How useful are science blogs, and what is the future of science blogging? Probably the worst place to get a useful answer would be from a blog. But on the other hand, it’s the blogs that have relevant data, and it’s bloggers that think about this stuff. Here are my opinions and some digits, and my inferences.
For recent context: Jeff Ollerton has mentioned how his blog has slowly but steadily grown. (After a lag phase, it appears growth has been linear. At least, that’s my bet for the most parsimonious model). Jeremy Fox posted a lot of careful thoughts about whether the ecology blogging community is saturated, empty, or none of the above. The discussion in the comments of Fox’s post is really interesting, about who, why, where, how and when blogging happens in our field. Paige Brown Jarreau, whose dissertation is about science blogs, responded to Fox’s post with oodles of data and links, and that’s an interesting read if a post like this one is also interesting to you.
I’m convinced we are still in the early days of academic blogs, at least in biology.
First of all, there are many professional blogs, but few that are updated frequently, and few that are widely read. A new blog can accumulate an audience as long as posts are interesting and frequent. Take, for example, Scientist Sees Squirrel by Stephen Heard. He has interesting and insightful ideas that are worth our time, and just a couple months in, he’s seeing positive effects.
A lot of scientists have very different — and important, interesting, and useful — things to say. If they chose to say them regularly in a blog, and say them well, then the result would be a well-read blog. It might not take a mountain of work, but it does require a consistent application of effort. (The ability to allocate that time is unevenly distributed in academia — this is discussed really well within the comments on the Dynamic Ecology post by Fox.)
So, there are multiple oodles of room for anybody to step in and run a quality blog. It’s just that few people are doing so. It’s not a small investment to make. The way that blogs get a readership in the scientific community is very different than the peer-reviewed papers. When we publish a paper, we expect others who work on similar questions to find and read our papers, and cite them as appropriate. A good paper, in a well-read journal, about a contemporary issue, has a good chance of being well-read and well-cited, even if the authors are unknown.
On the other hand, a high quality blog post on a new blog isn’t going to have much visibility and there’s a good chance that the target audience might not see it. Blog posts aren’t indexed* and the scientific community isn’t trained or expected to read blog posts. On the other hand, if you take the same post, and put it on a blog that has a steady readership, it is guaranteed to have more visibility.
What’s the difference between a high visibility blog post and low visibility blog post?
There are other variables that matter, but time appears to overwhelm all of the others. There are wonderful posts that I wrote a couple years ago that almost nobody sees. There are mediocre posts I’ve recently written that are being seen way more than my amazing posts from a couple years ago. That’s just the nature of blog audiences.
People say that for a blog to be successful, you’ve got to stick with it. I wanted to evaluate the effect of time on readership, so I ran some numbers.
I don’t have analytics on this site, just some weak statistics provided by the hosting site, wordpress. The most common currency that people use is views, so I’ll go with that. (This doesn’t include people who get email subscriptions and read by RSS, but it’ll do.)
Here’s how views per month** have changed over the 2.1 years this site has existed:
It looks like growth is sporadic, and has slowed down, or flatlined. But I remembered that we used to post very frequently, nearly every weekday. Now the site is down to about two per week. Because new posts bring more visits, I then adjusted to consider views per month per post:
And I thought that relationship was really striking. There are three clear outliers. The huge positive one is caused by a single post that caught a lot of attention (in which I used a chimeric epithet to bring attention to the sexist behavior of a certain space scientist). The two negative outliers are the two Januaries in the dataset. Januaries are, apparently, not good for blog readership, with people tied up with holidays, travel, the new semester, and so on. If we toss out three outliers, here’s what we get:
That relationship has an r2 of 0.9.
As an ecologist I’m not used to such tight relationships. Obviously, at least for this site, time-since-start-of-blog is the only real predictor of how many views a post will get. That’s encouraging for the future, but discouraging if you think a single post is going to make a site grow.
Last month (February 2015) wasn’t the best month for the site, in terms of what we had to say. It wasn’t a bad one, but it wasn’t special by any means. Nonetheless, it was better than the other months. Why? Because it’s the most recent month. I like the positive trajectory, and have no idea how much longer it’ll persist. But boy-o, it’s weird to think that the only thing that affects audience is time.
