As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?

Hallway conversation at ScienceOnline2011 #scio11

I spent the weekend down in North Carolina at ScienceOnline 2011. I had a blast. It reaffirmed, for me, what a great and supportive community science writers and bloggers are. Everyone always seems genuinely interested in and impressed by everyone else’s work.

But as we were sitting around and enjoying the love-fest, I couldn’t help but wondering whether we sometimes get trapped in an echo chamber. There was much discussion of whether online science writing presented new and “better” opportunities for dialogue than old media.

In some scenarios, it unquestionably does. As many mentioned, the new model works really well when it comes to covering things like the controversy over arsenic-based life-forms. As we saw, Twitter and blogs made it possible for us to have a wide-ranging, nuanced discussion about how science is done–and to do so at lightning speed. (The whole conversation took place over the course of just a week–think about how much longer it would have taken if the discussion had happened only in comments and responses submitted to peer-reviewed journals.)

In any case, I think that the web clearly provides us with great new opportunities. But I do have one concern, which I discussed with several people at the conference: How much are we really sparking a wider discussion about science in society and how much are we just talking to each other? I know that I’m thrilled when science bloggers that I respect notice my work, compliment it, and retweet it. And it’s exciting to watch science bloggers debate the finer points of science with one another.

But who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?

That’s not to say that our work is only valuable if it reaches the public at large. There are lots of roles that we, as science journalists and bloggers, can play beyond just being the wise, paternal “educators” of the public. And, personally, I love writing for a small, self-selected group of science nerds. I just worry about whether we are sometimes unrealistic about who’s really reading a given blog post.

Or maybe I’m totally wrong here. What do you all think? How much influence do you think we have on the public understanding of and enthusiasm for science? Should that even be our goal? How do you see your role as a science blogger? What audience do you write for? What audience do you hope to reach? Let me know in the comments.

Image: Flickr/Ryan Somma

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28 Responses to As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?

  1. Mike Spear says:

    The idea of SoMe being an echo chamber is a real concern and you might want to check this http://www.cjr.org/the_news_frontier/beware_the_twitter_echo_chambe.php for another view of the same concern you are expressing.
    I think blogging whether it is science or anything else certainly has a role, is important, and needs to be treated with some thought.
    But the #scio11 is equally an example of the echo chamber and confusion about the audience.
    I followed the hashtag and already followed many of the attendees. There were some interesting links in the streams and some interesting content. However it didn’t take long for it to get hidden in the dross of back slapping, in-jokes, endless re-tweets of exactly the same snappy line or link, and mindless tweets about nothing. If someone new to tweets about science chose the last few days to follow the hashtag they would have rolled their eyes and nodded that indeed, Twitter is about where you’re having coffee, what to wear and who messed with the most Lemurs.
    The event certainly had merit, I’m sure there was great information exchanged for attendees, and some tweets had good content for ‘outsiders’. But towards the end I had simply turned off the hashtag stream.
    It would be a mistake for the attendees to point to the quantity of tweets over the few days of a great example of how twitter can be used. You were all there but for whatever reason felt the need to communicate extensively via your keyboard with each other – because the exchange was of limited value to non-attendees.
    Kiergegaard said in 1846 that in time, all anyone would be interested in was gossip. Now look at your #scio11 stream and tell me how far we’ve come.
    And now I’ll duck as the missles fly in my direction !
    (and also add that if I had been there I’m sure I would have been caught up in the moment as well)

    Mike

  2. Hello—I’m Colleen and I’ll be your member of the wider audience today—might I suggest the chicken?

    I don’t think science bloggers need to blog with the layperson as their demographic unless their objective is to do pro bono science education and/or just wish to put their awesomeness of there so that the lay public can see how cool science writers/scientists et all can be. In other words, if you are blogging to educate the public and/or want to be a star then write for lay people.

    But… if I were a scientist I might blog because I want to write about things of interest in my own field in a more casual and creative way than I could otherwise do in academia. Or maybe even blog about other areas outside my field.

    And if I were a science writer/journalist, I might want to blog in order to showcase my ability to understand the science and write compelling pieces, write in more entertaining and casual ways than I could for publications and/or to talk about the “trade” and interact/dialogue with others in the field.

    In which case, in the last two scenarios, don’t even try to write with the lay public in mind. The blogs will still have significant impact on the public understanding and enthusiasm for science because there just happens to be some intelligent, wildly enthusiastic about science laypeople out here who might be non specialist writers/communicators and/or citizen scientist bloggers who will read the said science blogs, praise the heavens above (just a figure of speech) that they don’t have to get their material solely from journals or perverted science pieces from mainstream media, and repackage the goodness in accurate but entertaining or accessible ways for the rest of the folk. We can be the middlemen. Leave us something to do will ya?

