Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?

By Ed Yong | January 18, 2011 3:35 pm

In the wake of the ScienceOnline 2011 conference, a familiar spectre has reared its inevitable head – the echo-chamber argument. The central question is this: do science bloggers solely speak to each other and those with a pre-existing interest in science, or are we capable of reaching a broader selection of readers? As Emily Anthes asked, “Who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?”

This is a worthwhile question and I’d be disappointed if a gathered group of scientists and journalists – two professions who are paid to be skeptical – didn’t ask it. The concern is also real. With newspaper sales on the decline, people aren’t exposed to science stories nestled among other topics at the turn of the page. It’s hard to achieve the same effect in the heavily tagged and increasingly specialised world of the internet. Surely, it is said, only people already interested in science will only subscribe to a science blog’s RSS feed, or click on the Science section of the Guardian or the New York Times.

This is a fairly limited view of how the modern internet works. The same issue came up when I ran a panel on online journalism at ScienceOnline 2010, and I have been writing the same response ever since. Here’s what I wrote last year:

Towards the end of last year, Carl and I covered a story on the sexual conflicts of ducks, where scientists studied the massive, corkscrew-shaped penises of drakes by getting them to unfurl said mighty organs into a variety of glass tubes. The videos became an internet sensation and the story was linked to from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Digg and all manner of forums. Tens of thousands of people watched ducks penetrating flasks, and perhaps a fraction of them even picked up some science while they were at it. As Carl said, “Duck fetishists can learn about sexual selection.”

Of course, sex has always sold, but this case study highlights the ability of the web to find massive audiences, if the right story is presented in the right way. It also shows how science stories can automatically find their way to people who aren’t necessarily interested in science. “Be a virus and infect people’s minds,” urged Carl, and there are many examples of people taking up his advice. Because of his science tattoo series, Carl got to talk about science in an interview with a tattoo magazine. A story I wrote about nanotechnology in 17th century swords turned up in all sorts of places, from Reddit to role-playing forums to online blacksmithing communities. Ars Technica itself uses an interest in technology as a hook to get people from gamers to IT specialists to read science stories.

This culture of sharing is going to be increasingly important, especially as social media becomes increasingly popular. You don’t expect people to come to you. You go to where they are or, better still, you get other people to take you there.

When I link to a post on Facebook or Twitter, it reaches a few thousand people. Some of them will pass the link on to their friends and followers, and it ripples outwards. At every iteration, the stories land in front of more potential eyes, with increasingly diverse interests. The big question is whether these ripples can duplicate or replace the effect of randomly coming across science stories in newspaper pages. I believe they can. The benefits may be relatively limited for the moment but they will grow as the use of social media matures.

New media, old problem

During my panel on online journalism, I said that bloggers have a tendency to forget that the problems of new media are ancient ones. The echo-chamber argument is a perfect example. Specialist science magazines like New Scientist or Discover or Scientific American have been wrestling with the problem of netting fresh audiences for decades. To get their perspectives, I emailed a few of their editors.

Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American, says that while most of the magazine’s subscribers already had some interest in science, fewer than 10% of them are scientists. The same is true for New Scientist. Its editor, Roger Highfield, told me that most of the magazine’s print readers have a science degree or higher, but most are not directly involved with science any more. “[They] range from “company CEOs to students, teachers, art gurus, pensioners, unemployed and pop stars,” he says. “So there are lots of different echoes.  In fact this ‘echo chamber’ image is a bit simplistic, as simplistic as the idea that bloggers simply reflect the prevailing gossip or the agenda of the mainstream media.”

So how do the editors try to get fresh readers on board? DiChristina lists “all the standard ways” including apps, link swaps, syndication partnerships, PR and marketing. “Digital media give us lots of new ways to engage our audience”, she says, with the result that “readers in general are consuming more science information than ever before”. Her predecessor (and blogger) John Rennie says, “On the editorial side, the usual strategies for drawing in larger (or newer) audiences tend to involve the kinds of “gimmicks” that established science readers often notice and sneer at, not without some justification.” This includes connecting science to news events or cultural trends, or crowd-pleasing stories.

