Its late and I’m rambling about Scienceblogs

I continue to have some discussions in comments of my Scienceblogs post that results in a treatise on my part. Greg Laden is the most recent victim of my verbosity – he has a great blog.

And, as with the previous reply to David Croty, I’ve decided to put it up as a post. Mainly because I wrote so much that it deserves more recognition with its own title, for instance. Plus it is very late and I do not feel like cutting it all down. I hope it looks okay in the morning.

So I make it a post. But it covers some more of my thoughts about the community that has been forming at Scienceblogs and where it will go from here.

First, Greg’s comment:

Just to expand on the point a little: For the most part, Scienceblogs has been explicitly non-communal. It is a network, there are communication channels (but not used by most bloggers) and things do get organized now and then (like a fundraising drive that about 20% of the blgogers engage in every year).

This is all very much on purpose. We blog as indy bloggers, and the ‘overlords’ (Seed’s Sb staff) organize all this internal network wide link love (reader’s picks, ed’s picks, most active, Page 3.14, the front page, 24 hour page, RSS feeds, etc.) and make links between things like NYT and NGS. But as bloggers, we’re just blogging away.

In once sense, I would say that PepsiBlawg Gate was an example of a “community” forming out of a thing that really wasn’t much of a community because most bloggers had fairly negative feelings about the blog so some degree of organization happened.

It would be interesting in the end to look at the kinds of things people do and their reaction to the Pepsiblog. There may be some stark (and thus perhaps not really that interesting in the end) patterns there. For the most part, labby research scientists did not quit, journalists and book writers did, for instance. Which brings up a point that Bora has almost talked me out of but not quite yet: Journalistic modus operendi, ethics, etc. are fundamentally different than for scientists. Not saying one is better than the other … just that they are fondling different parts of the elephant.

Which is a thought I’ll leave you with but I don’t recommend keeping in your head for too long.

My reply:

Even though my connection with the Scienceblog community was as a reader and sometimes commenter, as a scientist I feel confident that I can provide an opinion (My family knows that I have an opinion on everything so maybe that is a personal trait rather than a professional one. But ‘as a scientist’ sounds better than ‘as a know-it-all’). Confident mainly because I have been a part of several real-life enactments of just such a ‘community’ of researchers, connected by weak ties, who, through a precipitating event by ‘outsiders,’ came together to take some sort of action.

So, I think to a certain degree we may be arguing semantics about what really defines a community. In large measure, Scienceblogs is a network with mostly weak ties, but with some links perhaps a little stronger than others. And while there was not a decided push to create a defined community with uniform rules, titles and positions, when humans work along the same lines, doing similar things – even in digital space – connections get made and a sense of comity starts to emerge.

Thus insider slang terms like Sciblings, blogchild and Overlords developed. You would see memes and arguments sweep through certain blogs. There obviously were some strong connections that provided rapid information transfer between Sciblings.

There was an nascent community just waiting for an event that would precipitate action, making many weak ties much stronger, while breaking some altogether.

In the instances I have been involved in, a bunch of independent-minded, “leave me alone to do my work” researchers came together because a decision was made by upper management that directly affected the scientists – a decision that was never discussed with them until AFTER it was made. The scientists were left out of any input in the decision, even though it affected every single one of them.

In each case, there was a rapid meeting called by the researchers to discuss what they should do. Scientists who had never been in the same room with each other were now discussing the proper response with each other. Action had to be taken and committees were formed.

Instead of a bunch of weakly tied people, there were now a lot of very strongly defined paths for communication.

Perhaps this is only an aspect of egomaniac researchers, who think they have to be informed beforehand about anything and have a part of every decision. I do not think so. I think it can happen with any community when the weak ties that are present are tugged by an outside “threat.”

Heck, I’ve seen it happen in neighborhoods when a new development appears on the city plans.

What I think happened with the PepsiBlawg Gate was a crystallization of a large fragment of the network because, to some, it became obvious that the reasons they had joined and maintained even weak ties in the network /community were in conflict with what the ‘Overlords’ wanted to do. The lack of communication, and the ‘disrespect’ that engendered, meant some sort of response was needed.