Of course what we say on the site matters. If this relationship holds true for other sites (and I have no idea if it does, though I’d love to find out), then perhaps what individuals have control over is the slope of the relationship. You would think that good blogs grow more quickly, and not-so-good ones won’t grow as quickly. That is, if “good” means, “generates readership,” which is not a concept I buy into.
Jeremy Fox wrote, “I’ve decided that in blogging it’s the shooting match, not the individual shot, that counts. No single post matters that much in the long run. But a blog as a whole can have a large cumulative influence over time.”
I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that point, but then when I look at the numbers, I’ve definitely come to this line of thought. No matter what we do here, the audience only responds to the site over the arc of time. And so whatever effect there may be is also exerted over the arc of time. Of course, I’m aware that other bloggers who might read this will chuckle, considering that two years is just a blip compared to what others have been doing. That’s both fair and spot-on. I have no idea what’ll happen over the next several years, and if the relationship remains linear, that’d be mighty amazing to me.
An alternative interpretation is that the linear growth of readership is not a bug, but a feature. Instead of a constraint, it could be seen as a consequence of good things happening here. To some extent that’s got to be true, because the slope is above zero. But it can’t explain how the fact that the points fit the line so well, when I qualitatively know that some months have been waaaay better than other months. It could indicate that every month, we’ve been equally effective every month at doing good things to build readership. That’s an overly charitable interpretation, I think. I think any individual post, or any individual month, can’t do much to build readership. It just takes time. Obviously.
But what about that positive outlier? What can I do to break away from the time constraint on readership? I got lots of views from a single post, but that post wasn’t helpful for the blog, or for me, or for the world. I knocked it out very quickly in response to a current event right after it happened, and those who took a little more time to reflect and write carefully were more constructive. So if the only thing that I can do to break the curve is to push the margins of respectability, then I’m not really inclined to give it another shot. I got a lot of views from being bombastic and a little rude. That’s not a good lesson, and it’s not a good model for the site, even if it would increase views***.
If you look at how blogs grow — or at least how they can grow with proper sunlight and nutrients, then the decision to set one up might make more sense, maybe? If blogs can grow at a linear rate, then I would bet that the slope of the blog would have to do with the size of the target audience and the quality of the blog (whatever that is).
I hope you see this as an argument for starting a blog, provided that you are interested in investing the time, and I hope that this is also an argument that there is plenty of space for growth in academic blogs. Just like a mortgage, or an academic career in general, it takes a steady investment to build capacity. But considering how few academic blogs there are right now that people read on a regular basis, compared to how many people might choose to read, then the sooner you start, the sooner your audience will grow, provided that you feed and water the blog regularly.
Is blogging a moribund medium? Um, not for me, and I ain’t more special than all of you.
*The folks at The Winnower want to index blog posts, for what it’s worth. No, I’m not about to put a DOI on every one of my blog posts, though if someone wants to do that, go for it.
** I struggled with whether to provide the units on the y axis for these figures. I think there are some good reasons to not give this information. But if this post is all about building audiences, then I figure a lot of people would be really wondering about the units, so I might as well just put it out there. To some, they are small numbers, and to others, they’re huge. From my perspective, it’s really huge and I’m still trying to get my head around it.
***I think it’s no accident that some of the most popular blogs by scientists have that kind of predilection, and I’m making a point of avoiding such a route. It might cut r, but should also increase k.
16 thoughts on “How does blog readership grow, and (how) does this matter?”
I think a factor you omit here is the role played by positive support from other bloggers. Being linked to from more established blogs (you, Dynamic Ecology, etc.) has made a huge difference to readership for my own blog. I’ve been thrilled to discover the sense of community and cooperation among science bloggers. Thanks for being a big part of that.
Cool. I found consistent posting to be the biggest hurdle for Biotropica.org – so many other responsibilities, that if I have to sacrifice something to complete a task it’s one of the unfinished posts that gets the short straw. What are your suggestions for overcoming this? I mean other than “make it a priority or it won’t be a priority”.
