Mathew Lowry

[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.

Departing thoughts?

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.

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Comments

  1. Do you think it’s because you’ve lost your confidence in group blogging, or because upgrades to blogactiv aren’t happening/aren’t the ones you want?

  2. How is blogactiv actually working inside? I’m mean of course from a bloggers point of view? How are bloggers communicating with each other. I always had the impression that blogs here are a bit deserted, even if I’ve read some really good posts on blogactiv blogs in the recents months and there is a considerable amount working been done in the blogs.

  3. This is a little bit hard for me for two reasons. To begin with, Blogactiv was ‘my baby’ for a few months. Secondly, I don’t want to blame anybody. As I said in an earlier post, it’s easy to be criticise and say – when someone does something – that they haven’t done enough.

    In this case it would be easy to criticise the fact that Blogactiv hasn’t had an upgrade for a year or 2, or that there isn’t a lot of effort put into community management, both between bloggers here and between them and elsewhere.

    But who am I to say how much money EurActiv, Blogactiv’s parent, pumps into this site? At least they created it, stimulating the emergence of more blogs and bloggers. Some are of debatable quality – a few are absolutely looney – but some are good. It’s been a net positive for the development of the ecosystem.

    @Eurocentric: The logic behind specialised blog platforms – whether EU- or science-focused – remains valid, however, so I haven’t lost confidence in group blogging.

    But some of the main benefits accruing from being part of a platform result from good community management, curation and quality control, which – for whatever reason – isn’t happening here. So these benefits aren’t huge on Blogactiv, as a specific case.

    On the other hand, being part of a platform means accepting costs in the form of technical and design constraints. Here, the lack of upgrades or technical support has made those costs quite large. So it’s a combination of things, specific to Blogactiv, which are putting the cost/benefit calculation into the red from the perspective of a blogger here.

    @martin: there is nothing working inside! No internal communications, community development/management, nothing. It’s just a collection of individual blogs.

    But this is not a criticism of the current management. It’s not obvious to pay salaries on the back of social media – they took a big risk to launch Blogactiv, and have done something useful. If I haven’t decided to leave yet, it’s probably because I still want them to succeed, and develop it further.

  4. Hi everyone,

    I’m not sure that this is an easy one to respond on, but I’ll have a try…

    I cannot deny that there are technical problems on Blogactiv. Anyone with a blog here knows that. In short, it comes down in large part to the customisation that was carried out around launch. Trying to integrate a multi-user and multi-lingual platform with a tri-lingual website creates lots of issues.

    And right now, it isn’t so obvious what we ought to upgrade to. From what I can see from the WPMU forums, the multi-lingual version of WordPress Multi-User was not popular enough to survive. Thus, there is no natural upgrade to move to.

    In addition, Blogactiv really has grown! Early in the year, I announced that we had passed 5000 blog posts. Happily, they didn’t stop there. In a few weeks time, the platform will pass 7,000 posts. Add in all those subdomains, tags, categories, languages and the complexity of multiple homepages (with their own categories) and moving to a new version or new CMS is a VERY big job – one that we haven’t fully got our heads around yet.

    On top of this, Blogactiv is in essence just me (in terms of staffing) and there are limits to what can get done in any one day.

    In terms of community, this is a problem too, I cannot deny. There are almost certainly a wide variety of reasons for this. As may have been obvious to outsiders, Blogactiv’s strategy has been to try and find high-quality bloggers. While there can’t be much doubt that a number of our bloggers are real experts in their topics, many publish rather than blog. Mathew has highlighted this elsewhere himself – though I can’t seem to find the post at the moment – that if you don’t respond to comments or questions, don’t publish them or simply switch the function off, it isn’t easy to build a community. Alas, a number of our higher-profile bloggers take this approach.

    In short, there is still lots being done on Blogactiv behind the scenes. Lots more to do and lots of ideas. But this is a big project and very little of it is ‘easy’.

    Thank you for your continued patience and support.

    Stuart
    Director of Blogactiv

  5. Thanks, Stuart, for the frank and open comment to what was obviously not an easy post to comment to. Clearly, upgrading something like BA would ideally be done in a series of small steps, version-by-version, to avoid suddenly finding oneself in front of an unscalable mountain. But that would require resources you clearly don’t have.

    In Bora’s post, he contrasts Seed Magazine, the SMG’s original publication, and Scienceblogs, the SMG subproject which is actually far more successful:

    “What Seed Media Group is doing right now is trying to run a magazine, while treating Scienceblogs.com as a source of revenue. What Seed Media Group should be doing, what every media group should be doing, is become a technology-rich publishing company, with an incredible and visionary IT/Web team working with the editorial team in driving innovation”

    It didn’t happen. Instead, as he pointed out, “the print guys won” – they sacrificed the credibility of Scienceblogs (the new media success) to keep their magazine (the old media failure) going.

    But for how much longer? And I wonder how long it will take before we start reading: “The Web1.0 guys won“?

    PS the post you were looking for is probably When is a blog not a blog?.

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