05 July 2011

All you sucka sci blog networks better REALIZE you play for second place

Bora launched his blog network at Scientific American.  He took his time, did it right.

Don't get me wrong - I love the writing at Wired Science, ScienceBlogs.com, Discover, Scientopia, Guardian Science Blogs, Nature NetworkPLoS Blogs, and so on - but Bora was really smart about this. He saw the growth in the niche, looked at what was working best, saw what could improve, and just plain NAILED IT:
Another thing I was particularly interested in was to find bloggers who in some way connect the “Two Cultures” as described by C.P.Snow. Some connect science to history, philosophy, sociology or ethics. Many are very interested in science education, communication and outreach. Some make connections between science and popular culture, music, art, illustration, photography, cartoons/comic strips, poetry, literature, books, movies, TV, video, etc. Several produce such cross-discipline and cross-cultural material themselves – at least two are musicians, two are professional photographers, several produce videos, two are professional artists, a couple are authors of multiple books, some produce their own blog illustrations. But there are also commonalities – they all have strong knowledge of their topic, they strictly adhere to the standards of scientific evidence, they are all very strong writers, and they are all enthusiastic to share their work with a broader audience. 
When I put together this group, with such diverse interests and styles, it was not surprising to discover that, without really having to try hard to make it so, they also display diversity in many other areas: geography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, personal/professional/scientific background and more. This is something that is important for science, and is important in the science blogging world.
This is brilliant for two big reasons: first, diversity is a source of enormous strength in science and pretty much everything else.  It's the right thing to do.  Second because it makes science immediately relevant to people with diverse interests - music, art, history, pop-culture, sports, education, and so on - the network has the capacity to grow its readership much more than other science blog networks.

My initial reaction is that SciAm's emergence with a large, smart roster may thin the herd of networks a little bit. I notice some writers have left their networks to join SciAm's, and since there are only so many blog posts you can read in a day, readers will go for the quality content first.

I may flesh this thinking out a bit more but here's one prediction/caution for those writing for another network. If you start to get several emails from your editors or managers providing "guidelines" on how to write in ways that generate more traffic like throwing celebrity references in the titles or providing more posts with repetitive phrases, your network is following an unsustainable strategy.  Your editors care more about Google search terms than you.  They want your words but not necessarily your thoughts.  The first network to do this will probably be the first one to go.

UPDATE: PZ Myers is already declaring ScienceBlogs.com "dead" and hinting that he's leaving.  Pharyngula is basically half of SEED/SB's traffic and I notice that the new SciAm network has at least a couple of SB peeps on it. I'm guessing the folks at National Geographic aren't pleased.  Leave it to an evolutionary biologist to tell us what happens when something doesn't adapt to a changing environment...


aidel said...

w00t!! True dat. Bora Z is no fool -- he took his time and did it right! Thanks for the post.

Khalil A. (aka notscientific) said...

Different networks have different targets. Look at NPG for instance and the number of networks that fall under its banner. Nature Network targets people who are in the lab. It's scientists blogging for fellow scientists. SciAm targets the general population, from the novices to the enthusiasts to the geeks. Nature's Scitable targets young scientists, students and educators.

The good thing about SciAm is that it's bringing to many talented bloggers to the forefront of science blogging. Which means more science for everybody.

David said...

very good point, Khalil, particularly about Nature Network. it clearly is geared toward a very specific community. If I'm not mistaken Sci Am and Nature are part of the same family. I'm really thinking more about the fates of Scienceblogs.com, Discover, Wired, and PLoS - not sure their targets are all that different from SciAm.

SB is on life support right now. Discover and Wired have solid brands behind them, have very good writers, and will probably be fine but they're up against a new, strong competitor for eyeballs. I also think Wired Science Blogs has a diversity issue. PLoS has great writers but not a lot of corporate backing. (it's PLoS.) Scientopia just lost a big name but they're doing it for love, not money.

Razib Khan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Razib Khan said...

diversity? i did a quick survey, double checking on facebook for people without head shots. i assume by ethnic diversity bora means white people, which is what sciam blogs are ~90%:


it's a supply-side issue, there's nothing bora could have done about this. but it is what it is. and generally i feel inclined to point this issue out because i don't care much about ethnic diversity in science blogging. this is one reason i never brought the issue up at scienceblogs seriously in all the years i was there, and one of the few colored people (especially in the early years).

David said...

Razib, I hear you. But show me a sci blog network with more diversity. What SciAm has done is exceptional.

I look at Bora's 'grafs right after what I quoted:

So, as I expect that several of you are already counting, let me make this easy for you. We have 47 blogs with 55 bloggers. Of those, our editors and staff make up 13 people (8 women, 5 men), while independent bloggers make up the difference with 42 of them (25 women, 17 men). That is a total of 22 men and 33 women writing on our network. The age ranges from 22 to 58, with the mean around 32 and median around 31 (at least when including those who are willing to admit their age).

While geographic concentration in New York City is mainly due to the fact that most editors and staff have to come to our NYC office every morning, the rest of the bloggers are from all over the country and the world (see the map of some of their birthplaces) and also currently live all over the place (see the map) and, as academic and other jobs require, move around quite often. Right now, other urban centers with multiple bloggers are Vancouver city and area (4), Triangle NC and surrounding area (4), Urbana-Champaign, IL (3), Los Angeles, CA (3), London, UK (3), Columbus, OH (2) and Austin TX (2). There are bloggers in Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada (5) and the UK (6). And the birthplaces also include Trinidad, Hong Kong, Belgrade (Serbia) and Moscow, Russia (two bloggers).

SciAm has clearly struck a blow for gender equity - no doubt an important issue. Bora also pushed for more geographic diversity. SciAm is using their rather influential platform to highlight the work of more scientists of color than (I think) any sci blog network. I'm happy to be corrected on this.

There is more to do, and I think SciAm will be doing it. You don't solve the challenges of racial bias in science in a single step, but I'd argue that SciAm's contribution here is rather significant and worthy of praise.

Razib Khan said...

But show me a sci blog network with more diversity.

discover blogs has 10 slots. of those two are manned by solo non-white bloggers. so 20%. tell me a science blog network which is as good at representing the 80-90% of the world that is non-white!

but the issues don't have to do with demand. they have to do with supply. there's nothing bora could have done about the demographic make up. i've been science blogging for 9+ years now, and it just seems mostly a white thing for whatever reason.

You don't solve the challenges of racial bias in science in a single step, but I'd argue that SciAm's contribution here is rather significant and worthy of praise.

i don't think there's much racial bias in science. it's a great network. i don't care how many women, colored people, etc., they have.