Hit publish anyway. Whatever time you have that week for a post (if a weekly schedule is what you’re on), whatever you’ve written, just hit publish anyway; it builds the habit and even if a few posts are terrible, you’ll likely improve over time.
I think blogs can serve as a cross-pollination for academia too; I’m not an ecologist, but I read ecology blogs. I learn things from that, it gives me a more wholistic picture of science and I don’t get bogged down in my own subfield.
And I agree, that time is what matters I am trying to write more posts that are evergreen; where it doesn’t matter when someone discovers it, it just is there. I don’t know if my readership is growing over time, but my science blog is only 2 months old. I enjoy it and it’s gotten me more into science again. As well as builds a writing habit, so I will keep doing it.
This post could not have come at a better time. I’ve been blogging for almost four months now and have been thinking a lot lately about what types of posts I want to write. Just from my limited experience, there seems to be some topics that are “sexier” to a broader audience than others. But those sexier topics aren’t necessarily always ones I want to write about. At the end of the day, I’d rather write about science that I find fascinating, even if those posts don’t get a lot of page views.
Thanks for sharing the statistics on your site and the links to the other science blogging discussions! They are very encouraging and useful as I haven’t been able to find a lot of good data on science blogging. It’s nice to know that there’s a supportive community out there!
Really interesting and timely post! I’ve been blogging for a little over a year and would agree that readership does seem to increase over time. The largest increases that I’ve seen in my readership have occurred when another blog or site links to mine. The other thing that has served to increase my readership has been leaving comments on other blogs which seem to send people my way. Like you, I’m amazed that people are reading what I write and the number of visits and page views has far exceeded any expectations that I had when I started my blog.
A great piece of reflective writing Terry, nice work. I’m glad you put the y-axis labels on the first figure as its raises an interesting question. You and I have been blogging for about the same length of time but your monthly readership is consistently an order of magnitude higher than mine. I wonder why that is? Is it the subject matter? Is it because you use Twitter? Or is it a function of being in the USA where there’s more of a blog culture? Or a combination of these and/or other factors?
“Is it the subject matter? Is it because you use Twitter? Or is it a function of being in the USA where there’s more of a blog culture? Or a combination of these and/or other factors?”
So many good questions and observations.
Emilio – how do I keep posting frequently and regularly? Well, yeah, I guess it’s about keeping it a priority. I make a point to consider the site as important and time-sensitive as teaching. In my mind, having a week without a post is simply not an option. (If there’s a major personal disaster/tragedy/event, of course it will slide, just like I’d miss teaching for the same reason.) I think the difference between this and the blog for Biotropica – which is made of great – is that is essentially secondary to the primary task of the organization, the journal itself. You can’t let editorial duties slide for a long period of time because you have to keep the authors gruntled. And that’s already a lot. I think that’s why organizations that have blogs have someone whose actual paid job duties include blogging. (The IUSSI recently was planning to add an associate editor whose job is outreach/social media and whatnot, for Insectes Sociaux. I thought that was an astute move.)
As for the role of other blogs helping new ones get traffic, I didn’t mention that specifically because I think that’s an inherent part of blogging. A good and frequent new blog will have people point to it. I am very indebted to Dynamic Ecology, among others, for letting people know that the blog exists, and Jeremy said some very nice things early on that really brought people in. (That said, I got way more people coming in from a mention on the ecolog mailing list.)
Jeff, about the difference in readership size? Knowing your blog well, I think it’s great and it’s not because of ‘quality.’ I do think twitter plays a big role. Aside from search engines, the single biggest source of traffic comes from twitter, then facebook (not from the small pond page on Facebook which is meager, but when other people post a link to a post). I also started out posting very frequently, and while your blog targets biologists and biodiversity-focused people, mine targets scientists and academics in general. And most readers don’t seem to be ecologists, and I steer away from too many discipline-specific things to keep the target audience broad. But my goal is to reach a broad audience about issues involving teaching-focused schools, not to discuss biodiversity. So, I guess Jeremy’s answer above is spot on.
