On The One Year Anniversary Of Blogging At FreeThought Blogs

This milestone nearly went unnoticed, for a few reasons.

Firstly, I spent yesterday researching and interviewing for a little podcast episode on the recent GM corn tumor rats controversy – which has been commonly known as The Seralini Affair (or Seralini Tumor-Gate).

I’ve still to finish off the final edit of that show, because I’ve been busy tackling essays and submitting items to the Open Laboratory, which just closed today. There’s a few blogposts that I thought deserved a nod and I hurried to get the Digital Cuttlefish’s poems in for the finals (I think there should be entries encompassing both science and art in an anthology, so I made sure they got sent in).

Then I got distracted this morning by the great news that Pemberton Films has won an Emmy in the Outstanding Science and Technology Programming category!

Immortal, which followed the work of Nobel Prize-winning Australian scientist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn was retitled as Decoding Immortality for the Smithsonian Channel in the US.

I snapped up an opportunity to interview Sonja Pemberton for episode #111 of the Token Skeptic earlier in the year, while attending the Australian Science Communicators 2012 conference in Sydney, which is documented in my blogpost “What’s New In Science Television“.

…so, I’ve been distracted. And busy.

Some thoughts about blogging here since my first post a year ago: it’s had its ups and downs and it’s certainly been a rather interesting time.

One discussion I had on Facebook (and yes, I asked permission to quote the person involved – I really don’t think much of talking about big matters that are better dealt privately rather than splashing them over a blogpost, it smacks of blindsiding) – was about “why join a blog network in the first place”.

To quote Alan:

I still don’t understand it. Why do successful blogs and podcasts choose to become part of “collectives”? Isn’t it obvious that these friendly collectives will inevitably become the gate-keeping distribution companies of tomorrow the moment they grow strong enough? I thought the reason we made the Internet was to avoid this exact thing.

I think I initially misunderstood Alan’s query and got a little defensive (which is understandable, there’s a lot of tension online recently and it’s difficult to take a step back) – but in short, I thought that there’s a number of advantages to joining a blog network.

Firstly, look at Skeptic Blog. Daniel Loxton has just written a great post, following up from Dr Steven Novella’s post on the use of language:

Steven Novella’s post last week on the complex topic of the ethics of speech was inspired by consideration of the ethics of “colloquial use of the term ‘crazy.’” This is an area of interest to me. I have often argued both for professional restraint in the things skeptics say and the manner in which we say them; and, for the importance of ongoing conversation on the ethics and efficacy of skeptical practice. But Novella’s post also had excellent timing, as I was already planning on touching on some of the thorny ethics at the intersection between skepticism and mental illness.

Both Dr Novella and Daniel are fine writers; they join other writers that I enjoy reading like Donald Prothero and Michael Shermer – and I was honestly dismayed to read of other bloggers leaving that particular site a few years back, rather than continuing to contribute. I thought that the site was a great way for people who are influential and interesting writers to showcase their work in association with an established name like Skeptic.com.

I was pleased to notice, for example, that the former “skeptic blogs” changed their name to Skeptic Ink –  it was a mild issue I raised back when they launched with their earlier name and I think it’ll lead to much less confusion when it comes to branding.

So – there’s the matter of kudos by association. And that’s nothing new – I made a tremendous fuss when Bec Crew joined the prestigious Scientific American Blogs and enjoyed interviewing James Byrne for episode #93, who also writes for the same site.

A blog network is also nothing new: many people who read Freethought Blogs may also read Patheos, which now features some former writers from FTB. Dr Phil “Bad Astronomer” Plait writes for Discover Magazine Blogs, along with Cosmic Variance, The Loom and many others. Science Blogs still features PZ Myers and Respectful Insolence. ALL of them feature advertising in some form or another and they may include pop-up ads, subscriptions and so forth. Of course, Skeptic.com, Discover (and used to be Seed Magazine for Science Blogs, now National Geographic) are associated with mainstream media companies – magazines.

It was the writing of Respectful Insolence’s “Orac” that I first noticed and led me to read other writers on that site – which brings up another point in favour for writing for a blog network: people might read other contributors to the site because they like one writer and want to find more like them.

It helps the writers. It helps the creators of the network to get traffic and a variety of readers coming in and responding. It even helps with the promotion of an overall brand (particularly useful if you’re a site like SA, Discover, Skeptic, etc, who are additionally associated with traditional media).

I also responded to Alan’s question about “why join a blog network” with the following (I quote him at the start):

“Unlike getting a book published or a film distributed, the benefits offered by blog/podcast networks can totally be achieved by content creators themselves with just a bit of effort.”

Actually? Not in my experience.  I’ve been blogging consistently since 2007 and my old Podblack blog was rarely noticed (even after being included in the Open Lab Blog Anthology) – and it was certainly even rarer when it came to being promoted by ‘big names’ in the field. 
… It takes not just solid work but a heck of a lot of networking, schmoozing and often real-world interaction – and possibly even selecting carefully your allies so you always rise to the top when it comes to being promoted.
In joining a network, I now get regular pay, consistant traffic, a fairly faithful readership (who are appreciated) – and people who quid pro quo when it comes to promoting each other. If another network offered the same (and I have strongly urged people to create similar networks!) – I’d be supportive.

I never thought that Skeptic.com would ask me to join their network, nor Scientific American, or Discover, or what-have-you. I was asked to join FTB and I knew it would benefit my writing and my podcast to reach a broader audience; that I could aim to earn enough to support the podcast via my writing. I have seen how the content I created in just under a year has been recognised as valued by groups outside of the smaller audience I used to get and I do credit being part of a blog network as being instrumental in making that happen.

I should also point out that many other content creators that used to have independent sites (Dr Plait, Orac, etc), also appeared to be quite happy to leave their sites behind and join a network. I don’t know how many of them received the tiny amount of criticism that I have got from a minority of people, but then since (for example) Orac still writes on a site that features PZ Myers, despite the animosity some feel about his work; maybe some people can’t see how they contradict themselves when it comes to criticising in that regard.

And of course, people can leave for a new blogging network or leave to be independent – here’s video of a discussion about PepsiGate that was held at the Media140 conference in Brisbane (you’ll notice Bec Crew of Scientific American Blogs and Wilson DaSilva of Cosmos Magazine, who will be appearing again at ScienceRewired)

Media140 Brisbane 2011: Pepsigate – The Implosion of Science Blogs

So – no, I don’t think that there’s a real “gate-keeping distribution companies of tomorrow” that Alan claimed, which will be guaranteed to curtail content or even deter groups starting up networks of their own.

In fact, my discussions with scientists who have been working in the media (particularly Dr Paul Willis, Dr Will Grant and the previously mentioned Wilson DaSilva) in preparation for ScienceRewired? They have indicated to me that the independent nature of online media and their content producers in general are breaking down such stereotypes and it’s no longer about ‘gate-keepers’ at all.

My view?

Rather than thinking about traditional media as a tree and audiences as caterpillars feeding off that source…

…now think about an audience as a butterfly, who is able to investigate a forest of sites and news outlets instead.

As for people or institutions starting up their own blog networks like Freethought blogs? As I previously responded to Alan, I’m very, very surprised that people haven’t united together and started more of them, rather than just occasional informal posts contributed to an overall site that doesn’t run advertising or profit their contributors. I think the overall benefits in network blogging do outweigh the negatives.

But then, it’s been a year, and I’m still here. Let’s see what Year Two has in store for me.

New podcast episode out later tonight; please consider responding to the survey I have over on www.tokenskeptic.org.

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