…is knowing when to stop.
Recently Terry McGlynn reflected on how the audience of his Small Pond Science blog is no longer growing. And how he now has both more demands on his time than he used to, and sees new opportunities to reach new (and bigger) groups of people in other ways. He says he’s not giving up blogging, and I for one hope he doesn’t, because I’ve learned a lot from Terry’s posts. But clearly, things are going to be different at SPS going forward.
Which prompted me to reflect on my own blogging. I’ve been doing it only slightly longer than Terry has. Dynamic Ecology’s traffic asymptoted years ago. And for years now, my posts mostly have been revisiting topics I’ve blogged about before; my really new posts are fewer and farther between. So here are some
rationalizations reflections rationalflections. They’ll be of interest to the very few of you who are also bloggers. And perhaps to others as a tiny case study of thinking about what to do with your life.
Why am I still blogging?
- I still enjoy it.
- Our readers still find it valuable.
- The impact of blogging is long-term and cumulative. As a blogger, you’re giving lots of little nudges to the thinking of many people over many years, and hoping that it adds up to something worthwhile and lasting. Cumulative influence keeps growing even if audience size doesn’t. Also, I’m kind of scared to find out how quickly this blog would be forgotten if it stopped.*
- Brian and Meghan are still blogging. Dynamic Ecology isn’t my blog, it’s our blog. Even if I wanted to stop blogging (and I don’t), I’d want to discuss it with them first. And a big part of the reason I don’t want to stop is because blogging is mostly how I “hang out” with Brian and Meghan. I’d be loathe to give up blogging for the same reason someone else might be loathe to stop grabbing a weekly coffee with a good friend.
- I suck at teaching myself to do new things. This isn’t a humblebrag, it’s just the truth. I’m a creature of habit in a lot of ways, and not just in terms of blogging or my approach to science more generally. Despite my name, I’m more of a hedgehog than a fox in many ways. I mostly go through life trying to play to my strengths rather than discover or develop new ones. And if your response is “You should get out of your rut,” my reply is “Yes, quite possibly. But if I could do that easily, I’d have done it already.”
- My professional goals are sinisterly narrow. “Sinisterly narrow” is a phrase Hugh Grant once used to describe his range as an actor. The same could be said of my goals as a blogger. My imagined audience for this blog, and the range of subjects I want to talk to that audience about, are both much narrower than Terry’s, I think. I don’t know any better way to reach the narrow audience I want to reach, on the narrow range of subjects about which I want to reach them, besides this blog.
- Some of the alternatives really would not suit me. For instance, Twitter just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it, and found that being on it is bad for my emotional well-being on balance. So tweeting instead of blogging is a non-starter for me. YMMV, of course.
- Blogging is one way I stay connected to the broader field. I don’t attend many conferences–most years just the ESA meeting. I’m not on social media. My university is several hours drive away from any other university with a sizable number of ecologists. Without blogging, I’d probably feel a bit professionally isolated from the wider world outside my own university.
- It helps me write the book I’m supposed to be writing. Blogging is a good way to try out ideas that might end up in the book.
- Maybe if I keep doing it long enough, it will be celebrated for its sheer eccentric longevity. Like swan upping. I can’t decide if I’m kidding about this last one or not.
But who knows? It’s a judgment call. Life is a series of unreplicated uncontrolled experiments, of which “me continuing to blog” is one. Maybe someday future-me will look back and wish now-me had followed Larry Wasserman’s example. Guess I’ll find out when I become future-me.
*Then again, maybe I should give it up for a while so that I can make a triumphant return down the road. I was inspired to blog (originally for the Oikos Blog) in part because as a grad student I loved John Lawton’s View From The Park column in Oikos, which was basically a blog before blogs were a thing. So you can imagine how excited I was yesterday when I saw that View From The Park is back! For one month, anyway.
