In something of a blast from the past, the world of science blogging reared up in collective anger over Scientific American’s censorship of a controversial post from a paid blogger, written in response to some awful behavior from a representative of one of SciAm’s business partners. This may seem familiar to anyone who lived through the rise and fall of the first round of science blogging platforms and provides ample evidence that though things may have evolved, the same inherent conflicts between bloggers and platform providers remain.
To sum things up briefly, one of SciAm’s bloggers was asked to do some unpaid writing for SciAm’s partner platform, Biology-Online.com. When she declined, the representative from Biology-Online made a wholly inappropriate remark in response, which the blogger then made public through a subsequent SciAm blog posting.
SciAm, in perhaps a CYA overreaction, deleted the post, calling it “not appropriate”, later explaining that they did so over legal concerns and that the ability to do so was part of the terms agreed to by their bloggers. This prompted a firestorm of criticism from the blogosphere, and offered an opportunity to analyze the continuing problems with sexism and racism both in science and society at large. SciAm was left in a difficult position, stuck between trying to prudently protect their business from potential libel claims while at the same time trying to protect their image in the community as an upright citizen, rather than an enabler of problematic behavior.
This delicate balance between commercial platforms and the bloggers who populate them is nothing new.
For a brief period, science blogs seemed on the cusp of a new wave of Web 2.0 approaches certain to remake the way scientists communicate. That would have represented the “peak of inflated expectations” phase of the Gartner hype cycle. What happened then is that the major blogging networks fragmented over various “scandals”, mostly resulting from efforts by the network owners to try earn some money from their efforts (with some of those efforts proving less ethically sound than others). The diaspora seemed to break the building momentum of science blogging.
It’s perhaps telling that the first colleague I mentioned the SciAm controversy to responded with, “Science blogging? That’s still a thing?” The Nature Network is a sparsely populated graveyard, the blogs gone, the forums overrun by spammers and scammers looking to sell knockoff designer goods and fake passports (does anyone from Nature actually look at what’s being advertised under their name these days?). Science Blogs, surprisingly, still seems to exist under its own banner, despite being bought years ago by National Geographic.
That purchase gives a clue as to what really happened to science blogging–it was co-opted and absorbed by traditional media. Newspapers and magazines have been under intense pressure for years (decades?) to cut corners and reduce costs. Among the first employees deemed expendable were the science reporters–it’s not like science is something important after all, like horoscopes, sports scores or relationship advice.
What science blogging has provided is a cheap replacement for all the content lost with the demise of the practice of professional science journalism. Why pay professional writers or maintain a staff of journalists when there’s an army of writers out there churning this stuff out for free? And so the independent voices morphed into the underpaid staff, filling the pages of the new blog platform overlords (same as the old media overlords) with content of varying quality.
That variance is one of the downsides here. The Guardian, for example, hosts some great blogs but also seems willing to let anyone who volunteers put up a post. Anything to drive quantity, the more pages filled, the more ad space available. The main upside is that it means there’s still some science content going out to the mainstream audience. Take away the inexpensive bloggers and many media outlets might never mention science at all.
That’s how most of us encounter science blogs these days, as the occasional article appearing via a major publication’s website, with all the trappings of a formal opinion column. Which is why it perhaps seems a bit strange to continue to see the same ongoing conflict: business acting in the interests of business vs. bloggers burning down the buildings when their freedoms are restricted.
Bloggers still see themselves as independent voices using a platform, which is meant to offer a blank slate upon which they are free to express themselves. Publications see bloggers as paid contributors, subject to the same editorial oversight as any other articles published. Bloggers insist on the freedom to say anything they want. Publishers have valuable assets to protect in their brands and reputations and want to carefully craft the image they’re portraying.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Go back and re-read posts on the ScienceBlogs Pepsi problem, or the Nature Network’s implosion and you can pretty much cut and paste in the details of this most recent scandal. The lessons remain the same:
For bloggers, if you’re cashing The Man’s paychecks, you play by The Man’s rules. There is recognition and perhaps prestige, along with at least some minimal level of pay, that comes from aligning yourself with a major publishing brand. In return, you are, at some point, going to see your freedom challenged by the need of your employer to make money and protect assets and image.
For the publisher, bloggers do offer a tremendously cost-effective means of generating content. But at some point, they’re going to turn on you. It’s the very nature of a deliberately personalized medium where the author calls the shots. Proceed at your own risk.