    Yay sciencebloggers!

    :-)

  3. Zen Faulkes says:

    “How much are we really sparking a wider discussion about science in society and how much are we just talking to each other?”

    Right now? We do more of the latter than the former.

    But that’s okay.

    Science blogging is a fan community. Like other fans, we like to evangelize our hobby and grow our community. I’m sure there are ferret fanciers who wonder, “How many people are there out there who just don’t know what wonderful pets ferrets are!? Ferrets should be mentioned in discussions about pets in the same breath as cats and dogs!”

    But the community can still enrich those who take part it in even though more people still own cats and dogs than ferrets.

    Similarly, the science blogging community can enrich the community of scientists and science fans even if it doesn’t change public consciousness.

    And that alone is worthwhile.

  4. And I think Mike Spear (commentor above) is way off-base.

    If someone new to Twitter and science choose to watch #SCIO11 in the last few days they would have thought “hey, these guys are just like me… they have fun and banter and are cool and they seem so happy about their work”… I THOUGHT THIS. In fact I thought to myself “how the hell can I ever go back and do work that bores me when there are people out there who feel like that about what they do?”

    The last thing on earth the lay public wants (I am lay person, I know) is coldness and information. Lectures and traditional teaching is a bore. If science could be communicated normally though fun channels (say in a bar, over drinks, out in stores, in sports fields, at the park etc.) then I daresay we’d all know a whole lot more about science.

  5. Yeah, it really depends on why you’re blogging. If you want to blog for the layperson, then I think you need to be adept at speaking in simpler terms and provide background information, and have a willingness to answer questions/comments provided by your readers.

    There’s many great science bloggers for the lay person out there (Phil Plait, Ed Yong, John Cook, to name a few), but Carl Zimmer is probably the best in terms of interacting with the readers’ comments.

  6. DNLee says:

    I soley write for lay audiences and yes, it is hard to gauge how well I am doing. But it comes down to leveraging relationships and walking to other sides of the aisle.

    I find facebook and emails to friends/family as the best way to market science blogs to general audiences. Yes, people aren’t consuming science blogs with the same enthusiam as I do, but every so often a science blog post catches them.

  7. Chris Rowan says:

    It’s no surprise the conference felt a bit like an echo chamber – all conferences are a bit like that, as their very point is to collect together people much more interested in a particular topic than average. Indeed, one of the big appeals of ScienceOnline for me is that I can talk about online outreach without having to have the ‘blogging? isn’t that where people post cat pictures/what they ate for breakfast?’ conversation first. In other words it’s a nice antidote to the times in the rest of the year when the first comment on a thoughtful, reflective post is someone telling you that you’re doing it wrong.

    As for who I’m writing for: one of the things I’ve discovered about blogging is that whilst I can write with a particular audience in mind, I might still end up reaching an entirely different audience through the vagaries of a Google Search. The very fact that our echo chamber is on the internet makes it more than a little leaky.

  8. Mike Spear says:

    I figured the missles would fly. Didn’t doubt anyone’s sense of humour, fun, sincerity, or the fact they liked their work. Just saw limited value to those not there and a lot of people having fun on their keyboards who were there.
    If you audience for #scio11 was each other, then it went fine and probably exceeded expectations. If it was anyone else #fail
    And that was the main question posed in this blog posting. “Who are we really writing for?”

  9. Brian Romans says:

    I agree w/ Mike Spear’s comment above about the utility of the Twitter stream. As someone trying to follow the meeting, the #scio11 feed was not very useful. (Note: I’m not arguing that it should be, Twitter is what it is.)

    The livestream of some of the sessions, however, was VERY useful. I was impressed with topics and level of discussion at the open science and altmetrics sessions on Saturday. In the future, I will probably follow only my usual peeps (instead of entire hashtag feed) and view the livestream. Kudos to the folks running the livestream, job well done.

    As for Emily’s question about who we are writing for. That’s nearly impossible to answer collectively because the “we” is an incredibly diverse group in terms of background and goals. While the science writer/journalist/media types are into communication of science to general audience, a lot of blogging scientists (like me) do this to share our passions for our science, build our network of peers, and to simply interact in another way. If I reach a non-scientist with my posts that’s great, but that’s not my primary goal.

    The term ‘science blogging/blogger’ encompasses so much it’s approaching uselessness. As time goes on I suspect that we’ll simply identify ourselves as what we do and what we are intersted in rather than the label ‘blogger’.

  10. As a retired scientist now writing science fiction, I blog about things that interest me and that I think might interest the general public. A little on writing, a series on planet building, currently equine genetics, weather and climate (my background is atmospheric science) conservation laws as they appear in my science fiction… I think there’s room for all of us.

