Evolution at the asymptote

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This Small Pond is approaching carrying capacity. (There are some good analogies involving allochthonous and and autochthonous production, but I won’t go there.)

If you look at the history of academic and science blogs, the ones that end up connecting with audiences on a regular basis, individual authors don’t typically keep it up more than five years. At least, they don’t keep cranking along at the same clip. I’m about to hit the six-year mark.

The site grew pretty quickly, and I haven’t done the math, but I think my crude drawing above is a close approximation of readership over time for this site. I’ve made the decision to not pay too much attention to the numbers (aside from joining a paper about it with some other blogging ecologists), because I want to avoid writing something with the primary purpose of attracting eyeballs.

But of course, audience does matter. In size and in composition. I’m writing here because I want to create an impact, and that’s a function of how many are reached, and who those people are. My mission statement from the start is still pretty much the same as it is now. (Early posts on this are here and here. One thing you might note if you read these, is that I think writing here so much has made me a better writer.) I spent/spend a lot of time writing on my blog because I think it actually matters. Even a poorly performing post here gets far more views — and influences more minds — than a typical well-cited journal article. The bang-for-the-writer’s-buck is pretty big.

Nevertheless, with everything else I’ve chosen to bite off lately, I’ve been stretched thin. After being promoted to full, I’m doing plenty more “service” — but really, it’s leadership. So, it’s time to reassess some priorities and reallocation of effort.

Nowadays, I’m usually about to call it quits on Sunday night when it occurs to me – oh darn – I hadn’t written a post for Monday morning! And pretty much without fail, I have that post for Monday morning. I still have a lot I want to say, I’ve got a huge list, it’s just a matter of carving out the time to do it right.

Despite the difficulty fitting this in, life at the asymptote is pretty good. I’ve got a substantial audience and I reach new people all the time — this site continues to add new subscribers and followers. I’m choosing to believe people when they say it adds value to the scientific community.

But what does it mean that growth has substantially dropped off? Why is this site not growing as much as it used to? What determines k in the blogosphere? If I wrote posts as often as I did in the early days, I bet this site would grow to a greater carrying capacity. But I’m not writing a blog post every day. I can’t even imagine how Female Science Professor kept that up so consistently for six years.

Now that I’m approaching k, what should I be doing? I’ve built a platform for myself. What is the most responsible and effective use of the platform? Probably to use it as a springboard. There’s no clear answer about the direction to take — that’s a course for me to chart, though it’s indubitable that more public engagement and better inreach are things that we need desperately, especially for scientists working in small ponds.

I had a twitter account for five years before this site, but I never really used it. Twittering and bloggering go hand in hand, so that’s when I started using twitter when I made this site. Now, my twitter presence has eclipsed what I’m doing on this site. If I have something to say in a tweet or series of tweets, that will reach far, far, far more people there than here. It reaches many non-scientists, and journalists, and activists, and students. I’ve become a public scientist, whatever that is. I’ve evolved into a scientist who makes a point of engaging with the public, and makes sure that my work is responsive to needs of the public. A lot of the things I wanted to do on this site an be done more effectively on twitter. Of course, the twitter audience is a different set of people than the people who read blogs. Though there’s some overlap.

Some of the essays that I write on here take a lot of time, and others are just short one-offs that I knock out in what feels like 15 minutes. (This post is the latter, but really, it looks like it’s taking an hour.) I think I need to make a more formal distinction between the quick one-offs, and the substantial essays. Both for the efficiency of my time, and also to understand who my audience is and how I go about it. There are a lot of one-off things I’d like to continue to say, and I think I’d like to do it on this site. But when I write a more substantial essay, I feel like this site isn’t helping me reach the audience that I’d like to. I’ve been writing occasionally for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I would like to do that more often — I’ll hopefully be changing more minds there. That won’t grow this site so much, but, then again, writing big essays here won’t be growing this site anyway. And there are other venues I’d like to be writing for. At this point, I feel like I’m preaching for the converted. If I look at the science blogs the have lasted for a verrrrry long time, their niche is their audience-of-the-converted. I don’t want to build a fan base, I want to create bigger discussions about the role of teaching in higher ed, how science and mentoring is done best, and making a role for all of the scientists and students who aren’t in large research universities. That means I’ve got to jump off of this asymptote for a different curve.

What’s the upshot? I won’t be writing a new post for every single Monday. Instead, I’ll be looking to write more often for venues other than this one. But I hope to write more frequent and spontaneous one-offs here. So I guess that would make this more of a blog than it has been. Maybe it’ll be more interesting and fun here. And my more serious pieces will still be published, and I’ll be sure to share the links with you.

One other change I’m thinking about for this site is that I’m more open to the idea of guest posts. If you have a post that fits well under the theme of Small Pond Science, hit me up by email with a short description and I might want to publish it. We’ve done this rarely in the past, but I’m open to doing this more, as I’m scaling back on the bigger essays on here in favor of other publications. I’m not soliciting pieces of writing, because I’m not paying, as writers need to be paid for their work. But if you’re looking to share an essay and want to make avail of this venue, this can be a possibility. (However, if your post is about issues specific to ecology and for ecologists, then Rapid Ecology is a better place to go.)

So, welcome to whatever this new phase is. Please let me know what you think, now, and into the future.

