Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CSF Op-Ed: Media I Am

How blogs, tweets, and social media are changing science writing.

Back in the dark ages, books were a luxury for the ultra-rich. When everything had to be copied by hand, written documents were rare, and therefore expensive. Then the printing press came along. Later, the paperback. Books became cheaper, easier to produce.

Once, writing in a public forum was a privilege. You needed permission, an editor’s stamp of approval, to publish anything from a news story to an op-ed piece. Today, anyone can have a platform. Putting your thoughts out into the public realm is becoming a basic right. Now, if only ideas could become cheaper, or easier to produce.

Everything’s changed, and yet nothing has changed.

At the 3rd annual Science Writing Symposium on Tuesday, three great science writers discussed the changes that the Internet, blogs, and social media have brought to their field.

Carl Zimmer has been blogging since 2002, and is the author of 10 science books.

Ed Yong uses his blog to write about “the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science.”

Hilary Rosner just started working on a new blog. She’s a freelance journalist, specializing in science and the environment.

In 1998, there were roughly 23 blogs on the Internet. By 2011, that number had increased to 156 million. As the number of “citizen journalists” has increased, and as professional journalists have joined their ranks, the bloggers’ sphere of influence has increased.

The stereotype of the blogger is a pajama-clad outcast writing from the comfort of his mother’s basement, but plenty of blogs are written by professional scientists, like Derek Lowe, a chemist working in the pharmaceutical industry, or astronomer Phil Plait. Graduate students are also trying their hand at blogging, and the quartet that writes for We, Beasties proves that you can be both a scientist and a writer.

Blogs and the Internet offer writers of all stripes opportunities to innovate. First off, bloggers can explore stories that they might not be able to sell to a traditional publication. Secondly, their method of storytelling can be crafted to the unique project at hand. The Internet utilizes extremely short forms (the 140-character tweet) in addition to longer forms (The Atavist won’t consider an article of less than 20,000 words). Also, writers with no knowledge of computer programming have access to a huge range of free tools for adding multimedia to their sites. You can create an interactive timeline for your blog post using Dippity, or add a collage you made on Vuvox. “That is the future. It’s gonna be experiments,” Zimmer said. “We can all take part in those experiments.”

Blogging can also lead to better interaction between scientists and lay people. After Yong wrote a post about “weird, sexually ambiguous chickens,” he received an email from a farmer who had one of the critters, and was able to foster a collaboration between said farmer and a scientist on another continent. The researcher gets a rare animal to study, the farmer gets to be involved in science, and Yong jokes that he should get co-authorship should their research ever appear in Nature.

All the writers agreed that blogging makes journalism more of a meritocracy. Talented new bloggers will get noticed, because even with space to fill and an interactive timeline, great ideas and great stories are just as treasured as ever.

Rosner summed up the panel’s mood quite nicely when she said, “Things have never been as much fun as they are now.”

The panel convinced me that social media is helping both journalists and scientists. And yet, I never felt like they delivered on the second half of the title. How is the Internet changing science writing? What is it really accomplishing in terms of reaching out to a wider public. The panel mentioned that social media is often accused of creating “fjords,” where members of one ideological community get into a very deep conversation about a topic, but never come into any dissenting opinions from people over in the next fjord (or at least, not any dissenting opinions that they’re willing to take seriously). The speakers sort of brushed off the idea that they were only talking to people who already shared their interests and viewpoints, which was very much a missed opportunity from my point of view.

The talk brought up the same questions that I’ve had since I started studying writing: why are we doing this and who are we reaching? The people who read science blogs, like the people who read science-specific magazines, are the kind of people who are already interested in science. When we’re surrounded by other people who really care about science and communication, whether it’s at a dinner or on a website, it’s sometimes hard to remember that a huge portion of the population cares about neither of those things, and that as hard as it’s going to be to reach those people, they have to be our target audience they are the target audience of any truly effective science writing.

So, as writers and scientists, why should we care about these people at all? Because they really are part of our community, with the same right to vote, to run for public office, and to cultivate their own views among others. It’s astounding, but true, that a single evangelical dentist from Texas can dictate what school children all across the country learn about science or social studies. These are the people we most need to reach, whether we do it through newsprint or tweets. I don’t know how to do that. I’m not sure anyone else does either. But I wish we had spent part of the evening trying to figure it out.

Bloggers have all these great new toys. I hope they stretch out of their comfort zones and use them to accomplish great new things.

A live stream video carried the conversation past the walls of the MIT museum and into cyberspace. If you missed it, there’s still time to check it out.

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