Rennie adds, “For obvious reasons, science magazine publishers and editors give the challenge of expanding out to new audiences a lot of thought—not always very fruitfully. He told me that science magazine readers are characterised by their psychological profile – they are interested in science. They cut across all ages, incomes and other demographic groups, which is a pain for marketers. “The lack of some secret reliable trick for extending circulation is probably one reason why the science magazine niche isn’t bigger than it is.” Our readers tend to be passionately devoted… but it’s hard to find new people of that stripe efficiently.”

Getting people in and keeping them there

Having discussed the echo chamber concept in an ironically navel-gazing way, here are my thoughts on escaping from it. Of course, some people are quite happy there, which is fine. This is for those who want to reach broader audiences.

Find out who you’re actually reaching. I talked about this at the Bloggers and Boundaries session at ScienceOnline 2011. Every year, I run a “Who are you?” thread here to find out about my readers, their stories, and their backgrounds. They are a diverse bunch, remarkably reminiscent to the groups that the magazine editors described to me. Some are scientists, others have some level of science education but have since moved away from it, and others were completely uninterested until they read the blog. Most of them don’t comment regularly. Unless you ask, you’ll never know.

Think about your audience. This is the important one – you have to realise that no one is obliged to read your stuff, which turns writing into a battle for attention. Avoid jargon, learn the basics of good writing, tell stories, and so on. When you do get uninterested readers coming to your site, you will have seconds to draw them in or lose them. You have to make the most of these fleeting opportunities. I invoke the words of Tim Radford: “You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the Tube [London’s subway system – Ed], who, given a chance, will stop reading in a fifth of a second. So the first sentence you write will be the most importance sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you may feel compelled to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.”

Remember what a “general” audience looks like. Science communicators like to throw around phrases like “laypeople” and “general public” without truly considering what they mean. Is someone who did a science degree but now works as an accountant part of the “general public”? What about someone who dropped out of school but reads popular science books voraciously? What about a biochemist who is reading about quantum physics? All of these people regularly feast upon science as part of their mental diet and their patronage shouldn’t be discounted.

Beware of inadvertently turning readers into outsiders. Jargon is an obvious way of doing this – you end up excluding people who don’t understand your words. There are other less obvious ones. In-jokes and geek references can exclude people who don’t identify with that culture. Swearing can exclude schoolchildren because schools often have language filters that block sites with too much profanity. The use of pronouns can create barriers – if you say, “We’ve always known that…”, the audience might well ask, “Who’s we? I didn’t know that. I guess you’re not writing for me.”

Tap social media. Sites like Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon are very useful for getting hordes of incoming visitors, beyond one’s typical readership. This is more of a passive solution. You can’t game these sites; people who constantly submit their own material don’t get very far. I also wonder whether they’re a solution to the echo-chamber problem or merely an extension of it. Take Reddit: science posts are tagged within the science category and only the really popular ones rise beyond that to hit the main page. And who uses sites like Digg and Reddit in the first place? Nonetheless, it’s a start.

Infiltrate non-scientific sites. Whenever I get a link from Boing Boing, Andrew Sullivan, Slate or Three Quarks Daily, I do a little happy dance, not just because it means extra traffic but because these aren’t science sites. Those are the people we really need to work with if we want to spread beyond the echo-chamber. If you’re blogging about, say, female reproduction, are you better off trying to get Reddit hits, or to be syndicated to Marie Claire? If you have a great story, do you want to write for New Scientist to the New Yorker?

Set your expectations correctly. You may want to reach a general audience, but think about what that would look like. Remember that the magazine editors face the same problems and they have substantial marketing budgets. Unless you’re spending a similar amount into marketing, the majority of your readers will inevitably have a science background, simply because they’re most likely to seek out your content.

Even highly targeted marketing campaigns have a large amount of “cross-sell”, to use horrific corporate jargon. If you ran a campaign aimed at women, you’d inevitably reach men too. If you targeted poorer socioeconomic groups, rich people would also see your campaign. You can skew those ratios by buying media at the right times or places – e.g. running ads in specific newspapers or magazines, or airing them at specific times. But blogs cannot afford such tactics. We have to rely on free avenues like social media. Our “cross-sell” is enormous. The big question is whether you are also attracting a more general audience – you will not do so exclusively.

What medium are you talking about? Different online media have different uses, strengths and weaknesses. I write this blog for a broad audience, and I expect it to reach one. But Twitter is a more personal medium, which I also use to network, talk to friends and colleagues, and discuss a broader range of interests. I’m happier with my Twitter world being narrower. This should all be fairly obvious but I have seen different media conflated on numerous occasions, with people saying the insularity of science tweeters as evidence of the blogosphere’s echoing nature. It’s like damning your saxophone because your piano sounds a bit tinny.

Finally, be better. There is only one thing that is absolutely necessary to reach and keep new audiences: you need to be writing good content. You can cover a niche or specific topic, you can write with stylistic brilliance, you can become a curator extraordinaire, you can specialise in reactive analysis… there are hundreds of ways to do it and everyone needs to find theirs.

Do what you can. I’ve written before that if I really wanted to influence the minds of people with no existing interest in science, I’d become a teacher. Except I’d be a dreadful teacher. I am, on the other hand, a competent writer.  Play to your strengths. To me, this post (and indeed this entire debate) is more about encouraging people to constantly reflect upon their audiences and their goals, rather than to criticise any specific approach.

And if you do make the echo-chamber criticism, please provide some solutions. Because if you say that we’re all in an echo chamber without providing helpful suggestions of how to move beyond it, guess where that puts you? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a room-like place, where sound bounces repeatedly off the walls.

With that in mind, leave your $0.02 in the comments. I’d be interested to know if readers have any thoughts on how I specifically (and blogs more generally) could expand the reach of my (our) writing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism

Comments (23)

  1. What’s worse than shouting in an echo chamber? Being the echo! When I started out one of my guiding principles was to avoid writing about anything that a more competent writer had already covered for the same audience. I was always asking myself what value I was adding to the overall blog economy with each post. In honesty, it was a completely rubbish policy for earning any traffic, but at least I wasn’t an echo. :-)

  2. Ed says: “Remember what a “general” audience looks like.”

    I’m very glad you bring up the question of what ‘general’ means. The ongoing discussion of advice, tips, lists, dos, don’ts, etc. for science writers aiming for large audience need this context.

    Are we framing this too simply into just two audiences — specific and general? A blogger stepping out of their sub-specialty to write for a larger audience (but still within a broader field of study) would probably still be considered not general enough for a ‘general’ audience. It’s all relative. I don’t see a distinct line between specific and general audiences.

  3. Jill

    @Frank:

    Don’t underestimate the value of repeating content. I’ve dropped blogs because I disliked the author’s tone or style, even if they covered stuff “first” or “best”, and picked up a different blog that covered much of the same information in a way that suited me better (or at least didn’t irritate me). Echoes have value, too.

  4. @Jill:
    Fair point, which is what I was hinting at with the “same audience caveat”. I guess sometimes you have to have faith in what you do being value added!

  5. Great post, Ed. The hardest part for me is taking the time to make it good. I could probably write up a description of a science paper in under an hour, but trying to make it engaging tacks on at minimum 2 hours of dedicated work. And I usually don’t want to post crap, which means when I get busy with lab, I have long cycles of not writing.

    And getting off the habit of writing makes it take longer the next time I want to write.

    Damn positive feed-back loops.

  6. @ Frank – I agree and disagree. I will leave certain topics on the grounds that I know other writers will cover them better (“Do what you do best and link to the rest etc.”). But I also feel sad when people tell me that they’re not going to cover something I’ve already done because I covered it. People can add extra value in all sorts of unexpected ways. But then again, I don’t have to tell you this because we both read Bec Crew ;-)

    @Brian Romans – Probably best to think of it as a spectrum of specificity. I would add though that most people think they’re closer to the general end of the spectrum than they really are.

