September 02, 2018

Some Blogospheric Navel-Gazing, or, Strange Memories of the Recent Past

Attention conservation notice: 2600 words about blogging for young scientists, last touched in 2013. Found five years later while looking for something else, they are too dated to be good career advice, too earnest and academic to be ironically amusing in retrospect, and too recent to inspire nostalgia. Also, most of the links have probably broken, I haven't had the heart to check.
Backstory: I was asked in 2011 to talk to the post-docs and students at SFI about the pros and cons of blogging for scientists. I didn't prepare anything, but what follows more or less reconstructs and tidies up what I said, with the benefit of feedback from Nathan "Explains Science" Collins.
As career advice now (2018), of course, this is laughable: the blogosphere limps along (every Internet medium still limps along...), but it's been largely displaced as a focus of attention by Twitter and other company-owned social-networking sites, which are (deliberately?) pessimized for articulating ideas and cumulative conversation.

I have been online for a long time, comparatively; I remember when Usenet was good for something, and we sent packets to each other by tying them to the backs of gophers. I have been writing something which could, with a little license, be called a proto-weblog since 1994, and a proper blog since 2003. Since I am, of course, aware of all Internet traditions, the blog has a silly sobriquet and Friday cat blogging (lapsed for a while), and ill-tempered political ranting, but mostly both of those sites are about the science I find interesting, including my own. I owe a large part of whatever professional reputation I have to blogging, so when Barbara asked me to talk about how you might use blogging yourselves as scientists, I couldn't think of a decent way to back out of it.

Good Reasons Not to Blog

The first thing to say is that blogging is not a good idea for many and perhaps most scientists, for several reasons, which can be summed up as time, content, disappointment and dissociation.

The binding constraint for most scientists is not having enough time; if you don't feel that way yet, you will soon enough. Every moment you spend writing a blog post is a moment you are not in the lab or at the blackboard, not writing a paper, not reading papers, not writing grants, not advising students, not having a normal and satisfying primate social life, and not sleeping. Even if you want to turn yourself into a "machine for converting amphetamines into proofs", you have only so many minutes to your life. Will you, in ten years, look back and say "You know, I wish I had spent more time writing for strangers on the Internet, and less time doing research or being with my friends and family"? It seems doubtful.

If you do decide to take the time, you need to have not just something to say, but something to say in public. Your public may be small and obscure, you may have to help create your public, but there does have to be a public, and your writing has to be accessible to any member of it. If not, then you are just sharing with your family and friends, and for that we have e-mail and social networking sites. (In fact a public, defined by shared concern with some external value or subject, is almost the polar opposite of a social network, defined by concrete ties of social interaction.) Scientific papers are a very pure form of public writing in this sense, but you are already going to be writing papers. To blog, you need to have something to say, publicly, which goes beyond your papers.

If you have something to say and take the time to say it, there is still no way to force anyone to pay attention, and most attempts at blogging do not succeed in attracting much attention. The distribution of readership is not a power law, but it is strongly heavy tailed. Worse, from the point of view of someone trying to start a blog and attract attention, lots of mechanisms reinforce the position of already-prominent blogs: search-engines, for instance, or the effects of attention from other websites. My impression is that it is now much harder to achieve a given degree of readership for a new blog than it was in say 2003, simply because lots of the niches have already been filled, and it is not easy to displace the encumbents. So even if you do everything well, there is a good chance nobody will notice, or very few.

If everything goes well, there are of course several down-sides or costs to running a blog, over and above the time. One of them which is somewhat subtle is that a successful blog tends to develop an authorial voice, or perhaps better yet a persona. This is a natural part of all forms of social interaction (go read Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) but that persona is a literary creation, a sustained act of rhetorical self-fashioning, and not your total personality. Readers, however, are very apt to mistake an authorial persona for the personality of the author; they use your words to paint a picture of someone in their minds, and then they think they know you. (Novelists face similar issues.) This is something that can be quite weird and disturbing to experience, or figure out how to deal with. It is also possible to mistake your own narrative persona for your real personality, but is I think less common.

What Is It Good For?

Let us suppose that you find the time, that you find something to say, that you find readers, and that you make your peace with their confusing you with a fictional character. What then? What is all this good for?

There are of course a huge range of things people have found to do with blogs, but I will just discuss five which are especially useful for scientists: writing practice; the discussion of ideas; self-promotion; public communication; and teaching.

Writing practice Scientists live in a reputation economy. The reputation we want to have, with other scientists, is as original and reliable inquirers into interesting topics. We achieve this reputation by persuading them of our findings and their importance in writing. (We also do a little persuasion orally, in talks.) Findings which are not communicated, or communicated badly, are simply not part of the development of science, no matter how profound they might be. Scientists must therefore must write, and ought to write well.

Perversely, however, scientists are generally not good writers. The key reason is I think a lack of practice, especially a lack of practice with feedback. Like anything else, the only way to develop the skills of writing is to practice, see what worked and what failed, and try to do more of the former and less of the latter. Blogging can be an extremely good way to get this practice with feedback, if you can make yourself accept the negative, do-less-of-this signals. (Think of it as training for learning from negative referee reports.)

Discussing ideas Every scientific literature is, and has always been, surrounded by an area of discussion about those ideas, their implications and their possible developments. Contributions to this conversation do not need to be as sophisticated, novel, or rigorous as contributions to the literature, but they are vital to the way epistemic communities advance knowledge, and to the way people come to join such communities. These conversations have always gone on, as arguments at tea-time, or during breaks at conferences, etc., etc., but moving them into the form of blogging changes their character, because they become public and permanent. Publicity means that those who lack the social resources to be physically present and accepted at departmental tea-times can learn from the conversation, and potentially contribute to it. (This overlaps with the pedagogical function of blogging, particularly in the hands of people like Terry Tao, as I've talked about elsewhere.) Permanence and publicity makes it easier to hold people accountable for what they say, and in particular to force them to justify it by generally acceptable intellectual criteria.