Nice post! Yes, among the other reasons, writing books is something that really helps to go on blogging. I’ve already published one blog book (http://a.co/9FubLwU) and I’m working on the sequel. 😉
Another reason I’m still blogging is that some of the blogs I read are really old. Crooked Timber, Marginal Revolution, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Brad DeLong’s blog, Andrew Gelman’s blog…they’re all older than this blog, and some are a *lot* older. So it doesn’t seem weird or silly to me to imagine blogging for many years.
Can’t find it now, but years ago I remember a Marginal Revolution post from longtime economics blogger Tyler Cowen, to the effect that the natural lifespan of a blog was 5 years, because after that nobody has any original thoughts left. But of course, Marginal Revolution has been going for a lot longer than that.
This all resonates with me, too. Because Dynamic Ecology has a narrower academic focus, and there’s frequent discussion about the science of ecology here, I think this fills an important niche in the community and that role is an ongoing one. Blogs are more valuable when they last.
Also another piece, book-related, is that the draft of my first book (not that a second one is in the works) is due to the publisher relatively soon. This book is essentially and outgrowth of my site. I never would have thought of writing it if it were not for the blog. And I wouldn’t have had the cred to do it, either.
If there were a few other authors who would take up blogging on a regular basis and were interested in the same scene as Small Pond, I’d be glad to bring them into my site. It turns out that very few academics take the step of writing blog posts on a frequent basis (and that many who report an interest in doing so!) I think the rewards tremendously outweigh the investment, but few are prepared to make that investment when the rewards are so long-term and not apparent from the early stages.
I agree with your assessment that most productive bloggers, shortly before retiring from blogging, typically say, “I’ll keep doing it, but less and differently.” And the rest are folks who just do it less, and less, but when they feel compelled to knock out a post, go ahead and do so.
I imagine I’d have a very hard time not writing for Small Pond on a regular basis. Because I think it still remains impactful, and also, I think the value of the site remains if it doesn’t go stale. The impact is often when folks see a new post, then dig through the site to find old posts. So I do want to keep it fresh. But, hey, we’ll see.
This post might only be of interest to bloggers. FWIW I’m a first generation female graduate student. I was introduced to science blogs for the first time last year, and now I regularly read both DE and Small Pond Science (and Scientist Sees Squirrel). When I first started reading these blogs I felt like I had gone from seeing in black and white to seeing an explosion of color!!! These blogs opened a whole new world to me.
You’ve all taught me a lot of cool science, given me new tools to use for finding answers, provided insights into new pedagogies, but maybe more importantly you’ve been like translators. So much of academic/scientific culture goes unsaid; reading these blogs has helped me understand academia making it easier to fit in and succeed. Your blogs are one of the reasons that I say “we” instead of “scientists” and actually feel like that’s correct.
Each time I get to read a new blog, I feel like I am welcomed and belong as a member of the scientific community. So, you know, no pressure or anything, but when you’re thinking of impacts maybe keep in mind that your blogs really do continue to have (possibly life changing) effects for some of your readers. I know they’ve made all the difference in my life.
Anyway, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and yourselves with us! I hope you all continue to blog for a long, long, long time. Besides, these have got to be great when writing your broader impacts, right?!?!!
Wow, thanks so much for sharing this! Hearing stories like this is a big part of what keeps Meghan, Brian, and I going.
Please pardon me while I cry, and then print this out for safekeeping. Thank you so much.
I’m late in seeing this comment, but thank you so much! This is wonderful to hear.
Is it safe to assume that posting less often is a recipe for a slow death? I assume that the need to post so frequently is one factor behind the doubts about how long to keep going. As a regular reader and occasional contributor, I hope the blog lives on, but I can’t imagine putting in the work to ensure something goes up 3 times per week. Perhaps posting less often wouldn’t be so bad (e.g., if people just know they can expect a Monday post and a Friday wrap-up, for example). Personally, I’d be inclined to think less about whether readership is rising (you’re not a publicly traded company!), but whether you’re reaching a good sized audience (whatever that is, but even if it were 1/2 of what you’ve got now, I’d still call it good sized)
“Is it safe to assume that posting less often is a recipe for a slow death?”
