This is another post following up on a session at ScienceOnline Together 2014, this one called Blog Networks: Benefits, Role of, Next Steps, and moderated by Scientific American Blogs Editor Curtis Brainard. You should also read David Zaslavsky’s summary of the session and what people were tweeting on the session hashtag, #scioBlogNet.
My own thoughts are shaped by writing an independent science blog that less than a year later became part of one of the first “pro” science blogging networks when it launched in January 2006, moving my blog from that network to a brand new science blogging community in August 2010, and keeping that blog going while starting Doing Good Science here on the Scientific American Blog Network when it launched in July 2011. This is to say, I’ve been blogging in the context of science blogging networks for a long time, and have seen the view from a few different vantage points.
That said, my view is also very particular and likely peculiar — for example, I’m a professional philosopher (albeit one with a misspent scientific youth) blogging about science while trying to hold down a day-job as a professor in a public university during a time of state budget terror and to maintain a reasonable semblance of family life. My blogging is certainly more than a hobby — in many ways it provides vital connective tissue that helps knit together my weirdly interdisciplinary professional self into a coherent whole (and has thus been evaluated as a professional activity for the day-job) — but, despite the fact that I’m a “pro” who gets paid to blog here, it’s not something I could live on.
In my experience, a science blogging network can be a great place to get visibility and to build an audience. This can be especially useful early in one’s blogging career, since it’s a big, crowded blogosphere out there. Networks can also be handy for readers, since they deliver more variety and more of a regular flow of posts than most individual bloggers can do (especially when we’re under the weather and/or catching up on grading backlogs). It’s worth noting, though, that very large blog networks can provide a regular flow of content that frequently resembles a firehose. Some blog networks provide curation in the form of featured content or topical feeds. Many provide something like quality control, although sometimes it’s exercised primarily in the determination of who will blog in the network.
Blog networks can also have a distinctive look and feel, embodied in shared design elements, or in an atmosphere set within the commenting community, for example. Bloggers within blog networks may have an easier time finding opportunities for productive cross-pollination or coordination of efforts with their network neighbors, whether to raise political awareness or philanthropic dollars or simply to contribute many distinctive perspectives to the discussion of a particular topic. Bloggers sharing networks can also become friends (although sometimes, being humans, they develop antagonisms instead).
On a science blogging network, bloggers seem also to regularly encounter the question of what counts as a proper “science blog” — about whose content is science-y enough, and what exactly that should mean. This kind of policing of boundaries happens even here.
While the confluence of different people blogging on similar terrain can open up lots of opportunities for collaboration, there are moments when the business of running a blog network (at least when that blog network is a commercial enterprise) can be in tension with what the bloggers value about blogging in the network. Sometimes the people running the network aren’t the same as the people writing the blogs, and they end up having very different visions, interests, pressing needs, and understandings of their relationships to each other.
Sometimes bloggers and networks grow apart and can’t give each other what they need for the relationship to continue to be worthwhile going forward.
And, while blogging networks can be handy, there are other ways that online communicators and consumers of information can find each other and coordinate their efforts online. Twitter has seen the ride of tremendously productive conversations around hashtags like #scistuchat and #BlackandSTEM, and undoubtedly similarly productive conversations among science-y folk regularly coalesce on Facebook and Tumblr and in Google Hangouts. Some of these online interactions lead to face-to-face collaborations like the DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon and conference proposals made to traditional professional societies that get their start in online conversations.
Networks can be nice. They can even help people transition from blogging into careers in science writing and outreach. But even before blog networks, awesome people managed to find each other and to come up with awesome projects to do together. Networks can lower the activation energy for this, but there are other ways to catalyze these collaborations, too.