Two weeks ago Terry McGlynn posted reflections about blogging on Small Pond Science, an excellent blog that combines research, teaching reflections and other assorted topics. Two weeks ago I didn’t post anything. Three weeks ago I didn’t post anything. The week before I posted a comment of Alwynne Beaudoin‘s that is great, but wasn’t really mine (although she gave me permission to post it). The last thing I posted myself was a long primer on using GitHub that I posted six weeks ago.
So why bring this up? In the world of science blogging there are the big guns, the blogs hosted on Scientific American for example; there are the fairly big guns, Dynamic Ecology, Kind of Bayesian, Retraction Watch; there’s another tier under there (EBB & Flow, Small Pond Science), and somewhere down the list you wind up on blogs like mine. [EDIT: I had a lot of trouble ranking even the blogs I named, so go easy on me if you're not there or if you're not where you think you should be!] The most glaring pattern at the bottom is the number of blogs that started strong and then wound up inactive. Anyone with an RSS feed of some kind or another is probably familiar with this pattern. A couple great posts, a few long delays than then the emptiness of a dead feed.
So, when you’re like me, stuck in the middling bottom of the blogosphere, what do you do? I’ve faced the fact that this is never going to be a wildly popular blog and I’m okay with it. Throughout the life of this blog (63 posts) I’ve averaged between 600 and 1000 views a month (that’s surprising actually, I thought it was a lot lower) and two comments per post, but those are mostly all in one or two posts. Without the kind of motivation that traffic or comments bring (because they’re easily quantified), it can be hard to stay motivated about blogging, but having a blog isn’t just about driving traffic.
The way I see it you have several overlapping options in the middling bottom:
- Give it up, no one reads your blog so invest your time elsewhere
- Keep at it regularly. The blog is good writing practice
- Give it up, start it up again, give it up, start it up again
- Only write when there’s something you care about
- Use the blog as a platform for a secondary purpose
I’ve been a fan of numbers 3 – 5, mostly because of number 1. People do read the blog, but it’s hard to get a sense of what they think when no one comments. It makes it easy for me to pass off writing a blog post when there are four job applications due on the same day, when I’ve got papers that need immediate revisions, workshops to prepare, the kids are sick at home, and when I just don’t really have the interest in writing.
It’s partly impostor syndrome, there are people that do such a good job of summarizing articles that I always feel a bit hesitant to do it, and people that cover social issues in academia (or groups of people, like Tenure She Wrote) so I’m hesitant to write things about that as well, even though some of my more popular posts have been composites of research and policy, gender and academia, and art and science. Mostly though, the reason I write the blog is because I have ideas I want to share. So 3 & 4 work for me, but in reality, it’s easier to practice them if I’m writing regularly, so number 1 is sometimes a real impediment, but number 5 keeps me working at it.
This blog is really a platform for self-promotion. I’m sometimes ashamed of how blatant it is, but generally it’s useful. I can post a mentoring statement, sample five year plans, my publications, workshop notes, and recent papers. I know hiring committees are looking at them, and it gives me the opportunity to expand on things I think are important outside of the formalized cover letters. Is it helping? Well, that’s a different question (hiring committee members, let me know in the comments).
After nearly two years of blogging (I started right before AGU 2011) what has this blog given me? If I’m honest, my academic life would probably be no different whether I had the blog or not. I’m a postdoc in a great project and no one’s been banging on my door to change that because of the blog. It has helped me write, in particular I think the workshop I helped run at the recent AASP/CAP meeting benefited from my blogging. The writing style and flow of the workshop benefited from my earlier tutorials (GitHub, neotoma, general R stuff), but all the same, I think that my writing style was established a long time ago, writing letters to my parents from summer camp. Regardless, there are definite benefits from maintaining the blog, even if it’s not in the upper echelons of the blogging world.
I think that this kind of outreach serves an important purpose. Even if the posts aren’t incredibly popular, I’d like to think that the 55 people (based on search terms) who came the blog because they were having trouble finding an acronym for their project came away with an amazing acronym or just because they were looking for a transparent trollface (an astounding 233 people).
So, if you’re like me, in the middling bottom, and are committed to starting or continuing your blog, I’ve got the following recommendations:
- Enjoy it, you’re not going to change the world but you can still write great posts even if no one sees them.
- You don’t need to write regularly, but you do still need to write from time to time. It looks worse to have a dead blog than to have a post a month about your research progress.
- You need to find a reason to write. It may not be page views, it may not be comments, but it’s got to be something if you’re going to keep writing.
So carry on, it can be lots of fun as long as you keep your expectations high enough to strive for excellence, but low enough to avoid getting discouraged!