Dynamic Ecology year in review

Happy New Year! This post is mostly just navel-gazing notes to myself, but if you’re curious please do read on.

As noted in past year-end wrap-ups, commenting on our posts has been on a bumpy, gradual downward slide for years. But in 2019, starting in Feb., the downward slide showed up in our traffic stats too. We’ve now had 11 consecutive months of down traffic, year-on-year, despite posting just as much as in 2018 (197 posts in 2019 vs. 200 in 2018). We got about 640,000 pageviews in 2019 from about 315,000 unique visitors, both down substantially from each of the previous three years (~730,000 pageviews from ~360,000 unique visitors every year from 2016-2018). And we were down to about 2350 comments this year, from ~2800 last year.

I suspect there are various reasons for this decline. We’re drawing less traffic from searches than we used to, which is why visits to our most popular old posts are slowly declining. Presumably, that reflects Google’s PageRank algorithm having a preference for younger pages. But first-day traffic to new posts is dropping too. I suspect that’s in part because Meghan and Brian struggle to post as much as they used to. And it’s probably in part because I just don’t have as much new to say any more. I’ve been blogging for 8+ years, counting my time at Oikos Blog. Presumably, some longtime readers are drifting away–as well they should, if they no long feel like this blog has much new to say to them! I’m not complaining here; nobody’s entitled to pageviews. Selfishly, I’d of course prefer it if everybody kept reading and commenting, because traffic is a means to an end for me. I blog to start and participate in conversations about the ecology-related topics that interest me, and thereby hopefully have some small positive influence on the direction of the field. But obviously, nobody but me has any reason to care about my preferences. 🙂

Longtime readers drifting away is presumably only part of the story, though. I’m sure there’s always been some turnover in our readership, with new readers replacing those who’ve stopped reading. It would be interesting to know if decline in our traffic is because we’re losing more old readers, not gaining as many new readers, or both. Possibly, fewer ecology students ever start reading any blogs these days? Whether because they prefer Twitter, or for some other reason. If so, that wouldn’t surprise me. Blogging as a form has been slowly dying for many years. So part of the explanation for our declining traffic probably lies in broader trends that have nothing to do with any individual blog.

If memory serves, longtime economics blogger Tyler Cowen has an old post in which he suggests that all bloggers run out of new things to say after 5 years. So perhaps we should consider it a compliment that anyone still reads us after 7 years, and give ourselves a pat on the back! And of course thank those of you who still read us. 🙂 It remains a humbling honor that so many people choose to read us, and that a few of you even comment from time to time. 🙂 We’ll do our best to continue to make it worth your while in 2020.

Some of my personal favorite posts and comment threads of the year:

I’m amazed Brian banged out a timely post on whether N. America really lost 3 billion birds over the last 48 years. Commenting intelligently on a fast-moving news story is just so hard. And the associated comment thread is fabulous. It’s a mix of informed technical discussion of bird abundance data, and thoughtful commentary on how to present scientific information to the public in a compelling but non-misleading way.

Even after seven years, Meghan retains her gift for really fun posts that spark excellent comment threads. As illustrated by her list of the things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students.

Meghan also retains her gift for honest, nuanced posts about things that are hard to talk about. For instance, I agree with Meghan that it’s not merely ok but actually essential to pick and choose tasks to take on and causes to support. Even though that means there are lots of interesting things that you will simply be unaware of, and lots of important causes to which you’ll contribute nothing. But I also feel like it’s hard to admit that to yourself even in private, so kudos to Meghan for admitting it in public. I also admire Meghan for continuing to speak publicly about mental health in academia, including her own mental health. She’s even publicly questioned widely-publicized data that likely overstated the prevalence of mental health problems in academia. Meghan shows through her own example that caring deeply about a problem, and working hard to highlight and address it, is not mutually exclusive with a commitment to accuracy. Exaggerated claims inhibit progress, they don’t aid it. Meghan’s posts reflecting on her pedagogy also resonated with me (e.g., this one). I’m not as good a teacher as her, but I too wonder if my modest pedagogical innovations are having their intended effects.