    @Kevin – I hear you. Gets easier and quicker with practice though.

  7. Honestly, Ed. I think all these people making the echo chamber argument are just listening to themselves. :-)

    More seriously, when I try to listen closely to this complaint, very often what I hear is an implicit or sometimes openly stated contrast with a situation further back in media time where a few very large news sources were common to all. But that situation was itself an artifact of a limited media universe, not the result of people saying, “Today, I think I will listen to people whose views and interests diverge from mine.” So this leads to my question: what is the difference, and is there really a difference, between echo chamber criticism and the rise of niche publishing, or to put it another way the unbundling of big media?

  8. @Ed — that could be an interesting experiment … survey science writers/bloggers about how they perceive their own writing, might reveal this continuum.

    Also, “spectrum of specificity”? You shouldn’t use so much jargon, ha! Zing!

  9. I’ll just make a side comment, since I think any echo-chamber effect will naturally fade over time: there is a generational divide between a lot of a very good, serious, but older scientists/writers and ‘science bloggers;’ the former finding it difficult to take seriously the newfangled communication format of the latter. As that older generation gradually passes on, and is replaced by scientists who’ve grown up reading/writing blogs themselves, blogs will inevitably become a more central part of science communication for all interested parties (in fact, it will happen sooner than that, while some are still kicking & screaming against it ;-) )

  10. @ Jay – Great point. I think there probably isn’t very much difference there, and a lot of the debate depends on how tragically you view the “unbundling of big media”. There’s a romantic notion that people would flip through the paper and read all sorts of topics (versus just skipping the niche ones anyway) and I’m not sure how much that’s actually true. And even if it was, I wonder if the net result is really a loss – in the style of Nicholas Nassem Taleb, I think my life is enriched by avoiding a lot of existing newspaper coverage. We can get a rounded (and probably more accurate) view of the world through other means. The challenge for us science-bloggers is to ensure that science is still part of that picture.

  11. Interesting piece Ed. What bothers me often is that blog articles are often not accessible to the people written about in the post. I’ve been asked a few times to provide versions of my posts in other languages. I am often writing about a country or its people in a language (English) that the subjects of the piece don’t understand. With a magazine/newspaper, this wouldn’t be a problem because the media isn’t usually available anyway in other countries, but the internet is far more accessible and it would be great if it could be understood by those with an interest from developing world nations. A couple of times, where there’s been demand, I have worked with a native speaker to put up a Spanish version of a post, but it’s frustratingly not possible for me to do for many.

  12. Ed–thanks for this thoughtful post. Your thoughts over the past day have made me a lot more optimistic about this whole issue than I was originally. And even though I was the one who raised the question in the first place, I admit that something about its formulation still bothers me a bit. Talking only to ourselves is one risk, but at the other end of the spectrum is falling into the trap of considering ourselves to be the benevolent educators of an “unenlightened” populace. Mostly, I think we do a pretty good job of hitting a happy medium, but it’s a tricky balance to strike. I think–as some have pointed out in comments on my post–that the best strategy is just to write about whatever we find intriguing, interesting, and important and welcome any readers who want to come along for the ride.

  13. Great post, Ed. I think that Jay Rosen brings up a very interesting point, that MOST sites these days cater to a very specific set of readers, and that the current state of the internet may reflect an increase in niche publishing. Most people prefer to read people who think like they do, and the internet allows for a large amount of that. I think that if this is the case, the cross-pollination to other “niche” sites like 3 Quarks Daily (or in my case, to sites like Jezebel…some day!!!) may be the best way to build up an audience over time that is less like an echo chamber. But obviously, once you get there, you need to make sure you have the appeal to make the readers keep clicking.

  14. Steve Pratt

    Very considered, thought-provoking piece, thanks Ed. Almost one year after your inspiring visit down under I’m becoming more engaged in this thing they call the internet.