Great thoughts. “What’s the difference between a high visibility blog post and low visibility blog post? Time.” Exactly right. But the internet trains us to think ‘immediate’, so I wonder how many people do give up on blogging after a few months because of low readership…
Jeff’s comment on country is interesting too, I’ve wondered that myself. Not just for writing blogs, but the US blogging community seems to be more engaged with each other’s blogs too. Has anyone collated regional data for ecobloggers?
Great post Terry, like Jeff a bit envious about your numbers, I get about the same number of views as he does – at the moment my trajectory is steadily growing, but am really just happy (and surprised) that people actually read it ;-)
I’m very seriously considering starting a blog over spring break. I’m 29 years old and just started my first job as an R1 50/50 teaching/research faculty…basically, thrown into the deep end with a minimum of career preparation. I think it would be helpful to aspiring grad students (and others) to provide a travelogue of my bumpy journey towards the tenure horizon. Two questions for you: 1) would you recommend building up a backlog of posts before going public, and 2) …and since I have no idea what I’m doing (see above), I solicit any other advice you can give.
Hi terry, what were the objectives for the blog, beyond readership, ie in terms of impact. Or have you noticed specific behavioural impacts that resulted, eg connections, research funding, collaborations etc or … ?
Neat analysis Terry. I can corroborate your observation that the “flash-in-the-pan” posts garner a lot of initial traffic, but have little staying power. My most viewed post is how to make an academic website (by far), which was written early on, and consistently gets visitors each week. My “big months” were two of these immediate-reaction type posts. I don’t regret writing them at all, and maybe it’s the increased ephemeral nature of teh interwebz. I wonder if it’s the equivalent of a big flashy paper in Science/Nature that then floats into obscurity, while the trusty paper in a “lower”-“ranked” journal plays the long game.
Answer to more questions-
Sandra, What are the objectives of the blog, other than having it being read by people? Here’s my very first post with a rationale: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/02/06/a-rationale-for-existence/ – and also here’s what I put in my promotion file: https://smallpondscience.com/2014/12/10/what-i-said-about-my-blog-in-my-promotion-file/ To fit the objectives inside the shell of a medium-sized nut, what I really want to do is to enhance the visibility and acceptability of research in teaching-focused institutions, and shape the trajectories of scientists who might be considering this route. There are a bunch of indicators that I’ve been doing pretty well at this, at least considering what a hard object that is to move with just a blog. Some of the evidence is in the promotion link.
Oh so many thoughts about starting a blog! It’s really interesting that you have a 50% teaching position within an R1, so it’ll be very curious to see how your teaching and research expectations shake out, because this sounds like an odd kind of situation. When people are asked for advice, they far too often just say what their own experience is. I’ll do some of that but try not to generalize too much.
If your blog is designed to be about your own career trajectory and experiences on the tenure-track, then I would guess it’ll have a smallish readership if the posts are designed to be about that topic. If you poke around, there are many many blogs that existed for weeks, months, years, with regular posts about one’s career experiences. (Tenure, she wrote, is arguably about this, but with many different voices, and also addressing larger issue about women in science, which is a huge broad issue and it’s not just about being on the tenure-track.) This is, I guess, what historically blogs are considered to be, a kind of public diary. This is not bad, it’s useful for those who want to read it, and if you did this, then for those who found it, I bet it would be useful. But I’m not sure about growth, because of a small target audience. (I think this site has grown because I work hard to not make it about myself even when I am posting about myself, if that makes any sense. If I have a specific experience that I don’t think can be applied more generally, I don’t bring it up. Which means that I don’t actually discuss my own stuff that much at all. It’s just stuff from my perspective.
As for building up a backlog of posts, in my opinion I think having a few really solid posts up before telling anybody else about it is a good idea. Because if you just have one post and announce it to the world, then most people will look, think “great post” and shrug, and wonder if you’ll keep up with it. But if you have multiple good posts in a row, then people will think, “huh, maybe I’ll check back,” and some actually will. What I did, for what it’s worth, was do 3-4 posts and mentioned it on facebook/twitter, and I started commenting on other blogs which I had been reading but not commenting. And it got picked up by a few well-read blogs, especially Dynamic Ecology, which directed a few hundred people over one weekend, which at the time was beyond huge. New blogs get build only with the support of other more established blogs, I think that’s a general principle.
