This attempt to create an inclusive professional blog

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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.

But.

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.

24 thoughts on “This attempt to create an inclusive professional blog

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    I’ve never much read the most popular science blogs. When I started blogging, I didn’t even read other ecology blogs. The blogs I was reading were mostly about politics and economics. Since then, I’ve started reading some ecology blogs too. But I still don’t read general science blogs, just because I personally happen to enjoy, and get more out of, other sorts of blogs. And I’ve had hardly any interaction with bloggers from outside of the very small ecology blogosphere.

    I do kind of like being slightly outside the mainstream of science blogging in some ways, because I think that’s what makes my posts on Dynamic Ecology worth reading. I kind of feel like nobody needs yet one more place to read about current topical science stuff, whether it’s Bora Zivkovic’s sexual harassment, or the latest scientific paper that made a splash in the mainstream news media, or whatever’s going on at NSF and NIH, or etc. But if anybody wants to read about zombie ideas or whatever else pops into my head, there’s only one place they can go! :-) And Meg and Brian very much have their own ideas as well, which is great. I especially like that our Friday links include lots of stuff that hasn’t already gone totally viral in the science twitterverse. Your Friday links are great for that too, and I think that’d be harder to pull off if one was paying lots of attention to the same science bloggers everyone else pays attention to. Would Dynamic Ecology have a bigger audience if our choice of topics was less idiosyncratic, if we made more of an effort to write for a broader audience? I dunno, maybe? Probably? But I think it wouldn’t be as good a blog if we went that route–we’d be more redundant.

    I’m also outside the mainstream a bit because I’m pretty much just a blogger. I hardly ever use Twitter; @DynamicEcology exists just to announce new posts, and provide a convenient way for me to occasionally check and see what readers are saying about the blog on Twitter. Brian’s not on Twitter either. Although Meg’s a heavy Twitter user, for both social and professional purposes. She’s definitely more plugged into the wider science social mediaverse than Brian or I. But you’d have to ask her how it affects her blogging, if at all.

    As to inclusiveness, I guess I’d say there’s more than one way for a blog to be “exclusive”. Dynamic Ecology certainly isn’t part of any science blogging “club” or “inner circle”. But readers from outside of academia, particularly from developing countries, sometimes note that Dynamic Ecology seems to be aimed at a rather narrow audience–basically, academic ecologists and their graduate students in developed countries. Which I freely admit is true. That’s the audience to which I have things to say that I think are worth saying and that I enjoy saying, and I think the same is more or less true for Brian and Meg too. Tone is another thing that affects “inclusiveness”. My forthright, confident tone and snarky sense of humor attract some readers, but also put some off, which is something I struggle with. Brian’s got a genius for writing even critical or controversial posts in a way that readers really like, and I’m jealous of him. I feel like he gets readers nodding along in happy agreement, whereas I tend to get them grudgingly admitting that I might have a point–as evidenced by the contrasting reactions we get when we write posts on the same topic. I’ve been trying to dial back on the snark lately, but I’m not sure if it’s made my tone more attractive to more people, or if it’s just made my writing boring…

  2. Hello there Terry, I certainly appreciate your efforts to make your blog inclusive and to try to focus on ideas central to you professional life. I think that if I could introduce my supervisor to the blogging world, he would really benefit from seeing your thinking on teaching and mentorship. It gives me a lot of encouragement when you post about job search strategies and emphasize that research does not have to end upon taking a teaching position; personally, I will likely aim to be a “Small Pond Scientist” myself.
    I used to be an avid reader of the more “clubby” forms of science blog, but the constant barrage of in-group references and, frankly, ass-kissing reverence for certain heroes among the in-crowd get tiresome even for someone who is familiar with the lingo. In addition, these in group dynamics also produced a feeling in that community that because he murmured the right phrases and supported the right causes, he must be beyond reproach. I would suggest this power dynamic actually empowered his unprofessional behavior.
    Anyway, please do continue to make your blog inclusive and professional. Your efforts are appreciated and you give both me and my partner a lot of food for thought.

  3. I think Jeremy has a really insightful comment about exclusivity. Every blog has a goal (either consciously or subconsciously). Maybe it’s primarily to communicate about cool science results. Maybe its to engender debate about how we should be conducting science. Maybe it’s to connect with others struggling with similar issues of being a postdoc/gradstudent/untenured faculty/woman/minority in science. Maybe it’s to communicate about the personal side of being in science. Each one of those goals has a certain tone/content that goes along with it that naturally leads to networking with a subset of the blogs out there. For example, bloggers with a primarily ‘talking about how we teach/conduct research” focus will tend to comment on each others blogs a lot :) but maybe not on blogs that are more focused on communicating the personal side of being a scientist, etc. I think it is just a consequence of being human. We see people doing things like us as ‘part of our social unit’ and people doing things different as ‘excluding us’. I think the real challenge is to be aware of this, to both be open about reaching out to others and be responsive when we see people from other ‘social units’ reach out to us.

  4. Terry, this is the most confusing post you’ve ever put up. I’m trying hard not to read it like a self-justifying pouting session about not being more of a feature of the nebulous “community” you keep trying to point to, but that’s a challenge. If your view of science blogging is so narrow that you see a couple of blogs as the “haves” and the rest as the “have nots”, then perhaps you are creating your own problem here. Perhaps you’ve started interacting with the wrong group of bloggers and you need to explore more and find your Happy Place. Chances are, it’s out there.

    But in your critique of “club culture” You are neglecting two important points:

    1) If you think your “professional clubs” are more inclusive than what you’re seeing in the blogging world, you’re ignoring an awful lot of data that tell us otherwise.

    2) You make a false juxtaposition between bloggers and their audience, as if there is some separation. With rare exception, they are the same thing. The number of bloggers who don’t read other blogs on similar topics is vanishingly small. They are as much audience as they are bloggers, the difference is simply that they have made a public forum from which to comment.

    Given that the blogging community is more diverse than your professional ones and has been used effectively as a voice by those who feel disenfranchised by your professional clubs, and that there is inevitable interactions among bloggers addressing similar topics, your foot stomping about not being part of The Club but Dagnabbit I Like It That Way, appears poorly thought out and self copulatory.

    The audience of a blog is entirely based on the information it provides and the number of people interested in that information. I could take out full page ads in every major international news paper touting my blog and the audience simply wouldn’t grow beyond a certain ceiling because there’s a limited number of people who care about the things that I write about. I also can’t write to an audience with whom I share little experience with, which is the same phenomenon that drives everyone’s topic selection and target audience.

    If you honestly think that “club involvement” would massively influence your readership numbers even while you provide the exact same content, I would be interested in where you get that idea from. And if you think you are “fence-free” because you don’t take an interest in broader discussion of certain topics that are important for the culture of your professional clubs, then I guess we have a different idea of what is welcoming.

  5. Um. I just want to point out that you have been blogging for less than one year. That’s really not a long time. Some of us have been doing this online writing thing for close to 10 years now.

    So, it seems pretty logical that a group of people that have known each other for years might seem exclusive. But a relative newcomer might also say that about any group of people that have known and worked together for that length of time. This is one of the reasons your post about anonymity was so poorly received; that discussion already happened many times over the last…well. 10 years.

    If you had a postdoc that showed up in your lab, hadn’t read the literature, and then tried to tell you you were doing everything wrong….You might have some opinions about that too. Just something for you to consider. This also may be the first time ProfLikeSubstance and I agree on something, too :D

  6. I appreciate the comment, thanks. It reinforces my point. After blogging for ten years, I hope that my blog is written in a way that a person who doesn’t read blogs can step in and read it and feel like it makes sense, that they belong, and they don’t have to get caught up on some longer conversation.

    From my vantage point, my posts on pseudonymity were not poorly received. There were poorly received by formerly pseudonymous bloggers, and others who have been reading blogs for a long time. But, as I’ve said, I am working for this blog to not be a blog designed for those who read a lot of blogs.

    A lot of people, who come upon a blog for the first time, can look at it and think, “that’s a conversation that other people are having.” I just don’t want my site to be that way.

  7. Ok PLS, been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of you telling me how ignorant I am and how obviously laughable my opinions are, so against my better instincts I’ll reply:

    So…someone muses out loud about his goals for his own blog, and illustrates that by contrasting his own goals with the goals others have for their blogs, and that’s…self-copulatory? Someone says multiple times that people are free to do whatever they want with their blogs and that’s totally fine and you read him as…complaining about how some blogs are haves and others are have-nots (and you put those terms in quotes even those those are *your* words and not his)? Someone says that writing a blog is a wonderful experience and a productive use of his time, and you tell him that…he needs to find his Happy Place? Someone talks about how writing a blog in a certain way might interfere with the goal of attracting an audience from people who don’t much read blogs, and you reply that…the audience for science blogs is people who already read lots of blogs? (Earth to PLS: the fact that many science blogs are written in a certain way, and so attract a certain audience, is not evidence that you cannot attract a different audience by writing a blog in a different way…) Someone says that he personally doesn’t really feel himself to be part of the social club of prominent science blogs, and that he doesn’t want his blog to function in part as a social club, and your advice to him is that…he’s hanging out with the wrong bloggers and ought to join the club? (???)

    You do realize that you’ve just illustrated better than Terry ever could have why some people (not all, some) are put off by your approach to blogging, don’t you?

    I note with interest that so far you’re the only one who seems to have found this post confusing. Can’t imagine why…

  8. I did not intend this to be a critique of “club culture,” and I don’t think it was. I don’t see blogs through a have/have-not dichotomy. I said that blogs were a heterogeneous medium in this post. There’s all kinds of stuff out there.

    I don’t think that my “professional clubs” are more inclusive. There are lots of data – and detailed blogs – about how people are excluded because of their gender, ethnicity or other stuff. And, clearly, anybody who reads or knows me knows that I’m conscious about this and am working hard to fix things.

    I totally get your point. If you wanted assemble the following notion from the spare parts of this post you could: that many blogs set up by people who are disenfranchised from professional clubs have set up their own online community. And it’s ironic that a white dude from the establishment who is a position to do the disenfranchising is complaining about a club put together by the disenfranchised.

    I clearly am not making the preceding argument. I am instead pointing out that a community of like-minded people that get along with one another can sometimes be off-putting to those who aren’t in the community. I think it’s clear that we’re coming from very different perspectives when you regard a juxtaposition between blogger and audience as false. Clearly, there is a huge group of people who are the audience who are not bloggers. While most bloggers read other blogs a lot, most people who read blogs do not have their own.

    Which connects to my main point. As you wrote, bloggers have an audience composed of those who want to read about what whatever the blogs write about. I read your blog because I’m interested in what you have to say, and that we have so much in common that it’s interesting to see where the differences fall out. This post is designed for me to point out what I want to write about, and how I want to write about it.

    You suggest that I need to find some group of bloggers and get to a Happy Place where I interact with like-minded bloggers. My point, in this post, is that I don’t want to do that. I don’t want this blog to exist in an ecosystem of interacting blogs that have their own internal conversations. I’m not seeking a deeper connection with other blogs or a buddy network for the blog.

    Here’s something of an analogy: A primordial post that I’ve yet to write is a discussion about whether it’s good for our students to attend meetings like SACNAS or ABRCMS. On one hand, these meetings that target minority students provides a supportive environment that encourages students. But, on the other hand, it’s also apartheid and it might actually keep students from interacting with the whole community. If students could only go to one meeting per year, should they go to a conference for their specific discipline, or should they go to SACNAS?

  9. Are you sure you meant to say “appears poorly thought out and self COPULATORY”???

  10. Yeah, I realize that what he wrote violates the commenting policy against ad hominem arguments, but I decided to let it stand because the comment was mostly substantial, even if it was mistaken.

  11. I find it hard to generalize the scientific blogging community but here goes: as mentioned upthread, it’s important to consider the audience. I find that for many science blogs, the intended message is venting (often anonymously) about science to other science bloggers (that are often anonymous themselves). I don’t consider these blogs as outreach (I don’t know that they would either) and they seem more like the diary-form that you mention above. These seem to be the most ‘cliquey’ communities and I have a hard time even understanding what they’re talking about. Because they’re not outreach, who cares if they’re exclusionary?

    This is in stark contrast to the science blogs I enjoy, such as Dynamic Ecology, yours, Female Science Professor and Lab and Field, written for other academics (or aspiring academics), if I may be so bold as to assume your intended audience. It’s also in contrast to blogs like mine (shameless plug http://www.livingalongsidewildlife.com) which is written as outreach to the general public. Making any of these outreach blogs exclusionary defeats the purpose of …reaching out. I think the various blogging networks that you allude to are somewhere in between but I believe tend to be written for the educated layperson, at least when they started. It would be beneficial if some of the authors reflected on your post and who they are attempting to reach. It is sometimes tempting to write to the most vocal of your ‘followers’ because feedback is often non-existent otherwise, and in these networks the vocal followers tend to be other bloggers.I suspect that may be causing some of the issues you mention.

