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.