This post is the fourth in a recent guest blog series on my blog featuring science bloggers who recently got their start in the science blogosphere. This series of posts I'll be inviting from new science bloggers, or anyone who started blogging about science in the last year or so, will help paint a picture of how science bloggers get their start today.
*If you want to contribute to this series, and you recently (within the last year or so) started any form of science blogging, e-mail me at pbrow11[at]tigers.lsu.edu. You can either write a free-form post, or I'll send you a list of Q&A questions to guide you. Thanks!
Forth up in the "New to Science Blogging" series is Zach Griebenow. Zach is currently an undergraduate sophomore majoring in entomology at Ohio State University. He grew up in rural Kentucky and was home-schooled for the entirety of his primary schooling years (just like me!). Zach says he hopes to gain a PhD and specialize in termitology, but is open to researching any insect "of obscurity." He blogs at http://gentlecentipede.blogspot.com/ "when the mood hits." Zach started blogging in December 2012, but still feels "new" to the game.
Me: What motivated you to start blogging about science? Why did you start a blog, vs. using only other newer forms of social media like Twitter?
Zach: I have always been fascinated by entomology (and the general study of living organisms), and moreover enjoy distilling and spreading information regarding these subjects. When I was 17, I attended an entomology/forestry camp offered by the University of Kentucky. The professor in charge of the six-legged side of things there tapped me to contribute to UK’s official entomological blog. This provided me with a long-awaited opportunity to disseminate knowledge of insects. However, contributing to an official university blog placed copyright restrictions on the images I could use to illustrate content. Therefore, I decided to begin my own blog, and Life, et al. was born.
Me: How did you navigate deciding where to blog and how to blog about science? Did you have an idea of what the blog would be before you started? Can you describe that and perhaps where it came from?
Zach: When I began Life, et al., I had already formed an account in order to contribute to UK’s The Daily Entomologist, which was hosted by Blogger; thus, Life, et al. was established on Blogger as well. Initially, I intended for my blog to allow me to post on whatever organismal topic piqued my interest—hence the name, which is meant to allow for a broad scope of biological subjects. However, being an entomologist, I have inevitably fallen back to writing almost exclusively about insects. As for the reason why I did not utilize Twitter or suchlike, I would say that at first blush it would be technological illiteracy—as proof of which I’ll note that my family used dial-up into the 2010's. Less flippantly, social media does not to my knowledge allow for posts of the length and detail that I am in the habit of creating. I find it difficult to imagine providing an overview of all six army ant subfamilies with 83 full citations (my March 2013 post “What Are Army Ants, Anyhow?”) in a single tweet.
Most apex predators are faster than we humans, and stronger to boot—so there is something inexplicably unsettling about a multi-kilogram carnivorous mass that could devour a human, yet can be escaped by strolling in the other direction. [...] It so happens that we are faced with huge, amorphous carnivores in real life: namely, colonies of army ants. Since these million-mouthed, sometimes 20-kilogram super-organisms issue forth to the hunt at roughly the same speed as molasses, their prowess is usually exaggerated in film. - “What Are Army Ants, Anyhow?”
Me: How do you feel your blog is evolving now, if if all?
Zach: I think that the purpose of Life, et al. has remained more or less stable since its inception: I attempt to provide comprehensive and detailed treatments of insects about which the layperson hears little, or nothing at all. At present, for example, a post is in the works concerning the members of the Meropeidae and Eomeropidae, which belong to the same order as scorpionflies (Mecoptera) but are phenologically alike cockroaches (which have no phylogenetic relation to mecopterans). In the past, I’ve covered zorapterans (the smallest insect order and the only members of the class to have a patriarchal society), water-striding Jurassic walkingsticks (yes, those existed) and flies which carpet-bomb surfaces with adhesive eggs (the acrocerid Pterodontia flavipes).
Me: How you are finding your niche in the science blogosphere? Have other science bloggers influenced you or your blog direction, and if so how?
Zach: My modus operandi has specifically been inspired by Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology, which covers anything and everything pertaining to tetrapods: I hope to provide the same level of scholarly care for insects as Mr. Naish has provided for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (living and fossil) for nearly the past decade. Christopher Taylor’s Catalogue of Organisms has also been a model for Life, et al. in terms of the taxonomic slant to the information I present.
Me: Please describe any other experiences you have had in starting a science blog, or being a new science blogger online and finding your "place," that you feel have been relevant to the direction or content of your blog now.
Zach: I cannot think of any. In any event, the most peculiar experience I have ever been a party to during the tenure of Life, et al. was perusing a comment on my post concerning the order Strepsiptera, written by a woman convinced that a “friend” of hers was infested with strepsipteran larvae (“Painfully massag[ing] out hundreds of larvae from [his] skin every day”, she alleged). In behavioral terms, this is tantamount to claiming that one saw a hexactinellid sponge twerk. Contending with Munchausen Syndrome by proxy was not something I had anticipated as an entomologist.
Me: Are there any struggles to being a "new" science blogger?
Zach: One can often feel that one is communicating with an inanimate object when blogging, at least if one receives no feedback from readers. Under these conditions, the only proof that one’s blog has any audience would be the page-view statistics: and these are conditions in which any new blogger (but particularly one who is an occupant of a narrow topical niche) will find themselves. Unsurprisingly, this can be disheartening; but in my opinion, so long as Life, et al. has reached at least a few, it is a worthwhile enterprise.
Dealing with the feeling on "invisibility" when you first start a science blog can be a tough thing. In my dissertation research survey of science bloggers, I found that one of the strongest or most-often mentioned motivations to continue blogging is the feeling that one is having an impact, through either reader statistics or positive feedback.
Take a glance at Zach's blog, and you'll see what he means by the way he writes about insects not fitting into 140 characters. His reference lists at the end of each blog post are impressive! His posts are a great educational resource.
I also find it interesting that Zach mentions he blogs about the insects that the lay reader probably hears little about. The ecosystem approach to science blogging (and "filling in the gaps" of online science content) surfaces again!
More posts in the "New to Science Blogging" series: