Blogs are dying; long live (science) blogs (UPDATEDx3)

In my recent talk on science blogging, I began with a deliberately-provocative question: are blogs dying?

The answer is “yes”. There are various lines of evidence for this, some more anecdotal than others:

  • Relative to all search traffic, Google searches on “blog” peaked in 2009 and have been steadily declining ever since.
  • Probably not coincidentally, that’s when Twitter took off. Tumblr took off shortly thereafter. And Facebook was growing rapidly during that time.
  • Earlier this year a hugely-popular pioneer of blogging, Andrew Sullivan, gave it up. And he stuck with it longer than most; many of his fellow blogging pioneers quit blogging years ago. This occasioned a lot of commentary from prominent current and former bloggers to the effect that, yeah, blogs are pretty much dead, although something of their spirit may live on in social media, mobile apps, and new online journalism ventures. Here’s a compilation and discussion of this commentary in the form of a Socratic dialogue.

So, blogs are dead. Long live the blog! Well, long live the science blog, written for free by an academic with a lot to say to a niche audience!

The classic blog is “the unedited voice of an author”, who thinks out loud over an extended period of time and carries on an open-ended conversation with readers who like that author enough to read a significant fraction of his or her posts. That turns out to be a poor way to make money compared to the alternatives, which is a big reason blogs as a whole are dying. Another reason blogs as a whole are dying is that some of things they used to be for are better done via other means (e.g., Twitter for sharing links, various apps for sharing photos and videos). A third reason is that not that many people actually want to blog. Not that many people want to write for an audience of strangers, especially not at length and over an extended period of time. People mostly want to write for their friends (e.g., on Facebook) or people whom they assume/hope are their friends (e.g., on Twitter). And they mostly want to toss off casual remarks–tweets, status updates–rather than write at length.

Fortunately, most of the reasons why blogs as a whole are dying don’t apply to science blogs written by academics. Academic scientists have day jobs that often pay pretty well, and tenured ones have as much job security as anyone ever does. Academics don’t need to make money from blogs, they can do it for real but intangible rewards. Academic scientists know a lot about the areas of their expertise. So they potentially have a lot to say on those subjects–more than can be said in a tweet. Academic scientists often are quite specialized, so the niche audience that’s interested in what a given academic has to say usually can’t get similar content elsewhere (except maybe other blogs on the same topic). And the niche audience interested in what a given academic has to say usually doesn’t just consist of the academic’s personal friends, and so can’t be reached via Facebook. And the combination of having a lot to say and being able to say it over an extended period of time means that you can build an audience.

So how come there’s no ecology blogosphere? And how come many ecology blogs either have died or post much less often than they used to (e.g., Just Simple Enough*, Jabberwocky Ecology)? And how come new ecology blogs are so scarce, and mostly peter out after only a few posts without ever building much of an audience? Not that you’d expect most ecologists to blog, but so few puzzles me a little. And it’s not just a puzzle for ecology, since there’s no blogosphere worthy of the name for any scholarly field except economics (UPDATE: That’s an overstatement–I don’t know enough other fields well enough to say that they all lack “blogospheres” with a large critical mass of blogs that engage in a lot of back and forth with one another. I should’ve said that I’m not aware of any such fields besides economics. And I should also have made explicit something that’s implicit in the post–I’m focusing on blogs aimed at one’s fellow ecologists rather than outreach blogs.) Here are a few not mutually exclusive hypotheses:

