Scienceblogs, the science network that was my old (where “old” = “a few days ago”) haunt, is in revolt. Okay, well maybe the network is not in revolt, but there is at least a minor insurgency. Yesterday, the amazing force of blogging known as @Boraz, left the network (be sure you have more than a few minutes if you are going to read Bora’s goodbye letter.) Today, the biggest fish of them all, PZ Myers has gone on strike (along with other Sciencebloggers.) Numerous other bloggers have also jumped ship (a list is being kept by Carl Zimmer here.) This is both sad, as I personally think the Scienceblogs network does contribute significantly to spreading the joys and tribulations of science, but also a bit exciting for, as Dave Munger points out, this also represents the prospect of new networks arising and hopefully pushing the entity that is known as the science-blogosphere forward.
I myself am not much of a blogger. What I write here is for my own personal amusement (so if you don’t like it, well I don’t give a damn, thankyouverymuch) and, frankly, to distract my fellow quantum computing researchers from getting any work done (ha!) I do enjoy writing (literature major, you know) and also enjoy trying to write coherently about science, and sometimes, as a consequence, I get read by people who aren’t here just to hear about the latest and greatest in quantum channel capacities. That’s great, but I don’t really consider science blogger as my defining characteristic (my self image, such as it is, is more in the line of a hack who has somehow managed to remain in science—despite being almost a decade out of graduate school without a tenure track position due in large part to being stubborn as hell. But that’s another story.)
But, even though I don’t consider myself very bloggerrific, having had a seat at the Scienceblogs table gave me an up front look at, to use a silly term, new media, and in particular at the notion of a science network. So to me, following Munger’s post, the interesting question is not what will become of Scienceblogs in its current form, but how will the entities we call science networks evolve going forward. Since there are a large number of Sciencebloggers jumping ship, it seems that now would be a good time for a new media science mogul to jump into the fray and scoop up some genuinely awesome bloggers. So the question is, what should a science network look like?
To begin, I can start with Pieter’s comment a few days ago:
…I never fully understood the need for successful bloggers to join an umbrella organization. Did you get more readers when you moved to Pepsiblogs (good one!)?
That is exactly what I thought when I was asked, clearly by some clerical error, to join Scienceblogs! Having joined, I can say that yes, it did increase my blog traffic. But I think a science network also adds something else.
First of all, there is the fact that there is a front page which contains significant “edited” content. It is edited in the sense that the powers that be have a large say in selecting what appears there in a highlighted mode. This great because even the best bloggers, I’m afraid, generate a fair amount of posts which aren’t too exciting. A discerning eye, however can grab the good stuff, and I regularly go to the front page to see what exciting is being blogged about. I’m not sure that the front page of Scienceblog is the best way of providing an edited version of a blog network, but I do think that it is heading in the right direction. So in thinking about moving forward, I wonder how one could change this editing and give it more value. For instance, is the fairly static setup of the front page the right way to go, or should there be a more dynamic front page?
Another important property of a science network is in building discussion, and by discussion I don’t just mean a bunch of people agreeing with each other. For example, Scienceblogs has a “buzz” where articles on a featured topic are posted on the front page. Sometimes this content presents a unified view of a topic, but mostly you get a terrific variety of opinions about a subject. Now I won’t argue that this diversity of opinion is huge: for instance you aren’t likely to find the Christian view on topological insulators, but you are likely to get the opinion of a large number of scientists or science journalists from a variety of areas. This solves, for me, one of the worst problems with my blog reading: only following blogs for which I am predetermined to agree with the blogger. Further this content gives rise to a genuine discussion among the bloggers in that they actually will read what others have written as opposed to just sitting on an isolated island (okay well I rarely read what even I’ve written, hence the horrible typos and grammatical gaffs that liter my writing.)
Third a science network like Scienceblogs serves as a proxy for a certain amount of quality. Despite me trying to bring this quality down, I would say that some of the best science bloggers around have or have had a blog at Scienceblogs and this lets the network serve as a proxy for having to read a bunch of blog posts to see if the person has something interesting to say, or whether they are not worth your time.
So those are at least some of the reasons that a science network is good. I must say, in thinking about these reasons, however, that I can’t completely convince myself that these amount to enough to justify the science networking idea. Many high quality bloggers get along just fine without such a network.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post: how would I redesign Scienceblogs?
Well the first thing that comes to mind is better tech support. Okay, just kidding. Kind of.
Actually I do think there is a valid point in this dig at tech support. One of the hardest things for me while I was at Scienceblogs was not being able to dig around and modify my blog in the sort of way I can do on my own hosted server. Why is this important? Well, for example, Scienceblogs does not currently have a mobile version of the website. (Mea culpa: at one point, back when I was writing iPhone apps, I emailed the powers that be at Scienceblogs asking if they wanted me to design an iPhone app for them. I got crickets back in response. Later this came up in discussion among Sciencebloggers and the powers that be emailed me asking for more details. This was in the middle of the impending arrival of baby Pontiff, so I never followed back up on this. I feel bad for not doing this, but it seems that if the management was really serious about this they could have pursued numerous other, um, really qualified people. Note that it took me about 30 minutes to get a mobile read version of my blog setup when I moved back here, and yes this is different than an iPhone app.) But more importantly, technology has that important property that it is constantly changing. Anyone who wants to build a network of science blogs should probably seriously consider that the infrastructure they are building will be out of date every few years or so and need major upgrades at a fairly high rate.
For instance, Scienceblogs should have been among the first to offer an iPhone app, an Android app, an iPad app. Scienceblogs should think of ways to incorporate its tweeting members: as it is, as far as I know, Scienceblogs doesn’t even keep a list of its members who tweet. Scienceblogs, a network about science, doesn’t even have LaTeX support for heaven’s sake, let alone, as far as I can tell, plans for how things like html5 will change what one can do on a website. What will happen to Scienceblogs when technology adapts? Will it adapt too?
So I think, if I were going to start a new science network I would start with an incredibly dedicated hacker. A quickly adaptable platform is a prereq and if you don’t start with a good base, well then you are just going to be out of date pretty quickly.
But of course there is more to a platform than just the tech behind the scenes. There is also the content. I have a lot of admiration for the people who have been the behind the scenes editors at Scienceblogs and I think this is part of the network that worked the best. I do wonder, however, if they have enough editorial control: that is it would seem to me that they should have an even more expansive roll in the network. And it’s not clear to me that there should be as large of a separation between their magazine Seed and the Sciencebloggers. I would wager that many people don’t even know that Scienceblogs is related to Seed or that Seed exists at all. And here is where I think one needs to get a little radical. Seed should (as roughly suggested by Bora), I think, give up it’s print magazine and fold Seed into Scienceblogs. High quality traditional media pieces like those Seed produces are great. So why can’t they be part of the network in an integrated way?
Well these are just my silly initial thoughts about re-imagining science networks, when I should be busy changing diapers. And certainly I don’t know what I’m talking about. But read the disclaimer in the upper right of this blog. So don’t say I didn’t warn you!