Welcome to the Blogosphere

By Sean Carroll | June 16, 2006 11:49 am

No, not you; you’re already here in the blogosphere. I’m talking about all those physicists out there to whom “blog” sounds like something you feel compelled to do after doing too many Smirnoff shots the previous evening, rather than the place you go for the most erudite and challenging large-scale conversation in human history.

Blogs are a tool of immense power that people haven’t quite figured out how to use quite yet. Physicists, in particular, have been slow to take advantage of this new medium (with a few brave and laudable exceptions, of course). A peek at our blogroll or a visit to Mixed States would give the impression that there is a lot of physics blogging out there, which is certainly true; but “a lot” needs to be compared with the dominance of more traditional forms of communication (papers, talks, conferences, books, journalism), or the much more eager adoption of blogging by the tech community, or even within academia by law professors and social scientists. Professional physics, let’s face it, is a step removed from the concerns of most people on the street, and rather than work to overcome this barrier by making the excitement of their research more accessible, most working physicists are happy to remain relatively isolated within their research communities. Besides, blogging takes time, and who has that?

It was with Luddite preconceptions such as these in mind that I recently wrote a Back Page article for APS News, the house newsletter of the American Physical Society, on the joys of blogging. I was invited by Jennifer Ouellette, who is the assistant editor of APS News when not blogging up a storm in her own right at Cocktail Party Physics (and who was also at YearlyKos). Most people don’t know anything about blogs, and if they haven’t actually started reading them it’s quite difficult to give an accurate description. So I tried right from the start to defuse some of the most pernicious stereotypes.

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard of these things called “blogs,” some sort of web journals feverishly updated by pajama-wearing authors convinced that the world is in desperate need of access to their innermost thoughts. Who has time to pay attention to such frivolities? Fortunately, as serious physicists we need not worry that our lives will be affected by this latest example of overhyped cyber-enthusiasm. Just like our lives were unaffected by the advent of email and electronic preprints.

When I’m asked what blogs are all about, I start by saying they are like magazines—collections of serially presented articles (called “posts” in the blog context), published on the internet instead of in bound paper editions. Blogs are a technology for conveying information. Like magazines, blogs can be about anything. The purposes to which we choose to put this technology are nearly infinitely flexible.

I go on to talk about some of these purposes, in particular the distinct (but complementary) ideas of using blogs for technical conversations between researchers, vs. spreading news and musings about science to a wider audience, vs. random discussions about whatever you want because hey, it’s your blog.

One of the things that people really don’t quite get, until they’ve taken the plunge themselves, is how easy it is to start up a new blog. At the lowest level of effort, anyone can start a brand-new blog for free within minutes by popping over to Blogger and just signing up. Give yourself an hour or two to choose a name and a color scheme, and you’re off. If you spend another hour setting up a blogroll and remember to occasionally link to other bloggers, they will notice you and link back, and you’ll actually get visitors. If you want your visitors to join the conversation, just pop over to Haloscan to sign up for free commenting and trackbacks. (Blogger also has comments now, but I’m not so fond of their system.) Continuing your search for free services, sign up with Sitemeter so that you can obsess over how many people are visiting, and who is linking to you. Very rewarding, I promise. At a slightly higher level of ambition, you can install software like WordPress or TypePad, either on your own machine, or at some web host you pay for. That’s what we’ve done here at Cosmic Variance, since the features of WordPress are especially useful for a group blog. And then if you’re extremely ambitious, you can put a lot of work into fine-tuning the look and feel of your blog template — or make it easy for yourself and hire Lauren to do it for you.

Of course there are too many blogs out there already, so it’s not as if I’m encouraging people. Only the right people. Actually, there’s no reason why everyone can’t have multiple blogs, serving different purposes. I don’t have an especially clear view of what the blog landscape will look like ten or twenty years down the road, except that it will be substantially more active and diverse than it even is today. You don’t want to miss out, do you?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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