“Blogosphere” is the collective term for a bunch of blogs, especially blogs on the same subject. This post is about the ecology blogosphere–which doesn’t exist.
Don’t get me wrong–there are lots of ecology blogs. Here’s one list, which has dozens of entries. And EcoBloggers aggregates the RSS feeds of numerous ecology blogs. But if you’re going to have a collective noun for something, that something probably ought to be more than just the sum of its parts. A multicellular organism is more than just a bunch of adjacent cells. A herd of cattle is more than just a bunch of individual cows that all happen to be standing near one another. A nation is more than just a bunch of individual people. EDIT: And I can’t believe I forgot the most obvious example: the biosphere is more than just a bunch of living organisms! 🙂
But while ecology has lots of blogs, it doesn’t have a blogosphere. Ecology blogs mostly do their own thing, and each mostly does different things than all the others. For instance, as of this writing, here are the topics of the most recent posts aggregated by EcoBloggers:
- News about the data archiving policy at the Journal of Ecology
- Why students don’t raise their hands in classrooms
- Why debates at scientific meetings are a good thing
- Indigenous rights, film, and empowerment
- Semantic versioning for scientific software
- Effects of ocean noise on killer whales
- Transferable skills relating to academic authorship
- The low visibility of queer scientists in Canada
And if you keep looking further back at the EcoBloggers feed, or if you look at other ecology blogs that aren’t aggregated by EcoBloggers, you’d just find more of the same.
Ecology isn’t alone in this. For instance, there’s no neuroscience blogosphere, apparently, although there are neuroscience blogs.
In contrast, economics has a blogosphere. Economist’s View isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good daily compilation of what economics bloggers are talking about. If you skim it, you’ll see that within a day or over the course of a few days, there often are numerous posts on the same or closely-related topics. Inequality, market bubbles, and the possibility of long-term stagnation of US economic growth are among the popular topics recently. And many of posts discuss posts from other authors, so that there’s a lot of two-way and multi-way conversation among different blogs. See, for instance, this compilation of recent posts on economic inequality, or this compilation of posts about a quite technical modeling issue.
And while I know other blogospheres less well, my sense is that at least some of them are more like the economics blogosphere than the ecology “blogosphere”. For instance, it’s my impression that the science blogosphere often engages in widespread discussion of events like the recent sexual harassment case at Scientific American. And there’s widespread, ongoing discussion in the science blogosphere of topics ranging from open access publication to “data science” to “the replication crisis”.
So why is the ecology blogosphere just a bunch of independent blogs rather than a true blogosphere? Here are some speculations (which aren’t mutually exclusive; I think the lack of an ecology blogosphere is overdetermined):
- Too few ecology blogs? Maybe. But I’m not sure number of blogs per se is the main issue. At least not independent of other factors. There are enough ecology blogs in the world that, if other conditions were met, I think you could have an ecology blogosphere.
- Most ecology blogs post infrequently? This is part of it. You can’t have a discussion involving many people if the large majority of people only speak at widely-spaced, irregular intervals.
- Ecology bloggers care about different things? This is a big one. Even if there aren’t many blogs and their authors only post infrequently and irregularly, you could still have a blogosphere if authors all felt moved to post on the same stuff at the same time. But with rare exceptions (e.g., this), ecology blogs mostly don’t post in reaction to one another. Speaking only for myself, that’s for a few reasons. My interests and expertise are sufficiently different from those of other ecology bloggers that I don’t often feel like I can do more than comment on their posts. I don’t often feel like I have enough to add to do a whole post in reaction to someone else’s. Plus, I can’t find enough time to write all the posts I’ve already thought of myself, never mind any that might happen to be inspired by reading someone else’s blog. So while I do read and comment on other ecology blogs, I don’t often post in response to them.
- Ecology bloggers would rather comment instead of post? Following on from the previous bullet: instead of commenting on someone else’s blog, I could present my comment as a short post on my own blog instead. But I don’t often do that, because I want my posts to be more substantive than that. And while I guess I could comment and post, that would be repetitive. But I suppose this attitude, if it’s widely shared (I have no idea if it is or not), could be a factor. Economics bloggers often post themselves rather than, or in addition to, commenting on one another’s posts.
- Ecology isn’t news-driven? This is another big one. Economics is news driven. For instance, every US economics bloggers agrees that things like meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee and releases of key economics data are big news. And big economic news events happen frequently. The same is true for, say, political blogs. And as noted above, lots of general science blogs often react to the same news. But there aren’t any frequent news events on which a large fraction of ecology bloggers all want to comment. I mean, yes, ecology-related news comes out every day–but rarely are the stories so big as to demand everyone’s attention.
- Too little popular interest in ecology, or too little overlap between topics of academic and popular interest? A guest post here once suggested that one reason the economics blogosphere is vibrant is popular interest in economics. Posts of interest to academics also are of interest to many non-academics. This encourages economists to blog (because it’s easy to build an audience), and encourages them to blog about the same topics (namely, topics of interest to a popular audience), thereby helping to build and sustain a blogosphere. But on the other hand, it’s been suggested that neuroscience lacks a blogosphere (at least one in which professionals address one another) for a similar reason. Lots of people are interested in the brain, and so neuroscience bloggers all get sucked into writing popular posts for a non-professional audience, leaving no one writing posts aimed at other professionals. So maybe the key thing here is not so much whether or not there’s popular interest, but the extent to which the interests and expertise of the general populace overlaps with that of academics. I do think that overlap is lower in ecology than in economics. Certainly, it’s hard for me to imagine many people outside of academia being interested in most of the stuff I post! 🙂 (Heck, I’m still pleasantly surprised that there any academics who want to read some of the highly idiosyncratic stuff I write) An interesting comparison here would be physics, where there’s lots of popular interest in certain topics that are also of interest to academics. Anyone know anything about the vibrancy of the physics blogosphere?