  • The very few ecologists who like blogging enough to keep it up over an extended period, and who are good enough at it to do it well without neglecting their other duties, are already doing it. This is kind of an umbrella hypothesis that includes as special cases some of the hypotheses below, and others besides.
  • Would-be bloggers give up too soon. It’s going to take several months to build a decent-sized audience and start getting comments regularly. Even if you write at least one good post every couple of weeks (yes, that often…) and do other things right. Not that an audience per se is a goal in itself–it’s not as if whoever dies with the most pageviews wins. But many things that are worthwhile goals–influence on the direction of your field, useful feedback from commenters, your employer recognizing your blog as valuable scholarship and/or a service contribution, etc.–tend to be associated with having a decent-sized audience. I wonder if some ecologists have tried out blogging but given up too soon because they mistakenly thought that their first post would go viral, or that they could build an audience by posting once every few weeks or months.
  • Ecologists mostly want to blog about stuff that other ecologists don’t want to read about, and so give up blogging when they find they’re not building an audience. In particular, it’s my impression that the audience for “journal club”-style blog posts about single recently-published papers is rather small. The same goes for posts explaining how to do something in R (maybe unless they’re aggregated by R-bloggers). (UPDATE #2: As a couple of commenters point out, this is wrong. Posts about how to do something in R get found via search engines and tend to accumulate lots of pageviews over time. Not sure why I wrote what I did; just wasn’t thinking I guess.) And it goes double for posts about your own ongoing research. Don’t misunderstand, you shouldn’t blog by thinking to yourself “What will draw the biggest audience?” Indeed, you needn’t care about having an audience at all. And I suspect most people who blog about the stuff I just listed don’t much care if they have an audience or not, which is fine. But if you do want an audience, your niche can’t be too narrow. Dynamic Ecology definitely is a niche blog–the vast majority of people in the world do not care about statistical machismo or the ESA’s abstract policy! Heck, even many ecologists don’t care about those things. But even fewer people care about the last paper you read, how your current field work is going, or how to do task X in R.
  • Ecologists don’t realize that’s there are things they could easily blog about that lots of people want to read. In particular, there is a big, inexhaustible audience for posts offering advice to graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. No matter what career stage you’re at, you probably know a lot about how to navigate previous career stages that people currently in those stages don’t know. Which still surprises me sometimes–doesn’t every grad student’s supervisor teach them how to suggest referees in a cover letter to the journal editor, or how to write an elevator pitch, or whatever? Apparently not! And haven’t the students who didn’t learn X from their supervisors already learned X from some existing online source? Again, apparently not! And advice posts have the advantage of being very easy and quick to write. So if you believe in the value of mentoring and enjoy it, you might want to consider taking up blogging as a form of mentoring.
  • The market for ecology blogs is already saturated, so that it’s very hard for a new one to build an audience. I doubt this. For instance, it sounds like Stephen Heard’s fine new blog is building an audience faster than Oikos Blog did back when I started there.
  • Some ecologists feel like they’ve said what they had to say, and don’t want to repeat themselves, so they stopped blogging. Like ex-statistics blogger Larry Wasserman. I hope this isn’t true of anyone. Part of the attraction of blogging as a form is being able to revisit topics that interest you. Plus, if you want to have any influence, you can’t just say something once–you have to keep saying it over and over, in different ways. (This has been true since long before the internet, by the way.)
  • Here’s my most interesting hypothesis (though not my most likely hypothesis): at least a few ecologists underestimate or undervalue how rewarding blogging would be to them, relative to alternative uses of their time. So they allocate their time suboptimally according to their own goals. This was true for me when I started at Oikos Blog. It was only by trying blogging out that I discovered that I was good enough at it, liked it enough, and could draw enough of an audience to make it a really good use of an hour or two per week (occasionally more). And by “good use of my time”, I mean good for me, not “neutral/bad for me but good for science as a whole”. I don’t blog out of selfless altruism. So in retrospect, I was misallocating my time before I started blogging. And while you’d have to ask Brian and Meg, or other top blogging ecologists like Terry McGlynn, I suspect they’d say the same. Of course, everybody’s optimal time allocation is different. But I do wonder if there are a few ecologists out there who’ve gotten a bit too caught up in allocating their time to more traditional activities. Cranking out one more little paper**, writing one more long-shot grant proposal, saying “yes” to serving on one more committee, tweaking their teaching prep a bit more, getting into one more Twitter discussion, etc., when they would be better off blogging.

*I really miss Just Simple Enough. Please come back, Amy Hurford!

**No one reads your papers. If you prefer writing papers to blogging because you think that more people (or at least, more of the “right” people) read papers, don’t be so sure. And then take into account how long it takes to write and publish a paper vs. a blog post. No, blog posts aren’t substitutes for papers. But giving up a little bit of time paper-writing can buy you a lot of blog posts, which can be a very good trade for your overall impact on your field.

65 thoughts on “Blogs are dying; long live (science) blogs (UPDATEDx3)

  1. Via Twitter, @DNLee5 suggests that some ecology bloggers have shifted to blogging about broader issues. Could be, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head in my current cold-addled state.

    Over the years we’ve probably shifted to being a bit more of a general academia blog than we used to be, or than Oikos Blog used to be when I was there. But it’s not a massive shift and hasn’t affected our readership within ecology as far as I can tell.

  2. Interesting post, Jeremy, and having just started my own blog, I’m glad you don’t think the science blog is dying!

    I have been pleased to see my blog get more audience than I expected. Well, pleased and a bit frightened, to tell the truth! While it’s early days, I’ve found it on balance a very positive experience and would encourage others to jump in too. It’s not just being read – as you point out, it builds connections.

    It’s been interesting seeing what posts get attention, because I keep being surprised. Apparently posting on the P-value (bit.ly/1M6ky1M) or on reproducibility (bit.ly/1wVSkmk) hits a nerve and generates traffic. So does being linked to on Dynamic Ecology! I was disappointed to see that almost nobody cared to read about Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the most awesome women who ever did science (bit.ly/1EQ5X7j, and believe me, you won’t regret learning about her). But I agree with you that an audience is good, but needn’t dictate what a blog posts. So I’m sure I’ll run some more duds out there!

    • I’ve decided that in blogging it’s the shooting match, not the individual shot, that counts. No single post matters that much in the long run. But a blog as a whole can have a large cumulative influence over time.

  3. I find it odd that you’re assuming that people with these types of blogs have no audience: “Ecologists mostly want to blog about stuff that other ecologists don’t want to read about, and so give up blogging when they find they’re not building an audience.”

    Are you assuming throughout that ecologists only start blogs aimed at audiences of ecologists?

