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    Are Science Blogging Networks Dead?
    By Hank Campbell | August 9th 2010 11:44 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    No one here at Science 2.0 really noticed the Scienceblogs Pepsigate thing, being busy writing about science, but I lurk in a number of other places and, since Scienceblogs is the Big Kahuna in science blogging, it merited some attention, at least from me.

    In its wake, some people left Scienceblogs.  It was no one in the top 5 so if you're a cynic, they care too much about the money to leave but if you're an optimist, they want to remain and be part of the solution and not abandon a place they helped grow.  In its aftermath, some went out on their own again, like Bora Zivkovic and David Dobbs, and some formed new science networks.   As I predicted, no one bolted to Nature Network where they could make Big Media bigger for free and with Discover getting sold, any of them hoping for a contract over there now has to deal with a new overlord (who seem to have bought it for its digital power so they may go full on and hire everyone - hard to say), meaning more unknowns in the short term.

    For the people who left Scienceblogs, their own network makes the most sense.   There just aren't many big blogging networks out there - even I can't keep track of which ones that are coalitions are for blogging or who do other things also.  Anyone who can make an accurate chart of who does what please let me know.  We sometimes get lumped in as blogging, for example, even though it is 4% of what we do so I am not taking a shot at categorizing anyone else's site.  But more than that, they are not going to fit into other successful cultures because they are still 'Sciblings' so they may want to get paid like they are part of corporate media, they just don't want to think they are.

    Given that mentality, David Crotty at the Scholarly Kitchen asks if it is even possible for blogging networks to fit in with publishing business plans:
    Publishers that have built networks should consider reaching the same conclusion — building big networks is not only no longer necessary, it may actually endanger your brand and limit revenue. ScienceBlogs network members put the kibosh on what was likely a fairly lucrative business opportunity. By putting your company’s stamp of approval on a network of bloggers who you can’t control and must at all times cater to, you risk tarnishing your reputation by association. Scientific American recently ran into a question of credibility along these lines.
    Was it lucrative?  No, with SEED and Nature blogging is a marketing expense, not a profit center - their bloggers just do not see that the way others in media do.   If SEED employed 20 people they were there to put out a magazine not build a blog and NN carries no ads.   In the most optimistic scenario for SEED the revenue for Scienceblogs was $25K per month and SEED's loss, as everyone who bothered to look over the last 5 years saw, was $200K per month.  Devoting more money to Scienceblogs was not going to help there(1).

    As an outsider to science blogging, Crotty hits a nerve with (bold mine):
    Beyond the actual subject matter, communities tend to form personalities, and like it or not, that personality represents your brand. These personalities are hard to spot from the inside of a network. Social networks like these tend to be self-reinforcing, filled with back-patting and congratulations for brilliance being offered back and forth. I won’t name specific names, but read nearly any of the posts from departing ScienceBlogs bloggers and you’re pretty much guaranteed to run across some statement about how incredibly important their blogs have been and how hugely respected they are. 
    As I have said before, Scienceblogs is not as important as its contributors thought - Adam Bly certainly knew it, that is why he devoted little effort to it.  If The Borg of science blogging is only read by 1.5% of the science audience, even in the U.S., perhaps the market is just not there (yet), but perhaps they just are not reading that site.   

    But does that mean it is not there for all science media?   Perhaps, or at least big money is not in general science publishing.   Henry Donahue, CEO of Discover Media, once joked to me that he believed media buyers went into their fields because they hated science - and he may be right, because they got bought by a publisher that produces 5 magazines on trains and 2 on beads (yes, beads).  Yet he said their online push in the last two years boosted the value of Discover Media.   Tech Media Network bought online-only Livescience (Disclosure: Livescience is a media partner and TMN and Science 2.0 sell advertising on occasion for each other), Space.com and various other Imaginova sites but had no science media before that.  Science media is getting eaten?

