At Science Online 2011, 5 co-presenters (Hannah Waters, Jason Goldman, Psi Wavefunction, Lucas Brouwers, and Eric Johnson) and I led a panel on the perils of blogging as an amateur – both in getting started blogging, and blogging about science as somebody who is neither a professional scientist nor a professional journalist. Here’s my impression of the session and the points that were raised there:
The (mostly implicit) goal of this conversation is to figure out how to make the blogosphere better – to include more good content and good people, to improve who it reaches and how it reaches them, and to generally improve the scientific literacy of people. To this end, we want people to blog about science, we want them to do it well, and we want them to be visible to other bloggers and internet users. In service of this goal, we want to have a strong community of science bloggers who help each other out in various ways.
The problem is that there are people who would be good bloggers – who would be an asset to the science-blogosphere – who stop blogging early on because of fixable problems. In the session, Lucas pointed out that for the first 6 months that he blogged, it was a relatively lonely affair – it didn’t seem like people took notice of his writing, for one reason or another. We’re all very thankful that he held on through that period and can now bring us Thoughtomics, but it’s not hard to imagine that it would be easy to give up in such a situation. One can only wonder how many potentially great bloggers have quit because they couldn’t find the community that we brag so much about (for example, at events like Science Online.)
The solution is to be undertaken on two fronts: first, new bloggers have to be smart about promoting their blog and work hard at generating good content. Jason has done an excellent write-up on the points we came up with as advice to beginner bloggers, so I won’t focus on that here – I will probably leave some thoughts in the comments section there, though.
Secondly (and this is what I’m most interested in,) established bloggers should (and generally do) keep new bloggers in mind as they do their daily online deeds. The science blogging community is a good one, but it can be intimidating, and has its own customs and language that take some time to understand and get used to. As new bloggers learn the ropes, there are some things that we can do to get them going.
The single most promising thing that I can think of is to tell new bloggers when they do it wrong. I’ve noticed that I get lots of feedback when I do something right, making success unmistakable. This is especially true for blogs that aren’t making it for some reason other than their content – their layout is hard to read, they’re in some obscure piece of the web, they are using lingo that is either too geeky, too scientific, or too imprecise to be easily understandable, etc. When I run into these websites, it’s easy to say to myself, “man, this is bad,” leave, and not give it a second thought. I’ve resolved, however, that whenever I see a blog that turns me off (for some reason other than that I don’t like what they’re writing about,) I’ll tell the author why. I think this is good – it extends the community of science bloggers out to people whose web presence might otherwise be isolated from that community, and it only takes a minute to do.
For “intermediate” bloggers, blog networks are a boon – they give you (and the rest of the world) a reason to take your blog seriously, a reason to post regularly, and a place where you can feel more or less at home on the internet. I won’t delve into a discussion of the mechanics or the merits of blog networks here, but I think it’s a good thing to keep in the back of the blogosphere’s collective mind.
A discussion that we didn’t have, but which I think is interesting, would center around the question : to what extent is it actually good to help people be initially successful in blogging? As it is, bloggers are selected by themselves and the community in such a way that only certain kinds of people are successful – those who are already pretty good at writing, those who find it easy to build large social networks, those who use certain media tools, etc. This can leave some people out, but it also serves to make the science blogosphere work well. In reality, we don’t want everybody to succeed – we only want those people who will be valuable to the community to stick around. Being too supportive, to the extent of doting on new bloggers, might make their initial “success” artificial, in the same way that giving under-performing students good grades doesn’t actually prepare them to use the skills they were supposed to learn. It seems to me that there is a fine line between providing support to new bloggers and waiting in the wings to welcome them as an established science blogger once they work out the kinks on their own.
I don’t think that telling people when their blog has turn-offs has this problem – it will encourage the people who like (or at least can use) constructive criticism to stick around and make their own web presence better, and it will, if anything, help people who don’t have the personality or desire to stick with blogging figure that out more quickly.
Please let me know what you think in the comments. What else should established bloggers do to help new, struggling, or amateur bloggers? Why should established bloggers even care about this in the first place (if, indeed, they should?)
Thanks for reading!