    Also, if I understand correctly, your definition of “audience” is the people who read the majority of a given blog’s posts, and usually around the time that the post is published. How do you classify all of the people who visit the blog after googling a topic?

    I imagine that an ecologist with an R blog receives a lot of traffic from non-ecologists (anyone who uses R is a potential visitor), but not necessarily when a given post comes out. Instead, that post gets viewed any time someone googles something related. That type of blog might not lead to a lot of comments from visitors, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of visitors, and it doesn’t mean that the blog isn’t impactful.

    • “Are you assuming throughout that ecologists only start blogs aimed at audiences of ecologists? ”

      No, sorry if that wasn’t clear. For instance, several of the Tenure, She Wrote bloggers are ecologists, but Tenure, She Wrote isn’t an ecology blog, it’s a general academia blog. For purposes of this post I’m just focusing on blogs aimed at ecologists.

      “Also, if I understand correctly, your definition of “audience” is the people who read the majority of a given blog’s posts, and usually around the time that the post is published. How do you classify all of the people who visit the blog after googling a topic? ”

      Good point. Indeed, an increasing fraction of this blog’s audience is people who find a single post by googling. I don’t think the two sorts of audiences are mutually exclusive. This issue came up in the various comments on Andrew Sullivan’s retirement from blogging. Ezra Klein suggested that one reason blogs are dying is that you can’t reach a big audience by trying to carry on an open-ended conversation with people who read most of your posts. I disagree; I agree with Paul Krugman’s reply that it’s actually not that difficult to write a blog that both draws a long-term audience of regular readers, but that’s built out of individual posts that can be read, understood, and enjoyed by anyone who finds them by googling. Plus, I suspect that unless you blog long and well enough to develop an audience of regular readers, your posts mostly won’t be linked to enough to come up very high in search rankings, and so won’t be found by people who are searching.

      “I imagine that an ecologist with an R blog receives a lot of traffic from non-ecologists (anyone who uses R is a potential visitor), but not necessarily when a given post comes out. Instead, that post gets viewed any time someone googles something related. That type of blog might not lead to a lot of comments from visitors, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of visitors, and it doesn’t mean that the blog isn’t impactful.”

      You’re absolutely right about that; just saw Jeremy Yoder’s comment below making the same point. That should’ve occurred to me when I was writing the post.

  4. “no blogosphere worthy of the name for any scholarly field”–? I think palaeontology still has a vibrant blogosphere, partly because of the broad spectrum of bloggers from very established academics to very non-established “amateur” enthusiasts, and everything in between (especially PhD students/postdocs). I hypothesize that some other fields do still enjoy a healthy blogosphere where such a sustaining spectrum exists. Astronomy? Depends on what one defines as a “blogosphere worthy of the name”.

    I agree that most academics probably have no clue how blogging could/would help them. I did not until I tried, and now I am 100% sure that it has helped me, in terms of the usual things for a “successful” (by own standards) blogger such as writing skills, creative outlet, contacts, outreach etc. but also new collaborations, new invitations to give talks/appear in documentaries, consult on other science communication, etc.

    • Interesting John. I seem to recall a commenters on a previous post agreeing with me that paleontology and astronomy had blogs, but not a sufficient number, with sufficient back-and-forth between them, to comprise a “blogosphere”.

      Your remark about the broad spectrum of paleontology bloggers is interesting as well. It’s my impression that part of why economics has a vibrant blogosphere is that there’s a continuum from amateurs to professionals interested in the subject, as well as a large critical mass of non-professionals who don’t blog themselves, but want to read and maybe comment on the same topics as professionals. Sounds like something similar is true of paleontology, and maybe astronomy as well. Academic ecology lacks that kind of sustaining continuum, except for certain controversial topics with political implications, like climate change.

      Whether “most” academics have no clue how blogging could/would help them, not sure I’d go quite that far. I suspect there are some who should be doing it, and once they started would be wishing they’d started earlier. But hard to say how many.

      • Yeah I probably over-spoke about the “most academics” bit. I’ve noticed a big difference in how biomechanics writes (much less literary, colleagues in this field tend to be less interested in the literature, blogging, etc; more engineering/gadget-minded– broadly speaking) whereas palaeo is very literary (long-winded papers, blogging, like to read old literature in field). Morphology, another field I work in, seems to be somewhere in between but closer to palaeo in my VERY NAUGHTY FALSE DICHOTOMY of “literary” vs. “engineery”… but I think there is some truth to that dichotomy too, on average, and that may be part of the variation in the popularity of blogs in different fields?

      • “but I think there is some truth to that dichotomy too, on average, and that may be part of the variation in the popularity of blogs in different fields?”

        Very interesting, never thought of that, will have to mull it over.

      • “Academic ecology lacks that kind of sustaining continuum [amateur to professional], except for certain controversial topics with political implications, like climate change.”

        I disagree with that Jeremy and I wonder if perhaps your perception of what is an “ecology” blog is quite narrow? There are a lot of amateur naturalists, birders, etc., that both blog themselves and are interested in what others blog about. This includes the blogs of academic ecologists, particualrly when it relates to conservation, restoration ecology (Ian Lunt’s site is a good example), food security, farming practices, government policy, NGOs, and broader environmental issues.