    When I created the Science 2.0 business plan, it looked much different than it ending up being; there were to be a different tool for the 4 aspects of Science 2.0 I outlined but they were all web-based.  2 of those 4, publication and collaboration, are either not realistic or being served already.  Open access publishing has been around since the 1960s and still hasn't taken off but it is well-served by groups like arXiv (1991), Biomed Central (2000) and PLoS(2001), among others.   Collaboration may be too difficult today.   There is a core group of interested people but competition is still too important and lots of other tools are 'good enough' that converging on the perfect tool doesn't make sense, since early adapters in science (read: young) have also been self-trained to want things for free.

    The participation aspects of Science 2.0, like citizen science, are a big winner, with groups like Foldit and GalaxyZoo getting plenty of attention.   What about the communication aspect?   Instead of 10,000 grad students writing on science and whatever, this site ended up being a smaller group of serious researchers, book authors and journalists intermixed with some shockingly talented 'citizen' science writers who scoop the BBC.   And it makes money.   Why would fewer writers have more success?
    But perhaps it’s wiser to stick with participants whose interests match those of your company. Brands matter. Ceding control of your brand to strangers is a dangerous path to take.
    Wide-open blogging has worked well for Examiner.com and AssociatedContent.com but science is a different animal.  If you open it up to everyone, you get stuck with pseudoscience and that will drive out serious people.   If you make it just about names and have editors micromanaging content and control like Nature Network (I have an account there because it was going to be an open Science 2.0-type site but in 2010 I cannot access my account or reset my password so maybe I am blocked) you get a Big Brother-ish mishmash ...
    NN has a bit of a negative cachet in the rest of the blogome — where, actually, I’m more interested in being seen and accepted. It has a high barrier to casual commenting (the lifeblood of blogs!) — a stratospheric barrier to non-scientists. Furthermore, there are too many blogs hosted here.
    (2) but if you just make it about inviting popular people, like Scienceblogs, your reputation becomes (from a comment cited by Crotty)
     too many of the bloggers there have little to do with science, and post like 95% crap and politics (also mostly crap). There’s also a strong case of hivemind there, with a rather lopsided treatment of real controversies. An extreme example is the Pharyngula commentators, where any mild divergence from the accepted ideology results in a blinding firestorm. I don’t thing SB is any sort of ‘bastion of rational thinking’ that they like to portray. . . . SB has too many hotheaded narcissists who think they’re special snowflakes because they have blogs.
    There are two reasons why I think it was smart for the departed Sciblings to go off on their own and those dovetail with why networks are not dead.

    1) They get to create their own culture.   They would not fit in at Science 2.0 or Discover, they are their own group with years of experience, and it gets to be their own experiment if they create their own.  The market for science readership is huge, some 65 million, and at Scienceblogs they were trapped with a small subset of that audience, with a cultural tone that scared off anyone who was moderate in the readership.  Now they can appeal to anyone they want.  The only cautionary note is that they need to make sure their reasons are positive.  Negative energy (e.g. being the 'anti-Scienceblogs') will not work well because remaining Scienceblogs people will turn on them over time.

    2) Since money is not a factor, they can invite anyone they want who feels the same way.    Of course, it is not as easy as Edward at Field of Science thinks when he writes that he can set up a science network for $12 a year.    He is like one of those guys on TV saying anyone can get rich in real estate with no money down - yes, it has happened but not often and that site only has 25,000 readers a month or so and thus the whole thing wouldn't be in the top 25 people here so his statement reaffirms my point that a successful network is more than an open source CMS and a skin.   As a guy named Napoleon said, "the distance between a battle won and a battle lost is immense - and there stand empires."   Sure, anyone can use Blogger or Google and host AWESOMESCIENCEBLOG.com there but that won't make it successful - and neither will having a few friends on Twitter.   Networks will not die because it is hard work attaining success.  I spent 7000 hours of my life building this for free - not everyone can do that.   So Napoleon's quote may be paraphrased as 'the distance between 2000 readers a month and 1 million is immense - and there stand publishing empires'.  For book authors or researchers who aren't drinking the 'I need to control my own destiny' Kool-Aid, and who recognize that personal blogs are darn lonely and lose readership fast without a lot of content, successful networks will always have value.