Speaking of honest posts about things that are hard to talk about…Gina Baucom’s guest posts on her tenure debacle and the support network that got her through it (all the way to the happy ending!) were our best guest posts of the year to my mind. Many people have gone through, or have worried about going through, a similar experience, and so I know Gina’s brave words resonated with many.

For my own part, I’m proud of my post on when and why the ecology faculty job market first got competitive. I think data compilation posts tend to be my best and most useful posts these days, and that one was a particularly good one if I do say so myself. I’m also proud of my various posts bringing data to bear on the current ecology faculty job market, for instance regarding how many people apply for which positions, and what sort of teaching experience new hires tend to have. I even calculated the fraction of recent ecology faculty job seekers who’ve gone on to tenure-track faculty positions (a minority, but a surprisingly large one!). The data reported in those job market posts are imperfect in various ways. But I hope that, on balance, compiling and publishing those data has made the world a slightly better place for ecology faculty job seekers and those who advise them. In terms of other data compilations, this one on the “life histories” of ecological ideas was both fun and interesting, I think.

23 thoughts on “Dynamic Ecology year in review

  1. I’m still reading it 🙂 I have to admit that I don’t comment very much, but mainly because usually by the time I read your posts, lots of other people have already jumped in, so this is a rare event being first:- Happy New Year and keep up the good work. PS – you still get a lot more page views than I do 🙂

    • Thanks Simon!

      “PS – you still get a lot more page views than I do”

      There’s probably a post to be written (or that has been written) about what sorts of comparisons people make when they’re evaluating, well, anything. For instance, I tend to compare our current traffic levels to our past traffic levels, rather than to the current traffic levels of other ecology blogs. So which one is the “right” standard for comparison? The same question crops up in many contexts. For instance, if my basement floods, should I focus on the fact that I’m (temporarily) worse off compared to before my basement flooded, and so be sad/upset? Or should I focus on the fact that I’m still better off than the large majority of people in the world, indeed better off than the large majority of people who’ve ever lived, and so be happy/thankful?

  2. Definitely your blog has been valuable for me. Recent and older posts have provided me with invaluable clear explanations of topics of interest in ecology which are much harder to get from reading papers at random, as well as just the community insights especially regarding pedagogy. It is also interesting to see how ecology as a field interacts with itself, to get a wider perspective on social and philosophical issues in science in general. Having recently rejoined Twitter, I still largely prefer fora like blogs to really have good conversations (though this may just be that I’m not very good at using Twitter). You’ve brought up a number of thorny issues with little agreement between different camps, and the ensuing conversations have been thoughtful and interesting. I don’t know if such kindness and humility can necessarily transpire via 140 character responses.

    I do wonder how these stats and related things influence your personal motivations to keep blogging. If you had fewer comments, reads, or other engagement, would you be less inclined to blog? Do you think these things influence the amount of time or energy you put towards writing posts or engaging in comments? What else do you get out of writing these posts?

    • I share your negative opinion of Twitter as a venue for conversations.

      “I do wonder how these stats and related things influence your personal motivations to keep blogging. If you had fewer comments, reads, or other engagement, would you be less inclined to blog?”

      Yes, probably, if our traffic dropped enough. Some people blog just as a way of making notes to themselves, but put the notes online on the off chance anyone else wants to read them. Which is fine, but it’s not my own motivation. If our traffic dropped enough, at some point I’d start to wonder why I was still bothering to blog, given that I was no longer achieving my blogging goals. Also, I find it less fun to blog if no one comments.

  3. I’ve been a regular reader since the days of the Oikos Blog and try not to miss a post (although I tend to read without commenting). It helps that my South African time-zone means that your posts tend to appear online in mid-afternoon, just as my energy levels are dropping and procrastination kicks in!

    I’m one of the few ecologists at my institution, so there aren’t enough of us here to have casual discussions about cool ecological ideas in the coffee room or at the lunch table. For me, reading Dynamic Ecology helps me to feel less isolated and part of a community. Without this blog, my interactions with other ecologists would be mostly limited to the formalities of conferences, collaborations and peer-review.

    • Thanks Falko. You are surely a contender for the title of our longest-tenured reader!