” As a regular reader and occasional contributor, I hope the blog lives on, but I can’t imagine putting in the work to ensure something goes up 3 times per week. ”
Heh. Back when I first started at Oikos blog I sometimes posted *five times a day*. Basically, I was making separate little posts of what are now our linkfest entries. So it actually wouldn’t be hard to *increase* our posting frequency if we wanted. We’d just have to go back to the way I used to blog. #oldschool 🙂
“Personally, I’d be inclined to think less about whether readership is rising”
I actually don’t think about it. If it ever started *falling*, then I’d think about it.
“even if it were 1/2 of what you’ve got now, I’d still call it good sized”
Audience size all depends on one’s point of view. Back when I was at Oikos Blog, we were getting 200ish pageviews per day and I considered that a good-sized audience. Nowadays, we get that many or more in the first hour after a new post goes up. So if our audience size ever dropped substantially, I’d probably be bummed, taking it as a symptom that the blog was no longer as good as it used to be. Which I guess just shows that I’m just as subject to loss aversion, or the hedonistic treadmill, as the next person.
Plus, the number of ecologists who read us rarely, or not at all, *far* exceeds the number who read us regularly. There are things I’ve written that I think are important, that have reached only a small fraction of the target audience (e.g., my posts on gender balance of recent ecology faculty hiring, and other faculty job market data posts). So from that perspective, our audience size is small and is almost certain to remain small.
View from the Park is back! Thanks for posting that, it escaped my notice in the summer. (And speaking of humblebrags, “it is amazing what I have forgotten” has to be one of the best I’ve ever heard.)
I have an excellent memory for my own posts and a pretty good one for Brian and Meghan’s posts. So I haven’t yet had much occasion to say “it is amazing what I have forgotten”. But give it time, I’m sure. 🙂
Random aside: During his time at Silwood, John Lawton was famous for being able to apparently nap through seminars, then wake up at the end to ask penetrating questions. That was the legend, anyway (I never witnessed it myself). So I’m not sure I quite believe he’s actually forgotten anything he wrote for View From the Park. He seems to be able to remember things he wasn’t even awake for! 🙂
Ha – I’ve forgotten posts fore sure. Just yesterday I had a post that I was ready to write and I was 90% sure I had thought about it but never written it. But I forced myself to do a search, and sure enough I wrote it years ago.
I just did the same thing for the first time recently. But I went ahead and published it! 🙂
When you said, “The hardest thing about spelling banana,” I thought, “Oh please don’t tell me you folks are going to stop blogging.” I’m glad you’re not.
If you can’t occasionally indulge in the occasional clickbait title, what’s the point of being a blogger? 🙂
[runs away before the obvious reply “Um, lots of things” can reach his ears]
Coincidentally, I just saw this on Twitter, from an ex-economics blogger turned columnist and active Twitter user:
“The impact of blogging is long-term and cumulative.”
From what I’ve seen, the key to having an impact is to start talking and keep talking. Whether you have silly ideas or great ones, your influence over the long term will be proportional to how long you keep talking. The longer you talk, the more familiar your ideas will become. In the marketplace of ideas, familiarity is akin to acceptance and acceptance attracts followers.
That’s a long way of saying that the longer you’ve blogged, the more you have to lose by giving up.
Giving up when the traffic declines is like selling a stock when the price declines. If you’re readership declines, you’re losing the uncommitted – and gaining a more focused audience. That’s a great opportunity to double down on your investment for your remaining “shareholders” – perhaps in your case by giving you greater freedom of expression – and build value for them that will drive your brand well above and beyond past peaks.
I’ve been reading this blog almost as long as you’ve all been writing it. But even then, if you rewrite the same post, I wouldn’t remember. It’s still interesting.
I hope you continue blogging for a long time. Dynamic Ecology was an inspiration that made me pursue the idea of publish a blog for Latin ecologists and start, with some friends, our own blog called EcoLatino.
Thanks for kind words Angela, and good luck with EcoLatino!
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