Birthday reflections on blogging

Happy third birthday to us! Rather than doing what we’ve done in the past and use our birthday as an excuse to trumpet our traffic stats, we decided to do a group post reflecting on how our blogging-related attitudes and goals have changed over time.

Jeremy’s reflections:

My own blogging birthday goes back to my days at the Oikos blog. Back then, my hope and ambition was that the Oikos blog would become a 21st century version of John Lawton’s old View from the Park column. A place to share interesting and provocative ideas, advice, and opinions that wouldn’t be good fits for traditional scientific papers. Thereby influencing the direction of the field of ecology. That’s still my hope and ambition, and I think it’s happening. Indeed, I never imagined Dynamic Ecology would be as successful as its been. I now regard it as an essential part of my contribution to the field (both a scholarly and a service contribution).

One effect of that success might seem paradoxical, though I don’t think it actually is–I’m now both more cautious and more confident in what I write than I was when I first started blogging. More cautious in the sense that I now think more carefully about how a post will come across before I post it. I’m trying to make sure that the blog shows the best side of me, not the worst (snarky, cocky, argumentative) side. To the point where I now worry a little that I’ve become too cautious, too hesitant to say things that might ruffle some feathers (I have a post criticizing a currently-popular approach in metacommunity ecology that I’ve been sitting on for months because I keep waffling about how to write it.) On the other hand, I’m more confident in that I now have an unshakeable core belief that we’re doing things right here at Dynamic Ecology. That core belief isn’t going to be altered if something I write upsets someone. It’s only been about a year since I’ve felt totally confident in that way.

I’ve also learned that it’s the shooting match, not the individual shot, that counts when it comes to blogging. I used to think of each post as its own separate thing. Now I realize that whatever influence you have as a blogger is the cumulative effect of your body of work. No single post is going to reach more than a small fraction of the people who might be interested in it, and isn’t going to have much effect on more than a small fraction of the people who do read it (well, unless it’s one of Meg’s posts that repeatedly goes viral and eventually becomes the internet’s standard reference on the topic). But blogging scales. If you write enough posts, your cumulative impact can be quite large–lots of little intellectual nudges to a whole bunch of people. This realization is part of what keeps me from being even more cautious about what I write. No one post matters all that much in the long run, for any purpose. So it’s not worth sweating too much over whether or how to write any one post I’m unsure about.

I’ve also learned other little things about how to blog well. Such as “it’s better to do a linkfest post once/week than to constantly be doing trivial posts linking to and briefly commenting on stuff you’ve read.” Back in my Oikos blog days, and in the early days of Dynamic Ecology, I’d occasionally post up to five times in a day! Every time I read something interesting or had a little thought, I’d do a quick post. That was very old school–it’s the sort of thing pioneering bloggers like Andrew Sullivan used to do 15 years ago. And it was very silly. 🙂

One thing I enjoy about blogging is that it’s an outlet for my inner tour guide. Back in high school I spent two or three summers as a tour guide in a cave (yes, really). And in college I volunteered to give campus tours to prospective students. I loved both those gigs. And then when my wife and I lived in London one of my favorite recreational activities was going on guided walks around the city. Blogging the way I do it is a lot like being a tour guide to ecology, or to academic science. Or sometimes just to the weird thoughts in my own head. At least, it feels that way to me–I have no idea if any of you see me as a tour guide!

Blogging’s had two big unexpected benefits for me. First, I now count Brian and Meg among my closest colleagues. Inviting them on board is one of the two best–and the luckiest–professional decisions I’ve ever made.

Second, it’s through blogging that I’ve discovered I have some big ideas as opposed to just a bunch of little or medium-sized ones. I’ve found myself coming back to certain themes, and recognizing links between ideas that previously had been separate in my mind. Not big ideas about ecology–I don’t have a Theory of Everything Ecological. But big ideas about how to do ecology. I’m hoping to write a book on that, which I’d never have thought of doing had I not been blogging. Writing a book would be a challenge for me–I’ve never done anything like it. But it’s thanks to blogging that I find myself wanting to take on that challenge, and feeling confident that I could pull it off (well, as confident as anyone can feel not having written a book before!)

Brian’s reflections:

The first thing you have to know about me is that I am in many ways a Luddite. I am highly skeptical that new technologies will improve my life. I don’t carry a cell phone. I have a twitter account only so that I could link my DE posts to the auto notification tweets (sorry to everybody who has followed me expecting more). I am convinced that email made my life worse. So how exactly did I end up as a blogger?

