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The Nature Network Implosion — Hmmm, This All Seems Awfully Familiar . . .

Nature Network

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.

Welcome to “ScienceBlogs 2: Nature Network Boogaloo” (apologies to those who aren’t fans of Linda Blair and missed the reference).

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.

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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

23 thoughts on “The Nature Network Implosion — Hmmm, This All Seems Awfully Familiar . . .

  1. Hi David. One correction to the story: “Nature pre-emptively announced the new network…” was actually something that happened in a comment that has since been removed (I haven’t even seen it) and the post you linked to was from after OT launched – not a leak. They were forced to launch early not because of that, but because they could no longer log in to their old blogs to post their goodbyes. I posted the list of who went where on request of the (now locked out) leaving bloggers, and that was the first public post on Nature Network about Occam’s Typewriter. So the leak wasn’t as relevant in the early launch.

    Posted by Eva | Dec 13, 2010, 5:54 am
  2. Nice post, David. Very valid points.

    Although you’re right that the technological — ah, I don’t want to say ‘incompetence’ but I can’t think of a more appropriate word right now, let’s say ‘failings’ — of NN played a huge part in our decision to leave, for me there seemed a serious lack of strategic thought. Nobody senior at NPG seemed to me to have an idea of where they wanted to go with NN, if they’d even heard of/cared about it.

    There’s no doubt that NN was very good for my visibility a year or two back, but times change, and it was right to move on. I’m simply very sad that it couldn’t have been a well-managed, amicable parting.

    Posted by rpg | Dec 13, 2010, 7:20 am
  3. I’m confused. Nature has a blogging operation and a bunch of its writers have spun off to form yet another such operation. Looks like organic growth to me. How is this growth a sign of the failure of the concept?

    The commercial analog, often seen, is if some of my people leave to start a rival company. This is not a sign of market failure on my part, quite the opposite. Competition is flattery, as it were.

    Of course the question how to make money blogging still remains, but I see no bubble popping here. What am I missing?

    Posted by David Wojick | Dec 13, 2010, 7:31 am
    • I am talking about the business approaches, not about organic growth in something people do for fun, or a hobby, for career development or for political reasons.

      Would you advise a commercial publisher to spend millions of dollars to build a blogging network at this point? Can they expect to recoup that investment? If not, then as a business venture, the market has failed.

      The bubble has popped because everyone and their sister seemed to think that “Web 2.0″ was an immediate pathway to profit. Give away content for free and somehow get rich. Doesn’t seem to be working out all that well for the Nature Network, does it? How many launches of “Facebook for Scientists” have you seen lately?

      Posted by David Crotty | Dec 13, 2010, 8:53 am
      • I agree with your business analysis. What I don’t see is this spin-off as being related to that analysis. In any case I think that the key to a commercial success is to first understand what blogging is. That is what has been missing.

        Posted by David Wojick | Dec 13, 2010, 9:52 am
        • It’s relevant because the new spinoff is the direct result of a failed business model. A commercial publishing house built a big network hoping to corner the market on social networking for science. As that venture failed, the bloggers who were contributing found they were better off going independent and not being subject to the business whims of a company trying to find a way to make Web 2.0 pay off.

          If hosting a set of bloggers was a profitable enterprise, they would have received different treatment and not needed to start their own network. Their new network is free from the over-exuberant hopes that this is going to result in a huge profit stream, and was created for different, hopefully more realistic reasons.

          You are right in that what I’m referring to as the Web 2.0 bubble does consist of commercial entities jumping into social networking ventures without understanding what they really are, and without any real business models other than hoping to gain traction, draw traffic and somehow muddle out a method of earning money from that traffic later down the line. Traffic does not automatically equal revenue, and for science, it turns out that Web 2.0 does not automatically equal traffic.

          Posted by David Crotty | Dec 13, 2010, 10:14 am
      • As RPG alludes to above, perhaps the spinoff has more to do with this particular instance of a blogging network, and not blogging networks in general.

        The lessons, then, would be: “Don’t start a blogging network unless you’re committed to treating your bloggers well.”
        “Bloggers can be damaging to your brand if you do things internally that would damage your brand if they were found out.”