        At the risk of getting into a debate about what ecology is and is not, it would seem to me that all of these topics either fall directly within or cut across areas that academic ecologists are interested in and blog about.

      • @jeffollerton:

        “I disagree with that Jeremy and I wonder if perhaps your perception of what is an “ecology” blog is quite narrow?”

        Possibly.

    • “I hypothesize that some other fields do still enjoy a healthy blogosphere where such a sustaining spectrum exists. ”

      On the other hand, in comments on an old post (?) I remember a neuroscientist commenting that that continuum is why there’s no scholarly blogosphere in neuroscience. Neuroscience bloggers all get sucked into writing about the latest brain research for a popular audience, as opposed to writing for their fellow neuroscientists.

      On the third hand, maybe there’s a subtle difference here. With neuroscience, maybe there’s a big popular audience that wants to read about neuroscience produced by professionals, but there are no amateur or semi-professional neuroscientists. Whereas in paleontology and astronomy and economics, there are a lot of amateurs and semi-professionals who do those things (or at least feel qualified to evaluate the professionals who do those things, in the case of economics).

      • “Neuroscience bloggers all get sucked into writing about the latest brain research for a popular audience, as opposed to writing for their fellow neuroscientists.”

        That’s why I mostly don’t blog about that stuff 😉 My interests are too idiosyncratic, and I aim for neuroscientists rather than the public… but sometimes they wander in anyway!

        There are a few of us out there, but we are few and far between. And most of the others don’t post regularly enough, or have lost steam.

      • Is it not possible to aim for both audiences (academic and public) with different posts? I’d like to think that I’ve achieved that on my blog, based on the diversity of followers and commentators (not just on the blog itself but in special interest groups on Facebook). Of course I may be fooling myself 🙂

      • @jeffollerton:

        “Is it not possible to aim for both audiences (academic and public) with different posts?”

        I’m sure it is, to an extent. The question would be to what extent. In economics for instance, Paul Krugman marks some of his posts as “wonkish” or occasionally “highly wonkish”, to signal that they’re aimed primarily at the professional fraction of his (massive) audience.

  5. I’ll toss out another hypothesis, which is that a lot of the early-career folks (PhD students and postdocs) who fueled the boom in the science blogosphere around 2008-2010 are either (1) frantically trying to establish research programs as freshly-appointed faculty or (2) frantically trying to become freshly-appointed faculty. (Or, (3) they’ve left academia and become science journalists. That’s a non-trivial group.) Certainly I, personally, am finding less time for the “hey here’s something I read” kind of blogging — and when I do want to write for a context other than a journal article, I’m looking for opportunities that burnish my CV beyond an ongoing contribution to a blog.

    Also: My experience from The Molecular Ecologist is that the audience for posts about “how to do X in R” is not at all smaller than for other posts, but it is different. “How-to” posts may not make a big splash in traffic when they first go live, but over time they end up ranking among our most-visited posts because, I think, people find them in searches for “how to do X” and keep coming back to them as references.

    • Interesting that there might be a cohort effect here. You could be right; I hadn’t thought of that.

      Good point about how-to posts possibly accumulating many views over time because people can find them via search engines. I should’ve thought of that, because exactly the same thing happens with our advice posts, which is why I said there’s a big audience for advice posts.

    • I’ll second Jeremy’s hypotheses.

      I wish I would blog back (it’s been several years of wishfull wishing), and even if I always blogged quite light in terms of content and could easily devote a few hours a week to the same effect, I never succeeded doing so.

      I think I’m on Jeremy’s #1 Hyp, but to be completely honest, it’s all linked with another one:
      #4: earlier bloggers have growing families and blog allocated time vanished in the light of family duties.
      Time with kids is more rewarding to me than blogging. And it already competes with Academic allocated time.

  6. Really interesting discussion here! I started blogging in Dec. 2013 because a lot of women in science were really coming into their own voices through various types of social media and I felt that I had something to contribute to the topic. I also really find giving advice and mentoring newer colleagues really rewarding, so that is the pay-off for me. I’ve actually felt that the ecology blogosphere is pretty happening compared to some other niches of science blogs. I think that there are two main reasons why many of my colleagues don’t blog: 1) the value of blogging isn’t tangible and often doesn’t “count” for tenure/promotion or other scientists see it as a waste of your time (time you could spend doing something “useful”), and 2) there is some risk involved in blogging and putting your ideas out there (e.g. fear of rejection, or if you are female a very real risk of attracting unwanted and harmful attention). I really enjoy blogging and have found it rewarding, especially when someone tells me in real life that they read my blog!

    • Re: your #1, yeah. On the rare occasions when someone asks me about my blogging one of the most common questions is whether blogging will help get a TT job/tenure/promotion/grants. The answer’s that it probably won’t.

