The mess at Science-Blogs, the cola-teral damage of PepsiGate and of demands on SB - blog by Gurdur


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The mess at Science-Blogs, the cola-teral damage of PepsiGate and of demands on SB
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Posted 22-Jul-2010 at 08:02 AM (08:02) by Gurdur
Updated 22-Jul-2010 at 10:18 AM (10:18) by Gurdur

So, shortly after there was a fair bit of a kerfuffle over at Science-Blogs (SB) about a new PepsiCo blog (Food Frontiers) there, the PepsiCo blog was withdrawn, but that did not satisfy some. The scientist and blogger Bora Zivkovic (BoraZ), who is a highly admirable dynamo of social and scientific networking, has made a long blog post detailing why Bora is now leaving Science-Blogs. To sum up his various points of the reported problems with SB (paraphrased, and with some additions of links from me):
  • The Pepsigate affair brought up various problems in public with editorial control and practice at Seed, the owners/managers of SB; see this, then this, then this, then this, then this and this, for example.
  • According to BoraZ, instead of being itself (originally a magazine, now a rather undefined company which happens to also manage SB), "[e]verything at Seed Media Group should be set up to be in service of Scienceblogs: administrators, legal staff, editors, and most importantly a large, powerful, innovative technical staff".
  • Then BoraZ brings up the issue many have at the back of their minds; just how scientific is the alleged science- or science-journalism-blogging at SB any more? BoraZ mentions that the initial SB start-up was composed of "... bloggers who were already popular - they brought their readership with them. They just happened to be mostly bloggers .... whose blogging covered those aspects of 'science is culture' that are quite controversial".

    He goes on that that led to some people putting into question just how much was science and how much was ranting; while BoraZ is of the opinion that those allegedly condemning SB for being overly tainted as a whole by the rant blogs are wrong -- "... only about five out of 80 bloggers focused much on politics and/or religion ...", according to BoraZ -- it still leaves some image problems, and more, some other big problems.
  • And among those other big problems are what BoraZ describes as cliques among the SB bloggers, and consequent fighting between them.
So much for that, which pretty much covers all BoraZ's points, and you can read more of what he said yourself; now onto what everyone else was saying.

Reaction has been varied about the whole thing; first of all there was some backlash against the anti-PepsiCo stance, then some backlash against the closing of the PepsiCo blog, then backlash against the backlash (there, by the way, David Dobbs claims "... it was Seed that silenced Pepsi, not the bloggers ...", but Bora Zivkovic says, "Sustained blogging by SciBlings forced SEED to remove the offending Pepsi blog within 36 hours", so you can pick and choose whom or what to believe), then BoraZ leaving, then some skepticism about the views expressed by BoraZ and others.

Then PZ Myers fatuously declared he was going on "strike" *, i.e. not blogging any more till certain demands of his were met; those demands were (summarized):
  • "... setting up a small committee of bloggers with regular (monthly) conference calls ..." (actually, PZ Myers also called for, "Immediate formation of a mechanism for communication between management and bloggers", but since they already have that - it's called email - and in addition the SB bloggers also apparently have an internal forum not viewable by guests, then it looks like PZ Myers is demanding a bit more than appears on the surface).
  • "Prompt responses from management ... No more long silences".

    Sheeesh, it was on July 19 that BoraZ posted his leaving post, PZ Myers' "strike" post was up on July 20, and it seems Adam Bly, CEO of Seed Media Group, was already communicating about it on July 21 at the very latest, and Adam Bly has been more than quickly reactive to SB bloggers before, as when the Food Frontiers blog was simply pulled, so this so-called strike-call business seems more than a bit hysterical.
  • Regular tech updates
  • Transparency
  • "More trust", whatever he means here. It really isn't so clear.
So much for PZ Myers' demands; as for his vaunted "strike", only a couple at most of other SB bloggers followed suit, while quite a few SB bloggers ignored it or weren't even aware of it, and continued blogging. After whipping up panic up in his blog post, the very next day
PZ Myers said in a new post, "Don't panic ... " and says Adam Bly is in contact. Quite possibly all it needed was that pre-existing management/blogger communication system called "email", not the hysteria about going on strike, eh?

What was quite interesting about Myers and the strike claim * was how he said, "... I get paid for that traffic, too, so it's going to hurt my pocketbook. ... my check will be smaller this month, on top of the salary reductions my university has announced ...".

Well, now. Whether that was meant in earnest, or was merely playing to the gallery, that does raise interesting ethical questions of what is supposed to be an advocacy blog, is often claimed to be a science blog, and is in fact also a blog reaping financial rewards; when you get paid for your writing, in whatever manner, how do the pressures of expectation and audience play upon how you blog, and what you blog on? Especially when it's supposed to be all science. And the overall question of playing to an audience, often sensationistically, rather than in any measured, scientific way, comes up again later, regardless of any financial benefits or lack of them.

