[update: a tiny extra take-away added at the very end of the post, a few hours later]
When I came to Brussels in 1991 it was as a science writer. It remained my profession for many years, so when scienceblogs.com was launched in 2006 I checked it out … but never really had the time to follow it.
Now via another (ex?)science writer, my old friend @simonblackley, I hear news of scienceblog’s sudden implosion following a tragic loss of ethical compass. The story both serves as an inspriration for the development of the European online public space, and is a cautionary tale regarding the boundaries between blogging, journalism, sponsorship, advertising and marketing.
First, the inspiration
Science writing is about explaining a field which is very complex, full of jargon and important, to people without the specialised training. It’s not that surprising that I switched from writing about science to writing about Europe.
According to wikipedia, Scienceblogs.com was created in 2006:
“… to enhance the public understanding of science. [By] February 2009 ScienceBlogs hosted 75 blogs … each [with] its own theme … . Authors include active scientists working in industry, universities and medical schools as well as college professors, physicians, professional writers, graduate students, and post-docs.”
So, a blog platform like Blogactiv, right? Well, not exactly – it’s by invitation only (and they were recently getting 7 requests / day – eat your heart out, Stuart ;-)):
“… as of 2007-07-07, ScienceBlogs had an [Technorati] “authority” of 9,581 … [by] 2008-03-14, … over 1.1 million monthly unique visitors…” – Wikipedia
“The most high-trafficked blog here, Pharyngula, is … the 68th most influential blog in the world right now” – A Farewell to Scienceblogs, Bora Zivkovic
In other words, seriously successful stuff: highly specialised bloggers (Bora is a chronobiologist, with additional interests in comparative physiology, animal behavior and evolution), making their field accessible to an audience who is interested in science but don’t have the specialist background to get through Science or Nature.
Something we in the Euroblogosphere could look at and say: “OK, that gives us something to aim at”. Because explaining science and explaining Europe are similar challenges.
And the cautionary tale
And yet, Sciencblogs is in free fall. Wikipedia again:
“In June 2010, ScienceBlogs started a blog which was run (and paid for) by PepsiCo. This lead to backlash by many of the bloggers on ScienceBlogs who considered this to be an unethical mix of advertising and journalism. … By the middle of July approximately a quarter of the bloggers had left ScienceBlogs. Subsequently, some bloggers such as PZ Myers of Pharyngula announced they were going on strike…”
Bora Zivkovic is one of those who left. I read his post after referring to the European online blogging space as an (unfinished) ecosystem, so it’s a coincedence that the full title of his post is: A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem.
It’s a very long post, but I recommend reading every one of the almost 8300 words. I could probably extract five different points from it, turning each into a post about the EU and social media.
Maybe next week. For now, here are three starting points:
1. Group blog or stand-alone?
Bora’s tour of the growth of ScienceBlogs is a fascinating look at the ‘network effect’ from blogging on a common platform. Everything he says here is (was?) part of the logic behind the creation of Blogactiv.
While I’m not personally in favour of the recent French proposal for a group Euroblog (something I just can’t bring myself to blog about – j’ai deja donné), Bora’s post should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t understand how Metcalfe’s law applies to online media.
2. Ethics and blogging
His story – along with ClimateGate – also remind me of my own concerns regarding where unethical behaviour in EU social media might take us.
3. Groups, inertia … and just plain laziness
But what really resonated with me was Bora’s quotation from Clay Shirky’s 2003 piece, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy (another very long piece, but essential reading):
“You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “…I’d rather be someplace else.” … The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. [But] You don’t leave.
And then… Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on … everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.
This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups”
For Bora, the decision to leave Scienceblogs was one that had been building for some time – the PepsiCo fiasco was the event that pushed the first departure, which has since triggered so many more.
Right now, I’m wondering whether I should be leaving Blogactiv. I really like the people (OK, person) running it, but the technology is creaking, I can’t do half the things I want, only one of my last five posts got into the enewsletter, and there’s more interaction with blogs off the platform than there are on it, despite some 70-80 quite active blogs. I could undoubtably do more with my own site – I’d take a temporary hit to traffic, but I’d have more fun,
I’ve been thinking this for ages. But, like Clay’s partygoer, I just can’t seem to bring myself to do anything about it. Who’s grabbing their coat first?
[update] And one more thing…
… from Bora’s post: a battle I fight on a monthly if not weekly basis, and which should have been won long ago:
“The Print Guys Won”
So it’s not just the EU, then.Mathew Lowry