On the concrete level, I really enjoyed my discussions via comments with Jeremy in the early Oikos blog days he mentioned, so I couldn’t say no when he invited me to participate. On the big, meta, rationalization level, I think we need to find more ways to have scientific conversations and blogging fills that bill. When you get a PhD you learn more and more about less and less as the saying goes. This ends up meaning that there are about 10 people in the world that are really doing exactly what you’re doing (and maybe 100 in your general neighborhood). And talking to them is fun and important. But conferences are few and costly in time and CO2. Visiting to give seminars or collaborating on papers is fun (and very possible to do remotely) but only involves 2 or 3 people and on a very limited topic in a very formal way. I perceive a hole in between those extremes – where can you have a conversation with the 10 or 50 people thinking about the same things you are? This is why I love working group formats. But those again are costly and rare. Blogging fills this gap without having to fly 3000 km and spend a week away from family.

This for me is why I got into blogging – to have interesting discussions. And it is still the primary reason I blog. Getting lots of reads on a post is flattering, but I am much happier when I get 50 comments on a post than when I get a lot of hits. I think all three of us take a fair amount of pride in having created something rare – a space on the internet where conversation is rational and constructive. So thank you to everybody who comments! You help me to stay off airplanes and still have the kind of really deep stimulating discussions I crave.

I think there have been two benefits to blogging that I didn’t expect. The first is how much opportunity there is for mentoring. I never expected this. Blogging seems a terrible format. But for whatever reason, as Jeremy recently noted, advice posts are among our most popular. And I have received plenty of touching emails from people saying that one of my posts really helped them get through a rough spot. As somebody who really enjoys mentoring, this has been a really unexpected but really positive outcome.

The other unexpected benefit is that a lot of people seem to actually read and think about what we write and it has some modest impact on the thinking in the field. I honestly didn’t expect this (and I think much of the credit for that large reader base goes to Jeremy and Meg). But on topics ranging from statistical machismo to the need for prediction in ecology to the need to start talking about what to do with NSF funding rates of 3%. I feel like I can trace at least ripples in the overall conversation back to my blog posts. By no means do I think these ideas wouldn’t have emerged without me, that I said them best, that I’m the only one who said them or any such thing. But I do think the informality of blogging has let some of these things be said in ways that got heard more than they would have in the older format of opinion pieces in journals (and to address topics inappropriate to journals). And of course Meg and Jeremy have done this in spades on topics ranging from women in science to zombie ideas to pedagogy. This has really surprised me that blogging can actually influence (at least a tiny bit) the broad-band (all ecologist) conversation in addition to the narrow-band (10 specialists in my field) conversation that I mentioned above.

As for career benefits, I don’t know. When I go to a department to give a seminar all the grad students know me and want to talk to me whereas before blogging only a handful of the students in my own field wanted to talk to me. That’s nice (especially as it presents more opportunities for mentorship – many more of my one-on-one conversations when giving departmental seminars are about career mentoring than science now). But not career changing. I recently accepted the job of Editor in Chief at Global Ecology and Biogeography. Some small piece of being offered that was being perceived as “good at social media”. But since that job is one that half my colleagues think is undesirable and detrimental to my science, its not clear that is a benefit (still haven’t heard anybody get tenure because they’re “good at social media”). In short, most of the benefits to my career are pretty intangible at best (name recognition certainly being the biggest intangible “benefit” such as it is). As far as I’m concerned the major benefits and sole motivation for blogging remains that I get to have more conversations that I enjoy, be they mentoring, with specialists in my field, about the overall direction of the field of ecology or with Jeremy & Meg (who as Jeremy said have become close colleagues). And all of those conversations would not have happened without blogging and were cases where the internet enabled connections with people I would rarely if ever see in person but value very much the opportunities to have conversations with. So again, thank you to everybody for the conversations!

Meg’s reflections:

I very clearly remember receiving Jeremy’s email three years ago asking if I would be interested in blogging. I haven’t told him this before, but I slept horribly that night, because I kept going back and forth in my head about whether to do it. On the “DON’T DO IT!!!” side was knowing that I was really over-committed for that year: I was about to move from Georgia Tech to Michigan, would temporarily have labs in both locations, would be setting up new field sites in Michigan, would be teaching Intro Bio for the first time, would be having my second child, and would submit my tenure dossier at the end of the year. That is a LOT of stuff! But I also had a feeling that the blog would become something big, and that I’d really regret it if I didn’t sign on. So, even though it just added more craziness to my first year in Michigan, I signed on. I am so glad I did!

