This post is the tenth in an ongoing guest series on my blog featuring science bloggers who recently got their start in the science blogosphere. This series of posts I've been inviting from new science bloggers, or anyone who started blogging about science in the last year or so, is helping to paint a picture of how science bloggers get their start today.
Tenth up in the "New to Science Blogging" series is Stephen Heard. Stephen surprised me a few weeks ago by observing that this series had featured mostly only young new science bloggers. He wrote in an e-mail to me, "You've been featuring mostly students, or young career people. If that's your intended focus, that's great, and I won't be offended in the slightest to hear that. But if you'd like a middle-aged geezer who was a social media skeptic but is now really into blogging, I would be interested in being part of your series." Of course I asked him to contribute!
Stephen is an evolutionary ecologist and professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick (in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada). He has previously been Chair of his department acting Dean of his faculty, but "right now I’m quite content to be just a regular scientist!" he says. His research interests are broad, but mostly organized around ecological controls on the evolution of biodiversity. Besides science, he reads a lot, follows baseball and plays "a remarkably large amount of Boggle." He started his blog, Scientist Sees Squirrel, in January 2015.
Scientific names can be wonderful for many reasons. So far, I’ve blogged about a bird whose name has rhythm, a fish with a fascinating etymology, and a butterfly named for a pioneering (and amazing) woman in entomology. Today’s entry is Yi qi, a newly described dinosaur whose name is interesting in origin and sound, and also wonderfully and surprisingly short. [...] Yi means “wing” and qi means “strange” in Mandarin. So Yi qi is the “strange winged” dinosaur. - Excerpt from Wonderful Scientific Names, Part 4: Yi qi, by Stephen Heard
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?
Stephen: I suspect my friends and colleagues would tell you that I’ve always had plenty of opinions and have been quite willing to share them over beer and in hallway chat. It hadn’t ever occurred to me to write these things down. About three years ago, though, I started working on a scientific-writing guidebook (in press; more about it here), and I discovered two things. First, I really enjoy writing in a nontechnical style. And second, I enjoy writing less technical material – about peculiar facts or interesting connections in what we know about nature, or about things like history of science, career advice, and why we do things the way we do. So, for example, I’ve written about interesting etymologies for Latin names, about people’s reactions to peer reviews, and about beauty in scientific writing. These are topics I don’t get to explore in my “bread and butter” writing of journal papers and technical reports.
Why a blog rather than Twitter? Well, perhaps it’s my age showing (I’m a new science blogger, but a decidedly middle-aged scientist), but the blog medium comes more naturally to me. Or maybe I’m just long-winded. The topics I’m writing about seem to work well at lengths of 600-1200 words, which seems like something of a sweet spot for the “traditional” blog medium.
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?
Stephen: I didn’t think much about where to blog, actually – largely because I didn’t understand enough about the blogosphere to know that this was a question I could ask. So I set up a solo blog on Wordpress (the dominant platform) and there I was. As for an idea of what the blog would be: I was pretty sure that I didn’t know exactly what it would be. I’ve always had diverse (some would say terribly scattered) interests. So I called the blog “Scientist Sees Squirrel” to acknowledge that, and made my first post about my distractibility. On the plus side, that gives me license to write about whatever interests me! On the minus, perhaps it will frustrate readers who like some posts but find that others leave them cold. Time will tell, I guess.
Me: How do you feel your blog is evolving now, if at all?
Stephen: I think my mental concept of the audience I’m writing for has broadened. I’m an evolutionary ecologist. At the beginning I imagined writing for other evolutionary ecologists; but now I think of myself as writing for scientists in pretty much any field. (I mean “scientists” quite broadly, including students as well as practicing scientists. And I certainly do have readers who aren’t scientists, including my most avid reader, my 8-year-old son!)
This evolution may not be terribly obvious to a reader (for instance, none of my first four posts happened to be on topics specific to ecology), so I think it wasn’t so much an evolution in what I was doing as an evolution in how I understood what I was doing anyway.
I would like to see some future evolution, though, in at least one way: I’d like to involve some guest bloggers, I hope with somewhat different perspectives than my own. It would be fun to have some point/counterpoint pairs of posts, for instance. I’ve raised this possibility with a few people, and my fingers are crossed.
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?
Stephen: Blogging has actually made me much more aware of the science blogosphere. Before I started, I would browse a few blogs from time to time (especially Dynamic Ecology and The Lab And Field). These gave me a feel for what a blog aimed mostly at scientists (as opposed to one intended primarily as science outreach) could be. Since starting to blog myself, I’ve enjoyed discovering many other interesting bloggers (just as two examples, Sociobiology and Ecology Is Not A Dirty Word). I think this has helped me settle into my “niche.” There are some really good outreach blogs out there: Nash Turley’s, for instance, and many by professional journalists. But at least for now, I see that as a different niche. (I am active in outreach, but it isn’t my blogging focus. I’ll occasionally post outreach pieces so that others can use them, as I did here, but these will be a small fraction of my blogging).