In any case, moving on. So what can us external observers gather from all of this fuss?

Many of those who were openly science journalists left way before the PepsiGate affair, and quite a few left directly because of it and immediately. I've noticed some quite bitchy comments around various blog comment threads about science journalists apparently not being ethical (more on that canard later in a future blog post). But it is remarkable about how it was the actual journalists who reacted promptly, early and decisively, by leaving SB, openly and directly over ethical questions regarding overall editorial and advertising policy. Now it's down to others leaving or just complaining, and their main complaints seem in total to be a lack of overall control or oversight over who gets to blog on SB, and more importantly for them, a lack of prompt technical upgrades and assistance. Which is all a bit of a step-down from heavy ethical questions.

What is being proposed by PZ Myers and others amounts to much more control by the SB bloggers, or by some of them, about overall SB policy, and they also demand much more in the way of technical help; what is going to be really interesting is how it all plays out; how do they expect Seed to be able to pay for all they want, and still to be able to survive as a business? That is very much an open question; it's entirely quite possible Seed Media Group may no longer be able to afford SB, and drop it completely, or cut it loose - in which case SB would probably disappear (I'm not terribly impressed by the apparent server or business savvy of the remaining SB bloggers as a group)

There is also the question of just how "sciency" or no longer sciency Science-Blogs is becoming. Given that the "science" cachet was very much used to give legitimization to the blogs on SB, then the question of just how much is science and how much is sensationalist ranting (and how much inbetween) is going to be a hard issue soon.

Also important is the question of networking; BoraZ is very right in saying that the formal, technologically ritualised network of SB bloggers encouraged much more talking between those particular bloggers. Yet that also has a downside; it is my impression (and only that as yet) that a fair few of the SB bloggers were becoming incestuous in their conversations, and I tend to think some of them will really benefit from getting out into the real world of the larger blogosphere, and not being so dependent on SB-network-internal feedback for their conversations. Some of them, allegedly pushing advocacy of science, medicine and the like, really do need to learn lots about how to speak with the public, in other words, they need to learn how to actually do advocacy.

In the end, there are informal ways of organising loose blog networks, of getting feedback, and doing advocacy, and various networks like The Intersection at Discover Blogs have extended invitations to those bloggers leaving SB, so while SB did function as a handy list of blogs (and one I like to look up a lot myself), I cannot see any great reduction in the number of bloggers on SB, or any breakdown and going out of business of SB as a whole, as being terribly harmful to us all, or to the bloggers in question.

* Pardon me being all prole working-class, but I find it very hard to take PZ Myers' nonsense about a "strike" seriously. Obviously it's used for the romantic associations, for the "not crossing picket lines" associations, and for puffing himself up with (note how PZ Myers is implicitly claiming it was the so-called strike that got Adam Bly in touch, when far more likely it was simply Adam Bly catching up on a couple of days' business per email), but it's all total bullshit. PZ Myers and other bloggers there are not workers employed by Seed Media Group or SB; they are working as independents with contracts to SB, and none of them depend on SB for their primary livelihoods, and for most of the SB bloggers, the financial rewards are small. It's simply a couple of middle-class people - or just one - appropriating the name of a working-class mechanism that has nothing to do with them; when the working-class have to go on strike, it's deadly serious for the workers. A couple of middle-class bloggers or just a self-appointed one declaring a strike, with no election, no strike vote, and no crucial primary economic dependence on an employment relationship, is a ridiculous sight.

The line about "cola-teral damage" I used in the title of this blog post is shamelessly stolen from Lifelinking.

Trackbacks used in this blog post:

BoraZ's leaving post

ERV against the hysterics

Chad Orzel being skeptical
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  1. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Incestuous how? *blinks, confuzzled*
    Posted 23-Jul-2010 at 12:23 AM (00:23) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Originally Posted by Makbawehuh View Comment
    Incestuous how? *blinks, confuzzled*
    Talking only to each other, i.e. only to other SB bloggers. When the network in effect becomes a self-chosen ghetto.

    I've noticed quite a few SB blogs where the comments threads are populated by almost all other SB bloggers (rather than the general public); I will say some SB blogs were far worse for that than others.

    I also grant there are in fact good reasons for such in-group conversations; but on the whole, I have become convinced a fair few SB nd ex-SB bloggers need to widen their horizons and the sources of their readership.

    And in case you ask: yes, I try myself constantly to blog on extremely different subjects, with very different target audiences, and I regularly visit other blogs and forums as a way of cross-fertilization.
    Posted 23-Jul-2010 at 12:35 AM (00:35) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Posted 23-Jul-2010 at 04:34 PM (16:34) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
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