Said slightly differently, moving this sort of conversation to blogs makes what sociologists call "invisible colleges" into visible publics. This has the potential to widen the circle of participation and to raise the level of discussion and thought. Some people find this uncomfortable; some economists, for instance, worry that "blogs are ruining economic debate". (In my own supremely arrogant opinion, this view owes much to the very strong tendency among economists to tell lies about over-simplify economics to lay-people and undergraduates "for their own good".) For my part I find this a Good Thing, for reasons expressed well by my friend and collaborator Henry Farrell, in a 2005 essay on "The Blogosphere as a Carnival of Ideas":

Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition. Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won't replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

Self-Promotion Of course, the ideas you discuss can be your own. You presumably think your finished papers, at least, are important and good and at least as interesting as any other papers, so why not talk about them? Yes, others in the field might see them in the journals or conferences, but they might not, or might not see why they should read them, so tell them why. You may target this at the general public, in which case you are acting as your own science journalist (an endeavor of which more below), or more or less narrowly at your professional peers. The latter calls for a little comment.

It is hard to over-emphasize the fact that science is a social process. (Discoveries which stay in your desk and are never communicated do not, properly speaking, form part of the body of scientific knowledge.) Making a career in science is building a reputation with your peers as a reliable, original and interesting investigator. In any half-way healthy field, the primary thing on which this depends is the quality of your research, but there is nothing wrong with thinking about other ways of developing your professional reputation, i.e., bringing your work and your insights to the attention of your peers. Blogging about your research, and that of other scientists which you find interesting, can be an excellent way of cultivating that reputation.

In this connection, let me recommend a resource which I found profoundly helpful when I was a graduate student, Phil Agre's "Networking on the Network". Ostensibly, Agre's article is about using electronic communications, circa 1996, for professional networking, but really it's about how to build a professional persona without being a manipulative creep. I will not repeat everything he says, but simply urge you to go read it, and the companion pieces "Find Your Voice" and "How to be a Leader in Your Field".

Public Communication I have been talking so far about participating in the conversation within your field or discipline. At the extreme, this shades off into blogging your research as you do it, or even having the research happen across multiple blogs building on each other. (The Polymath Project is perhaps the purest realization of this idea so far.) At the other end of the spectrum, as you make your writing more and more generally accessible, you approach science popularization, or acting as an amateur science journalist. Popularization and science journalism are tricky undertakings, and there is a reason there are training programs for them. Perhaps the hardest part of the endeavor is to find ways of explaining the science which are interesting and comprehensible to those who have not been immersed in the field, who (unlike students) do not have to pay attention, and who quite properly resent being patronized. Despite its difficulty, I think it is important for members of the scientific community to do this, to explain their science to the general public, both because science is important and worth knowing about, and because its pursuit on anything like its current scale — as anything more than a hobby for the eccentric rich — depends on public support. There are of course many excellent science journalists, some of whom are also good bloggers, such as Carl "The Loom" Zimmer and Tom "Inverse Square" Levenson, but it is I think important that scientists do it themselves, if only because even the most able journalist does not have the time to achieve the level of expertise that scientists possess.

Teaching Last among the uses of blogging for scientists that I want to mention is teaching. On the one hand, blogs can be a very good way of working through the material for classes --- what do you want to teach? how do you want to teach it? what do you actually think about the topics? On the other, they are a perfectly fine way of disseminating educational materials. Personally, I have gotten a lot of mileage out of using my blog to spread course notes on stochastic processes, data mining and data analysis. At a more exalted intellectual level there are things like Scott Aaronson's Quantum Computing Since Democritus, and Terry Tao's continuing series of lectures on pure math.


Actually Writing the Blessed Thing I have said nothing about the actual mechanics of writing and posting. This is the sort of thing where there are "nine-and-sixty ways, every single one of which is right" — for someone. I write everything as plain HTML files in Emacs, in a single flat directory, and publish with Blosxom, and write equations with MathJax. But my blog is boring to look at, and I wouldn't advocate my tool-set for anyone else.

I would suggest keeping a separate directory of drafts, well apart in your file system from posts which are ready to go, and a file listing ideas or notions that might go into the blog someday. As you go on, you'll find it easier to see the angles to things that could make them into posts; the list lets you capture those angles. When you start working on something, you move it from the list to its own draft file; when a draft is ready, you move it to accompany the finished posts.

Moving things from ideas to drafts to posts will require time spent on writing. If you are logorrhetic, like me, that might not be an issue, but some people find it helpful to budget time for this. The rule then is that the time must be spent either adding words or revising old ones, not fiddling with anything else, like software or social media. (This also helps for writing dissertations and papers.)

Comments Most blogs have comment sections. This can help for getting immediate feedback on your writing, and make for a much better experience for your readers, but there are very real downsides. The famous failure mode of unattended comments sections is to become vile. Avoiding this requires a lot of attention, either on your part or that of your readers, with ultimate responsibility resting with you — in the immortal words of Anil Dash, "if your website's full of assholes, it's your fault". The less heralded but perhaps even more common failure-mode is for the comments to be inane. There are, in my humble opinion, vanishingly few (though not quite zero) blogs whose comments are worth reading or participating in. I will not name them here, because I don't want them spoiled.

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