        You can run with whatever version of the narrative you like, but overgeneralizing like this generally doesn’t serve you well.

        Posted by Mr. Gunn | Dec 13, 2010, 6:10 pm
        • Fair enough, but for a commercial enterprise, particularly one with shareholders like MacMillan, generating a profit has to be the end goal of any endeavor. Perhaps a better lesson is understanding just what running such a network entails, what the likely returns are going to be, and whether you can make the two meet.

          And of course, that “It’s Web 2.0″ or “It generates traffic” are not business models.

          Posted by David Crotty | Dec 13, 2010, 6:14 pm
          • I think NPG went about the entire enterprise half-arsed, to be honest, with no strategic plan at all. I asked multiple times about that, and was met with silence. It was possibly a bit of bandwagon-jumping, I don’t know.

            From a personal perspective, I joined with no expectation of any sort of material reward. I was happy to get the exposure, to begin with. Then with one thing and another the effort:reward ratio became too high, and it wasn’t worth it any more.

            NN never paid its bloggers, and this seems to surprise people when I’ve told them. They are bringing in ‘rewards’ now for bloggers who write a certain amount per month. The main reward is an online subscription to Nature. I doubt that’s going to attract the kind of writer they’re looking for.

            Posted by rpg | Dec 15, 2010, 6:15 am
  4. “Sober, serious business approaches”? You cannot possibly be unaware of the cognitive force of a multitude of bloggers who don’t aspire to be part of any ‘business model’. That’s not blind hope, it’s the kind of hope human live by.

    Posted by Thomas | Dec 13, 2010, 7:45 am
    • Indeed, blogging may be intrinsically non-profit, like political campaign volunteer work, driven by the hope of making a difference. Most blogging is issue based.

      As a spectacular example, Georgia Tech’s Atmospheric Sciences department head Judith Curry recently started a blog (Climate, etc.) to discuss uncertainty in climate science and has garnered almost 25,000 comments so far, almost all technical.
      http://judithcurry.com/ is science blogging with a policy purpose.

      Posted by David Wojick | Dec 13, 2010, 8:13 am
    • You should remember that this is a business blog, and that phrase referred to approaches that must be taken by publishers. It’s great that a bunch of bloggers find value in blogging and as I note in the article, they’re better off being independent to do so, rather than being a cog in a moneymaking operation (see the Pepsi-gate incident for further reason why).

      For the Natures of the world though, a serious business model is needed before doing this level of investment. “It’s Web 2.0″ is no longer good enough reason to drop millions of dollars.

      Posted by David Crotty | Dec 13, 2010, 8:55 am
  5. I suppose this raises the question as to whether blogging alone was really the way to develop community publishing products for Nature’s audience. I think of platforms like ITtoolbox.com, which has been quite successful in building a community with includes a variety of publishing tools, including blogging, to help professionals relate to one another more effectively. The idea of a blogging network probably doesn’t have the upside of enabling STM professionals to maintain profiles and express themselves through a variety of media. The value is more in the metadata than the data, you might say.

    Posted by John Blossom | Dec 13, 2010, 12:11 pm
    • Well, the Nature Network was meant to (and still does) include much more than just blog hosting. But scientists don’t seem to have much interest in the sorts of things offered.

      But it also raises the question of whether a researcher-specific network is really needed. Perhaps “Facebook for Scientists” is Facebook, and “Linked-In for Scientists” is Linked-In.

      Posted by David Crotty | Dec 13, 2010, 2:03 pm
  6. Are there any lessons here for The Scholarly Kitchen as a blog site sponsored by a non-profit? Does it have a “business model” underlying it, albeit one supporting the “mission” of SSP?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Dec 13, 2010, 12:52 pm
    • I’ll chime in here. We’ve been very careful not to have a business model for the Scholarly Kitchen. We’ve been approached about a couple of opportunities, but the freedom of blogging departs when you have to blog for money. So, we blog out of enthusiasm (or, if I send the right email to an infrequent contributor, guilt and shame).

      I think the problem at the heart of these blog businesses is that blogging is essentially an act of generosity, and when you propose to put a price against it, everything about it is a little bit compromised. Clay Shirky and Dan Ariely have written extensively about this recently. Altruism is underrated.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Dec 13, 2010, 1:32 pm
      • I wouldn’t go as far as to say that our contributions are truly altruistic.