Brian and Jeremy already touched on some key points, including how much I value all my interactions with them, and how much we value our commenting community. So, I will focus on a few things they didn’t mention:

One of the biggest unexpected benefits to me has been blogging as a means of processing things and getting advice and feedback from others. I often write posts about something that’s been bothering me or about a decision I’m trying to make or about something I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot. If I don’t write about these things, I tend to waste lots of time and energy on mental churn about the topic. On the other hand, when I write a post on the topic, that helps me work through the topic and move on to other things. So, while blogging obviously takes up a certain amount of time, I feel like, some days, it really frees up time for me to work, by freeing up a lot of mental bandwidth. And then, on top of the benefits of writing things out, there are the really thoughtful comments that we get. I feel like I end up asking advice of our readers pretty often, and people often come up with great suggestions.

Another unexpected aspect of blogging to me has been how completely terrible I am at predicting what posts will be popular, and how unnerving it is for me when a post goes viral. It seems a little silly to post something on the internet and then get freaked out when lots of people read it, but that seems to be how it works for me. Some day, I will reconcile being a somewhat anxious person who gets freaked out by lots of people reading what I write with feeling absolutely compelled to write posts, including on uncomfortable topics. Today, however, is not that day. 🙂

Finally, another thing I’m still wrapping my head around is having people in academia know me based on my blogging and not based on my research. My first interaction with my new dean was when he sent me an email related to this blog — I truly wasn’t sure how I felt about that! On the one hand, I am proud of the blog and that people find it worth reading. On the other hand, I still think of my work identity as being primarily driven by my research. But I’m adjusting that view to realize that the teaching, blogging, and outreach I do are also really important components of my work identity. In the end, I think those activities may end up having a bigger impact than my research. So, like I said at the beginning, I am so glad that I write for this blog!

9 thoughts on “Birthday reflections on blogging

  1. Happy birthday! Meg, I was interested to see your comment about being unnerved when a post is popular. None of my posts have gone viral quite like yours, but an early post about P-values ( got about 1,000 views in a couple of hours and I was completely convinced it was because 1,000 people had discovered what an idiot I am and were laughing at me. (I cannot conclusively rule out this hypothesis, although I’ve decided I prefer to pretend that I can.) So I completely understand (and share) your reaction although I also agree it’s a bit silly to have a blog and then worry when people read it! 🙂

    • Talking with other bloggers, it sounds like the urge to curl up in the fetal position when a post becomes popular is pretty common. Presumably someone with more of a psych background could explain this?

      • I’ve never had a post go viral quite like yours do, Meg (well, E. O. Wilson vs. math went pretty viral, but that was in large part because I turned that post into a hub for the online conversation by repeatedly updating it). But if I did have one go viral like yours, I imagine I’d be a bit nervous because it would mean the post was getting a lot of views from people who have no idea who I am and who’ve never read DE. So I’d be getting a lot of views from people who are particularly likely to misunderstand me or take me out of context.

        I also think (or at least hope) that the urge to go fetal goes away over time. I imagine it’s a bit like my former nervousness about going to ESA and discovering that lots of people hate the blog. It’s only in the last year that I completely stopped worrying that might happen.

  2. A real good compilation of personal information 
    Thanks for keep sharing your ideas and experiences. It’s have create some positive contribution in my scientific life.

  3. Meg: you had told me in the past that you weren’t sure at first whether to accept my invitation because you had a lot of other stuff on your plate. But I hadn’t realized that you agonized about it that much, to the point of having a sleepless night.

    So I guess I should say thanks for *not* sleeping on my invitation! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Recommended reads #55 | Small Pond Science

  5. Happy birthday! I would add that your posts are great for building shared lingo and concepts across the field. The other day one of my coauthors was lamenting a reviewer comment to add all sorts of new analyses to the paper. I read the comment, rolled my eyes, and said to the coauthor, “oh that’s all just statistical machismo,” pointed the coauthor to Brian’s post, and said to just address in the response why these additional analyses aren’t going to make the paper better. Having that blog post and the term ‘statistical machismo’ was great: made my coauthor instantly feel much better and saved us a lot of time in communicating with each other.

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