Here’s a story, let me know if it sounds familiar:
A science publisher sets up a blogging network and builds a stable of loyal bloggers. The bloggers eventually come to realize that they are not the network’s customers, but are instead the network’s product. As a generally unprofitable product, the bloggers are not treated as well as they think they deserve. They raise a major fuss online, and many bail out to start their own blogging network.
In case you don’t follow such things, a group of Nature Network blogging stalwarts are setting up their own shop, Occam’s Typewriter. They’re doing so for a variety of reasons, but in particular most seem dissatisfied with the level of technical support offered by Nature. As word of this upcoming launch leaked, the Internet erupted in a tizzy of drama, as the Internet so often does.
Nature pre-emptively announced the new network and locked the bloggers out of their own blogs. Hence, no chance at a graceful transition, no goodbye posts (though Nature offered to post any such messages sent in via e-mail), no chance to respond to any comments left.
Things were apparently less than civil behind the scenes and the bloggers were understandably miffed.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. In fact, it all should seem fairly inevitable. The science Web 2.0 bubble continues to pop, much like the dotcom bubble before it. The age of massive spending and huge network builds without a clear business model is over. Nature seems saddled with a white elephant of a network, a venture that never caught on, never proved to be a money-maker, and after much hype became a clubhouse for a small number of researchers. Much of the talent that was in place to build the network has moved on to other ventures with more earnings potential. Nature does seem to have treated their bloggers in this incident in an unkind, ungrateful manner. But as far as the root causes, how much effort and investment could they have been expected to put into an unprofitable venture?
If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
That quote comes from a Metafilter discussion that occurred when Digg users revolted against the site’s redesign, and it’s appropriate here as well. There’s no question that many of the bloggers leaving the Nature Network are talented writers who provide interesting ideas. But that doesn’t seem to be enough to run a business around. ScienceBlogs felt obligated to get some sponsored blogs in the door. Nature doesn’t seem to have figured out quite what they want to do. Even their own editors seem to have trailed off in their blogging activities, and the many satellite sites created seem to have faded out as well (Postgenomic is long gone, does anyone still use Scintilla?).
The business interests of a publisher running a blogging network are often in direct opposition to the best interests of the bloggers themselves.
Nature is now learning the lesson that a group of outspoken bloggers is a difficult thing to control, and perhaps not the best way to drive profits or promote your company’s brand. Their bloggers are learning the lesson the ScienceBlogs dissidents learned months ago — that they’re better off running their own shop despite the prestige offered by having a big name atop the masthead.
Science blogging is increasingly proving itself to be a hobby, not a business. Those looking to commercialize their efforts are finding spots as pseudo-columnists with commercial publishers like Discover or the Guardian, and in doing so, presumably submit themselves to the editorial oversight of those publishers. For those unwilling to follow someone else’s rules, an independent network relieves those pressures and allows for the technically competent to keep the site up to date without jumping through corporate hoops. As Kent recently wrote, letting someone else host your content is a tricky business.
All of this is emblematic of the current state of Web 2.0. We’re at a turning point where the age of exuberance is reaching it’s final stages, and more sober, serious business approaches are coming to the fore. The idea that traffic automatically equals revenue has repeatedly been disproven, and newspapers and television networks are pulling back their free offerings in favor of models that offer a chance for profit. Hopefully we’ve seen the end of “Facebook for Scientists” and the beginning of the incorporation of these new technological tools in a smarter manner, more driven by actual reasoning than blind hope.