One thing I haven’t done is worry much about whether someone else has already blogged on a topic I feel like writing about. (After all, it says right in my tagline, “Seldom original.”) I’ll sometimes end up overlapping with someone else’s old post, but I think that’s OK, and usually I’ll take a slightly different perspective anyway. I enjoy it when another blogger links to their related post in a “reply” to one of mine.
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.
Stephen: I’ve been struck by how very supportive the rest of the blogging community has been. I suppose I naively thought other bloggers might see a new blog as competition, but it’s been quite the reverse: bloggers I know and admire have been quick to mention and link to my blog, even to flat-out promote it. This has very much helped me feel like I have a place in the blogosphere. I don’t think this has changed the direction or content of my blog, but it’s given me encouragement that the direction and content I was blundering into were of interest to people.
Me: Are there any struggles to being a "new" science blogger?
Stephen: I haven’t found any real struggle yet. I wondered if I’d be blogging into the vacuum – whether anybody would actually read my posts. I was pleasantly surprised – even a bit startled – on that score. I’ve had more readership more quickly than I would ever have expected; after four months, I seem to be averaging around 100 views/day. Sure, that’s tiny compared to some well-established blogs, but it’s more than enough to make me feel like it’s worth the effort I put into writing. I’m sure my published papers don’t get 100 views a month, let alone a day. I know, apples and oranges, but still striking.
I worry that there will be struggles, down the road, in being an “established” science blogger. What happens when I run out of things to say? For my first four months I haven’t been caught short, and people have found some of it interesting to read. But it’s a bit intimidating to think about coming up with things people will want to read, week in and week out, for years on end. I realize this is silly: if I don’t have anything to say in a given week or even a month, I don’t have to post; and if I feel I’ve said everything I have to say, I can just stop. Still, I can feel the self-imposed pressure to come up with something as “good” each week as the last – and it’s hard to imagine always doing that. I guess I’ll find out!
Me: What made you move from social media "skeptic" to science blogger?
Stephen: I was very much a skeptic, to the point of writing dismissive (even snarky) things about Twitter in the first draft of my writing book! I thought social media were just a way people wasted time – and believe me, I don’t need any new ways of doing that. But I had a nagging feeling that I might be missing out on something, even though I didn’t really know what that something was. So, I asked two members of my lab (a PhD student and a postdoc) to present on uses of social media in science at a lab meeting. They convinced me to give Twitter a try (I’m @StephenBHeard). I found out that there was an interactive and helpful community out there that I could be part of, and that people were using social media to talk about science, not just about cute kitten videos! So I deleted the dismissive things from my writing book.
I found out quickly that one major use of Twitter was for linking to blog posts, and it seemed to me that a blog would complement my Twitter use very well. I thought I had things to say that needed 1,000 words rather than 140 characters, and yes, I can hear how conceited that sounds. So I took the leap: I wrote a pair of posts, tweeted links to them, and found my positive Twitter experience more or less repeated. Whether I’ll still feel this way in a year, or after five, is an open question, but so far, so good.
People have written about the supposed decline of the blog as a medium, and of the science blog in particular. I don’t have the temporal perspective to evaluate this, but to me the blogosphere seems active and dynamic, and it seems to be doing important things that Twitter can’t. It also seems well-connected, with links back and forth from blogs in my field to those in others – statistics, psychology, journalism and the like. I think the kind of conversation we have via blogs is bigger than the “blog” format anyway. I recently re-read Peter Medawar’s little book Advice to a Young Scientist (1981), and was amused to find out it’s basically a blog. I didn’t know that when I read it as a grad student, because the blog hadn’t been invented yet! So the blog may take surprising new forms, but I don’t think it’s going to vanish. I’m having a lot of fun being part of it.
I think it's interesting that Stephen finds that over time his mental conception of his blog audience is expanding. I generally find in my research on science blogging practices that the "outreach" approach is dominant, but as Stephen points out, there are still bloggers who choose to focus on communicating with other scientists inside and outside their own fields. Although, as Stephen also points out, he does throw in a science outreach post when inspired.
For other bloggers out there, is your idea of your audience changing over time?
The blog as a "natural" format, in terms of length and conversational style, is also a feeling I find most science bloggers expressing. Why does blogging feel so natural, perhaps even over other forms of social media?
More posts in the "New to Science Blogging" series: