Recently in the comments, we were wondering about why ecologists who would be good bloggers (meaning both that they’d enjoy it, and they’d consider it a worthwhile use of their time if they were to do it) don’t blog. One reason might be uncertainty about what it takes, and what you can expect to get out of it. So if you’re thinking about starting a blog (and if you’re not, maybe you should be!), I suggest asking yourself the following questions (warning, long-ish post ahead):
- Why do you want to blog? There are lots of good reasons to blog. My reasons–to have in-depth conversations about my specialized interests, to provide advice and mentoring to students, and to influence the direction of my field–aren’t the only ones. Most science bloggers write for a non-professional audience, as a form of outreach or to correct bad science reporting in the popular media. Or you might want to influence policy. Or your lab might use a group blog as a way for everyone to keep up with what everyone else is working on. Or you might just use it as a way to keep notes to yourself, but put it online on the off chance anyone else happens to find those notes useful. Or you might just enjoy it. Etc. Note that there are bad reasons to blog. “I just want to share links” is a bad reason to blog, at least if that’s most or all of what you plan to do. Twitter is much better for that. “I want to socialize with other scientists, have lots of little conversations, make some connections, etc.” is a bad reason. Again, that’s what Twitter is for (more on this). Most blogs are more like broadcasts than conversations. Only a minority of blogs (including this one) have good active comment threads. “It will force me to get some practice writing” is a bad reason. Yes, blogging is good writing practice. But a blog is not a commitment device. Wanting to write causes you to have a blog, not the other way around. “Blogging will help me publish more papers and/or get more grants” is a bad reason, because it probably won’t (though I have two, count ’em two, papers that grew out of blog posts). Blogging absolutely can have benefits for you besides just personal enjoyment. But those benefits mostly are less concrete than “more papers and grants”, and to the extent that they are concrete they’re fairly serendipitous. And “I want to raise my profile in my field” arguably is a bad reason. Having a blog that’s widely read in your field absolutely will raise your profile, which may have some (modest) benefits to your career; see here and here for more on this. But paradoxically, I think the best way to raise your profile by blogging is to not blog with the goal of raising your profile. In particular, I doubt you’ll be able to raise your profile to any degree worth caring about by blogging summaries of your own research (which is what most scientists I’ve met who want to “raise their profile” by blogging are thinking of doing). The potential audience for posts about your research is almost certainly very small. Anyone in your field who wants a summary of your research can read your abstracts. Blogging about your research adds little value, even if you throw in pretty pictures of your study organism or whatever. And odds are that hardly anybody outside your field (people in other fields, non-academics, whoever) wants to read blog posts about your research. Put it this way: I don’t know of any high profile science blogger whose primary goal was raising their profile in their field, or who became high-profile by blogging about their own research.* The closest I can think of is Hope Jahren, and she wasn’t that close; she was trying to get noticed as a writer. I should emphasize that I don’t have any problem with anyone who blogs about their own research, as many scientists do. I just don’t think blogging about your own research is likely to raise your profile.
- Do you care if anyone reads it? The internet is not a democracy. The distribution of attention paid to anything (blogs, Twitter accounts, movies, books, peer-reviewed papers, preprints…) is very highly skewed and has been since that thing first came into being. A small fraction of anything gets a large fraction of the attention. So if you want to build an audience comprising more than your family and friends (which, again, is best thought of as a means to an end, not an end in itself), you’re going to have to work for it. In particular, you’re almost certainly going to have to post often–I’d say at least one substantive post/week–and keep it up for months. Just posting once every few months hoping a post goes viral on social media or gets linked to by some widely-read blog probably will not cut it**, though there are exceptions (e.g., you have thousands of Twitter followers, or you’re already very well-known for other reasons). Of course, you may well not care about having an audience. Or you might only care a bit, seeing any audience you get as a nice bonus. Etc. Which is totally fine! The point is that you need to match your approach to blogging to your desire for an audience.
- Do you really want to do it? Because there’s always something else you could be doing, and so you need to weigh up the opportunity cost of doing something else instead. I like blogging and often feel the urge to do it when I could be doing teaching prep or writing papers or etc. And sometimes I give in to that urge! But yet I remain productive in my day job, and here’s my secret. Everybody procrastinates sometimes, very much including me. But I procrastinate by blogging, which I enjoy. As opposed to, say, watching tv (which I don’t do much), or staring at Facebook (which I’m not on). So I get something out of the time I spend procrastinating. Put another way, I think of my blogging as taking time away from other forms of procrastination or recreation, not as taking time away from work.