  11. Maitri says:

    I’m a geoscientist who happens to have a blog which rose to some prominence after Katrina and The Flood and the recent oil spill, because I (mostly) talk about everything from disaster recovery and rebuilding missteps to Carnival and culture with the mind of a scientist who loves New Orleans and Louisiana. So, I’m a scientist and a blogger, but writing about science alone is not my goal. I write to write, with no particular audience in mind. Does that (not) make me a science blogger? I don’t know.

    With respect to Mike’s comment: As one of the non-attendees, I didn’t think the purpose of the #scio11 Twitter stream was to educate on science all on its own. Instead, like in the online buzz surrounding any event on a topic, I was able to click through tweeted links and find the content that was useful to me. It takes a bit of work and sifting like research on any topic.

  12. mangrist says:

    Beyond following the Golden Rule, I don’t think science bloggers should have expectations of one another or their audience. As for meetings, the in-person experience will never be remotely served by 140-character dispatches and only partially by streaming video. In five years I suppose people will complain if they cannot holographically attend meetings.

    Who are we writing for? There is no single answer. But again, I don’t worry about it. The barriers to entry to blogging are somewhere between low and nonexistent. Like-minded people make connections with each other and read each other, e.g., I happen to dig Wonderland…

  13. sarcozona says:

    When I blog about science, I generally imagine my sister or my aunt as my audience. Intelligent, interested, but not much science background – laypeople. Lately, they’ve even dictated some of the science topics I’ve covered.

    I think this might change as I continue to study and do research. I only recently finished my undergrad, and I probably learn more from writing science posts than my readers do. I don’t usually have the knowledge to “debate the finer points” of a particular study.

  14. Mike Spear says:

    Bloggers (science or otherwise) may not have expectations of each other, but please, they have to have expectations of their audience.
    Writing for just anyone who happens to roll by the web pages makes very little sense. A blog written for a HS student to get them jazzed about science isn’t the same piece you’d write for a politician to get him jazzed about science, and the one written for science geeks is different again.
    No barriers to blogging has meant that some gems have finally been unearthed and that others have just simply found a way to fill time and space with a collection of words.
    The radio pilot program I’ve been commissioned to produce has a specific audience in mind, I write this comment knowing who my likely audience is, and our GenOmics news site has a different audience again.
    I noticed during #scio11 there was a lot of talk about telling stories. Knowing your audience is absolutely vital to tellling a story.

  15. Moreno says:

    I live in a country (Italy) where people are not as involved in science as it happens in USA; therefore, I feel it as a sort of moral mission to communicate science to a broad public.
    However, I do understand the problem and in fact sometimes I write more technical posts, because I know that they would be more appreciated by the vast majority of my readers.
    I think the best approach is to find a balance between the two extremes, linking science nerds with non-science people.

  16. David Kroll says:

    Hi Emily! It was a complete delight to finally meet you in real-life and sing the praises of your writing in person.

    I tend to write on a wide variety of topics – scientific and not so much – across a wide spectrum of complexity depending on how I feel. Like Ed Yong and Drugmonkey, I periodically survey my readers to find out who they are and why they read. I’m ecstatic to know that about a quarter of the readers who comment have only a peripheral relationship or passing interest in science. But those folks do indeed tell me they learn something and continue to write to me by e-mail during the year.

    Other times I write more technically in a manner intended for other scientists. Writing about pharmacology lends itself to broad audiences since everyone takes some sort of medication regardless of whether they are a scientist or science journalist.

    My widespread interest in appealing to regular folks as well as folks like us is the primary reason I accepted the invitation at PLoS even after being offered the slot to move my long-time blog to CENtral Science. I tend to write there with a more narrow focus to those with pharmaceutical or chemistry interests. Here at PLoS, I tend to write about everything else – free-range blogging with broad appeal (I hope).

  17. I’ve been on twitter for a while and I’ve followed several conferences following hashtags to follow events and links to updates, summaries and other useful information. I found the #scio11 hashtag to be cumbersome to follow. There didn’t seem to be any control of what should be associated with it and what should not.

    Granted the livestreams were useful when they did stream but that needn’t have been the sole source of information. I live in Australia and the time difference is a factor. The blog being updated daily for Science Online 2011 would have been a fantastic source of information and saved me sorting out the junk tweets and endless RTs of the one tweet from one or two individuals to anything worthy. When I voiced my observation of the high noise to signal ratio, the hive mind kicked in and I was advised to watch the livestream and to turn my frown upside down and to wait for the archives of sessions. The archives of these livestreams are yet to surface anywhere.

