In which the underwear-gnome business model pays off

By Ed Yong | February 12, 2011 10:00 am

Last week, I decided to play with an online tool called Dipity, which allows you to create nifty interactive timelines. I was looking for a way of bolstering my coverage of a new paper about reprogrammed stem cells, and I thought that a timeline would help to show how fast-paced and exciting this field of research is.

Like a lot of things I do on the Internet (including this blog), it was a random punt in the dark – a way of having a go at something fun and seeing what would happen.

Here’s what happened.

The timeline was picked up by the Guardian and Boing Boing (after I offered it to them) and by Nature Medicine and Science (of their own volition). John Rennie wrote not one but two touching posts using such phrases as “the future of science news”. Then Paul Raeburn picked up on the timeline for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Matthew Battles picked it up for the Nieman Journalism Lab (“a node on a promising timeline”) and Dylan DePice covered it in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Let me put this into context (apparently, that’s what I do now!). Firstly, John’s opinions at ScienceOnline 2011 were part of the inspiration behind the timeline idea. Secondly, the trinity of journalism commentary sites that I mentioned are among the ones that I read regularly and whose coverage I respect. Being mentioned by all three in the same week is the science writer equivalent of being dealt a royal flush.

Meanwhile, hats off to the good folks at Dipity for creating a fab tool. They graciously stuck the timeline up on their front page, and the extra attention apparently significantly slowed down their site for a bit! Oh, andI’ve now got a free Pro account so I can do as many of these as I like.

For more discussion about the timeline and science journalism in general, have a look at the great comment threads in John’s posts. In the first one, several people mentioned the niggling question of money. The timeline is all well and good, but who would actually pay journalists to do such a thing (especially since by my own confession, it took seven hours of my time)? Well, as of Tuesday, I was delighted to finally be in a position to answer that:

In response to the many comments here about whether anyone will pay for innovative journalism, I can confirm that at least one organisation has offered to pay me as a freelancer for creating these timelines. Obviously, I can’t give any details yet as they’re being ironed out but I’m optimistic about it. And I got permission to mention this much, so that I could make a bigger point – the odds that someone will pay for something are substantially higher if that thing actually exists.

Or to put it another way, the odds of something cool happening in Step 3 of the underwear-gnome business plan may be remote but they’re zero if Step 1 never happens. Virtually everything I’ve done on the Internet has involved some sort of blind “let’s-see-if-this-works” punt, and then trying to capitalise on any ensuing opportunities.

Or to put it yet another way, quoting John Pavlus, everything is generative.


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