      Re: your #2, I think there’s an optimal level of fear for any blogger, and it’s some intermediate level, though the optimum level varies among individuals. If you’re too worried about possible negative reactions, you’ll never work up the courage to say anything worth saying. But if you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of your writing, you’ll eventually say something you’ll regret (or should regret, at least). Over time, I’ve become a bit more cautious, to the point where I’m now wondering if I’m playing it a bit too safe in terms of what I’m prepared to say and how I’m prepared to say it.

      One way to address your #2 is to blog under a pseudonym. That raises it’s own set of issues. My own view is that there are trade-offs here–good reasons to blog under a pseudonym, and good reasons not to. Each person needs to weigh those and decide which ones apply to them.

  7. I was going to say something vey similar to Jeremy Yoder. Old farts don’t blog. Young people are either grad students, who may not feel enough confidence or authority to blog about ecology; post docs or non-tenured faculty who are also more likely to have young children and need to focus all their work time on grants and papers (sorry, but you get more “points” for papers than blog posts when trying to get a job or go up for tenure, regardless of the influence on the field); or the relatively few just-past-tenure youngish professors. Of this last group, only those who actually like blogging and feel like it’s interesting and/or useful do so.

    Finally, having blogged for a different audience, I know that it’s actually relatively hard to maintain a successful blog. You need regular and frequent posts and that’s a hard thing to do solo. A small dedicated group makes things easier, but then for an ecology blog, you’re talking about trying to put together a group of those rare people who have both the inclination and time to blog, as mentioned above.

    • All fair points Margaret, though I might quibble with details. I’m not sure if the age distribution of active bloggers (either in ecology, or science more broadly) is actually concentrated on just-past-tenure profs. In ecology/evolution for instance, there are some very senior people (Andrew Hendry, Joan Strassmann, Jerry Coyne, Charley Krebs, others), some grad students and postdocs (BioDiverse Perspectives, EcoEvo@TCD, Caroline Tucker, Amy Parachnowitsch, others). So I wouldn’t say that there’s a unique age/career stage window that’s best for blogging. But you’re right that there are always lots of reasons not to (different ones at different ages/career stages).

      But here’s the thing that still puzzles me: every one of your points (and the points of others about how there aren’t big tangible benefits to blogging) apply just as much in economics. But yet economics has a much larger and more vibrant blogosphere than other fields of which I’m aware. John’s talked about one possible reason for that–larger potential supply of bloggers and larger potential audience for scholarly blogs. There are others. For instance, economists have a long tradition of sharing their work via preprints so might be ‘preadapted’ to sharing it via blogs. And maybe some of it is that a critical mass of active bloggers is self-reinforcing. If enough people do it, it starts looking like a “normal” thing to do. Not something you need some special reason to do or need to be a special person to do (e.g., because you have an unusually large amount of spare time). But I dunno; it still surprises me how people’s time allocation decisions seem to vary systematically among fields.

      Totally agree that pulling together a group blog is hard. I got *very* lucky in being able to do it.

      • I don’t know enough about economics to comment much on why they have an active “blog-o-sphere” relative to other fields. For various bizarre reasons, I know a fair number of astrophysicists; theirs is a small field relative to ecology, and has a blog called astrobites that covers new papers in the field. When I talked to organizers about putting together an ecology oriented version a couple years ago, it became very clear that ecology is simply too broad and diffuse to do what they do on astrobites. BioDiverse Persepectives is a reasonable equivalent, and note there that biodiversity research is just a small part of ‘ecology’ as a whole. An attempted chembites blog failed for similar reasons — chemistry is just a really broad field.

        I wonder if economics might be the same as astrophysics in that regard: grad students generally all study the same *sorts* of things and have a common starting point from which to discuss, argue, and otherwise interact. In ecology, you could easily take two professional ecologists and find out that they had never taken any two classes in common — maybe one studies parasitic wasps and the other studies dryland ecosystems, for example. Or one studies agroecosystems and the other studies marine fauna.

        Another question re: economics blogs: what makes it a blog-o-sphere? Give and take of opinions? On what — results, methods, or other? How would that map to ecology?

      • “I wonder if economics might be the same as astrophysics in that regard: grad students generally all study the same *sorts* of things and have a common starting point from which to discuss, argue, and otherwise interact.”

        Hmm. There may be more commonalities than among ecologists, but I doubt as many as in astrophysics. For instance, economics definitely breaks down in to subfields that have relatively little to do with one another. And yeah, it’s back and forth on all sorts of things–explanations and interpretations of recent and historical economic events, policy debate, methodological debate.

        Re: what makes economics a blogosphere…Yeah, exchange of opinions among blogs is a big one. Lots of people all talking about the same stuff, and going back and forth with one another. A sense of a field-wide, shared conversation. Again, could be various reasons for that. One is that economics is more news-driven field than ecology or many other scientific fields.

      • Okay, so you hit on some of what I think matters. News-driven is definitely one. Much easier to have conversations about what’s going on when you constantly have new material to talk about!

