We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Like social movements, business fads have a limited lifespan. Hunter Thompson’s immortal description of the end of the 1960s springs to mind when taking a look back at the rush to integrate Web 2.o tools and science, with that “five years” timeline immediately leaping out.
The Nature Network launched in 2006, organized around researchers in Boston, then went global in 2007, five years ago. It perhaps offered the high-water mark in terms of the irrational exuberance by publishers and other companies in building big Web 2.0 tools for scientists. For a time, the widespread adoption of these tools seemed inevitable, and business models were an afterthought when investing in revolutionary new technologies.
Five years on, reality has reared its ugly head, and, as is often repeated here at the Scholarly Kitchen, culture has trumped technology. It turns out that what works well for some cultures does not immediately translate into success in others. Rather than focusing on the needs of the research community, much of what passed for Science 2.0 was an attempt to force science to change — to make the culture adapt to the tools rather than the other way around.
Beyond the lack of community buy-in, monetization of Web 2.0 has proven problematic, even for sites with enormous levels of participation.
This last month has seen the dying gasps of some of these corporate-backed attempts to crack this market. As noted elsewhere, the needs of a for-profit corporation are generally at odds with the needs of members of the social networks they run. The big publisher-backed build is slowly fading into oblivion, replaced by smaller, ad hoc networks created and run by users. The question of how or even whether these tools will ever see mainstream use by scientists is still open. But the idea of them as huge profit centers for publishers has been pretty well refuted.
2collab officially closed its doors on April 15. For those who missed out, 2collab was Elsevier’s stab at an online reference management/social bookmarking platform. It always seemed a bit undercooked, a “me too” attempt to keep up with Connotea (from Nature), Mendeley, and CiteULike. Though still something of an unproven market, there doesn’t seem to be a need for multiple sites offering the same sorts of things. What traffic there is has largely coalesced around CiteULike and Mendeley.
CiteULike is now sponsored by Springer with no obvious business model beyond serving up Google Ads. This may be intentional, as it has always positioned itself as something of a public domain community resource, rather than as a product to be sold. Mendeley’s management continues to prove themselves adept at attracting attention, but still haven’t offered up much by way of a business model either. A quick look at the papers added to Connotea today as I write this shows that the site is being overrun by link-farming spam, with perhaps four out of the first 50 papers added today being legitimate (about 8%).
Connotea falling into such a state should perhaps not come as a surprise. Nature’s once stalwart efforts in social networking have slowly ground to a halt. Much of the talent behind their initial push has either moved on or transitioned into other efforts, including ones that seem more product-oriented.
Nature’s flagship blog, Nautilus, officially closed on April 19, following Nascent, which has been inactive since February 2010. Connotea’s blog was last updated in January. Nature’s recruitment of their editors to blogs has always been something of a mixed bag, and their results perhaps echo that seen throughout the non-science world: some people enjoy blogging, others do not. The Nature Network’s stable of bloggers mostly deserted last December, and a check today shows a mere 36 blogs that have been updated in the last month.
Speaking of networks that saw mass defections, word leaked earlier this week that National Geographic will be taking control of ScienceBlogs. Started in 2006, ScienceBlogs was once the posterchild for the Science 2.0 movement, declaring itself in early 2010 to be “the leading social media site in the science category, with more than 130 acclaimed blogs, 11 content channels, a jobs platform, and a fast-growing audience of more than 2 million unique visitors a month.”
April 2010 seems to have been ScienceBlogs’ peak, with traffic dropping off rapidly as their Pepsi-fueled blogger exodus of July 2010 saw many of their writers leave for other networks. Traffic now is about half of what they saw last April, and, like most businesses on the Internet, there’s a lesson here about selling out at the right time. ScienceBlogs rapidly went from being so dominant that it was nicknamed “the Borg” (“resistance is futile”) to being just one among many science blogging networks.
While ScienceBlogs and National Geographic have long had a strategic partnership, National Geographic Digital Media will now assume management of the website. SEED will retain ownership (as one commenter noted, “SEED managed to sell content and content providers it neither owns nor edits to NatGeo, and will continue to receive a stipend for its continued nonparticipation”). Given the history of ScienceBlogs and corporate sponsors, this may lead to an uneasy partnership as bloggers are asked to submit to National Geographic’s “standards and practices”.
This may prove difficult. particularly for one of ScienceBlogs’ most popular authors, PZ Myers, who has been described as a “one-note atheist crazy cat lady.” How Myers’ strong anti-religion views sit with those running the National Geographic Society and how it wants to present itself to the world will be interesting to watch. For the moment, Myers’ readers seem particularly concerned that they will no longer be able to curse in the comments of the blog.
In the long run, we may see yet another exodus of ScienceBlogs authors to one of the many independent blogger-run networks, which offer a smaller audience, but the freedom to pursue one’s own interests rather than that of the overseeing corporation. Community-driven networks are supplanting business-driven networks.
But the apparent absorption of more bloggers by an old media information source is yet another piece of evidence that Web 2.0 is having more of an incremental effect on science than a revolutionary one.
On one hand it’s great to see real scientists with real knowledge of their fields speaking directly with an audience of non-experts. On the downside, it seems like many newspapers and magazines are recruiting bloggers for science coverage as a cost-cutting measure. Bloggers seem willing to accept lower pay (or even volunteer) as compared with trained professional journalists. Given the wild variability in the quality of blogs, and their often personal nature, I worry that the increased base knowledge of the authors may not compensate for the loss of the professional trained journalist. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the shift of our news media from reporting to editorializing.
The clear trends are:
- moving away from corporate-backed social networking tools for scientists
- abandoning expensive efforts with little hope of monetization
- moving toward smaller, user-created and controlled networks
Web 2.0 hasn’t failed for science — it has merely failed to live up to the initial hype and failed as a get-rich-quick scheme. As this first phase draws to a close, expect to see more and more integration of social tools into the traditional science workflow rather than attempts to make networking an end unto itself.
(article updated 4-30-11 to remove incorrect statement that CiteULike was an open source project)