    In any case, reflecting on and articulating the goals of the blog before and while you’re writing is necessary to stay on target, and it sounds like your post is a way of doing that…

  12. I guess I’m not clear on what “internal conversations” you’re talking about and perhaps I’m missing your point. It seems like you are saying any interaction between blogs is a bad thing and that each person should blog as an island. I would say that even FSP uses other blogs to spur material and she certainly exchanges emails with others. Where’s the line?

  13. Of course no blog should be an island – and people can run their blogs however they want.

    I wrote this post to explain that my line is over to one side — further than Female Science Professor — when I write any one post, anybody should be able to step in and read it as easily as anything they’d read in some other wide-read venue. (It take that pretty seriously, that’s why I write Female Science Professor instead of FSP, and don’t refer to you as PLS. That makes sense to regular readers but it looks like insider chat to most people.)

    I think interaction between blogs can be a good thing (for example, the conversation a while ago about EO Wilson’s crazy advice about not worrying about being good at math while training to become a scientist.) When I do this, and I link to others and mention them, I try to do it in a way that the post can stand on its own, and that anybody who sees the post won’t feel as if they’ve stepped into a conversation to which they don’t belong. When I started reading blogs regularly, I found it took a long while to really understand what people were talking about. I really had to get to know who a person was, what they were up to, what their priorities were, and that wasn’t clear in every post. I realize that’s part of the genre oftentimes, and that’s the part that I want to avoid.

    So, some of my posts read like an Encyclopedia Brown, wherein the first paragraph always explains that my dad is the police chief of Idaville and that I help him solve crimes. That’s the drawback. But the plus is that anybody can read a post as a drive-by and not feel as if they’re missing out. I’m just trying for something different. I am new to blogging still, of course, and this post is my way of staking out my own path that I don’t want the site to appear to be (or serve as) an in-group chat. That’s okay, but it ain’t just what I want to do.

    Like the Jeremy Fox and Morgan Ernest mentioned, every blog has a purpose – which may not be explicitly stated and may evolve at various rates – and an audience that is interested in that purpose. While people with similar interests and blogs tend to affiliate and comment with one another, I just want to make sure that as these relationships evolve, they don’t get in the way of people who aren’t typically affiliated with blogs.

  14. It’s pretty standard practice to link out to anything that is not accessible in a particular post, whether it be on one’s own blog or elsewhere. Generally that allows newcomers to get background on things without having to rehash things for people who already know them. Does that make a blog unapproachable for new readers? I don’t know.

  15. Great comments all around. The bottom line, for me at least, is that there are a lot of social conventions in many blogs that make the genre more specialized or less interesting, and among these conventions is a buddy network among bloggers. So I’m avoiding what I think are these kinds of practices in the hopes that everybody feels welcome.

  16. “he audience of a blog is entirely based on the information it provides and the number of people interested in that information. ”

    This is a ridiculous statement. Entirely???? All week I have been hearing teary testimonials about how Bora brought all kinds of exposure to people’s blogs. Drugmonkey and others constantly promote new blogs that interest them. This cliquey atmosphere has existed since I have been reading blogs, got way worse with twitter, and no the linking is not just done for background. I agree also that FSP is an interesting exception. Sounds like you just don’t get it.

  17. Yes it’s ridiculous that people are expected to “read the literature” before blogging or commenting on blogs. This comes up all the time. For example, a few in the in-group twitter crowd are currently making videos about inclusion in science, or something, complete with in-jokes about drinking. So, Isis wears a strange mask during the video, then they go on and on the following day because SOME IDIOTS ASKED WHY SHE IS WEARING A MASK. People, how often do they have to explain??? Eyes just rolled and rolled over the fact that everybody in the world still does not get why Isis is wearing a weird mask! Why oh why do people presume to interact with bloggers before “reading the literature”????

  18. It’s a bit of a tangent, but since you brought it up as the topic of a future post), I’m definitely interested in discussing meetings like SACNAS (having been to SACNAS this year and GHC – the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – in a few previous years). Though I suspect my perspective is filtered through the lens of my field – computer science is a lot more conference-centric than most fields as many of our conferences are also considered legit publication venues, so the cultural norms on student conference-going are probably different as well.

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