About a year ago, a friend contacted me because she wanted to create an advocacy blog for a particular topic, and I emailed her with a bunch of ‘advice.’ Here it is, with a bunch of salient details removed:
Minor thing first, I recommend against Blogger and recommend WordPress. Blogger is clunky, it’s old school in not a good way, and it’s also The Man. Most new blogs are on wordpress and that wordpress ‘ecosystem’ has a lot to be said for it. And it’s more adaptable over time. And the future of blogger is uncertain given google’s history with some of its products. Since it’s run by google, it’s not designed to interface well with non-google aspects of the internet….
Here are some observations and concepts that I’ve culled over the last year since I’ve been doing this. I don’t necessarily embody the ideas well or serve as a great model (at least in all ways), but nonetheless I’ll purport to have useful advice.
Blogs are a weird medium, and I think that many people think that we are past ‘peak blog’ and that the so-called blogosphere is saturated. There are so many blogs out there, though most of them suck. In theory, the post-blog world we are moving into isn’t so much about having a particular website, but instead tracks individuals wherever they write. On twitter, and thought posts on a variety of venues, including Medium which is the new it thing. But there still is room for blogs that fill an empty niche, and if something is creative and well-written and finds its people, it can still do well.
There’s a weird dichotomy, or duality, or irony, involved about how and what people put in blogs. It’s a voluntary venue that primarily preaches to the converted. People only regularly read blogs if they already like or connect with the overall theme and message. And blogs that are thought to be very well read aren’t really that well read in the grand scheme of things. (That said, my blog posts are read way way more than my papers.)
Everybody who has advice for bloggers says that it’s important that you’re writing just because you want to, and that the size of the audience doesn’t matter and that you shouldn’t want or expect to have a real measurable effect from the blog. It’s just something you do for yourself, they say. Once you start digging, you’ll find the shriveled roots of many many many blogs that people write, sometimes frequently, and then they just peter out, explaining that they look at the stats and see that very few people are reading and it’s not worth the time.
I happen to disagree with the standard advice. I think it really does matter if it gets read, because I’m writing to make a difference. I don’t care if I’m influential as a person per se, but I do want the central concept and ideas to spread…
It usually takes a long time of consistently high quality blogging before an audience builds. I got really lucky because there were a couple people with big audiences that really helped push my blog into visibility quickly. (Jeremy Fox at Dynamic Ecology, and Alex Wild). But also, it wasn’t entirely lucky because I identified something that was really missing. And then I started the blog and wrote several good posts before I decided to share it with the world. So many people launch blogs with their first post, “THIS IS MY BLOG!” And then there’s one or two posts on it, which may or may not be amazing, and then you see it’s not really an established site and then you don’t look at it again. But if you build it, with almost nobody knowing about it, and then you share it out, then people might just bookmark it and get back to it.
But, if you’re trying to convince people [that X is important], then that’s an uphill climb for a blog. The way to do this would be to build a strong audience among people who do love [X] Then, once you have that audience, then you can write things to promote your message that are designed for a broader audience. Then, that pre-existing [X] audience will share it out with the bigger world on social media. But if you just build it outright as an outreach, without having [X] people excited about it, then you won’t have a way of sharing things out. These social media things are inherently not necessarily clubby, but people spend time with the things and people they already know and like. And to build out the outreach well, you’ve got to be part of it in a slow burn. I spend far too much time on twitter, but that has helped build my site grow and in the long run I think it’s been a good use of my time. But it’s not an inconsequential investment of time. If you really want to focus on the outreach for [X], it could be possible that you don’t need to set up your own site but instead, share your stuff on social media and write on other sites (medium, guest posts on other blogs, other places).
Also, I think you might want to consult with [x] and other [x]bloggers, especially [x]….. I imagine they have some seriously good experience and advice about how to approach it. There is space for another voice, but if you’re going to make it worth your time, then it won’t be a small investment. </quote.>