And I’ve been fascinated by that response, because it has taken many forms. Some people exited without any need for real consultation. Some did not begin to really think about it until others in the network/community that they respected made a decision – Bora being the strongest example. Still others, such as PZ, decided to take direct action and go on strike unless the ‘Overlords’ listened to them.

These are all ways one would expect different people in a community to respond to change. It is what I spend my days examining at SpreadingScience.

I do not think Scienceblogs will vanish. It’ll be different. I think there will be much more defined communication between members, with regular meetings between the bloggers and the people from Seed Media. Instead of an ad hoc sort of network/community, it may very well become a much more defined one. Like the taming of the Old West, it may be more or less attractive, depending on the outlook of the individual. The bloggers who left may very well continue to link and discuss things written on Scienceblogs. The reverse will also happen.

In effect, there will be a much wider network/community with some very strong, defined ties that were not present before. I expect other types of science blogging sites to become important – such as Science 2.0 and others. It’ll be great for most of the bloggers and their readers. It may just not be quite as optimal for Seed as it had been before when they virtually had cornered the market.

And that was kind of my point in the post. If Seed had been a little better about servicing its bloggers, it would have kept the market pretty much to itself. Now, not so much. Meaning that, as far as it might be concerned, there is a loss in value that might take some effort to recreate. Effort that it would not have needed if it had not ticked people off.

Finally, I think that the different viewpoints between scientific journalists and journalistic scientists makes for a much better description of the elephant than either alone. In any effective network/community, diversity of world views is a key part. It is very hard to solve complex problems over and over if everyone thinks the same way. It is the friction that arises from the different views that eventually allows us to make the wise decision.

Creating a sustainable community at Scienceblogs

community by D’Arcy Norman

I wrote this in response to a comment left by David Croty – who is one of the guys at the great site, The Scholarly Kitchen – at my previous post on the blowup at Scienceblogs.

The inherent problem is that the best interests of the company running the social network often are in direct opposition to the users of that social network. In the case of Facebook, their profits are going to be reliant on selling out the privacy of their users. In the case of ScienceBlogs, commercialization alienated the strongly anti-business, anti-industry members of their community and threatened their perceptions of themselves as an elite and well-respected group of experts.

One can, as you suggest, focus instead on serving those users but that’s a mighty difficult thing to monetize. If you’re a corporation with investors who would like to be paid back (like Seed Media), you need some way to make money. Perhaps running social networks will fall out of fashion as a profit-making enterprise due to these conflicts.

It was getting pretty long so I made it a post.

David, That is part of what I am trying to delineate. Scienceblogs went and created this community of blogs, hoping it would drive more traffic to their magazine and its website. But the magazine failed and the magazine website is not making nearly the inroads as the Scienceblogs are.

Seed Media simply did not realize that Scienceblogs had become this community – any group that can decide to strike is a community of people – with an focus independent of Seed..

Its business model for these blogs simply is not sustainable, even if it was full of pro-business, pro-industry people. Seed as looking for a bunch of well-written, independent voices. They got those in spades. The writers are always going to be independent, to the detriment of Seed when their motives conflict. Which it is almost bound to do because Seed’s focus was on getting advertising money, not on servicing the community created by the bloggers. A similar problem is seen in newspapers.

A better business model would be to find ways for the Scienceblogs to be sustainable in themselves, I can think of a couple of ways but it requires an organization quite different from something like Seed, which seems to be still trapped in the era of magazines and print.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult to monetize any sort of social community that is digital and open. It is not only too easy to create an ad hoc social community but, in the era of Web 2.0, it is too easy for members of the social network to leave and create another ad hoc community. The community want to support the community’s needs and wants, not necessarily the needs of the founding institution. Something Facebook would do well to consider.

So, where to make money? Well, if you have the right niche, you might make it by charging admission online. Essentially, the WSJ and science journals, such as Protocols, can do this and survive. They fulfill a need for a specific sort of information – which the community realizes costs money and is hard to create – and do not need the same network effects (think Metcalfe’s law) as Facebook to be successful.

Not so for Facebook and Scienceblogs. The content is easier to create and costs less to produce but it also harder to make sticky, holding onto readers in a way to make much money. So, how to create a sustainable business? Well, one way would be to make money on the things that can not be digitized – the human angle.

