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Letting The Inmates Run the Asylum: Are Blogging Networks Compatible with Publishing Business Plans?

Seed (magazine)
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Though the Pepsiblog scandal has cooled off, ScienceBlogs has remained in the media spotlight for the last few weeks. The meltdown of their network has led to a wide variety of observers weighing in on the value, or lack of value, of aggregating bloggers into big social networks. Most have asked what’s in it for the participating bloggers, but only a few have tried to view things from the host’s point of view. The social media dogma of the day has led many companies, particularly publishers, toward creating these overarching blogging networks with a vague promise that it will somehow lead to revenue. The ScienceBlogs fallout, however, points to a different reality — one in which monetizing blogging networks is not quite such an easy task.

In his long (and I mean l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng) farewell to ScienceBlogs, Bora Zivkovic, the network’s social hub, makes the following suggestion to his former Seed Media overlords:

What Seed Media Group should be doing, what every media group should be doing, is become a tech-oriented company. . . . Instead of trying to produce content in-house, which is expensive (all those salaries!), Seed should realize that they already have. . . . producers of content. . . . If Seed Media Group (SMG) has money for employing twenty people, fifteen of those should be tech folks, driving innovation, serving Scienceblogs.com, making it bigger, better, more powerful.

Everything at Seed should be set up to be in service of Scienceblogs: administrators, legal staff, editors, and most importantly a large, powerful, innovative technical staff. The experiment was run, the results are in, scienceblogs.com was shown to be a successful endeavor, and the rest of the experiments, magazine included, were failures and need to be thrown out and forgotten

Richard Gayle (not affiliated with ScienceBlogs) offered similar advice:

Apparently the managers of Seed did not really understand why it was that these people were even there. They needed to make some money and completely ticked off the community with their ham-handed process. They forgot who there real customers were.

Most media still think that servicing advertisers is the bedrock of their business. But, for businesses who require networks to survive, servicing the network is paramount. Without the bloggers, there is no Scienceblogs, no matter how much advertisers are feted.

Technology makes an ad-hoc community really easy to create. And it makes it really easy for the community to change its mind, for individuals to leave and aggregate at a new community if they are not happy.

Both accurately explain what happened to ScienceBlogs but neither makes an actual business case for how ScienceBlogs was supposed to be a profitable company by focusing solely on the needs of their network members.

I strongly disagree with Gayle — the bloggers were not the customers, the bloggers were the product. And while it’s important to keep your product in a healthy state, you still need some means of selling it, or at least using it to turn a profit. There’s still too much South Park in the business model:

  1. Devote massive resources to the bloggers
  2. ?
  3. Profit

Gayle’s follow-up post does a much better job thinking through the possibilities and potential alternate revenue streams for such a network. But as we eventually both conclude in the comments, most blogging networks are simply not profit-driving commercial products.

So why build a blogging network?

Seed Media’s approach, as far as I can tell from the outside, has been to aggregate content and use that to drive traffic to feed their fledgling advertising network. In the same vein, I’ve never been quite sure of the Nature Network’s goals, though one would assume they’re interested in promoting the brand, and further cementing NPG’s position as a center of the scientific communication. If that sounds vague to you, then welcome to the world of Web 2.0 business models. Richard Grant, a long-time member of the Nature Network, points out the obvious:

There is no real product, no added value for participants. Sure, you can meet people here, and make lasting friendships (I have done, and I’m very grateful for them). But once those people swap emails, Facebook contacts, Twitter nicks or whatever, then what is left to do here?

Many science bloggers are catching on to something Kent Anderson has been preaching for a while now — the big consolidated website is no longer necessary, and the Internet itself is the network.

Publishers that have built networks should consider reaching the same conclusion — building big networks is not only no longer necessary, it may actually endanger your brand and limit revenue.  ScienceBlogs network members put the kibosh on what was likely a fairly lucrative business opportunity. By putting your company’s stamp of approval on a network of bloggers who you can’t control and must at all times cater to, you risk tarnishing your reputation by association. Scientific American recently ran into a question of credibility along these lines.

