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The Nature of Science Blog Networks

25 July 2010 5 Comments
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I’ve been watching the reflection on the Science Blogs diaspora and the wider conversation on what next for the Science Blogosphere with some interest because I remain both hopeful and sceptical that someone somewhere is really going crack the problem of effectively using the social web for advancing science. I don’t really have anything to add to Bora’s masterful summary of the larger picture but I wanted to pick out something that was interesting to me and that I haven’t seen anyone else mention.

Much of the reflection has focussed around what ScienceBlogs, and indeed Nature Network is, or was, good for as a place to blog. Most have mentioned the importance of the platform in helping to get started and many have mentioned the crucial role that the linking from more prominent blogs played in getting them an audience. What I think no-one has noted is how much the world of online writing has changed since many of these people started blogging. There has been consolidation in the form of networks and the growth of the internet as a credible media platform with credible and well known writers. At the same time, the expectations of those writers, in terms of their ability to express themselves through multimedia, campaigns, widgets, and other services has outstripped the ability of those providing networks to keep up. I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the criticisms of ScienceBlogs seem to be similar to those of Nature Network when it comes to technical issues.

What strikes me is a distinct parallel between the networks and scientific journals (and indeed newspapers). One of the great attractions of the networks, even two or three years ago, was that the technical details of providing a good quality user experience were taken care of for you. The publication process was still technically a bit difficult for many people who just wanted to get on and write. Someone else was taking care of this for you. Equally the credibility provided by ScienceBlogs or the Nature name were and still are a big draw. The same way a journal provides credibility, the assumption that there is a process back there that is assuring quality in some way.

The world, and certainly the web, has moved on. The publication step is easy – as it is now much easier on the wider web. The key thing that remains is the link economy. Good writing on the web lives and dies by the links, the eyeballs that come to it, the expert attention that is brought there by trusted curators. Scientists still largely trust journals to apportion up their valuable attention, and people will still trust the front page of ScienceBlogs and others to deliver quality content. But what the web teaches us over and over again is that a single criterion for authority, to quality curation, to editing is not enough. In the same way that a journal’s impact factor cannot tell you anything about the quality of an individual paper, a blog collective or network doesn’t tell you anything much about an individual author, blog, or piece of writing.

The future of writing on the web will be more diverse, more federated, and more driven by trusted and selective editors and discoverers who will bring specific types of quality content into my attention stream. Those looking for “the next science blogging network” will be waiting a while because there won’t be one, at least not one that is successful. There will be consolidation, there will larger numbers of people writing for commercial media outlets, both old and new, but there won’t be a network because the network will the web. What there will be, somehow, sometime, and I hope soon will be a framework in which we can build social relationships that help us discover content of interest from any source, and that supports people to act as editors and curators to republish and aggregate that content in new and interesting ways. That won’t just change the way people blog about science, but will change the way people communicate, discover, critique, and actually do science.

Like Paulo Nuin said, the future of scientific blogging is what it has always been. It’s just writing. It’s always just been writing. That’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is that how we find what we want to read is changing radically…again. That’s where the next big thing is. If someone figures out please tell me. I promise I’ll link to you.

Title of this post is liberally borrowed from some of Richard Grant’s of which the most recent was the final push it took for me to actually write it.

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