“While most of us had assumed that the Internet would increase the diversity of opinion, the echo chamber meme says the Net encourages groups to form that increase the homogeneity of belief.” – David Weignberger, 2004, Salon
Whenever specialized communities arise in new media, whether science blogs or a community of people who tweet about science, people start asking: Is this an echo chamber? Are science bloggers talking mostly to other science bloggers? Is anything this online scientific community tweets about reaching people outside of this online scientific community? Or are we just talking to one another in an isolated bubble?
In a blog post for Not Exactly Rocket Science when it was on the Discover blog network, Ed Yong wrote: “The central question is this: do science bloggers solely speak to each other and those with a pre-existing interest in science, or are we capable of reaching a broader selection of readers?”
But Yong also argued in another (earlier) blog post that when “the right story is presented in the right way,” science writers can reach massive audiences online and through social media. In cases when through a combination of storytelling or fun multimedia or other internet fodder a science blog post goes “viral,” there is no question that the content is breaking out of any echo chamber that it might otherwise live in. Yong gives various tips for science writers here on how to reach a wide vs. niche “echo chamber” audience.
“[B]loggers have a tendency to forget that the problems of new media are ancient ones. The echo-chamber argument is a perfect example. Specialist science magazines like New Scientist or Discover or Scientific American have been wrestling with the problem of netting fresh audiences for decades.” – Ed Yong
Of course, the question of whether blogs serve to create echo chambers may depend upon the primary subject of those blogs. Some research has found that for political blogs, commenters tend to overwhelmingly leave positive blog comments, a rough indication of the presence of an echo chamber. However, disagreement was still present.
For blogs discussing scientific issues prone to public debate, such as climate change, we may also see a greater homophily or “like follows like” than for blogs covering other scientific topics. In a 2015 study of Twitter users, researchers found that “[o]verall, social media discussions of climate change often occur within polarizing ‘echo chambers’, but also within ‘open forums’, mixed-attitude communities that reduce polarization and stimulate debate.” The researchers classified Twitter users into “activist,” “skeptic” or “neutral” communities based on the attitudes expressed in their tweets.
But then again, the graphic above clearly reveals the presence of a middle ground within Twitter where people are exposed to opposing views about climate change.
Many bloggers, including Ed Yong, used to (and some still do) write regular “Who are you?” posts to find out more about their readers. Other bloggers have actually run their own reader surveys. Examples that I could find include reader surveys for Southern Fried Science (published results here), Dynamic Ecology, SF and Nonsense, Context and Variation, and NutSci, among others. In a survey of Southern Fried Science and Deep Sea News blog readers, the authors of these blogs found that their readers were largely well-educated young American adults “with a high percentage of readers having or pursuing a graduate or professional degree.”
“Yong merely asked his readers to post something about themselves in the comments section of his blog. He’s done it three times since 2008 (here, here, and here), drawing almost 500 responses in total. Most of those people had a background in science, engineering, or computer programming, but certainly not all of them did.” - Dylan DePice, Columbia Journalism Review
But I haven’t found any peer-reviewed research that attempts to do what some science bloggers have done on a wide scale, e.g. investigate who reads science blogs and why.
“Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for digital environmentalists is understanding their audience. Simple metrics like page views, unique visitors, number of followers, number of comments, and number of backlinks give authors an impression of how many people read and are interested in their content, but rarely provide insight into who is reading and why.” - Digital environmentalism: Tools and strategies for the evolving online ecosystem (quoted from pre-print)
Most science bloggers I know don’t want to be talking inside echo chambers. When I interviewed and surveyed science bloggers for my dissertation, a majority indicated that they write for a “non-specialist science interested audience” or a “non-specialist general audience.”
So as Ed Yong points out, science writing content geared toward a popular audience, whether appearing on a blog on in a newspaper, has the potential to reach outside of what we might call echo chambers. And most bloggers say they are writing for a non-specialist audience. And yet some evidence points to blogs of particular genres creating echo chambers, with like-minded people following/commenting on the same blogs.
But are we any closer to an answer? Are science blogs echo chambers, or are they reaching non-specialist audiences?
In order to get any closer to an answer here, I think we need to address a question largely absent from the scientific literature: Who reads science blogs, and why do they read them?
This is the exact question that I’ve decided to answer with my postdoctoral research at LSU. Lance Porter, who also has a history of studying blogging practices, and I have begun a project to survey science blog readers on a large scale. We’ve randomly selected 60 science bloggers from a list of 600, in order to get a semi-representative view of who reads science blogs and why. We will be asking readers about their use of social media, range of science blogs they read, engagement and attitudes toward science and scientific research, scientific knowledge, and more. Our survey is ready to go, but we are currently crowd-funding our project in order to be able to collect better data by offering survey incentives.
Please check out our project and share or support it here: https://experiment.com/mysciblogreaders
(Yes, I’m encouraging you to support our research, because it addresses what I think are critical questions!)
So who reads science blogs? And are science blogs creating echo chambers, or are science bloggers reaching non-specialist readers or readers that don’t necessarily share the same views? If you have insights, let me know! Chat with me on Twitter @FromTheLabBench, using the hashtag #sciblogreaders.