        What, exactly, are ecologists going to have an exchange of opinions about? There’s statistical methodologies, teaching stuff, etc. But what, at its core, is “ecology” that we could exchange opinions about? These things exist. But I think they’re rather few and far between. Prove me wrong. 🙂

      • @Margaret:

        “But what, at its core, is “ecology” that we could exchange opinions about?”

        Um, most of the stuff we post about on this blog, for starters! And everything Charley Krebs posts about on his blog. And probably lots of stuff on, say, Conservation Bytes…

        I’m puzzled by your comment here. You’re a longtime reader, and you know that we and other ecology blogs post about all sorts of things (not just stats and teaching stuff), and that commenters on those posts often exchange differing opinions on those things. So I must be misunderstanding you (sorry!)–can you clarify?

      • Sorry, I have to disagree with you here. Your blog does not generally cover ecology. It covers the profession, culture, and practice of DOING ecology. As support, I just went back and assembled all the blog post titles from the most recent complete month (Feb 2015) of posts (excluding Friday links). Here they are in reverse chronological order (because that’s how WordPress presents them):

        The secret recipe for successful working group meetings?
        How do you make figures?
        How often are ecologists mentioned in the news?
        Weird, and unwise, things to include on your cv (UPDATED)
        How do you learn new skills in R?
        The biggest benefit of my switch to R? Reproducibility
        In praise of slow science
        Science is hard: culturing problems edition
        Future Faculty Workshop at UMich
        Happy Valentine’s Day from biology!
        Is the PEG model paper an indicator of changing authorship criteria?
        Happy Darwin Day!
        Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)
        ReviewBox: stop picking on yourself – that’s our job!
        Graduate positions still available in Jeremy Fox’s lab for Fall 2015/Winter 2016
        How many terms should you have in your model before it becomes statistical machismo?
        Evaluating Teaching
        What ecology & evolution papers do you read again and again?
        Books that all ecology grad students should read

        I argue that NOT ONE of them is about ecology per se. The closest might be “How many terms should you have in your model before it becomes statistical machismo?”, but I’d say that this is more about statistics (duh) and the culture of academic ecologists (who choose to do statistics in a certain way). I count posts:
        – about the practice of lab/field work (1)
        – about the practice of analyzing and presenting data (5)
        – about the practices of reading and publishing (3)
        – about the practice of teaching (1)
        – about ecology’s perception by the outside world (1)
        – about the culture in academic ecology (1)
        – advice to other ecologists (2)
        – announcements to other ecologists (2)
        – miscellaneous/just for fun (2)
        – about ecology itself (0)

        Do you find economics blogs interesting because they talk about what it’s like to be an economist in academia/elsewhere? Or because of the ideas presented about economics itself?

      • Fair enough Margaret, but this just changes the source of my puzzlement. We certainly do write many posts that aren’t specifically relevant to ecologists–they’re about academia more broadly or whatever. But I think you’re adopting a very strangely narrow definition of “about ecology itself” to say we never post about ecology itself. Nor do I understand why posting about ecology itself, as you’ve defined it, should be taken to define “ecology blog”.

        To be clear, that you see DE with rather different eyes than me doesn’t bother me at all. I actually have no idea if most readers see us an ecology blog, or a science blog, or an academia blog, or some hybrid of those, or what. Probably, readers would vary in how they’d classify us. All of which is fine. And as other commenters have rightly noted, “ecology” may be a sufficiently ill-defined term to make it difficult to talk about “ecology blogs”. But you’ve now made your own definition clear–and I’m afraid I find it sufficiently puzzling that I just don’t know how to continue the conversation. I just don’t “get” where you’re coming from.

        I’m surprised and a bit dismayed at that, you’re about the last commenter with whom I’d ever expect to reach a confused impasse. But I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree here and move on.

      • Hey, Jeremy, I’m in no way criticizing this blog, which I greatly enjoy. I’m just trying to dig deeper into what’s different about ecology blogs and economics blogs (which I don’t read and therefore and proffering ideas).

        “But I think you’re adopting a very strangely narrow definition of “about ecology itself” to say we never post about ecology itself.”

        I’m not saying *never*. I just don’t think ecology itself is the bread and butter of this and many (most?) ecology blogs.

        “Nor do I understand why posting about ecology itself, as you’ve defined it, should be taken to define “ecology blog”.”

        This wasn’t my point. I’m not trying to classify blogs as “ecology” or “not ecology.”

        My point was that if there’s substantive disagreement in economics about how to interpret/model/explain what we actually see in real economies, then there’s fodder there for a blog-o-sphere. I don’t see (most) ecology blogs talking a lot about how we interpret/model/explain what we see in the natural world and whether we’re doing it the right way or not. Many blogs talking about things like whether metabolic scaling applies in all contexts or what causes a so-called latitude diversity gradient would seem to me to be the ecological equivalent of the economics blog-o-sphere. (But correct me if I’m wrong, because as I say, I don’t read economics blogs.) These sorts of “ecology itself” discussion topics don’t appear to be common conversation points in ecology blogs — rather these sorts of discussions are carried out in the published literature.

      • Ok Margaret, I understand better what you’re getting at here.

