Today I came across Dynamic Ecology’s post Blogs are dying; long live (science blogs).
In the post, Dr. Jeremy Fox writes about giving a talk here for an Ecology Center seminar at Utah State University. In the talk, he proposes (realizing that the statement is provocative) that blogs are dying. In his blog post, he cites several pieces of evidence including that there are fewer Google searches for the term “blog” today than in 2009. But what if people don’t search the term “blog” as much anymore because blogs ARE so prominently featured at the top of particular Google search results? Fox also cites the recent retirement from blogging of several long-term bloggers including Andrew Sullivan.
Fox does point out that “most of the reasons why blogs as a whole are dying don’t apply to science blogs written by academics.” But what about science blogs written by non-academics? I don’t think those are dying either – far from it.
Fox offers several hypotheses for why he is seeing fewer ecology blogs today than he used to. Many of these apply to why in particular a scholarly approach to science blogging appears to be “dying” or in decline today.
For my dissertation, which I anticipate successfully defending this semester, I interviewed and surveyed bloggers about their blogging practices. And according to that data, scholarly blogging may be dying. The most my data can say is that it’s a minor approach to science blogging – I can’t say whether it’s a less common approach than it used to be. In fact, the year that a blogger first started blogging about science (according to #MySciBlog survey data) fails to predict how often the blogger gets story ideas from his or her own scientific research. In other words, getting story ideas from one’s own research doesn’t look to be any less common today than it used to be – not significantly at least, according to my data*.
But even if scholarly blogging is stagnating, blogging for science outreach or popularization of science looks to be booming. The science bloggers I surveyed indicated engaging most frequently – by a long shot – in an explainer/translator role (‘I explain or translate scientific information from experts to non-specialist publics’). When asked what their motivations were to start blogging, science bloggers I interviewed most frequently said 1) to practice their writing skills, and 2) to educate non-specialist audiences and increase public interest in science, either through science outreach or popular science writing.
Even if particular use cases of science blogs are “dying,” that certainly doesn’t mean that science blogs as a whole are dying. Blogs are evolving as some say, not dying.
Claims that blogs are dying aren’t new. In 2009, Charles Arthur wrote in The Guardian that “the long tail of blogging is dying.” According to Arthur, blogging, and especially the back-and-forth conversations that used to happen on blogs, has been taken over by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
And why? Arthur offers this explanation:
“Because blogging isn't easy. More precisely, other things are easier – and it's to easier things that people are turning. Facebook's success is built on the ease of doing everything in one place. (Search tools can't index it to see who's talking about what, which may be a benefit or a failing.) Twitter offers instant content and reaction. Writing a blog post is a lot harder than posting a status update, putting a funny link on someone's Wall, or tweeting.” – Charles Arthur
Blogging is having to fit into an increasingly rich media ecosystem. For some, this forces blogging into a more niche market.
“Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs. Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium.” – Neiman Lab
So blogging isn’t easy (but what worth doing is?). And quicker forms of social media have taken over some of the functions of blogs. We can’t deny this. But does this really mean blogs are dying, or simply that their uses and strength as a format are evolving and changing? Science bloggers seem to increasingly be turning to Twitter for blog post ideas (see the table above), not as a replacement for their blogging.
The exception might be that before Facebook and Twitter were popular, bloggers only had their blogs to post a quick blub, a link or a video they found interesting. More instantaneous forms of social media are certainly replacing that aspect of quick-fire blogging. Twitter is arguably a better platform for ephemeral conversations. But that STILL doesn't mean blogs are dying, but rather that blogs are finding their own niche in this growing ecosystem of self-publishing avenues.
Many science bloggers I interviewed and surveyed talked about their blogs today as a place for extended thoughts from Twitter and other “faster” social media streams. According to my dissertation data, academics and science writers alike continue to use their blogs...
- as a home for their writing
- as a portfolio
- as a place to be able to write without strict editorial oversight
- as a place to stick extras that don’t fit elsewhere, either in the academic publishing world or in the larger science content ecosystem
- as a place for opinion, interpretation, analysis and curation
- as a place to cover in depth the stories and scientific papers not being covered by the media (what I call Ecosystem Blogging, or covering what’s missing from the existing content ecosystem)
- as a place to add context missing from news and social media
Neither Twitter nor Facebook, nor Medium, quite fit the bill for these more nuanced functions.
“Blogs are avenues for storytelling, and we have been telling stories to each other for millennia, stories with beginnings and middles and ends. The rise of more platforms like Twitter and Facebook to facilitate ongoing conversations does not signal an end to longer-form content on blogs.” – Elan Morgan
Lou Woodley, a “community engagement specialist” and fantastic science communicator, brings up a great question, and that is how are we defining “death” when we talk about the death of blogs? What do we mean by dying?