    NOTES:  

    (1) Though a scandal sure hurt, since he was fishing everywhere he could about buying the magazine with Scienceblogs as the bait and the fallout made it obvious to publishers that the kind of people they were recruiting did not play well with others.  Basically, if SEED Media had any chance of being sold for even $3 million, it evaporated.  This reaffirms Crotty's point that, if the benefit of blogging is not obvious for a media company, it is better not to do it since the pitfalls are now quite obvious.

    (2) They are not alone - we have plenty of negative cachet among Scienceblogs people.  The ones who left primarily did so because the money was not important but in 2006/2007 it was important and they were even more cult-like than their detractors portray now and the dirty tricks and insults they hurled at us because we might cost them some audience (we didn't, in hindsight - we share virtually no audience with Scienceblogs and never did) were substantial and that continues today, whether the contributors are still there or not.

    Comments

    antunes
    I think the stronger networks also have an additional factor-- their creators are part of their readership as well.  Effective blogging is not just 'web publication of articles', nor is it 'an author connecting with their fans'.  It is voices from the community interacting.

    Alex, the Daytime Astronomer and occasional pundit
    Hank
    I think so, though the knock on me from our competitors is I am out and about too much in the public while the knock on Adam Bly at Scienceblogs was he never participated.   I guess there is a middle ground.

    I'm neither writer nor scientist - I am a fan of the people who write here, so part of the reason I built this was so people I wanted to read anyway could be in one spot and make it easier on me ... and then a million other people.

    I do think a successful network is a lot harder to create than those folks think - but they genuinely all seem to believe they were the reason for Scienceblogs success and that the platform and the brand had little to do with it.   I guess that is part of the experiment now also.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    So who are the top 5 bloggers here at Science20.com? Are there people that make comments here you just wish would go away, like me for example? If so where would you recommend that I go?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Hank
    Participation and communication are the reason we are here.   I want more comments from the community, not less, though our content can be fairly high end - I have read plenty of articles where I know I got smarter but had no meaningful question.  

    I have no idea who the top people are for the month until I get that little 'pay me' notification and I can see them all at once.   I know I am not even in the top 15.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Above you said quote "In its wake, some people left Scienceblogs. It was no one in the top 5 so if you're a cynic, they care too much about the money to leave but if you're an optimist, they want to remain and be part of the solution and not abandon a place they helped grow." You imply that there is an anual top 5 writers on most of these sites, not just a monthly one. I'm interested to know who are your annual top five writers here at Science20.com?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Hank
    I don't imply anything, they talk all the time about who their top people are.  They compete with each other to get more traffic and to be the biggest, though PZ Myers is always number one there and whoever Orac is is #2.  I don't know who the top 5 are here annually or even throughout our history because no one cares, including me - we aren't a media company driven by money, we just need to have an ad to pay for the servers because a million people a month is expensive.  The remaining money is paid out to writers.  I just know I can't be in the top group because my articles are rarely in that most popular section.
    antunes
    On 'top bloggers', remember also there are 2 measures of an audience-- raw numbers, and demographics.  Demographics is 'who is reading', and you can have several measures.

    1) Community value: Having a thousand diehard science fans, of whom a few dozen comment regularly, is far more valuable (and fun) than having 100,000 readers who only drop by because I had Data from Star Trek cuss in a fake example.

    2) Depth of enjoyment: I'd love for as many people to enjoy my work as possible, but I'll still take a small crowd who _really_ like it over a large group that read it but say 'meh'.

    3) Economic: More cynically from a science writing career point of view, having a few dozen editors read it (who might give me work) is more valuable than a thousand fans, even though, ultimately, reaching those thousand fans is the point of my efforts.

    4) Outreach: Having a single student get inspired by reading it, is worth more than having a dozen family members read it because I'm related to them :)

    So there's always a balance between raw numbers and who, specifically, you are reaching.  Cynically, one could jack the numbers either way-- either pander and do fan service to boost numbers, or toss in hip references and buzzwords to court a specific populate.  In practice, I just write as best I can and hope it all works out, because at Science20, I can.