6 thoughts on “Evolution at the asymptote

  1. Very interesting thoughts Terry, and I of course read them with great personal interest since Dynamic Ecology is in the same boat as SPS in terms of traffic. Our traffic has been dead flat for over two years now. I’m sure we do still gain new readers, but they’re (apparently) balanced by old ones drifting away.

    “At this point, I feel like I’m preaching for the converted.”

    I definitely agree that you’ll reach more people, and a greater diversity of people, via the Chronicle than via a personal blog. But what about Twitter? After all, presumably your Twitter followers are, like your blog readers, a self-selected group, many of whom probably mostly agree with you already on many things (right?). And who retweet you to their followers, who probably already mostly agree with you too (and in many cases probably follow you themselves). So I guess my question is, what are your thoughts as to which venues or platforms are effective for which purposes? Especially the purpose of changing minds.

    What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting a blog? Do you think blogging as a form has had its day? Or is it merely that this particular blog has had its day (in its current form), given how long you’ve been doing it, your move into administrative leadership, etc.? I’m thinking for instance of a piece I read by a blogger from the early oughts turned journalist, who advised against anybody today trying to use a blog to build an audience and then building from there to professional journalism.

    As I’m sure you know, you can count me among the people who continue to think that SPS adds value to the scientific community. I look forward to your new plan of using SPS for more frequent, casual posts. Though every other blogger I’ve known who’s written a post along the lines of yours that concludes with “I plan to keep this blog going in some form” has ended up not keeping it going. So I hope you turn out to be the exception to that admittedly-small sample.

  2. Accidentally posted on one of your linked entries, so here’s attempt #2!

    Hi Terry, as usual a lovely post :). I’ve been reading your blog for years and really enjoyed it. And thought I’d take the opportunity to give you a shout out from your interdisciplinary readers–as a “recovering” ecologist turned environmental policy prof. Along with Dynamic Ecology (thanks Jeremy and others!), I’ve used your blog to keep a toe in the ecology world as well as a great source on academic life in general (first gen here!), especially teaching. So thanks for all your hard work, and I’ll keep following and recommending your writing wherever it can be found :).

  3. Terry, interesting thoughts, and I’ve always been impressed how much you manage to blog, so I understand the instinct to cut back or at least divert some effort elsewhere.

    About Twitter, though: yes, you “reach” more people just counting followers and RTs. But I wonder about relative impact. Partly because a tweet can be in front of a lot of eyeballs without actually being read or paid attention to; but more because tweets are so ephemeral. One surprise I had with blogging is that I have 4-year-old posts that still get read every day. A tweet a week old might as well not exist. How do you account for that difference in reach?

  4. Here are some unordered responses to astute questions and observations in the comments:

    One thing I didn’t explicitly describe in the post, which now I see is central to my thinking, is that I’m thinking about the mechanism of the impact of the blog. Is it the words on the page of the blog itself, or is it the visibility of the blog that allows me to reach out in other ways?

    I think some of the most impactful outreach-type things that I’ve done because of this site did not happen on this site. (Some examples: recently, a reporter from the NYT called me up to ask me about some stuff. I may or may not end up in the piece, but I’d like to think my input mattered. I’ve appeared a few times in some form in articles in the careers sections of Nature and Science in the past year or so. I got to talk about ants for a whole hour on a podcast that a lot of people listen to. And I’ve been given opportunities to contribute to a range of real-world DEI efforts that seem to matter.) Here’s what I’m wondering — how did those things happen? Was it because of the blog, or because of twitter, and/or and interaction effect of the two? I think it’s the cumulative package. I just think that the dividends would be greater if I make sure not to invest a lot of my resources into this site, I should diversify the portfolio. Now that I’m some kind of public scientist (of course, I’m not famous or anything, but there are a bunch of people in the science world who don’t do ants or ecology or tropical biology but are still familiar with things I have to say) , then keeping it on this site is a low-interest investment. It’s like purchasing a bond, but now I have enough capital to invest in avenues that generate more interest.

    I think people started paying attention because I had things of substance to say here. And now I should be doing this elsewhere, too. Which means I need to modify how I’m doing it here. So maybe it’ll be more of a personal blog, with occasional thoughts, instead of a series of essays. And that series of essays can now appear other places.

    So as for the relative lasting impact of things on this site vs on twitter: Yes, things on twitter are ephemeral. But only sorta. I mean, that NYT reporter I mentioned before contacted me specifically because of something I tweeted 8 months earlier. The blog presumably wasn’t on the radar. But often it’s a synergistic effect. If you look at the archives of the site, posts clearly have a life after they’re written, though for a relatively small number of people. But in a given month, I do a few hundred tweets (most of which are replies to particular people, not broadcasted) and they get seen more than a million times. This month alone, my tweets have been seen more times than the cumulative number of page views for this site. And most of those views are by people who will never look at this blog. So while it’s ephemeral, it reaches way more people. And people who come from very different walks of life. What is the value of having a tweet be seen by people, versus having someone read a blog post? They are different, clearly. I think a diversified portfolio is the way to go. Which is why I’ll still have things to say here. But very brief things will go on twitter. And deeper things should go to places that have more impact than here. So this is the medium place for me still, I guess. (which I guess is how Medium got its name – not the long read, but not the short take)

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