So, you want to start a science blog?

Standard

I’ve been getting more requests for advice about setting up a blog — usually to elevate awareness about one or two particular issues. Now that I’m more than four years into this game, I’ll no longer call myself a neophyte. Regardless, I have no shortage of opinions, some of which might even be useful.

First of all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that more esteemed blogging colleagues have literally written a whole edited volume about this. So, if you’re thinking about running a blog, then it makes sense to have the instruction manual from well-established bloggers.

A few years ago, I wrote a detailed email to a friend about this topic. I dug up that email for you, and edited it to remove some specifics. As always, please don’t construe this as advice. I’m not saying what you should or should not do. They’re just my opinions, take them or leave them:


Blogs are a weird medium. Many people think that we are beyond ‘peak blog,’ and that the so-called blogosphere is saturated. There are so many blogs out there, though nearly all of them are aestivating. In theory, our post-blog world isn’t so much about having a particular website, but instead tracks individuals wherever they write. This includes twitter, facebook, and posts on a variety of venues, including Medium which [was] the new Thing. But there still is a ton of room for blogs that fill an empty niche. If something is creative, and well-written, and finds its people, it can still do remarkably well. If something is done well, then it tends to do well, and I think that’s still true for blogs.

There’s a weird dichotomy, or duality, or irony, about how why blogs exist. It’s a voluntary venue that primarily preaches to the converted. People only regularly read blogs if they already connect with the overall theme and message. Blogs that are thought to be very well read aren’t really that well read in the grand scheme of things. Someone who reads my blog might think that my work is super duper cool and important, but for most people, who don’t read the blog, that won’t be true. In this sense, even though blogs are now more mainstream than they used to be, there still is a subculture among folks who read blogs. I’ve done my best to not be a member of this subculture, and I try to get read by people who don’t normally read blogs, but this is a really hard to thing to do and I still have to build more inroads.

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, sometimes a high frequency of posts, 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. The internet is a wasteland of forgotten blogs – forgotten by the authors as well as by whoever was reading.

I happen to disagree with that standard advice. I think it really does matter if it gets read, because I’m writing to make a difference. Since you’re thinking about writing to change people’s minds about [something], then of course readership matters. I don’t care if I’m influential as a person per se, but I do want the central concepts and ideas to spread. And to some extent, I actually think it’s working. At least anecdotally, I’ve added to the conversation that serious research is a thing that happens at primarily undergraduate institutions. That you don’t have to give up research when you take a job at a non-R1 university job. People share my site when communicating this fact. That’s something I was hoping for and to some extent it’s come true, but there still is a long way to go. This summer [which was 2014] I’ll be hitting a quarter million views on the site, after a year and a half. That’s pretty cool. It’s a blip compared to some other blogs, but it’s a bigger audience than most.

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. (I think this happens for most blogs that have a solid launch). 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 [of a any particular thing], 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 [this topic]. With this audience, then you have a way of leveraging folks to gain a broader audience, by writing things that are good enough that they’ll feel compelled to share. Your pre-existing [specialized] audience will share it out with the bigger world on social media. But if you just build it outright as an outreach, without having [specialized] people excited about it, then you won’t have a way of sharing things out. (I’ve found I don’t know how to do this, other than to write a bunch of stuff, and some stuff ends up having longer legs than other things. It’s hard to know. Rants get spread a lot, but they rarely accomplish anything. So having a high signal:noise ratio and reaching an audience is a thing that just takes a steady investment.)

These social media networks are not inherently clubby, but people spend time with the things and people they already know and like. 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 [and now, I should add, I’ve built friendships and collaborations in the process]. But it’s not an inconsequential investment of time. If you really want to focus on the outreach for [your topic], 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). The key is to find other people who share this priority, then create something of high quality, which then can be shared more broadly.

I think you might want to consult with other bloggers. There is a whole community of people who’ve been blogging for 5-10 years, back when there were few science blogs, and there are people whose approach is similar to the one you’re thinking about. You don’t just want to bug people you don’t know, but if you can demonstrate that you’re serious about investing into a blog, I imagine they could share some valuable input. 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.

Here’s a minor thing, 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 some positive things to be said for it. And it’s more adaptable over time. 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. [This is from 2014, but I stand by this assessment. I don’t know the future of wordpress, but that’s still what I’d recommend, but also getting one’s own URL is a good idea in case you ever leave wordpress. For example, my site is hosted  by wordpress.com, but you reach it going to smallpondscience.com. So I if ever leave wordpress, it’s no big deal. I can always download a list of subscribers and resubscribe folks to a new site. Most folks might not even notice.]


That’s was email I sent to my friend who asked me about starting up a new blog. I don’t prescribe blogging for everybody – I think if you commit to a long-term, consistent effort, then it can grow to be worthwhile. But the investment/rewards curve is a stepwise function and it’s hard to predict much investment it takes before the rewards kick in. (That’s a topic that you’ll be hearing more about from a group of science bloggers in the coming months, stay tuned.)

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