    Alex
    i have a few corrections and comments on your piece. first, why seed media group (SMG) is losing huge sums of money each month is beyond me, but scienceblogs is the most successful enterprise SMG engaged in when it comes to pulling in revenue. the magazine, SEED, was never successful, and after the first year (or was it two?) in its (slightly more than) three-year run, it wasn't even mailed out on time.

    additionally, i am confused by your comment about arXiv .. the professional physicists i know tell me that this is the OA standard for their discipline; saying that "everybody uses it."

    oh and while i am here, one "SciBling" (me) DID set up a blog at nature network. my blog is called Maniraptora (click on the link that accompanies this comment). while it is true that NN is having its problems, they do not manage content, nor do they have editors overseeing the site's content -- so your assertion is misleading.

    Hank

    Scienceblogs is the most successful enterprise SMG engaged in when it comes to pulling in revenue
    Without a doubt but my point was that was not its intent - and the lack of support by SEED shows it. I grew up near the Susquehanna River but I do not think, because I like it, that the Chesapeake Bay exists solely to take its water, it instead is part of the larger, better-known thing.    No one in their right mind would have set up SEED's cost structure and expected Scienceblogs to fund it.  
     i am confused by your comment about arXiv .. the professional physicists i know tell me that this is the OA standard for their discipline; saying that "everybody uses it."
    I agree many use it and it has tremendous value and 'well served by'  can hardly be an insult but arXiv is not considered a citation the way Physical Review is - a physicist going to a funding meeting and only having arXiv preprints will get laughed at.   My point was I have not started an OA journal because others are doing it well.   I also say a collaboration tool may be too difficult today and ResearchGate or Mendeley may think their stuff is awesome but the market does not agree, whereas Foldit and GalaxyZoo are science participation tools that are very successful.   
    nor do they have editors overseeing the site's content -- so your assertion is misleading.
    I like the NN concept, it is why I created an account there.    If I could still access it, I would, but my willingness to hunt down someone at a billion dollar company is not high.  My profile is still there but my email no longer exists in their system so I can't see if I need just a password reset.   I started the 'Science Blogging' group there because NN was intended to be a neutral forum but with every posted topic an editor from Nature would show up and redirect people to a Nature writer.    It isn't like I was promoting this site so it seemed heavy handed.    If Nature contributors complain and outside people like me are being stalked by Nature employees my assertion is not misleading, it just may not be the experience everyone has.

    My point was people had not departed for NN and one did, it turns out - so I have to concede on that.
    Hank
    Greg Laden at Scienceblogs has some comments on this - and he disagrees with a lot (well, why wouldn't he?  If everyone had the same perspective there wouldn't be a need for more than one of us and he's still there, so he did not buy the criticisms against Scienceblogs by those who left) though it's hard to disagree with the gist of what I wrote - blogging networks aren't dead and I encouraged former Scienceblogs writers to start their own.

    Nonetheless, a commenter there ironically reaffirms the criticisms of the tone and culture over there (at Scienceblogs, not Laden specifically) when he/she writes "What a sanctimonious, pretentious f*****g jackass. The irony inherent to his criticisms was rather amusing though."

    Does that person know what irony means?  Obviously not, though I do.  I am also unsure if he knows what 'pretentious' means, since I am the only person in science media I know did all this for free and for the best of possible reasons - my belief that people are smart, scientists can write without editors, and if we put them together good things happen.   No pretense in that.   My being a jackass is a subjective thing so he can have that one.
    Gerhard Adam
    What a sanctimonious, pretentious f*****g jackass.
    This is precisely the sort of nonsense that I despise in most of the other blogs.  That one comment tells me far more than any other blather they can possibly publish.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    Lou Woodley, product manager for Nature Network, was kind enough to write me about my login issue and now I can log in again over there.   You know what that means?  Nature Network wants to do a serious job at this, that's what, so they will be a force in 2011.   They already had the brand, they just needed people who care.  Thanks Lou!