    Everything on the Science Online 2011 appeared to invite people from all over the world to participate. What I found to be the case was that attendees were cliquey and there was little if any discussion of the topics from #scio11 evident amongst non-attendees. If the aim was to generate discussion of the issues discusssed in #scio11 outside of the community of science blogging, then I don’t think that was achieved. If anything, it may have exacerbated the belief that science bloggers don’t have anything worthy to say.

    I have a science blog. This year I have a Chemistry theme running through it as I blog everyday on something that is in this field as part of International Year of Chemistry. I write for people who have an interest in science and people who have a science degree but may not necessarily have expertise in the area of science I write about. Sometimes I even link science to pop culture for a bit of variety.

  18. David Orr says:

    I was a first-timer at SciO11, and it was at times an overwhelming experience. But it made me do serious thinking about how I write, how I want to grow as a graphic designer with science communication aspirations, and how I want to talk to my fellow bloggers.

    I write about dinosaurs, which makes the task of appealing to the general public quite easy. Indeed, many of my spikes in traffic occur when I write about newly-described taxa, from folks who are curious about new discoveries and let google direct them where they need to go. I choose my words carefully so as to make posts accessible to people who see a term like “postcranial” and tune out. And I sprinkle in hearty doses of stuff that’s simply cool, because at some level, people just like dinosaurs and get a kick out of seeing them presented in fresh ways.

    But I always have other bloggers in mind. They’re the ones who inspire me to write well. They provide a different kind of feedback, that of peers, that readers can’t offer. I’ve begun doing weekly digests that I hope are valuable to all readers in finding other voices in the dinosaur blogosphere.

    I’m thinking of both of these audiences, but I’m mostly having fun writing about something I love. I think that SciO11 has convinced me to lay off the “meta” posts on my blog, and to get more creative about “sneaking the science in.” To be a better storyteller and less of a “teacher.” It will be an ongoing experiment. I will continue to use twitter as my main venue for discussing the larger issue of science communication.

    I have sympathies for Magdeline and any other non-attendees who felt it that the hashtag was not useful. I also think it’s a bit much to expect the amount of content occuring simultaneously at SciO to make its way to the rest of the world quickly. Instead, I think it’s important to think of SciO as a conference without borders that happens all year, with a gathering point. I tried to send out condensed bits of the insights I heard, which were many. I saw others doing it, too. It’s sadly inevitable that the physical meeting of SciO will seem like an “in-crowd.” But I think it’s understandable that when a group of enthusiastic people are all in the same place, much of the discussion will be about the fun and frustration of having that experience. I’m sure that as this conference evolves, there will be ways for the global audience to feel more a part of the action.

  19. East Village blogger says:

    Not a scientist. Love your blog.

  20. i agree with mike. the scio11 twitter feed was interesting — for roughly five minutes. after that, boredom (with reading the same old repetitive crap) and annoyance (at the exclusionary echo chamber quality of the entire discussion) set in. i have better things to do with my time than to read the collective “twitter jizz” generated by a conference i couldn’t attend.

  21. Emily Anthes says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments and responses. This dialogue over the past day has reassured me–even if we don’t have all the answers, it sounds like plenty of us are thinking about the question.

  22. Paul Raeburn says:

    I was delighted to burrow a little deeper (a LOT deeper) into the science bloggers’ universe this past weekend, and it’s of course exciting and fun to pour something into the #scio11 maelstrom and see it get retweeted, refracted, and refreshed.

    But as a journalist, I’ve always thought of myself as writing for a broader audience, and I still do. I spent much of my career at the AP and Business Week, places I liked to work in large part because they addressed a general audience.

    I don’t think the enthusiasm and affection we feel for each other and our work needs to confine us. If we’re writing well, we should be able to write for each other and for a broader public all at once. Indeed, if we focus too much on writing for each other, we’re apt to take a little too much for granted and leave the rest of the world behind.

    As I say, it’s fun to be hip to what’s happening in, say, neuroscience, and to be able to drop code on Twitter that everyone in our world understands. And I wouldn’t argue that any of us has a mission, except to pursue the kind of creative work we choose. But it’s simply fun–and satisfying–to try to reach that broader audience, and then to be able to do that silly dance that @edyong does when he gets links from non-science blogs.

    (Do we have video of that dance, by the way?)

  23. Ed says:

    Hey I do the same dance when I get a link from the Tracker ;-)

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  27. AmoebaMike says:

    Emily,
    I would love to go to SciOnline, but it seems like it’s all the cool kids and I’d just be the fanboy with my jaw on the floor as the real science people do their thing.

    As for the echo-chamber, I want to bring science to a wider audience. As AmoebaMike I breakdown biology concepts for the teen crowd (or the teen-level science educated person). (I’d ideally love to do something like BrainPop.) I don’t have a good readership, but I certainly try. And for sure if a big sciblogger were to RT a link, I’d die–but I appreciate even more if non-science people like my content!