Beyond the actual subject matter, communities tend to form personalities, and like it or not, that personality represents your brand. These personalities are hard to spot from the inside of a network. Social networks like these tend to be self-reinforcing, filled with back-patting and congratulations for brilliance being offered back and forth. I won’t name specific names, but read nearly any of the posts from departing ScienceBlogs bloggers and you’re pretty much guaranteed to run across some statement about how incredibly important their blogs have been and how hugely respected they are. The view from the outside is somewhat different, as evidenced from Virginia Heffernan’s recent New York Times article where she took her first spin through the ScienceBlogs network:

ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. . . . And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

The science blogosphere erupted in outrage (summarized well here), some rightly so, but much of it missed the point. Some were quick to dismiss Heffernan’s opinion because she isn’t a scientist. Attacking the messenger is a fairly common defensive tactic in the science blogging world, and it should be noted that The Scholarly Kitchen is often dismissed when we offer criticism of certain types of publishing models because we’re apparently a bunch of “English majors” and not qualified to discuss the publishing business, despite our combined decades of experience. Perhaps this argument might carry some weight here if ScienceBlogs were meant to be a restricted community, open only to active scientists, but when your mission statement is, “At a time when public interest in science is high but public understanding of science remains weak, we have set out to create innovative media ventures to improve science literacy and to advance global science culture,” then you’d damn well better consider the reactions of the non-science public that you’re trying to reach.

The criticisms that Heffernan missed much of the serious science commentary present on ScienceBlogs are accurate but beside the point. If you have to dig to find that material, and if the first impression the site gives is that it’s filled with a bunch of jerks, then the public is unlikely to do the necessary digging. The ScienceBlogs community was so repulsive to Heffernan that she inadvertently promoted an unscientific climate-change denialist blog in its stead.  The fact that ScienceBlogs is making the denialists seem reasonable and rational to the non-scientist reader should at least raise some red flags.

Furthermore, Heffernan’s impressions are similar to commentaries made by others outside of the ScienceBlogs network (but with both science and blogging backgrounds):

John Pavlus: I’ve watched some of their best writers slowly migrate away, their biggest name devolve into a one-note atheist crazy cat lady, and the remainder sort of just become a big echo chamber.

Psi Wavelength: . . . too many of the bloggers there have little to do with science, and post like 95% crap and politics (also mostly crap). There’s also a strong case of hivemind there, with a rather lopsided treatment of real controversies. An extreme example is the Pharyngula commentators, where any mild divergence from the accepted ideology results in a blinding firestorm. I don’t thing SB is any sort of ‘bastion of rational thinking’ that they like to portray. . . . SB has too many hotheaded narcissists who think they’re special snowflakes because they have blogs.

These group impressions aren’t limited to ScienceBlogs. The Nature Network is often ridiculed as well. In a rare feat of honest self-examination, Richard Grant notes that:

NN has a bit of a negative cachet in the rest of the blogome — where, actually, I’m more interested in being seen and accepted. It has a high barrier to casual commenting (the lifeblood of blogs!) — a stratospheric barrier to non-scientists. Furthermore, there are too many blogs hosted here.

All of which makes a strong case against running an open blogging network as part of your academic publication. It’s unlikely that Seed Media wants to be seen as the brand that stands for intolerance against religion, nor Nature the brand of poor quality and high quantity.

By all means, blog, and create your own networks for your editorial staff to blog — it’s a superb marketing tool. But perhaps it’s wiser to stick with participants whose interests match those of your company. Brands matter.  Ceding control of your brand to strangers is a dangerous path to take.

For the bloggers themselves, there seem to be a few ways forward, going completely independent, finding another network run by a publication to join, or starting new networks where the bloggers control their own fate and there are no conflicting interests. New science blogger-run networks like Field of Science and Scientopia are springing up.  The startup and maintenance costs are nearly nonexistent, so there’s little risk in the venture.  While these independent networks will hopefully offer some of the synergy and “psychological support” offered by commercially-backed networks, they’ll lack the marketing efforts and the strategic partnerships previously provided. This may be irrelevant, or at worst, a reasonable trade-off for the freedom offered.

And that may be the best solution here. Not everything on the Internet has to be a big moneymaker. Not every technology is worth the investment for a publisher. While it may be possible to build a community, controlling it and turning a profit from it is generally not in the best interest of that community. There’s an inherent conflict here that’s difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

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About David Crotty

I am a Senior Editor with Oxford University Press' journal publishing program. Prior to that I served as an Executive Editor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and was also the commissioning editor for their book publishing program. Many years ago, I was a research scientist, receiving my Ph.D. in Genetics & Development from Columbia University, and doing postdoctoral research in neural development at Caltech.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “Letting The Inmates Run the Asylum: Are Blogging Networks Compatible with Publishing Business Plans?

  1. Very lucid, David C. But Scholarly Kitchen itself suffers from some of the community driven warts that you describe. This includes repeatedly bashing your sponsors, scholarly publishers, as Luddites (which is very amusing but can’t be good for the brand). How does one justify SSP’s support?

    Perhaps the world just has to understand what a blogging community is, and what makes a good one, rather than wishing they were something else. An exercise in pure reason for example.

    Secondly, how about a business model that aggregates existing blogs, rather than building a community? This would be like a journal, with blogs instead of articles. One could even solicit submissions. It would give the publisher some content control.