        It’s true that we do less of that sort of thing than we used to, but it ebbs and flows. I doubt I’ve written my last zombie ideas in ecology post. 🙂

        As to why you don’t see more of this sort of thing in the ecology blogosphere (and why you see so much of it in the economics blogosphere), could be various reasons. Some have already come up in this thread. Another might be that there just aren’t enough blogs by and for academic ecologists for it to make sense to ask why they talk about what they do. If you have enough professional scholars with blogs aimed at their fellow professionals, then it makes some sense to ask about them as a collective. Why do all those academic economists blog about the sort of stuff that they do? But if your “population size” is small, as with academic ecologists blogging for other academic ecologists, then maybe it doesn’t make sense to ask about the collective as a whole, because there isn’t one. There’s just me and Brian and Meg and you and Jeff and etc., all making our own idiosyncratic, independent decisions on what to write about.

        Personally, I’m hoping to soon get back to doing more posts about ecology, and I think Brian feels the same. But I find it difficult to force these things–I don’t have much control over what sort of bloggable ideas occur to me. And at some level I’m ok with that; I think you have to be to be a blogger for the long haul. This blog is a record of the stuff I think about that seems interesting enough that I’d like other people to think about it to. If that’s different stuff than I used to think about, or if it includes less ecology-specific stuff than it used to, well, so be it.

    • I just turned 49. I don’t know if that qualifies as an old fart but it probably does. There are several people older than me that are actively blogging right now (and I might say writing some of the more interesting blogs out there). Jeremy lists a number of them but I could add more.

      Your age generalization might apply to the first wave of blogging or perhaps to the proportion of people who dip their toe in blogging. But of those people with even semi-serious intent to sustain, I’m not sold on the age argument.

      • Following Jeremy’s link, Paige’s data strongly shows strong youth skew in the data about who is blogging.

        But I have to say when I run through the list of blogs I read frequently there is a pretty good mix of ages and if anything skewed older (I just ran through my RSS subscriptions)

        I think there is an age-based difference between who fires up wordpress and creates a front page and writes two posts and runs out of steam but not at all convinced there is an age-based difference in who is in it for the long haul.

    • Okay, the age distribution is not a bounded uniform one. But I still think it has a mode in the younger (but not youngest) age groups and a long tail as you get older.

      • @Margaret:

        Follow the trackback we just got from Paige Jarreau’s blog. She’s done a big survey of science bloggers, which includes data on their age distribution. I’ll be giving it a shout-out in the next linkfest too.

  8. The last paragraph, beginning with “**No one reads your papers….” I found to be intriguing. I’ve discovered that by posting comments to blogs in my specific area of study (but stopping short of pimping my work)- I get a lot more attention for my publications. So I believe, anyway, that blogging (or responding to blogs) goes hand in hand with getting recognized- & getting your papers downloaded & read.

  9. This is a really interesting post and discussion. At least, for a person who has a blog, and perhaps more generally. (And also to a “top blogging ecologist” such as myself! I am flattered.)

    I think it’s still early days in academic blogging, at least in ecology. As you point out, it appears to be a mostly open niche. It’s clear that a variety of good blogs do get seen, and over time, I think it can be something useful and even valuable, perhaps. My working hypothesis is that for a blog to grow and reach a broad audience in the discipline, it needs to be updated frequently, stay relevant the audience, be interesting, be respectful, and not about the personal life of the authors. That’s not a small amount of effort, but for those who want to make the investment, then I think there’s big payoff. (That’s what I’ve been shooting for, at least, and my growth rate has been linear for the last two years, though I’m expecting to flatline any day now.) As Jeremy and Margaret and others have pointed out, the trick is that it’s hard to make that investment at certain life and career stages. I started my site after tenure, and when my youngest (and only) kid was 9. And I’m still getting papers out at what I consider a decent pace but my heart isn’t broken if my blogging slows down my peer-reviewed publication rate. I make sure that whenever I am writing, it’s not taking time away from parenting. My kid is getting busier with his own interests and schoolwork, so that’s not a problem for me. Of course my kid, my spouse, my students and gainful employment take precedence over a blog.

    I think it’s still the early days in blogging, because an increasing number of people will see how the long-term investment can have a great payoff, even if a lot of the benefits are diffuse. Can a blog get you a job? Well, I don’t think so (but it might help a little bit, maybe? I’m curious what Alex Wild might remark about this). Can a blog get you tenure? Definitely not. If a schmuck like myself can come up with a blog that a non-trivial number of academics choose to read regularly, then I think anybody can do it as long as they make the investment and have something worthwhile to say, which I think many people do.