@FromTheLabBench Define death? Lack of ppl with own blog, less updates per blog, decline in traffic per blog, change in independence, other?
— Lou Woodley (@LouWoodley) March 10, 2015
By death, are we referring to fewer blog posts per blog? I observed during my interviews and survey with science bloggers that the average posting frequency today is about once a week – not the daily updates that were the norm circa 2006/8. Less than 6% of bloggers I surveyed (#MySciBlog 2014 survey, N = 610) are posting material on their blogs every day or more often. Some of this can be attributed to the rise of microblogging platforms such as Twitter. Interestingly, bloggers are increasingly getting their story ideas from their Twitter feed as well as from their interactions on Twitter.
A majority of bloggers I interviewed, or around 66%, are posting between once a month and once a week. Bloggers who are being paid to blog do post more regularly, averaging about one post a week compared to non-paid bloggers’ average one post a month.
But are we restricting the definition of a blog to a daily updated site? Because if we are, that is indeed a narrow definition. It also does not reflect the fact that a blogger who posts once a week and a blogger who posts every day may be using very similar content decisions rules, may have very similar motivations, and may be using very similar approaches to their content. They are both blogging. And if they’ve both been blogging for several months or years now, would we look at the once-a-week or once-a-month blogger and conclude that blogs are dying?
Maybe we are worried that (science) blogs are dying because we see fewer people doing it today. Take a look at the following graphic. It shows the breakdown of year that all participants of #MySciBlog survey first started science blogging in any form. This data certainly doesn’t support the idea that science blogs are dying. A majority of the science bloggers I surveyed (I started survey data collection around November 2014) say they started blogging about science for the first time in the just the last 2-3 years.
This doesn’t provide evidence that numbers of science bloggers outside of those I surveyed aren’t declining. Perhaps more science bloggers STARTED blogging in 2008 than start today, but they’ve since stopped blogging. Or maybe more bloggers today start and stop within a year or two as compared to bloggers who started in 2005 and tended to continue for several years. These are possibilities, but we don’t have data to back them up, to my knowledge. The data I DO have shows that the science blogosphere is full of very young science blogs and bloggers. Demographic-wise, many of these bloggers are young - many are students and graduate students. Nearly half of #MySciBlog survey respondents, or 46% (N = 283), are 18 to 34 years old, while 27% (N =165) are 35 to 44 years old (self-reported). A full 20% of bloggers I interviewed describe themselves as students. I certainly wouldn’t say based on this data that “Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.”
Maybe it’s not blogging in general, but “old school” blogging that is dying. Kevin Drum suggests that “old school” blogging, “daily blog[ging] with frequent updates written by one person (or possibly two, but not much more),” is on its way out, possibly thanks to a professionalization of the blogosphere.
“There's just less scope for layman-style noodling when you know that a whole bunch of experts will quickly weigh in with far more sophisticated responses. Add to that the rise of professional journalists taking up their own blogs, and true amateurs became even more marginalized.” – Kevin Drum“I don't think blogs — at least in the 2005-era sense of the word, the conversational blogs Sullivan was the protector of — work in these large organizations.” – Ezra Klein
I’m not sure why we are limiting the definition of a blog to only include blogs that are authored by 2-3 people at most. Is Southern Fried Science not a blog? Of course it is, and its authors write with nearly complete if not complete control over their content. Each blog author is the gatekeeper over his or her respective content on the blog, even if the authors sometimes coordinate posting schedules or common topic themes.
Others who claim that blogs are dying point to the professionalization of blogs and remind us that “real” blogs represent “the unedited voice of a person.” But let’s question this. Is anyone’s blog REALLY unedited? If you are a science blogger, I’d be willing to bet that you self-edit. You check your facts as you go. You’ve written posts before in the heat of the moment that you decided not to post, or at least to tone down. You've probably also had readers offer you "edits." If my survey of science bloggers offers any insight into broader science blogging practices, you might have even passed a blog post by a friend or colleague, to make sure the science was accurate or that the post wasn’t offensive or controversial. Do you not qualify as a blogger if you’ve sought out help in making editorial decisions in this voluntary way? It could be something as simple asking other scientists for their opinions about a new article on Twitter before deciding to write about it.
Bloggers’ content decisions are not walled off from the larger content ecosystem or from their peer writers. In fact, from my survey it is apparent that science bloggers are paying far more attention than I think we typically assume to the larger content ecosystem in deciding what to blog about and how to blog about it. If you are a science blogger, have you ever not written about a new scientific paper or a current event, or written about it differently than you otherwise would have, because you saw that another science blogger had already covered it well? Or anticipated that another blogger would cover it? If you answered yes, then you’ve engaged in what I call Ecosystem Blogging – you paid attention to the larger content ecosystem in making your blogging content decisions.
