A letter to a non-prominent science blogger

By Razib Khan | November 6, 2011 9:37 pm

A peculiar piece, What Is The Place Of New Science Bloggers In Today’s Science Blogosphere? You can see responses in the comments, as well as Ed Yong at G+. My own perspective is colored by the fact that I’ve been blogging since April of 2002. In other words, this April I’ll probably be blogging for 10 years. A few months ago I mentioned to Randal Parker of FuturePundit, who started blogging in the summer of 2002, that I frankly would have been totally surprised if you’d told me back then that I’d still be “in the game” in 2011. It seemed like a passing hobby (in fact, of the five people who started at “Gene Expression” in June of 2002 three of the four others continue to have a blog or media profile).


As for how to be successful, there are both deterministic and stochastic forces at work. I was among the original batch of bloggers at ScienceBlogs, and I saw people come and go. It was kind of obvious, and didn’t take much rocket science, to figure out who would succeed and who probably wouldn’t, pretty quickly. Ed Yong was going to succeed. Everyone could figure that out. On the other hand, you still have to be at the right place and right time. There are bloggers I’ve seen who are independent who sometimes generate an Ed-like quality and quantity for a bit, but they seem to run out of steam. It could be that there was only so much steam there in the first place, but perhaps chance did not favor them and they did not receive the positive feedback through accolades that might have impelled them to further productivity? That’s just life.

I’ve also been around long enough to have seen a dozen iterations of “is science blogging not open to newcomers?” Unlike most science bloggers I don’t really care about issues of there not being enough women in science blogging, or colored people, or poor people, or whatever.  As long as the content is interesting to me the personal details don’t bother me much. This is evident in the fact that my RSS is dominated by people whose politics (Left-liberal) I don’t share. Politics aside, they produce interesting content, that’s the overwhelming determinant in my decisions.

But the main reason I am prompted to post is this: if you want to be a science blogger, and not just a writer, DON’T MAKE LEAVING COMMENTS HARD! I was going to leave a comment over there, but I ran into forced registration, and was totally turned off. If you want to be a writer only obviously this might be optimal. You want to filter the responses and are focused on a forum to project your own voice. But blogging is to a great, though not exclusive, extent defined by audience participation. Take a look at how few comments are trickling in at Scientific American Blogs. Now most of these people have a “name” and a following (well, I’m subscribed to a considerable number!), so lack of easy commenting isn’t a deal breaker. But if you’re new and want to get noticed you should probably be a bit more welcoming of feedback.

So here’s my main advice. Yes, you could be Ed Yong, and produce enormous quality and quantity for years on end. You might have it in you. But there’s another way: become part of the conversation! You don’t have to be just another voice, or be on the “same page” as all your fellow bloggers (I’m definitely not). Just never shut up, and be interesting, and good things will come….

Note: In regards to comments, I moderate/approve them here, but I don’t force registration. There’s a difference, in that I curate the comments to be a little less stupid than average, but try and encourage the impulse to offer opinions. Many of my readers are busy, and I don’t want to force them to register. In fact, it’s often the ones who have the marginal time to register everywhere who are problematic. I think using twitter/Facebook logins as registration are acceptable too. If you don’t want to be “public” that’s fine, but it’s not a right.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and i remember when john hawks came onto the scene…it was pretty obvious he was going to make it “big time.”

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    “big time.”

    And now you’ve gone and put Peter Gabriel in my head, just to prove that I’m some kind of old-timer.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    I’m sympathetic to your registration dislike, but I can understand the issue. Not everybody has the time (or patience) to moderate comments and requiring registration is a simple way to discourage people who figure out upon the slightest hurdle that after all it wasn’t so important what they had to say. That having been said, the reason why I dislike these registration things is that I have like tenthousand or so ‘usernames’ and passwords for websites that I can’t recall and it’s all just creating entropy. I am a big fan of openID, and yes, twitter/FB works for me as well.

  • Sandgroper

    I think you should get a medal.

    Yes, the forced registration just kills it for me.

  • http://econstudentlog.wordpress.com US

    What Sandgroper said.

    Also, when I participate in debates online it’s often a learning experience for me – you learn a lot from fleshing out your ideas and writing them down, and have other people evaluate and criticise them afterwards. Do I really mean this and is that the best way to put it/think about it? Does the data support this interpretation – I’d better have a look… And you end up with a comment that might look very different from what you thought you’d end up with. Or, if it’s a good blog with a lot of smart commenters, perhaps you end up with a sixth comment that looks very different from the first one you posted. You got smarter, and perhaps so did a few others.

    This incremental approach – commenting and discussion as a learning experience – is part of why I really dislike Bee’s: “requiring registration is a simple way to discourage people who figure out upon the slightest hurdle that after all it wasn’t so important what they had to say” way of thinking about that issue. People who don’t comment at places like those might have had a lot to say, if they ever were to actually join the conversation that takes place at that specific blog or site – but they never do.

  • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com Tim Martin

    Thank you for calling out the SA blogs! It was bad enough that I had to register to post, but even worse when the bloggers themselves never respond to a single comment! There’s no conversation at SA that I’ve seen (in my limited experience) – just articles and a monologue of comments after them.

  • Charles Nydorf

    I’m totally too lazy to register and I have never been into pseudonyms.

  • Darkseid

    yeah, the easy comment system with no login is the only reason i comment here (not that i’m worth much.) there are so many blogs that require your LiveID or whatever else and it makes me wonder if they get tired of the same 3 or 4 people commenting as many of these blogs don’t have a lot of followers. on the other hand, it probably does eliminate a lot of trolling

  • Martin M.

    “three of the four others continue to have a blog or media profile”

    I’m torn between wishing the heathen imperialist would do an occasional guest post and thinking its best to leave that tomb undisturbed.

    Thanks for always being interesting.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, well, sometimes bloggers are too busy to respond to comments ;-) i think it’s enough they make it easy for you to comment.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    What are women supposed to do?
    Open comments, and get cyber stalked?
    Even if they moderate they still have to read the abuse to delete it.
    No wonder they are under-represented.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #11, cyber stalking probably has less to do with comments. you’re talking about harassment.

  • jb

    From the number of comments you publish it doesn’t look like moderating would be all that time consuming. But maybe you have to filter out a huge amount of garbage (including robospam). Could you give us some idea what percentage of comments don’t make the cut, and of those, how many are borderline, and therefore require some thought on your part? Also, do you have any idea whether your noise/signal ratio is similar to that of other successful science bloggers?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #13, ~15% aren’t published. but this is probably a floor. if someone of the people were not immediately banned it would be way higher than 15%. also, moderation-with-prior-approval means it’s not much of a time sink.

  • http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/cognoculture A non-prominent science blogger

    As a writer on the network you kindly screen shot (I trust it wasn’t my blog?!), I must say I’m neutral as to what policy should be for commenting. I’ve yet to put enough thought into the matter, and I trust the people at Scitable have put much thought into it, and have found that I very much enjoy the platform they’ve provided me with.

    What I will say is that the deliberate absence of comments provides little incentive for regular blogging (perhaps influencing the calendar distance between some of my posts). It is difficult to motivate yourself to compose an original, long-form piece in the virtually foretold absence of any feedback or discussion, for feedback and discussion is precisely the point of blogging.

    Passion, imagination and skill motivate good writing, but community motivates good blogging. It is when a writer has found readers and that he/she recognizes (and therefore will feel some indirect duty to serve with good content) that they gain the Ed Yong-like energy. Undermining a bloggers’ ability to find community undermines their ability to blog well.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #15, agree with a lot of it. two caveats

    1) quality of comments matters. if they’re obnoxious, they have a negative effect on motivation.

    2) you need to norm the number of comments to the type of post. people won’t comment on hard things sometimes, but they will retweet them.

    back in the early days of the blogsophere i remember that one problem with group blogs is that writers would admit that sometimes they got competitive about who got the most comments. it’s a form of validation.

  • Sandgroper

    #11 – I was looking at Kate Clancy’s blog, which obviously requires registration. In her case I think that’s entirely understandable. For a lot of her items she seems to get very few comments, often from other bloggers. It seems to result in quality rather than quantity to a rather extreme degree, and this gives her the opportunity in responding to expand on the topic. I infer that’s what she wants, and she doesn’t care that she doesn’t get big numbers of commenters. I do think in her case it results in enhancement of total content – I’d sooner read her than someone who gets thousands of “we hate creationists too” type comments.

    Then there’s John Hawks who doesn’t have comments at all – doesn’t stop me reading him, I hang on every new item. There have been a few occasions when I would have loved to ask him a question, but it hasn’t killed me that I couldn’t. And Razib, who I think is on the liberal (!) side of what he tolerates, but is willing to come down hard now and again.

    So having said that registration kills it for me, I have to be honest and say that I think these are three different ways of maintaining quality rather than just shooting for big numbers, and if I really cared enough about a blog to want to comment in substance there, I would take the trouble to register, e.g. if Kate wrote enough about stuff of direct relevance to me personally to want to say something or ask about something, I would register.

  • http://glendonmellow.blogspot.com Glendon Mellow

    I have a blog on Scientific American, as well as one of my own. I prefer open comments as much as possible. I have found it interesting, after blogging half-the-time you have been, Razib, that many comments are now happening elsewhere.

    Whether a SciAm post or a personal post, I often receive more feedback on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (especially G+, OMG conversation there is so good). It’s a strange phenomena, but I’m glad for the conversation wherever it takes place.

  • Anonymous

    “I think using twitter/Facebook logins as registration are acceptable too. If you don’t want to be “public” that’s fine, but it’s not a right.”

    It eliminates 1 billion Chinese people from the conversation. Not so cool.

  • http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/crude-matter/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Our Chinese comrades still have the option of traditional registration.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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