    Is it the case that credibility is gained within the echo chamber and popularity outside? I’m sure we can all think of popular “science” sites (or magazines) that are not credible, and contain very little real science. This is consistent with the continuum theory. I’m sure that most bloggers would rather be at the “popular” end than the “niche” end. Similarly, majority would start at the niche end and increase in popularity. Long this progression, the echo chamber, as you suggest, increases from friends and colleagues (niche), to a wider “interested” audience and then, fingers crossed, to the broader population.

    Throughout university I was taught – perhaps implicitly – to fear the “media”. Every story was pulled apart to find the smallest error, which we all poo-poo’d. Later in life I’ve learned to forgive journalists for minor technical errors if the main message is correct, or there’s a chance it will get the public talking science. The beauty, of course, of blogs is the chance for: (a) the errors to be amended, or (b) the conversation to happen in the comments section for the world to see.

    Most of us, I’m sure, fear being smacked down in public (thank goodness I wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe…). Putting your thoughts in writing requires not just the ability and desire to write (well, if you are fortunate), but the confidence and knowledge to defend those ideas. This is no different from giving a conference presentation or submitting a grant application, journal manuscript or higher degree. Credibility is gained – by peer review, in the broader sense – inside the echo chamber. It is then that we are confident to link to each other’s work and send links to friends and colleague, from which popularity is gained.

    [On re-read, this applies more to scientists who move into blogging/journalism. Although the exception, there are good science journalists who move the other way. They are - I suspect - subject to the same (or greater) scrutiny by those residing within the glass house, I mean echo chamber.]

    Finally, I often think of the quote from Richard Feynman, “If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it” to inspire plain-English writing.

  15. Carlos

    Science, are there any studies out there about how to measure the influence of the blogs in the general public? If so, does data has been gathered? My other -unrelated- question is why I do not see your updates on Facebook, but that’s something Mr. Facebook will have to answer himself =)

  16. I run a science blog in spanish from 3-4 years ago and what I have seen is that most part of the comments are from people already interested in science but the visits are not as “polarized” as the comments.

    I have noticed that my visits (appart from those who came through common ways such as google or rss feeds) came through social media most times. If someone shares your post in a social network then the information gets spread and often you can have the attention of people who normally is not interested in what you write.

    Even if from time to time you write a less technical article with a lower profile and focusing your attention in those people who has curiosity rather than knowledge you can gain new readers.

    General public is not interested in science I think because they see Internet as an amusement tool rather than a excellent way to improve our knowledge and also to share it.

  17. @ Gaia – Great point. Incidentally, I know that some of my posts are frequently translated into Romanian and Polish, and there’s a guy who converts Ben Goldacre into Estonian. I’m sure you could find a willing reader who’d be happy to provide some translations?

    @Emily – Yeah, I’d agree with that, and it’s probably the most important thing I missed out. One of the unique aspects of blogging is that you have a bunch of people writing about what they love most, rather than what they are paid to write about. And I think in many (but not all) cases, that comes across in the writing. It’s another step towards hooking in passing readers.

    @Steve – “Credibility is gained within the echo chamber and popularity outside.” I loved this. It ties in with what Chris Rowan said on Twitter last night – echo chamber is just a negative way of saying community. Working within it helps to build up kudos that will enable you to go beyond it.

    @Carlos – I’m sure there are, but not any good or useful ones to my knowledge. People like Alice Bell would know better. I have no idea why you can’t see my Facebook updates – try signing up to the Not Exactly Rocket Science fan page.

  18. I can speak only personally to this. I’m not a scientist. I’m a novelist. Mostly the people who read my blogs are artsy folks who like words and stories. A lot of my FB friends are the same. But I love science blogs because they teach and inform me. They are also enlivening. Newspapers (no fault there, it’s the nature of the market) make their money invoking fear or in sensationalism (as scientists know all too well). I seldom pass along a news headline. But I pass along science stories regularly to my crowd of artsy wordy types. You aren’t just preaching to the choir.