Thus, whoever takes control of nurturing the Scienceblogs community makes a business out of that by servicing the community it creates. How, and still make some money? Off the top of my head – have a yearly conference where they bring together their bloggers with the people who follow them. Perhaps take some of them out on tour. Looking at the successful nature of w00tstock, this can be a pretty interesting model. They could even host a scientific/non-scientific conference. Or a TED-like symposium. Or one on how to communicate science. Or one on atheism vs. religion. Or one on evolution. I would pay to see PZ and others. The bloggers could receive compensation for this and I would imagine the meetings could become quite popular.

And also realize that the community also encompasses all those that read these blogs. So, if people pay a yearly fee, they can get reduced prices to attend the symposia/meetings. Or maybe a special edition of The Best of Scienceblogs.

The point is that many of the creators of these blogs write about going to meetings or panels or debates. And many of the readers of these blogs would love first-hand contact with the bloggers. How about a business model where sponsoring these events is a money-making opportunity?

O’Reilly has a similar sort of model where it publishes specialized books for a variety of high tech communities but also puts on a set of conferences that bring together the various members of its communities. These are quite highly attended. The conferences drive book sales and the books drive the conferences.

Of course, this would require a very different organization than Seed currently occupies and may not be as interesting to some investors.

But, if a different set of investors wanted to produce a real organization that serviced the community it created (and probably have many more creative ideas that I can come up with), I think it could be sustainable.

I agree with you that organizations that simply make their money by online social networks will have a hard time because the profit motive often goes against the community’s wants. When that happens, the community may very well migrate somewhere else. To survive, Facebook and others may need to figure out ways to monetize servicing the community, not the advertisers.

Do not tick off the community you created if you want it to survive

science by o palsson  

Bora and PalMD leave ScienceBlogs: What to do now?
[Via Respectful Insolence]

I can’t believe it.

I really can’t believe it.

I really, really, really can’t believe it.

Bora has left ScienceBlogs.

Readers of just this blog probably don’t know what a body blow that is to the ScienceBlogs collective. Readers of multiple ScienceBlogs probably realize that Bora was the proverbial heart and soul of ScienceBlogs. It’s news that’s left Isis the Scientist speechless and GrrlScientist “deeply upset.” Even ScienceBlogs’ big macher PZ Myers has pointed out how Bora compared the situation here to to Bion’s Effect, where the departure of a few people at a party triggers a sudden end to the event. I don’t know whether Bora’s departure is the seismic shift that leads to the collapse of Sb or not, but I do know that it’s a wake up call to me that maybe I was too quick to go back to business as usual after our corporate overlords decided to invite a corporate blog to be added to the Sb stable as co-equals with the rest of us, hopelessly blurring the line between content and advertising.

Why is this such a big deal?


A few days ago, I discussed how an ad hoc community – the Tour de France peloton – controls group behavior. I also made a mention of how the group deals with perceived outside interference. In the case of the Tour, the peloton adopted a behavior that benefited the group, to the detriment of individuals or the outsiders.

Here, we also see some behavior dealing with external interference. In this case, it was the inclusion of a blog that was bought by a corporation in order to provide its own views, without any real communication with the community about what was happening.

The group did not take well at all to this event at all. Read Bora’s post to get an idea of what happened and why these responses are being made.

What we have here is somewhat the opposite of the group coming together and getting stronger in response to outsiders. The group is, in response, may breaking apart. In part, this may be due to the particular instance – the inclusion of a new member actually undercut the entire reason for the group to exist. But it is also due to the same technologies that make it so easy for ad hoc groups to form.

Scienceblogs is a great example of the benefits and perils of technology. Ad hoc groups can be created very easily. Seed Media did this and worked to create a community that would support and attract people who would allow it to stay in business.

Now it appears to have messed things up by forgetting that in a Web 2.0 world, the community must be served first or it will leave.

The people of the community were creating all this content because they enjoyed the community, not because they made a lot of money or wanted Seed to make a lot of money. Most had other careers. They wrote at Scienceblogs because of the network of people they were a part of.

