Running this blog has been a wonderful experience. I think it’s a productive and professional use of my time, and my intention is that those who spend time visiting this site will feel the same.
In person, I typically am ashamed to even mention that I have a blog. This is equally true in professional and personal contexts. On average, having a blog is not a positive thing. I usually will only talk about this site after someone else brings it up.
I read a variety of blogs, so I have plenty of respect for some bloggers and their work. I hope that Small Pond Science continues to earn respect from others, throughout the scientific and academic communities. I recognize that respect is earned, especially in this specious and heterogeneous medium.
People who are not regular blog readers – which is most people – tend to think that a blog is a public diary, where people post about their meals and alternately brag and complain about their friends and family. Obviously that’s wrong, or at least an oversimplification.
To outsiders, it appears that there is a blogging scene among scientific and academic bloggers. At first glance, it may appear to be populated with a small cast of characters that have mutual respect and admiration for one another, spiced with an occasional dose of antipathy.
I don’t know how others feel, but even the existence of a “blogging scene” feels exclusionary to me. When I do visit blogs tied to the scene, I identify a variety of things that serve as barriers to new readers and people who don’t perceive that they are members of the community. The tone is highly personalized, and there are references to other blog buddies, narratives referring to in-jokes and incidents from earlier times, and there is the occasional use of pet names or acronyms.
Of course, many people who write and read blogs might point out that this highly personalized approach to a blog is not a bug but a feature. Especially for people in a position where they would be marginalized for speaking out, there are benefits to creating a closer-knit community that doesn’t make too much sense to outsiders. Of course, anybody can have a blog and they are free to write whatever they wish in that blog (unless they’re in the SciAm network). I’m totally cool with that. Write whatever you want in your blog, by all means. No sarcasm is intended.
The upshot is that when I read most blogs, I think to myself: this is a club to which I do not belong.
This last week, it was revealed that a central figure in the science blogging club is a lecherous creep. Now that the reeling is over, club members are evaluating the structure of their community more broadly to understand how such a malevolent oaf could gain so much power. As I’m not a member of the club, I can’t really contribute much of value to that discussion. I’ve never met any of the central figures. (I only know one person who is in any blog network, on account of a shared research expertise in a certain family of insects.)
One side effect of the events of the last week is that all kinds of blog readers and twitter followers are now getting a heavy dose of understanding how clubby this club is. This club is not exclusionary by intent, and I imagine that newcomers are welcomed quite quickly. However, it’s still a club, and the price of admission is an interest and investment of time in building relationships with people in the club.
There are some excellent blogs out there by people who don’t appear to be members of the club. I don’t know if Female Science Professor has ever buddied around with other bloggers. If she does then you wouldn’t realize it from being a semi-regular reader of her site. This is quite different than most other bloggers of academia, whose blogs make it pretty obvious that they are buddies with other bloggers and this buddy network features heavily in the content and context of posts.
There is a different kind of club for science bloggers, many who mostly write professional and not-overly-personal pieces on their blogs but engage in social media in a manner that seems exclusive and, well, clubby, to outsiders.
It is inevitable that the professional and the personal will intermingle when professionals spend time together as a part of their jobs. I’m not in a blogging club, but am I in other professional clubs? Sure. There are the people who work at the same rainforest field station, and there are people who work on the same taxon as myself. These personal relationships are a kind of glue that keep professional networks together, and friendship among colleagues is not inherently inappropriate. (A post by Chad Orzel, and including the associated comments which are thoughtful and productive, deals some of these issues.)
Many bloggers, though some of them even regard their blogs as a professional endeavor, conduct much of their blog-related friendships in the public arena. This public friendship happens sometimes through the content of posts, sometimes in comments on posts, and heavily on twitter. Many of these bloggers have thousands of followers who might have started following bloggers for professional reasons but very promptly were introduced into the interactions of their personal lives. Science blogs purportedly exist for science education and outreach, but they also come, whether you like it or not, with a heavy dose of the personal lives of bloggers and their friendships with one another.
The clubs of bloggers are very different from other professional clubs. What is the difference? The activity that brings the blogger club together is the medium through which they communicate. The personal aspects of their professional relationships are transparent and unavoidable to the public that is seeking information about science or academia.
Bloggers of science and academia conduct their business on their blogs, and also heavily socialize using their blogs and the social media directly tied to these blogs. If there is a line between the blogs of science and academia, and the social life of the bloggers, it’s so blurry that it is indistinguishable. I might have jumped into conversations with others in social media on occasion, but I hope that hasn’t resulted in a site that makes it looks like it is designed to be a social enterprise. Having my own blog has led to communicating with people with whom I might become friends. However, I’ll be darned if the those friendships chase away people who otherwise would read the site. I don’t want anybody to even suspect, for a moment, that by reading this site that they are looking at the internal workings of a club.
When I am doing my job as a tropical biologist or an ant biologist, my participation in professional clubs is not obvious in the primary activity of the club: scientific research, publication in journals, and the training of students. We socialize in person and through social media, but this kind of socialization doesn’t directly interfere with our missions of research and student training. In some ways it can indirectly help and indirectly hinder our goals, depending on individuals.
I’m not in a position to tell other people how to run their blogs. However, because the prevailing norm is different than what I wish for my blog, then I have to deal with the fact that this site is, by design, different than other blogs. I’m shooting for elements of Female Science Professor, Myrmecos, Dynamic Ecology and the New York Times. I want this site to be fundamentally different than a newspaper, but I would like to be journalistic in professionalism and accessibility. I want someone who comes here to not think that this site is just some blog, but to see content and ideas that serve the mission and are not designed for the discussion or entertainment of a social club.
While being in the blogger club would bring more attention to this site, it also would also put a fence around the site and keep some people out. I want everybody to feel welcome. I honestly don’t know how well I’ve accomplished this goal to date, and by sharing this mission overtly and publicly, I set the bar for a standard that I wish to maintain.