Thematic focus and other considerations in science blogging

Protichnoctem (in both blogspot and current form) is supposed to be a science blog. It’s supposed to raise the big questions and answer the little ones. It’s supposed to bring people together to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s supposed to make other people as excited about research as I get when I read SV-POW!, The Open Source Paleontologist, and a host of others.

It’s obviously not doing these things very well. I’ve come up with some possible reasons why:

New posts don’t occur frequently enough.

Even though I added this to the list, I’m not sure it is as important as some of the other ideas. If a post is valid, the idea is that someone will find it eventually and it will get some views, especially if it contains some new ideas on an old subject. “New ideas” of course refers to originality of thought, not originality of opinion. Posting at the “just right” frequency would encourage people to come back once they know about the blog, however.

Posts are too short.

In many cases, I end up posting snippets of information. This is great for those things that make sense off the bat (if you’re searching for a particular code snippet, you don’t want to read a novel), but bad for involving readers. Ideally I would post original (not rehashed or updated) tutorials for the software or methodology I’m using. Off the top of my head this could include a better explanation of exactly how my M.S. thesis methods work, but with the advances in software like PAST (regarding EFA) in the last three years, it seems like redoing things for publication (as I am now) will be quicker and easier than ever.

In the end, though, I think it comes down to engagement. If the post is engaging enough, people who read it will hopefully comment and/or write their own posts in reply. In order to make things understandable to a wide audience as well as bring up original ideas, the posts need to be of a certain length. One tenet of science blogging not mentioned above is “if the public can’t understand it, it’s not worth writing.”

Posts are not interesting to anyone else.

I think this is a real problem in science blogging. Not for all science blogs, but for many people who are working in fields that are slightly to awesomely esoteric. To be clear: I’m not laying this on the subject matter. Invertebrate paleontology is interesting to many people, worldwide. Even molluscan paleontology is interesting to modern malacologists, and by extrapolation I assume that there are others (especially graduate students) who want to know more about fossil freshwater mussels. These people are the easy ones to reel in if you can have a) original posts that are b) understandable and c) engaging. No, the issue with science blogging is that scientists (in the United States, at least) always need a “hook” to get the people who are interested in science in general, and an especially large hook to get the people who don’t care about science at all.
But* do I talk about fossil freshwater mussels? Not really. And do I have hooks on my posts to grab non-scientists? Not really. So whose fault is that? My own.

Nobody knows about the blog.

This is one of the key things about blogging. If you build it, maybe one or two will come . . . eventually. If you aren’t periodically plugging your blog to your personal and professional contacts, the only way people are going to find it is through a search engine. To get a coveted blogroll position on certain influential blogs requires hard work and more than a single decent post to your name. To get retweeted takes a hook that’s less than 140 characters. To get RSS subscribers seems to take even more engaging posts. So how does one get out of this catch-22? Promote, promote, promote, but not before you have good content and a solid publishing schedule you intend to keep.

Posts are not aligned with a single theme.

This is the specific problem here at Protichnoctem. I’ve been blogging for a long, long time, but on a variety of different subjects. Put that all together in one place and you won’t have an audience because the content is aimed at yourself: only you (and maybe your best friend, or your spouse if you guilt him or her into reading) is going to want to read everything you post, because you are the only person in the world interested in that collection of things. If you are relatively prolific, you probably have material for several blogs. In my case, I have posts relating to my personal life, my hobbies, general photography or video projects I wanted to show off, code snippets, things I thought would be helpful to other people someday, and, oh yeah, a little bit of original science stuff. Don’t do this–I’m in the process of splitting it all up.

Your theme doesn’t have to be so specific that you should feel bad about putting in things that make sense. SV-POW!, for example, doesn’t necessarily show a sauropod vertebra every post, but all the posts relate to the academic research areas of the authors. I’ll even admit that I read the blog primarily for the non-sauropod posts but I get to learn more about dinosaurs (and how dinosaur paleontologists think) with every back-on-topic post they do. All I’m saying is that your themes should be amenable to each other. Sure, Andy Farke could have written a blog called “The Open Source Paleontologist Who Brews His Own Beer,” but that would have alienated half the audience** with every new post. The more themes you have, the more fragmentation of audience you’ll get, which translates into less frequent interesting updates for every individual reader.

A note on personal blogs: personal blogs are great, but I’m forced to give the disclaimer that if you want to use your blogging as an example of outreach, you want to feel confident about the link you’re sending to the hiring or scholarship committee. If you don’t feel right exposing a potential funding source to photos of your kids interspersed with pictures of fossils, maybe you should split your themes. That being said, it’s okay (and encouraged) to be yourself, because a blog is not a research paper.

These are the ideas I’ve come up with, and I’ll be implementing some changes once I find some additional blogging time. In summary, these are the points that I think make up the good, worthwhile science blog I hope this site can be someday.

  • Posts with original ideas
  • Posts that are understandable to the public
  • Posts that are engaging to the audience
  • Commitment by the author
  • Promotion until traffic goals are met
  • A single theme

*I’ve struggled with the question of using things like “But,” “And,” and “So” to begin a sentence for years now, but I see more and more “real” writers doing it, so I’m going to use it for emphasis. So there.
**Although there may not be paleontologists who don’t brew or drink beer, I’m pretty sure there are brewers who aren’t paleontologists.
This blog post took 1:20 to write and edit and post.