  19. Matt

    The answer for Steve’s question – Is it the case that credibility is gained within the echo chamber and popularity outside? – is a resounding yes for me. A lot of my writing is done magazines and websites that cover more than science or are only vaguely science-related. Sometimes I just happen to the odd science story for a place that doesn’t cover the topic 99% of the time. I look at this as, yes, gaining popularity. It gets my name out there and, more nobly, puts at least some science out there for people who might not read about it otherwise. My blog is definitely aimed at other sci writers, editors, scientists and science enthusiasts, both in the way its written and the way I promote it, with the goal of establishing credibility within the community. Showing them I’m not just another hack journalist writing from press releases. It’s where I tackle niche topics and more difficult or dryer subjects and go into more detail and greater length in ways that I wouldn’t for a more general audience.

  20. Lilu

    “The central question is this: do science bloggers solely speak to each other and those with a pre-existing interest in science, or are we capable of reaching a broader selection of readers?”

    This sounds as if only speaking to those with a pre-existing interest in science is a bad thing. The way I look at it, if people read a few stories that are interesting and relevant to them, they may well become people “with a pre-existing interest in science”. For instance, in high school, science held zero interest for me (and there were literally a couple of popular science books available in my language) until, accidentally, I discovered the exciting world of Hawking (after muddling through loads of pseudoscience); after that I eventually wound up with Randi and finally arrived at the idea of science being a method for discovering the truth, rather than simply a sum of facts. I’m living proof that an interest in a few stories – or a few books – can lead to an interest in science in general.

    Basically, I’m trying to say that a few well-written posts can instil an interest in science, which is the best possible outcome. These people ARE the broader selection of readers; they just get rebranded as having a pre-existing interest after reading about it for a while.

  21. Ed – really loved the tangibility of this piece. one suggestion is that we could look at conference programs – who is speaking and what issues are being addressed – as a place where some inroads could be made. I’ve been chewing on this issue (how to ensure people with non-science inclinations actually have access to dynamic experiences with science and scientists) for about a decade via Project Exploration and one thing that really makes a difference is letting “non-science” audiences tap into the personalized passion and curiosity of scientists. curiosity alone can help level the playing field – if we can get everyone on to the field that is,

  22. Ed- Having the “echo chamber” debate with some colleagues recently kept me very interested in this piece, the comments especially. Loved that tweet you referred to about echo chamber just being a negative term for community.

    Like you I really got @Steve’s comments about “popularity and credibility.” Very spot on.

    @Jay’s comments about niche publishing, I’ve made about niche consuming: only so much time to go around, so we’re beyond push and broadcast and to audiences selectively doing their own programming via their own specific needs and interests. So if we isolate ourselves in our own walls, we’re to blame. When they catch my eye – trick- I try to read things outside my field, expand my horizons. You hooked me in with your “sex sells” story and made it applicable to my interests.

    @Emily balance in all things, educating, writing (for ourselves, the readers we have and those we want, for love of the content, the conversation, etc.), wine. And that’s always the trick.

    Coming at it not from science – hat tip to @Lilu for the point that something can easily spark interest in science where not previously existed – but from that social media (PR, marketing) side. So much of this is the same: thinking about the audience, who is there, who you want to be there, how to keep them around, how to expand beyond and of course, write to be understood w/out jargon or hype, how to just get better. All of these are universal blogging truths, and part of this social experiment we’ve got going on: how to educate, entertain, connect. FWIW.

  23. Re

    Boing Boing, reddit, and Digg are all historically geek-oriented sites, which means there is a pre-existing science (and technology) interest. Digg and reddit started out like crowdsourced versions of Slashdot (an older science and technology site).

    Places like reddit and Digg are places where it’s common for commenters to use “evolutionary psychology” to claim something sexist about the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, so the fact that your duck sex post was popular on these sites really doesn’t mean you introduced science interest to people who were initially uninterested in science.

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