Apparently the managers of Seed did not really understand why it was that these people were even there. They needed to make some money and completely ticked off the community with their ham-handed process. They forgot who there real customers were.

Most media still think that servicing advertisers is the bedrock of their business. But, for businesses who require networks to survive, servicing the network is paramount. Without the bloggers, there is not Scienceblogs, no matter how much advertisers are feted.

Technology makes an ad-hoc community really easy to create. And it makes it really easy for the community to change its mind, for individuals to leave and aggregate at a new community if they are not happy.

Compare where Facebook and MySpace were 3 years ago to their relative popularity now. The same will befall Facebook if it forgets this.

I think that while Scienceblogs will survive, it will never again be THE place for people who write about science. Already other sites, such as Field of Science and Genomes Unzipped, are picking up new people.

I imagine that we will now have several well-connected networks of blogs about science, providing greater diversity and wider ranges of information to move around. Technology will not make it much more difficult for readers for read – adding Field of Science’s RSS feed to my aggregator adds minimally to my daily efforts.

The only one really harmed here, in the long run, will be Seed. The bloggers can easily become parts of other networks, taking the readers, eyeballs and advertisers with them. There will just be fewer for Scienceblogs to use to support itself.

Tour de France as a community

peloton by mikebaird

Contador needs to let Schleck beat him tomorrow in order to win.

Contador may have to make abeyance to the peloton for what he did today. Otherwise, there could be some really dangerous times ahead for him. The peloton is not happy. I think he may purposefully give back the yellow jersey tomorrow to Schleck.

Contador, who is such a good time trialist that he can probably overcome a 90 second deficit in the last time trial later this week, broke a major peloton rule today. The yellow jersey, Andy Schleck, attacked on a steep hill and slipped a gear, forcing him to stop. I have watched the replays several times to see what happened next.

The ‘rules’ state that no one else attacks until the yellow jersey regains his bike. You do not take unfair advantage just so you can wear the yellow jersey. Another rider, Alexandre Vinokourov, had been sprinting with Schleck. He immediately slowed down. As expected.

Not Contador. From several meters behind Schleck, he attacked hard, passing the yellow jersey and continued on. By doing this he violated the rules and put himself into the yellow jersey at the end of the day. Schleck tried hard to come back but was not allowed to by Contador.

Interestingly, Vinokourov showed the honor and respect usually displayed by race leaders. He is on the same team as Contador and could have kept up with him. Having a teammate along with him would have helped Contador gain even more time.

Instead, Vinkourov finished in the same time as Schleck. He did not take advantage of the mechanical failure. He followed the ‘rules.’

When Contador put on the yellow jersey, I heard audible boos from the crowd, the first time I had ever heard such a thing. There was a lot of unhappiness all around.

Contador is only 8 seconds ahead of Schleck. He should be able to make up a lot of time in the time trial. Tomorrow, he could sit back and let Schleck pick up 30 seconds or so, putting things back to where they were. Schleck puts on the yellow jersey, things are back to normal, the peloton is happy and Contador comes out looking great, displaying the honor and leadership the peloton looks for.

And he can still win it all at the Time Trial.

Contador has shown himself capable of fixing things when he breaks a rule. He did this on an earlier stage when circumstances made him pass and beat a teammate, one who had been out in front for some time. A Tour leader does not need to win every stage to win the Tour and usually the other team members are allowed to win a stage to reward them. But Contador took that away from his own teammate, who was visibly unhappy at the result.

What happened the next stage? Contador and the other team members made sure that this unhappy teammate was rewarded. They made sure he won the next stage.

Interestingly, the unhappy teammate was Vinokourov, the same one who followed the rules today. Perhaps Contador will again fix things. That would be really amazing.

Now what is all of this about ‘rules’, unhappy pelotons, leadership and what not? Isn’t everyone out to win, everyman for themselves?

Not the Tour de France. In order to just survive without major injuries, the peloton has to operate as a community, protecting its members and allowing all sorts of unspoken rules to develop. Without this, there would be very few racers who would survive to the end. Every man for themselves would result in massive numbers of injuries, deaths and few racers surviving to Paris.

No one would enter a race that they would most likely not survive.