Professionalization of blogs is certainly a theme that came up during my dissertation research interviews of science bloggers. Several long-time bloggers I interviewed mentioned that today they are seeing fewer science blogs focused on scholarly communication or “inside science” (such as real-time research blogging) and more blogs focused on science journalism, science outreach and education. The science blogosphere has unarguably become more professionalized – just look at the number of prestigious scientific publications hosting blogs today. And blogging for a magazine can be a very different experience than blogging independently.
You might be surprised to know, however, that based on my dissertation data magazine bloggers and independent bloggers actually share many common practices and content decisions guidelines or “blog” values. I’ll write more about this in future posts covering my dissertation findings. The point here, though, is that we need evidence-based information on science blogging practices, and how those practices map onto other forms of social media publishing, before we claim that blogging is dying or dead.
Ok, so science blogs have become more professional as a whole (and have also gained credibility and impact in the process). Does this mean blogs are dying? I’d say no.
The separation between what is blogging and what is not blogging looks more like a gradient than a sharp divide. If we really think about it, is posting on Medium not blogging? What if as a Medium content producer, I use very similar content decisions practices, values and approaches to creating content as a fellow Wordpress blogger does? If we share practices, what does posting to different platforms have to do with it? On the other hand, if I interview sources and strictly use traditional news values in creating content for Medium, or for my blog for that matter, I'm engaging in J-ournalism. Does it matter if I posted it to Medium after having a colleague edit and fact-check it, or sent it to a news outlet for publishing?
I think we need to focus less on the technological platform, and more on the function of blogs, the roles bloggers perceive themselves as filling, and their approaches and practices to creating content, whether that is posting on Medium, maintaining a Wordpress blog, posting LinkedIn long-form updates or Storifying tweets with added commentary.
“Over the past 16 years, the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work.” – Neiman Lab
Even if we don’t consider posting to Medium to be blogging, it still doesn’t mean that blogs are dying and giving life to Medium and other “non-blogging” publishing routes. On the subject of posting to Medium, Elan Morgan has this to say:
“I understand why someone would write for a larger platform with the possibility of increased trust and shareability, but locating all your content on platforms and domains over which you have no control means the possibility of losing that content and, even if you do keep copies of it, losing the urls that point to that content if and when that platform and/or domain closes up shop. Case in point: Posterous is closing its doors on April 30th. Any investment in the power of the links to that material will be lost.” - Elan Morgan
Personally I couldn’t agree more. While I do post some things to Medium, these are usually things that for some reason or another I’ve decided might do better on Medium than on my own blog at SciLogs.com. Perhaps they weren’t about science, but perhaps about photography, another passion of mine. In any case, I would never give up my blog here to post exclusively on Medium, precisely for some of the reasons Morgan gives.
Using Morgan’s headline, NO, blogging is not dying. The gist is that CHANGE is not DEATH. Elan Morgan points out that headlines about the death of blogging often misinterpret or sensationalize actual data. When it comes to science blogs, there has been very little scholarly research on the topic of blogging trends over time, who is doing it and how on a large scale.
“Anecdotally, the first telegraph in the United States was invented in 1828, and Western Union didn't discontinue all its telegram services until 2006, even with the advent of telephones and the internet. Not that I'm equating blogging with the entirely obsolete telegram, but it's hard to argue with 178 years. Variety isn't a death knell, and blogging still has a strong heartbeat.” – Elan Morgan“Much ado is made about blogging's decline, but, online or off, we are humans born to tell stories, and we are born to tell them in a variety of ways from 140-character bursts and several-paragraph tomes to art and photos of kittens. We're individuals after all, and not all of us are built to share our stories in the same ways. Blogging is the most flexible platform for communication in human history, which is why, despite all the news to the contrary over the years, social media hasn't managed killed it.” – Elan Morgan
Blogs and blogging practices are evolving. Science bloggers may be posting less often than they did 5-10 years ago. But perhaps they are also posting content that is lengthier, more context-laden and more reflective of what is missing from the larger science content ecosystem. Social media sites including Facebook and Twitter have taken over some of the aspects of blogging while contributing to and enriching other aspects and functions of blogging.
Young people, especially science students and early career researchers, continue to join the science blogosphere. They may be focusing more on education and science outreach than on scholarly or "inside science" communication - but that might also be a reflection of the times we are in. With continued claims of growing scientist-public opinion gaps, it would make sense that many science bloggers would start blogs today to contribute to science communication for non-specialist audiences. And if the "inner circle" or "old school" bloggers aren't noticing them - well maybe these newcomers are doing a better job than we credit them for in reaching non-specialist audiences and escaping the echo chamber. These questions all deserve future research, and not just anecdotal pondering about whether blogs are dying or not.
I'll go ahead and say it. They aren't! Keep calm and blog on.
*I have to point out that my data is NOT representative of science bloggers as a larger population. I can only talk about trends observed among the science bloggers who took my survey.