    Yahoo! News is doing this a little, by including blog articles in their specialized news coverage. See for example:
    http://news.yahoo.com/topics/climate-change-and-global-warming (lower middle).

    Posted by David Wojick | Aug 9, 2010, 7:48 am
    • Just to pick up on this, what you describe as “warts” are actually virtues. The SSP is a community of individuals. This blog includes a former librarian, publishing consultants, working publishers, and scientists who have become publishers. What you call “bash” we call “inform” and “stimulate” and “challenge.” As for SSP’s support, the SSP is an organizations for people with a variety of opinions and perspectives on scholarly publishing, for professionals who thrive in the exchange of ideas, and for forward-thinking, informed leaders who bring some game themselves — which fits with the Scholarly Kitchen. Also, our blog has a ratio of comments:posts of better than 5:1, so we’re clearly more about community than broadcast. You yourself are often here on Monday mornings with us.

      Business models that aggregate blogs already exist in many areas. WordPress is one such case. Federated Media is another. The New York Times is another. So is NPR, the Wall Street Journal, etc. In fact, blogging is becoming the hidden engine of a whole bunch of online publications. I think Seed’s problem was more about editorial oversight and personalities. WordPress is careful to only surface posts that are quite well-vetted. Federated Media chooses its blogs carefully, as well. Same with the traditional brands with blogs. From what I can tell, Seed chose some bloggers with strong personalities, didn’t incentivize them sufficiently (paid them peanuts), and then looked like it wanted to make big bucks with Pepsi. It wasn’t a good mix.

      Content control is vital. Again, we’re back to the issue of “filter failure” in my mind.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Aug 9, 2010, 9:12 am
      • Indeed Kent, just as my wife’s informing me of my faults is a constant virtue of hers. That was my point, that most of what David C. seems to describe as faults are actually the virtues of blogs. They are, however, a medium of public controversy, with all the potential unpleasantness that entails.

        As for strong personalities, I haven’t noticed any shortage here at SK.

        Posted by David Wojick | Aug 9, 2010, 10:08 am
        • I think I’d only describe them as “faults” from the point of view of a company trying to carefully cultivate a brand. If you exercise no control over the passionate voices associated with your brand, then you’re essentially ceding control of your image to an open community of volunteers. Their priorities may not align with yours.

          Posted by David Crotty | Aug 9, 2010, 11:05 am
    • Personality and passion are necessary for writing a good blog. That’s the very nature of what a blog is, and you’re right that if you’re going to align one with your brand, it’s important to go into it with your eyes wide open, with a real understanding of what it is you’re doing.

      The Scholarly Kitchen certainly does have personalities and opinions. I’d argue that the diversity of our authors provides some balance. The particular points of view you note are likely from Kent, as he’s the dominant voice here, the most frequent writer. But we often disagree: Michael Clarke has written pieces on how prescient and ahead of the pack scholarly publishers are, and I’ve often noted that publishers fall in love with new technologies far too often, implementing them without real reason. But the SK is not done for profit, nor is it part of a publishing business. Our sponsor is the Society for Scholarly Publishing. Every author here is a member of the society, and we all have great respect for it, and the work that is done. Great care is taken in our posts to honor that brand, and we don’t post articles that would reflect poorly on the SSP (plus our blog is edited by Kent). Since the SSP is about education and improving the quality of scholarly publishing, criticism of current practices and suggestions for new ways to work seem fairly well in line with our sponsoring organization.

      ScienceBlogs did hand pick all of their bloggers, selectively inviting only established bloggers to join their network. But they exercise no editorial oversight on those bloggers (very few would likely join the network if they thought they were going to be controlled), hence their current state. But what you suggest isn’t that far off from what places like Discover Magazine and Wired are doing. They’ve hired away some of the better writers from ScienceBlogs, and essentially turned them into columnists.

      Posted by David Crotty | Aug 9, 2010, 11:03 am
  2. Food for thought, thanks David. I did enjoy Heffernan’s piece, I think she got a lot of things right.

    By the way, slight linky wrongness in your line “In a rare feat of honest self-examination, Richard Grant notes that:” — that leads to a satire of Bob’s ‘application to join Scienceblogs’ piece.

    Posted by rpg | Aug 9, 2010, 9:46 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? (Pt. 1) | Rennie's Last Nerve - Aug 9, 2010

  2. Pingback: Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? (Pt. 2) | Rennie's Last Nerve - Aug 12, 2010

  3. Pingback: The Nature Network Implosion — Hmmm, This All Seems Awfully Familiar . . . « The Scholarly Kitchen - Dec 13, 2010

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