The State of Science Blogging and Expectations Thereof

The fallout from the Pepsi incident continues to suck all the oxygen out of science blogging, with the latest news being the departure of Bora Zivkovic. If you don’t have time to read his farewell novel, here’s the short version: Seed Media Group management are insufficiently attentive to the blogs, and stuck in an old-media mentality. They should’ve re-invented themselves as entirely a blog company, and scrapped everything else. Really, if you’ve read Bora’s stuff before, you can pretty much reconstruct the whole thing without reading it.

This post is being cited all around blogdom as incredibly perceptive and insightful, to the point where I feel like I need to respond to a couple of elements of this. This is partly my natural contrarianism at work, and partly a matter of wanting to correct a couple of misplaced expectations that are driving this whole business. This will have zero effect on the course of the discussion, but I’m starting to feel guilty about ranting at Kate about this, so I’ll put it up here, and then go back to talking about science.

My problems with Bora’s epic:

1) His main bit of support for his view of how Seed Media Group should’ve reconstituted itself is a graph showing the monthly traffic for dwarfing the monthly traffic for This, he argues, is evidence that they should give up trying to produce original content, and be all about the blogs.

Of course, a similar line of reasoning would argue that we should all become ranty blogs about politics. After all, the top two blogs (out of 70+) on the network are Pharyngula and Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which together account for something like 55% of the pageviews to the site. If we’re supposed to redirect all our efforts to what brings in the pageviews, then that’s clearly the way to go.

And, well, no. It’s not like that doesn’t happen– we’ve all seen some blogs that used to be about science get sucked into ranting of one sort or another because that’s what brings the traffic. I sometimes get sucked into that myself. Those aren’t positive results, though, save in a narrow balance-sheet kind of thinking, and every time that happens we lose a little more of the science from ScienceBlogs, which is a shame.

2) The other problem with the graph in question is that it’s not plotting what Bora implies it’s plotting. He talks about that as if it’s a graph of cash flow, which it’s not. To be sure, the potential ad revenue from would appear from that to be vastly greater than the potential ad revenue from, but this graph does not necessarily tell you everything about the cash flow of Seed Media Group.

That’s an important thing to remember when people start pontificating about the management of Seed Media Group– we are not privy to their financial information. I don’t get to look at their books, and neither does Bora. Moreover, neither of us has any reasonable expectation of being allowed to look at their books.

Is Bora’s just-so story about their resource flow plausible? Absolutely. Is it true? We can’t say. There may be sound reasons why hasn’t been shut down or merged with The two companies are set up as separate legal entities (as of a couple of years ago, when the change complicated my taxes)– there may be obstacles to shifting resources in the way Bora wants that we don’t know about. There may even be revenue sources that has access to that ScienceBlogs does not. We don’t have that information.

More importantly, we don’t have any particular right to that information. Yeah, yeah, the site wouldn’t exist without the bloggers. The Associated Press wouldn’t exist without a small army of reporters all over the world, and you can be damn sure that some stringer on the ground in the Middle East is not being consulted about the proper allocation of resources in the company as a whole. ScienceBlogs and Seed Media Group are set up as corporations, and the bloggers are independent contractors (again, that’s what it says on my taxes). While you can imagine a situation where the company would be set up to provide the internal financial statements to the bloggers, that’s not how things are set up, and everybody knew that (or should have known that) going in.

3) Bora gives the impression that there are vast resources being expended on that rightly ought to be serving This is a bit of an exaggeration. The entire Seed Media Group operation appears (at least the last time I visited) to be maybe twenty people. Their tech support was supplied by the same single developer who did tech support for ScienceBlogs, as I understand it.

Would an extra ad salesman or two and half a tech-support person (presumably, we don’t need a few more editors) make all the difference between ScienceBlogs being what it is and ScienceBlogs being whatever Bora thinks it should be? Maybe. I kind of doubt it, but maybe.

But reading that giant manifesto gives the impression that there’s a whole office building worth of staff for the magazine sitting around twiddling their thumbs while the blogs are barely scraping by, and that’s just not the case. The grandiose name aside, the entire Seed Media Group appears to be very much a shoestring operation.

And again, we don’t have any solid idea of what those people are doing, or why those resources are allocated the way they are, because we’re not privy to that information, and have no reasonable expectation of being privy to it. That’s not the way things are set up, and while Bora might prefer it to be set up differently, they’re under no obligation to do so.

Do I think that things are all happy rainbows and unicorns? No. there are plenty of things in Bora’s manifesto that I agree with. I think the network is way too big and diffuse to be any kind of coherent entity, but that decision was made a long time ago and well above my pay grade. The technical support leaves a lot to be desired. The management could do a much better job of communicating with the bloggers about major site changes (though, again, there may be confidentiality issues there that complicate matters, that we know nothing about, and have no particular right to know anything about).

At the same time, though, I think a lot of what’s being said about ScienceBlogs and the management of the site is based on unreasonable expectations of how things ought to work rather than how things are actually set up. Throw in the fact that the dominant mode of expression in blogdom is hysterical overreaction and, well, you get what we’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks.

And that’s pretty much what I’ve got to say about this for now. I may very well get sucked into this quagmire again, but for now, I’ll put this aside, and talk about what I know you’re all dying to hear: Condensed matter physics!

16 thoughts on “The State of Science Blogging and Expectations Thereof

  1. To be fair he does also complain about Seed’s ethics, which, if justified, is a perfectly sufficient reason for him to leave.

    But, yeah, his estimation of the importance of Scienceblogs in the scheme of things? Way overblown, if you ask me, which you didn’t, admittedly.

  2. The ethical matters are largely a separate issue. I’m not that bothered by them, precisely because the network is so big and diffuse– if I was going to leave over the contents of a different blog, I would’ve left a long time ago.

    I’m talking here about the big-picture stuff, which is as much a factor in many of the recent departures as the ethical issues.

  3. Throw in the fact that the dominant mode of expression in blogdom is hysterical overreaction and, well, you get what we’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks.
    It is telling however that the professional science writers are heavily represented among those leaving/who have left. They do not come across as people who are hysterical and overreacting.

  4. The professional writers who left over matters of principle mostly did so immediately. What we’re getting today, and for the last week or so, is people leaving over other issues related to the management of the site, and on the theory that they don’t want to be the last one out the door. I think those people are largely overreacting to perceived slights that come from unrealistic expectations of what Seed Media Group is and what they can be expected to do. That’s what I’ve tried to explain here.

    The problem is exacerbated by the fact that blogging, as a medium, tends to reward more extreme statements, so even relatively minor problems and offenses get described in an overheated manner. Which further reinforces the idea that things are spiraling out of control, leading to further inflation of the problems, and so on.

  5. My position is that it seems that some Sb’ers are naive. I was that way when I started working as a newspaper reporter, way, way back in my previous life. It took me a while to learn and understand that a newspaper is a business, not a calling. There is nothing special about it. Every decision is a business decision. If you are lucky, your work won’t tread on any feet that are both sensitive and powerful enough to reach into your isolated little world. A reporter at the newspaper where I worked interviewed a TV actor at a famous golf course at which many masters play. He mentioned in passing that the interview took place at The XXXX. The word came down from on high that the name of that place was not to be mentioned unless the story was actually about that place. I, myself, was warned not to write any more stories about empty storefronts in downtown. Now Sb’ers learn that SMG is a business. Oh, the humanity!

  6. Thank you, Chad. I’ve watched this entire melodramatic hoopla with both entertainment and dismay. Each blogger needs to make their own decision and move on accordingly. I’ll follow those that matter without care of where they are–here or elsewhere. What I don’t need are the hysterics that have punctuated this event from the beginning.

    Scientists are to be reasonable and cautious, assuming nothing without all the results being in. The first bad science: assuming what the PepsiCo blog was going to be about. That was an epic fail on the part of many here, and it lost them my respect and interest. And the mayhem has continued since then.

    In truth, the whole situation has made me tired of the Sb family as a whole. Too many assumptions. Too much self-aggrandizement. Too few real scientists acting incredulously, but instead flailing their arms and screaming in tirades.

  7. @Jason:

    Assuming the blog is going to be about what they state it is going to be about? How is that unreasonable?

  8. Rob, PepsiCo never claimed anything. The introductory post was from Seed. So assumptions–dangerous as they are already–become doubly so when assuming by third-party introductions. Their prior work might be an indicator, but why not wait and see what the truth was rather than making assumptions in the first place?

    Besides, how better to actively challenge and discredit their work than in the real-time model of a blog? This was the perfect medium to put PepsiCo in its place, to call them on the carpet and to force them into honesty. What a shame all these critical minds thought of themselves instead of the general audience they serve.

  9. “Would an extra ad salesman or two and half a tech-support person (presumably, we don’t need a few more editors) make all the difference between ScienceBlogs being what it is and ScienceBlogs being whatever Bora thinks it should be? Maybe. I kind of doubt it, but maybe.”

    On the other hand, having a company which is supporting a blogging network that only has one tech person, is, perhaps, not a good idea. But that’s my computer science bias trying to get more jobs for those B.S. C.S. degrees 🙂

  10. Sorry see that you mention this at the end 🙂 But to put things in a positive light, your hope for a smaller network is coming true 😉

  11. Some people build illusions about the places they hang. They garland their surroundings with just-so stories of integrity, ethics, solidarity and unity. The garlands don’t change the basic nature of the surroundings but they assume they do. They see it as it might be. And are shocked and feel betrayed when the place fails to live up to the illusions that they have written for it in their own minds.

    Feeling betrayed they feel the need to be dramatic and perform symbolic acts of sacrifice to force the reality to conform to their illusions. When it doesn’t they run away. Only long after the fact do they consider that basic structure, outside the assumptions and garlands, was sound enough and well served their needs.

    Bora had other things going on that distracted from his Sb blog, and connected to these things, other places to go.

  12. Mark P’s story about The Place That Must Not Be Named reminds me of a similar incident, when my newspaper was privately owned. I was obliquely critical of a childrens home operated by a Protestant church, and was informed any further transgressions would result in termination. That much of the town’s juvenile crime was produced by the home’s occupants was not to be discussed.

    Everyone’s got dirty little secrets, and Seed’s is that it’s a for-profit business. OMG. The horror.

  13. Everyone’s got dirty little secrets, and Seed’s is that it’s a for-profit business.

    One which in fact may not be making a profit.

    Three hundred sixty odd posts into the comments on PZ’s On Strike post, somebody linked to what is allegedly the current financial state for Seed’s primary investor, Seed being the largest (by far) investment made by said investor. The words “burn rate” came up to describe the scenario.

    IINM, Chad still has the Steelypips domain. I would advise him to make plans to mirror/back up his SB site, if he hasn’t done so already. When one of the Corporate Overlords denies rumors of Seed’s imminent bankruptcy, that will be the signal for Chad to implement those plans immediately. Anecdata on that last point: One weekend several years ago I made the three-hour drive to tour the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant. During the tour the guide dismissed rumors of the company’s impending sale. The following Wednesday, Ben and Jerry announced that they were selling out to Unilever. I’ve heard several similar stories from dot-com veterans.

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