- Do you have something to say? A blog is the unedited voice of an author or authors. That’s a key attraction of the form, I think–voice. One way to develop your own voice is to focus on topics that you’re passionate about and/or know a lot about (not that you can’t also blog about things you’re unsure about). That’s what we do at Dynamic Ecology. For instance, there are vast areas of ecology we basically never write about–conservation biology, ecosystem ecology, landscape ecology…Writing about stuff you know also makes it easier to write posts quickly. For instance, many of our advice posts are very easy for us to write, because we’re just writing down stuff we’ve already said to our own students many times over the years. Of course, your choice of specialization will affect the size of your potential audience. For instance, many of our most popular posts are those of interest to academics or scientists more broadly, rather than just ecologists. And as I said above, the potential audience for posts summarizing your own research is probably small. But I wouldn’t let that affect your choice of what to write about.
- How well and how quickly do you write? I write reasonably well***, I write quickly, and I’m comfortable writing in what I hope is a conversational style. Which means that writing as many posts as I do doesn’t take as much time and effort as it would for many other people. If you find writing a struggle, or if you only feel comfortable writing academic papers, you’re going to struggle as a blogger. Then again, you’ll get better and faster with practice.
- How self-confident are you? This question is most relevant if you’re thinking of posting your own opinions, particularly critical ones and/or opinions on hot button issues. Both too little and too much self-confidence are bad. Too little, and you’ll never work up the courage to post anything worth saying. Too much, and you’ll eventually post something you’ll regret. There aren’t many people who really, truly do not care what anyone else thinks of their writing, or of them. So there’s an optimal level of fear of what others will think of your posts, which for most people is some intermediate level or other. (Aside: the only way to guarantee that nobody will ever get upset with anything you post is never to post. Blogging means accepting some risk, however small, that someone will get upset at something you write.)
- Can you live offline with whatever you say online? Because you’re going to have to. Even people who don’t read your blog might look at you differently just knowing that you have a blog. Unless you blog under a pseudonym, of course…
- Do you want or need to blog under a pseudonym? Following on from the previous two bullets…When it’s ok or advisable to use a pseudonym is an issue on which there’s strong disagreement. There are people who will tell you it’s always and obviously a terrible idea to use a pseudonym. Others will tell you that it’s always and obviously a terrible idea not to use a pseudonym, even if you’re a tenured prof who doesn’t plan to say anything the least bit controversial. My own view is in between: I think there are good reasons to blog under a pseudonym, and good reasons not to. You need to decide which ones apply to you (and unfortunately, circumstances beyond your control may dictate whether some reasons for having a pseudonym apply to you). Terry McGlynn has posts here, here, and here that together provide an entry into the extensive online discussion about pseudonymity, and illustrate how heated that discussion can get sometimes. This group post from several biology bloggers on why they don’t use pseudonyms is useful too. I don’t know that you necessarily have to do a deep dive into those discussions before making your own choice. I didn’t; for me, the choice was a no-brainer, given my goals and circumstances. But if you’re unsure, or just want to double-check your own instincts, you might want to click through.
- Are there others who want to do it with you? It’s easier to keep up a high rate of posting if you’re splitting the work. And a small group blog can have a more diverse range of voices and cover a wider range of topics than any one person can.
- Do people whose opinions you care about support it? In general, blogging’s not likely to have much of a concrete impact on your career one way or the other. It’s not likely to make much difference to your prospects for a job or tenure, or to your publication output, or your odds of getting a grant, or to your ability to attract graduate students. As I said above, the benefits (and costs) are mostly less concrete than that. But one of the few concrete ways in which it might affect your career in a major way is if one of the few people who has a lot of power over your career–your supervisor, your head of department–has a strongly positive or negative opinion of your blogging.
- Have you considered trying it out to see if you like it? Maybe write a guest post for a friend’s blog. Or comment at length on someone else’s blog (if you find yourself commenting often on other blogs, that’s a good sign you might want to blog). Or just set up a blog and write a few posts to see how you like it. WordPress makes it trivially easy to get started. You can set up a blog in less than an hour if you resist the urge to browse the bazillion templates looking for just the right one. 🙂
*There’s probably a post to be written about why one might want a “higher profile” in one’s field. Yes, it’s nice to have a high profile. But I have the impression that many people think a high profile in one’s field is an end in itself–it’s not–and that it has larger or different concrete benefits than it actually has. For instance, it seems like a lot of people mistakenly think that high profile scientists get lots of papers and grants just because they’re high profile. I think there might be some truth to that for the very highest profile scientists, but for the most part I think it’s false. Everybody gets rejected (Cassey & Blackburn 2004). A lot. Even high profile people. Even Mercer Award winners. And
even me. And insofar as high profile people have lower rejection rates than lower profile people, it’s mostly because high profile people write good papers and good grant applications. That’s why they’re high profile, mostly–they’re good at what they do. The Matthew Effect exists in academic science, but it’s mostly not a big effect.
**For instance, most of the links in our linkfests only draw 10-20 clicks. And most of the people who click through to your blog once are not thereby going to become regular readers.
***Not as well as Brian and Meg