  10. So one could say that ecology blogs are not ‘dying’, but just in decline? or perhaps still growing?
    I think there are different ideas of what an ecology blog is (i.e. writing for other scientists/academics, or writing for non-specialists), and different ideas of what is a ‘successful’ blog (i.e. longevity, no. of followers, topic interest reach, sharing etc.). I started blogging years ago, before I started my PhD, and am still going strong. I mostly write about ecology for a general audience, so I have a small (but loyal) following, most of whom are non-ecologists.
    Also, there is the issue of exposure. As suggested above, many ecology bloggers are the newer generation of ecologists, who maybe haven’t connected with the global ‘blogosphere’ yet, or don’t know it exists – sort of allopoatric ecology bloggers 😉 I only discovered Ecobloggers last week, even though I already follow many of the blogs on their list. And I only joined Twitter last year, so maybe tha’s a factor – my readership has gone up significantly since then.
    And I think the influence of discipline might be larger & more complex than it seems. Other blogosphere disciplines not mentioned are classics, antiquities & history – they’re certainly doing something right!

    • I think this post has a really important seed about why economics has a blog-o-sphere. Namely, that the audience isn’t JUST other professional economists. From what I read here, it suggests that blogs are actually *targeting* the general public and, perhaps especially, policy-makers. Economics bloggers write in plain language and exchange opinions on a very public stage.

      Contrast that to ecology blogs which generally are for other ecologists. This blog, for example, doesn’t have a lot in it that’s of interest to your neighbor. (Making assumptions about your neighbor, of course.)

      What would an economics equivalent look like for ecology? (musing…)

      • @Margaret:

        “From what I read here, it suggests that blogs are actually *targeting* the general public and, perhaps especially, policy-makers. Economics bloggers write in plain language and exchange opinions on a very public stage. ”

        I think it’s a bit different: there’s a lot of *overlap* between “what the educated general public and policymakers want to read about economics” and “what professional economists want to read about economics”.

        Which is indeed a contrast to ecology, I think. Although other commenters would disagree and have talked about how their own blogs have a mixed professional/nonprofessional audience.

      • “What would an economics equivalent look like for ecology? (musing…)”

        A bit like mine perhaps? At least in part, the bits where I talk about policy, the role of NGOs and practitioners, campaigns, etc.

    • I think Margaret makes an interesting point. When I discuss my career with lay persons, I very quickly point out to them there are scientific, environmental & policy elements of my work in “ecology,” generally. So, that provides an avenue for them to pick & choose the dialogue. We can chat about biogeography, engineering of alternative water recycling systems, or the latest bill in Congress affecting wilderness study areas.

      I know many will argue ecology is ecology, period. Thus, as an -ology, it is a science, period. I fought that battle of verbiage for a long time, and finally conceded that the lay public was not gonna raise a white flag… so I did. I know I get far more conversation in providing lay people options for face-to-face chats. So, I believe if the goal is to attract non-scientists to an ecology blog, then it must by definition become more environmental and more policy oriented. Fact of the matter is, little Johnny down at the barbershop just doesn’t wanna hear about my development of the Vegetative Complex Health Index… but chat him up about the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015… and you will get some action!

      I do not believe there is anything necessarily wrong in having strictly science oriented ecology blogs. It’s great to have a community of peers to hash ideas out with. But, I have long said ecologists must do better in connecting with the lay public. Because, how can we expect them to support our policy positions when they just do not have much interaction with us???

  11. Pingback: Don’t Freak Out. Science Blogs are NOT Dying. › From The Lab Bench

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  15. A couple of questions. Is the time series of N_ecology_blogs a single peak or will it oscillate? If it oscillates what are the drivers of the upswings and downswings? And if it oscillates will the amplitude be relatively stable or will there be some dampening mechanism toward some stable N?

  16. In terms of why I blog: before I started blogging, there were a few times where I wanted to write about something, but it seemed pointless because I didn’t have a blog and throwing up a post to a brand-new blog just didn’t seem like it would be a good use of time. But I agree with you that I was misjudging what would be a valuable use of my time. Probably the biggest benefit to me of blogging is letting me work through things that I’m thinking about and that are occupying a lot of mental bandwidth. Writing about those things lets me process them and move on. That benefit would come regardless of whether anyone was reading the post or not.

    I still find it weird when I learn that someone (for example, my dean) knows about me because I blog, not because of my science or teaching or some other more standard academic contribution. I truly don’t know how I feel about that.

  17. Pingback: How does blog readership grow, and (how) does this matter? | Small Pond Science

  18. “UPDATE #2: As a couple of commenters point out, this is wrong. Posts about how to do something in R get found via search engines and tend to accumulate lots of pageviews over time. Not sure why I wrote what I did; just wasn’t thinking I guess.”

    Actually, I used the R How-To Blog as my example above, but I think the same idea applies to the “journal club-style” blog, as you call it. Actually, that’s the kind of blog that I have, so I know that views from google searches accumulate lots of pageviews over time. I’m amazed by how frequently people access some of my older posts – which are summaries/commentaries/cartoons about specific papers – while googling about the role of bats in emerging infectious diseases, the difference between predators and parasites, or whether black rats really spread the plague during medieval epidemics.

  19. Pingback: Something for the weekend #3 | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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  21. Pingback: Guest Post: Are Science Blogs Passé? (No). | UW-Madison Center for Limnology

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  23. Pingback: How I started blogging (reposted interview with Paige Brown Jarreau) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  24. Pingback: On 7 years of Ecology Blogging – Ecology is not a dirty word

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