, if you want to post frequently enough to attract and keep an audience, it helps to make it a group blog. Of course, even finding enough people who will commit to posting occasionally can be a challenge. If you get together a large group, everybody’s going to be sorely tempted to free-ride on everyone else, so that no one ends up posting! There are several “group” blogs in ecology and evolution that aren’t actually group blogs in practice. EEB and Flow is one–I think they still list as authors a bunch of people who haven’t posted in a really long time.

      • I agree, a ‘lab news’ blog would indeed be boring. Well, to me, anyway. And have a small audience. I’m more interested in people blogging the science they’re doing while the do it. Particularly during out field seasons. What are we seeing? What are people finding interesting? What are they struggling with? So, yes, there will be a bit of outreach, but a smattering of R code, and thoughts on the literature. So, essentially, what I’ve been doing, but better, and driven by more than just creaky old me.

  12. As a geologist who is very interested in Ecology, I find most of your blogs fascinating! I put three new ones on my daily list after reading the comments here. There are blogs out there that try to cover too broad an area- as commented on above. I think the more focus the better. I like to run down the list and pick the ones that jump out. I read more biology/ecology than geology! All of you, keep up the great work!!!

    • Are there ecology blogs written by individuals or groups of individuals (as opposed to, e.g., the Ecological Society of America’s EcoTone blog) that are supported by funding, or used to be? This blog has no funding to support any aspect of its operations. We’re hosted for free on wordpress.com, and none of us is paid to blog. Same is true for every ecology blog I linked to. And similarly in other fields–for instance, relatively few economics blogs are written by people who are paid to do it.

  13. Thanks for this article. I arrived here looking for blogs to add to my RSS feed to help keep track of issues around energy, climate change, water, etc. i.e. ecology! I wonder if the discussion has perhaps fragmented into these various subtopics which might account for the waning of those that try do include the “whole ball of wax”?

    • “I wonder if the discussion has perhaps fragmented into these various subtopics which might account for the waning of those that try do include the “whole ball of wax”?”

      Hard to say. This blog actually doesn’t post a lot on any of the specific issues you mention, and neither do any of the ecology blogs that I suggested might be fading away. I suspect that by “ecology” I may mean something slightly different than what you mean.

      I certainly agree that, whatever you called it, a blog that tried to cover everything to do with energy, climate change, water, and other such issues would indeed be a very broad blog. I can imagine that such a blog would be hard to write, except perhaps for a large group, and might struggle to attract and keep an engaged audience.

      We’ve been slowly but deliberately broadening the range of things we write about, but I’m sure we’ll never be a comprehensive “ecology” blog, however one defined “ecology”.

  14. Pingback: Friday links: why your work will never make the textbooks, ELA only semi-saved, crab monster poetry, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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