        If we blog well, we promote ourselves and our views, often influencing the public debate around a topic on which we may have a vested interest. Consultants have often told me that blogging helps business. My own blogging has resulted in interviews on topics related to my own research.

        In a reputation economy, intellectual contributions can be exchanged for real-world benefits. In the case of the Scholarly Kitchen, these benefits far exceed the small revenue that may come in as a result of selling knives or editing software.

        Posted by Phil Davis | Dec 13, 2010, 1:45 pm
        • Exactly, blogging can be a form of publication that is prestigious in its own right. As a consultant I do some of that, including SK. It can also be a form of policy activism and I do that too, but not on the same blogs.

          Posted by David Wojick | Dec 13, 2010, 2:04 pm
  7. “Those looking to commercialize their efforts are finding spots as pseudo-columnists with commercial publishers like Discover… and in doing so, presumably submit themselves to the editorial oversight of those publishers.”

    Nope. Not at all.

    Posted by Ed Yong | Dec 13, 2010, 8:43 pm
    • I’m curious to hear from the various bloggers at different “commercial” outlets as to what the editorial policies are. I have a sneaking suspicion that news agencies have jumped on the blogging network bandwagon as it is a much more cost-effective (read: cheaper) method of having some science coverage without having to pay a fulltime professional staff. That’s, of course, a different situation than you are in, as Discover is a science magazine.

      Can you give details on how Discover works things, as they have some of (IMO) the better science writers in their stable? Are you paid for your efforts and is there any oversight whatsoever?

      Posted by David Crotty | Dec 14, 2010, 12:24 am
      • don’t know your background dude, but a lot of the stuff you said is just factually wrong. i was at scienceblogs 2006-2010 and up to 2008 at least (last time i know for a fact) the blog side *was* profitable, and, it was subsidizing the rest of SMG to some extent. and no offense, but doesn’t basic logic make you wonder how an outfit can not pay their bloggers, and, remain unprofitable? web hosting is commoditized.

        i’ve been blogging science since 2002, and there’s so much i don’t recognize in your characterizations that i don’t know where to begin.

        Posted by razib | Dec 14, 2010, 1:12 am
        • My background is available here (and you’re certainly welcome to call me “Dude”, that or His Dudeness… Duder… or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing).

          On profits: Is the Nature Network’s blogging platform providing a profit? If so, how is it doing so? My suspicion is it is not, given the lack of ads on the site nor any other obvious direct business model. Seed’s ScienceBlogs may have been, and may still be profitable (I never directly stated that the venture was completely unprofitable), but the question is whether it is profitable enough to be a viable business, particularly one where there are investors and/or shareholders to please. Obviously the management at Seed did not think so, hence their efforts to boost revenue through sponsored blogs.

          Basic logic: the notion that it is essentially “free” to put things up on the internet, serve them and maintain them is a fallacy. Kent Anderson discussed why this is wrong here and here. In both Nature and Seed’s cases, they built and maintain their own hosting platforms, which must be paid for somehow. Nature has dedicated IT people, editors and support staff working on their network. Those people earn salaries. I assume ScienceBlogs provides at least some measure of similar support as well. Then there are ad sales staff, management, and others who all need to be paid. There are bandwidth costs, costs involved in updating software, in migrating older material as the platform improves, in dealing with security issues (just ask the Gawker network about the costs there). The dispute discussed above comes as a result of the bloggers on a platform demanding technology investments that the host company apparently could not justify.

          It is possible to make a profit by exploiting the free labor of bloggers–the Huffington Post is likely the prime example. But the Huffington Post works on a much vaster scale than either of these science networks, taking advantage of thousands of bloggers and vastly higher traffic levels.

          Posted by David Crotty | Dec 14, 2010, 9:11 am
  8. I am told that blogging in some areas of academic life, like law, has come to be respected as a valuable form of professional communication. Perhaps that’s also because law reviews are not peer-reviewed publications in the way that most academic journals are….

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Dec 13, 2010, 8:57 pm

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