Blogging about Science
I promised a follow-up to my previous post on "Who reads blogs anyway - do professional scientific blogs work?"* a long time ago, and while I have been thinking quite a bit about the topic, I haven't followed through and written anything.
I wrote the post after a seminar about public outreach at which I got the impression that no one except for the bloggers themselves really cared about blogs and found them rather boring.
Since then I have been thinking about how I select the blogs I read and which blogs come across as boring to me, because yes, there are lots of blogs that don't interest me at all. My favorite online newspaper has a tendency to attach a blog to anything and everything they are writing about. Upcoming elections - let the politicians blog about their life; book fairs or movie festivals - lets get some live blogging and see what the journalists are up to; armed forces in Iraq - let's show the human side and give the soldiers their own blog; expeditions - let's talk to people while they are struggling towards the peaks of the world or crossing oceans. All good causes for blogging. I find it generally interesting to get a peak into the minds of people who affect my life and my world and that's what good interviews or feature stories are for among other things. However, I don't really follow the newspaper-based blogs and the reasons surprise me, because maybe these are some of the things we need to think about if we want people to engage in our scientific endeavours through blogs.
So what is wrong with those blogs I don't read
1) Often they are not particularly well written. Maybe the young first time soldier in Iraq is not always an exquisite writer. Fair enough, that's not why she's there. But maybe it's also a matter of not spending the time on crafting a good piece of writing because blogging conflicts with the real matter at stake. This is something that's highly relevant to me and others who blog from field work/ expeditions because we just don't have the time to do this properly. My creative juices are as good as gone when I get back to my tent after 12 hours outside in rain and wind and a dinner consisting of something that came out of a can. I have field notes to write up, expedition accounts to take care of, plans to make for tomorrow and blogging is at the very end of my to-do list. When I finally get around to it, it has become a chore I need to get out of the way as quickly as possible and at that point I'm certainly not at my wittiest.
Lesson number 1: Good blogging takes time and brain activity and must be made a priority
2) Often they become private e-mail accounts in a public space with well-wishes from parents and friends and personal comments from people at home. I have seen this in all kinds of travel/ expedition/working abroad blogs and while the occasional comment from a family member doesn't bother me, it puts me off when this is all there is. I get the feeling of entering a personal conversation where I don't belong. I like to read about peoples lives, even the mundane pieces about what they do with their days, because this is something I can relate to. I also do laundry, take my car to the garage and argue with my husband, but when it oversteps the boundary between between the generic and the private, I loose interest, and I don't care whether some blogger is making arrangements with his friends to meet when he gets back from his mountain climbing expedition.
Lesson number 2: Limit exchange of private information and arrangements in comments - use email for God's sake.
3) I lack interest in the topic and don't feel part of the community
This is where I think it becomes crucial for blogging about our own research. I think it takes some extraordinary good writing to get me interested in life behind the scenes at a movie festival or in the holy halls of my government. I think it takes writing at a level the average blogger is just not capable of/ interested in investing the time in, because I'm not all that interested in neither movie making nor national politics. This doesn't mean these blogs shouldn't exist, it just means that I won't read them. The reason I do read academic blogs to name an example, is that here I find a community where I can listen to conversations and speak freely about topics I find that most people in my everyday life don't want to talk about all the time. So why would anyone be interested in a scientific blog if it is not giving the feeling of belonging to some sort of wider community and to some degree triggers interests this person has already. This is where I think mine/ our research blog is failing miserably. There might be people out there who have a penchant for the part of the world where the research is carried out and an interest in the scientific questions, but we do not give our readers any feeling of being invited into a whole new world of cool people who share their interests.
Lesson number 3: Pick your audience, link to other blogs and make an effort to provide access to a wider community than just your own blog.
Kjerstin at PlusUltra who responded to the original post also brings up an important point
"....On the other, I've come across a gazillion science blogs, and most of them just seem to share science news that they pick up from journals and newspapers, which is not what I'm looking for in an academic blog. The science blogs that I read, are the ones that let me see how the research and the thinking is done from the inside, and what the scientist finds interesting about it. Unfortunately, most academics feel compelled to blog pseudonymously, so they can't be specific about their research. That's why I think your blog project sounds interesting".Lesson number 4: To make a scientific blog interesting one must be able to be share scientific details about the work in progress
The blog project in question is a project blog written together with colleagues, so it is not entirely up to me how it is framed, but I think I am beginning to get some of the mechanics for making that kind of project/research blogging work and to understand some of the reasons why the blog doesn't seem successful to me as it is. I have been toying with the idea of a private research blog under my real name as well for a while, as a way of exploring my own thought process. I think it would be easier to play around with new ideas if I didn't have to confer with a panel of fellow contributors and also if I didn't have to simultaneously market a specific research project to a funding agency (which is also part of the mission for the existing blog). That is also one of the reasons why I'm thinking about what a blog can do that other media can't and how/ if it would be possible to integrate such a blog into teaching activities. Earth scientists are not generally huge on blogging and I have yet to meet someone who has taken blogging into an earth science class room, but that's of course not the same as it can't or shouldn't be done.