I wonder if Thoreau would have blogged if he had the worldwide web at his fingertips and wireless access at his cabin on Walden Pond? Maybe in simplifying his life, we would have ditched all things electric or wireless and left his laptop and ipad at home with his mom (and his laundry). I recently read an article about a professor who gave an extra credit assignment to his English class to simplify, simplify, simplify by leaving their electronic devices with him for the weekend and then writing about the unconnected experience over their unplugged weekend—on paper, presumably. (I learned about this from a posting of a friend on facebook, so I was glad I had plugged in.) I suspect Thoreau would have had a blog; he would have been unable to control himself. But, I wonder if anyone would have read his blog, which would have probably been called something dull like Walden or Beans. I mean, really, who reads blogs anyway? There must be millions of people blogging, but I bet most of those go unread. I know my cousin blogs about her life, which even her own family has very little interest in reading. (I looked at it once to confirm that the electronic age allows for a new level of narcissism.) Would we have missed out on Walden, or would the Walden blog have been later published as a book after some insightful reader with connections noticed the literary value in this particular random blog amid all the others?
For our seminar this week, the discussion hosts picked six very different blogs that are in different blogospheres, which I assume means something like “blogging outlets” but I’m not above using words that I do not understand the full meaning of (which appears suitable for the blogging genre). It forced me to think about what I would read, what I think the public would read, and whether or not my lab needed a lab blog. One blog at the New York Times, Scientist at Work: Notes from the Field (http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/), had a great potential to engage the public. Obviously, the New York Times is an eminent place to have your blog shared—you’re almost guaranteed a readership. This recent blogs included scientists working in Ecuador following spider monkeys, someone studying urban weasels, and someone working in Antarctica in the last several entries. So, these subjects would be intriguing to a lot of people from diverse backgrounds whether scientific or nonscientific. I also really like the idea of the public getting a glimpse into what field ecologists do on a daily basis. Until someone decides to make a television drama about field biologists, this may be the next best thing. (However, television would bring more people to the field I suspect. My hypothesis is that television is the root cause of the plethora of lawyers and doctors.) I have read this blog in the past and keep an eye open for it on the New York Times webpage. This blog also had a unifying theme: scientists doing field research. So, even though there were multiple contributors, which could have created blogging dissonance, the blog as a whole seems to work. There is some predictability and expectation of what you’re going to get in this blog, which makes me more likely to read it again.
In contrast, Science Friday also has a blog (http://www.sciencefriday.com/blog/), a radio program that I enjoy regularly; I had higher hopes for this blog, but it doesn’t seem like it works effectively. In recent blogs they had a few topics I was interested (green vehicles) and then other topics I really wasn’t interested in and that didn’t really share much useful information. There were multiple contributors to this blog with a theme that was too broad, “science,” so it didn’t appear cohesive or predictable.
A blog that did seem semi-effective was one unified around parasites (http://dailyparasite.blogspot.com/). Every day there was a short snippet of info about different parasites. This blog was by a university professor and he included contributions from other people. This was cool, because it’s clearly an interest and it’s something he is doing to educate the public. The downside is that it may be the odd duck who wants to learn about a parasite each day or even once per week. I liked the theme, but I wasn’t sure if it would have much of an impact.
So, if you’re going to be a blogger, it would be nice to have a unifying theme that has broad interest. There are things that I regularly read on the internet, but a lot of them are related to my job. I enjoy Female Science Professor who writes about life in academics and she’s funny (http://science-professor.blogspot.com/); I learned about this blog from another female science professor, so that may be this blog’s niche. I also love Ms. Mentor on the Chronicle of Higher Education—she would surely not blog from her ivory tower, but she gives good advice in articles periodically. So, practical blogging also seems nice, for those with a weakness for self-help.
A better gauge for what sort of things the public looks for in science blogs/articles might be best discovered by reading outside of our own field. So, in that realm for me, there might be politics. I do not read political blogs of which there must be many, but I do often read David Brooks commentary on politics because he seems like a sensible conservative, so I like to see what he has to say. He has authority, he’s smart and logical, and often has a little humor. And because I’m not conservative, I feel like it helps me understand where the more conservative people are coming from. His opinion pieces and articles are frequently online at the New York Times. I like to be able to trust my blogger!
The tree that will stand out in the forest (for me) will be one that has useful information that I can apply to my life, is innately interesting, is written by someone who is knowledgeable and reasonable, and has some sort of focus. Those are the blogs I may read if I come across them.
But, the act of blogging in itself—even if never read by another of the 2 billion Earthlings with internet service—may still be valuable to help us individually coalesce our ideas. In a world of constant texting, emailing, and general information overload, any time we sit down to think and to expand our thoughts and ideas is valuable. So, maybe cousin Emily’s blog is at least good for her if it helps her evaluate her life with some thoughtful perspective and reflection—even if her family isn’t enthralled with the minutiae of her life (given we are dealing with the flotsam of our own), it may not matter. However, I think in our seminar, we’re trying to do something more and reach a larger audience than the self. We’re trying not to say what anyone can say, but to say something that others are unable to say (Anaïs Nin)—a quote that a nice Google search turned up—in an interesting, informative way. Good grief.