I have been following the Tour for over 30 years, before Armstrong, before Lemond, even before TV coverage in the US. Cycling is a perfect example of all that is great and all that is horrendous in sport. The riders have done everything they can to provide unfair advantages for themselves before the race – every drug in the world has been used.

Yet, during the race, when there would be all sorts of opportunities to take unfair advantage in order to win, we seldom see any. And when it does happen, the riders usually take some very direct action to demonstrate their unhappiness.

The peloton, once it really forms, creates a traveling community, an ad hoc social network, one that has its own rules and own enforcement in order to make sure no one breaks the rules of the community.

Any group of 200 or so people all focussed on a common goal will develop very similar characteristics. Add in tremendous personal dangers and you will often find a community that develops its own rules and viewpoints in order to adapt and survive. They can only survive if all the members of the community recognize the rules and characteristics that develop.

In the Tour, some characteristics that always seem to be there are ones of character, respect, phlegmatic outlook and honor. Lacking these, I do not believe the peloton could survive the 3 weeks of the Tour without complete disintegration. In order to make it through so many of grueling physical endeavors, the Tour and the peloton select for individuals that respond by developing these three traits.

These men race up to 100 km/hr in a physically draining sport that can produce horrendous bodily damage and even death. It would be very easy for unscrupulous riders to move themselves up in the peloton by knocking people over, etc. There are plenty of opportunities to do this over 3 weeks. Think of NASCAR over a three week period with races along shear cliffs.

They have to trust in the character of the other riders because even a short lapse in attention can wreck havoc with everyone.

They have to respect the abilities of others because their survival in the race could depend on those abilities.

They have to be able to keep strong emotions in check because real anger can result in violent injuries to others. Road rage produces a rider that simply will not make it through the entire Tour and represents a danger to others.

They have to honor those that are simply better because dishonor and disrespect open up pathways for really serious physical injury and complete destruction of the community formed in the Tour.

Riders that are unable to display these traits will be quickly displaced by the members of the community, if the peloton hopes to survive to Paris. When riding at high speeds right on the wheel of another rider, they have to know that nothing stupid will happen.

And lots of stupid things happen early on in every Tour, as the community is forming. This is when all the crashes happen, as the community begins to figure out who will help it survive. This is always the most dangerous time.

But always things rapidly change. The peloton adapts, developing the characteristics necessary to make it to Paris. There are very few Tours where there have been major crashes involving large parts of the peloton late in the race. The little community has adapted and can just race at high speeds.

The peloton knows which riders to stay away from when in a dangerous situation (often these members are relegated to the back or simply do not finish the Tour) , which ones can be counted on to show courage and honor, to protect themselves and others. Inevitably, the entire group recognizes those who make it safe to really compete and those who can be dangerous.

This Tour has been a little different in some ways. In particular, it had the nasty cobblestone section early, which would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. Happening before the peloton had really gotten together, it permitted lots of dangerous actions to occur, which had major consequences for the leaders. If the cobblestones had happened later in the race, I do not expect quite as much havoc to have occurred.

The peloton was not happy. It demonstrated its displease with the outsiders – the Tour organizers – the next day by purposefully not racing. They organized themselves to simply cross the line together, with no winners. Several of the sprinters were visibly upset that they could not sprint at the end but they knew better – do not go against the wishes of the peloton if you want to be allowed to be a member.

Strong social mores had already developed, controlling the behaviors of all the members of this community.

In a later race, we had a racer – Renshaw – do something really dangerous in order to help his teammate win. In a full sprint, where 10-20 racers are moving at full speed to the finish, he looked back, slowed down and looked to purposefully move over to drive a competitor against the wall. At the 50-60 km/hr these guys are going, this was an incredibly dangerous thing to do.

Almost all the sprinters were rightly upset at this incredibly dangerous move. They have to trust that the other sprinters will not be trying to kill them. He endangered all of them with his unfair behavior. There had to be some response to this blatant attempt to destroy the collegiality of the group.

Renshaw was disqualified from the race, totally removed from the Tour community. His flouting of the ‘rules’ of the peloton resulted in his removal. Possibly for his own good. As we saw earlier, the peloton can take things into its own hands if need be.