      “I’m one of the few ecologists at my institution, so there aren’t enough of us here to have casual discussions about cool ecological ideas in the coffee room or at the lunch table. For me, reading Dynamic Ecology helps me to feel less isolated and part of a community.”

      That’s similar to my own reasons for blogging. Not that my own institution is short on ecologists per se, but we are short on ones with whom I’m in the habit of discussing my own idiosyncratic interests over lunch.

  4. Dynamic Ecology is a terrific blog! I don’t always find time to get here, but when I do, I always find things of interest. I think that any young person considering or actively pursuing a career in ecology, evolution, or allied fields should follow this blog, or at least peak in from time to time. In fact, I just recommended Dynamic Ecology to readers of my own (very irregular) blog a few days ago. Thanks to all of you for all your thoughtful posts!

  5. Perhaps time for another survey of our readership. Haven’t done one in a few years. Looking at the distribution of how long our regular readers have been reading us would tell us something about the extent to which we’re losing longtime readers vs. failing to pick up new readers. As would looking at the fraction of regular readers who are faculty vs. postdocs vs. grad students. Anecdotally, my impression is that grad students are a declining fraction of our readership. Which is consistent with a model in which longtime readers aren’t drifting away any faster than they used to, but we’re no longer adding new grad student readers as fast as we used to.

  6. Keep going Jeremy, Brian & Meghan! There’s always lots to interest me even if I comment less than I used to, which is mainly because of lack of time, not of interest. Happy New Year to you all!

  7. Thank you for your valuable service! You and your colleagues manage to cover a huge range of topics with depth and nuance and without snark. Even though I’m just a lurker, I’m constantly forwarding posts and links to students and colleagues.

  8. Thanks for your efforts – I’m a relatively new reader and enjoy your content! Something I’ve picked up is that adding subtitles to the blog can help with ease of reading, which may help your readership and engagement. Do you have a Facebook page where you can promote your blogs? Cheers!

    • Thank you for the feedback Belinda. No, we don’t have a Facebook page, and very few of our pageviews originate from Facebook.

      “Something I’ve picked up is that adding subtitles to the blog can help with ease of reading,”

      Afraid I don’t quite follow, can you clarify what you mean by subtitles?

      • Sorry a better word would be heading and subheadings! Also in regards to Facebook – there are more established pages or groups you can share to which will increase your exposure.

  9. Been reading/following Dynamic Ecology for ~6 years (I think); but as a mostly silent reader (probably only average 1-2 comments a year). Always something interesting or useful! And keeps me updated with topics I’d otherwise miss.

  10. Well, I certainly don’t aim for the readership or stats but I have kept my blog for 12 years. I took a decadal view of this and find the blog only a small part of a valuable career time capsule. I have enjoyed your posts for years. Thank you! Happy twentytwenty.

  11. There’s just a faint note of melancholy (or maybe fatigue) about your discussion of declining readership, isn’t there? I can understand why, and I do sincerely sympathise.

    Some of the topics tackled in your blog are really interesting to me. And I’m continually impressed by the precision and nuance of your thinking and writing, especially considering you don’t get to revise over weeks and months. It would be a loss if your motivation were to flag. Please do feel encouraged!

    Perhaps it might be true (you cite Tyler Cowen for this) that bloggers commonly run out of new things to say after about five years. So then, maybe you should somehow pick on a fresh set of topics or questions to take an interest in and develop opinions about?

    That may sound like a challenge, as much as like encouragement. But please believe it’s well-intended, either way.

    • Thank you for the very kind words Mark. And for the thoughtful suggestion as to how to keep things fresh around here. One idea I’ve been mulling over is to teach myself something I don’t know, and then blog about both what I learned and how I learned it. But I’m finding it hard to choose something that I want to learn about, that I can commit to learning in a reasonable amount of time, *and* that would be good to blog about.

      I wouldn’t say my motivation is flagging. But inspiration for good posts is rarer than it used to be. So blogging is less fun than it used to be, because I have fewer post ideas I’m really excited to write up. And it’s also less fun because our comment threads are less active.

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