- Ecology blogs mostly don’t join in larger conversations? There may be something to this, though I can really only speak for Dynamic Ecology. Different blogospheres overlap; there are no hard and fast boundaries. For instance, like many ecology blogs we often post on topics of broad interest to scientists or even academics. Very occasionally, one of those posts leads to us becoming heavily involved in a broader conversation in some larger blogosphere, such as with my post on “E. O. Wilson vs. math”. But we sometimes consciously avoid talking about or even linking to topics that are being widely discussed in larger blogospheres. Often that’s because we don’t feel like we have anything to say that hasn’t been said already. And we want to remain an ecology blog rather than getting sucked into becoming too much of a science blog or academic blog. But in any case, this seems mostly irrelevant to me. I don’t see why the level of involvement of ecology blogs in the broader scientific and academic blogospheres would have much to do with the existence of a specifically ecological blogosphere.
- Ecology lacks topics that are suitable for long-running debates or other drivers of extended conversations? This is a factor. For instance, one common sort of post for ecology blogs (and the only sort of post for some, such as journal-associated blogs) is summaries of recently-published papers. But there aren’t many single papers that are suitable as fodder for a big extended conversation involving a bunch of different ecologists. And there are exceptions that seem to prove the rule here. For instance, it’s my impression that one bit of ecology that does have a blogosphere is climate change work. Presumably because that’s a topic about which there are long-running controversies, which can fuel long-running conversations. But surely there’s more that goes into determining whether a topic can serve as fodder for a long-running conversation besides whether or not it’s controversial?
- Ecology blogs aren’t a “club”? Some longstanding and widely-read science blogs comprise a sort of informal club. The authors know each other, intermingle the professional and personal, and often link to and discuss each other’s posts. Ecology has this to a much lesser extent, and it mainly manifests in the comments. For instance, many of our most active commenters here at Dynamic Ecology are ecologists with their own blogs. But it tends not to go further than linking to or commenting on the posts of others, and hardly ever involves intermingling of the professional and personal. I think this is a good thing, on balance. A blogosphere that comprises a bunch of friends having a conversation (complete with inside jokes, an expectation that everyone involved is familiar with the entire past history of the conversation, etc.) is one that “outsiders” might not find inviting. But my thoughts on this one are pretty tentative. (Aside: you might be surprised to learn that Dynamic Ecology itself is run by three people who hardly know each other. Brian, Meg, and I actually are looking forward to this year’s ESA meeting so that all three of us can talk face-to-face for the first time!)
- Ecologists don’t really know anything about ecology (which is really complicated), and recognize this, so most have the good sense to keep their mouths shut rather than open them and remove all doubt? It’s been suggested that that’s why neuroscience has no blogosphere. But I have no idea if that applies to ecology at all. I mean, if nothing else, why can’t you blog about what you want to learn (as opposed to what you already know), and how one might go about discovering it? Plus, there are numerous ecology labs that blog about their own research, which you wouldn’t think they’d do if ecologists were all secretly embarrassed at their own collective ignorance about ecology.
Is it a bad thing that there’s no ecology blogosphere? If so, should ecologists try to bring it into existence? My answers are “I dunno”, and “no”. I have argued in the past that there would be benefits to ecology as a whole from having something closer to the economics blogosphere. In particular, I think it would be both fun and tremendously useful if our many important debates didn’t play out solely at the snail’s pace of journal articles, or in venues that can only be attended by limited numbers of people. But on the other hand, maybe there would be hidden costs to ecological research if lots of ecologists committed as much time to blogging as would be needed for ecology to have an economics-type blogosphere (like everything, blogging has opportunity costs). And there are some benefits to having a bunch of independent blogs, but no blogosphere. It prevents “echo chambers” or “groupthink” from developing. And it ensures that readers constantly encounter new ideas and information they didn’t even know they wanted to read about. In any case, no matter what sort of blogosphere would fit ecology best, I don’t really see much that can or should be done to bring it into existence, besides “individuals deciding to allocate their time however seems best to them.” I mean, I definitely don’t think that ecologists who don’t blog, or who blog but don’t post much, or who don’t post on the same stuff others post on, are doing it wrong! (see here and here) And while I certainly have my own opinions as to what sort of blogosphere ecology would be best off with, I don’t know that I trust my own opinions more than the collective decision-making of my colleagues. Maybe the best way to find out what sort of blogosphere (or the lack thereof!) would fit ecology best is just relying on individuals to make their own decisions. Much as the best way to find out what phenotype would be best-adapted to a given environment is to let evolution by natural selection work its magic. For various reasons (e.g., a long tradition of preprint sharing), economists were “preadapted” to have the sort of blogosphere they now have. But the only sort of blogosphere ecology will ever get–and maybe the best sort for ecology–is the sort that emerges from individuals deciding for themselves if and how they want to blog.*
*Those individual decisions need to be informed ones, of course. Ecology definitely misses out if people choose not to blog because they don’t know or misunderstand what blogs can be used for, or because they stick with old ways of working purely out of habit, or whatever. For instance, here’s Rich Lenski talking about how hearing a talk by a colleague convinced him to start blogging. But I have no idea how many ecologists would start blogging if they had more or different information. It might not be that many. After all, the many readers of this and other ecology blogs presumably are well-informed about the value of blogs, what it’s like to blog, etc.–but only a very small fraction choose to blog themselves.