Now, one the the other ‘rules’ of the peloton is that you do not take advantage of the man in yellow if he suffers a mechanical failure. There is honor and respect that goes to the main in yellow. Taking an unfair advantage is actually dangerous for the peloton. It creates doubt in the peloton for the character of other racers. ‘If they will do this to win, what else will they do?’

When individuals in the peloton begin to doubt the leaders, the possible disintegration of the community emerges. And if that happens, there can be some serious injuries ahead.

I think that in order to maintain the community of the peloton, Contador must do something. If he fails to recognize his breaking of the rule, even if it was unintentional, he risks a disintegration of the peloton and a really dangerous situation. Every man for themselves is a recipe for real disaster for the racers.

There are all sorts of ways the peloton can show its displeasure, in ways quite harmful for Contador and his team.

Contador can easily appease the peloton without doing any real damage for his chances. SImply let Schleck win tomorrow by more than 8 seconds. He can put Schleck back in the yellow, recognizing the tremendous work the other racer has done, without really hurting his chances for a win.

Otherwise, he really risks a lot. Not just this year but in future Tours. He may never really be trusted by the peloton ever again.

Good meetings are a community affair

meeting by clagnut

Death by committee. Rethinking the art of getting things done.
[Via Creativity Central]

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours” – Milton Berle

Who would have thought that Uncle Miltie would be the voice of common sense when it came to that hallowed gathering of people called the committee.

Lewis Thomas, the late great physician, poet, administrator (Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine and President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute) and sublime essayist — wrote a telling and insightful essay called On Committees.

“The marks of selfness are laid out in our behavior irreversibly, unequivocally, whether we are assembled in groups or off on a stroll alone…thus when committees gather, each member is necessarily an actor, uncontrollably acting out the part of himself, reading the lines that identify his identity.

This takes quite a lot of time and energy, and while it is going on there is little chance of anything else getting done.

Many committees have been appointed in one year and go on working well into the next decade, with nothing much happening beyond these extended uninterruptable displays by each member of his special behavioral marks.

If it were not for such compulsive behavior by the individuals, committees would be a marvelous invention for getting collective thinking done.

But there it is. We are designed, coded, it seems, to place the highest priority on being individuals, and we must do this first, even if it means disability for the group.”

Thomas, owing to the breadth of his experience in academia and the government, probably spent more hours in committees than was humanly possible.

The questions he posed nearly twenty years ago are still relevant. How might we improve how committees work. He cited work done by the RAND Corporation in the ‘60s called the Delphi Technique. Which is an elongated version of what we now call the Idea Exchange.

Members would answer key questions individually. Answers would be circulated to all members as a catalyst to refine their answers again. After three cycles, they would discuss as much of a consensus as could have been reached.

The process worked well because it mitigated somewhat, the need for “self” performance. Thomas continues “What Delphi is, is a really quiet, thoughtful conversation, in which everyone gets a chance to listen. The background noise of small talk, and the recurrent sonic boom of vanity are eliminated from the outset and there is time to think.”   


Good committee function is a necessary requirement for any sort of adaptive company. Successful meetings must be actively facilitated, either by trained specialists (not often) or by properly educated members of the committee.

Also, there needs to be a strong negative feedback that strives to get rid of meetings. Meetings need to have a defined purpose, one that either deals with short-term emergencies or regular information transfer.

It needs to be cultural.

When I was working at the bench, we would have meetings twice a month for each project. Since most of us were working on 2 or more projects, you could easily have to be ready for two meetings a week. Including prep time, this could be a lot of time and productivity lost to meetings.

The project chairs ran each meeting and the purpose of the meeting was purely information transfer. It was up to the project chairs to fill the time and if it was not filled in a productive fashion, they heard about it. They were to make the meetings worth OUR while, not purely to stroke their own egos.

We all felt it was better to cancel a meeting than to get everyone together for a lot of unimportant drivel.

We worked to kill unproductive meetings. We all did.

Organizations need to strongly present controls on meetings that serve no useful purpose. They need to permit people to stand up in a meeting and ask “Why are we here?” and require the members to have strong reasons for attending.

Meetings, when done well, are incredibly important. They can rapidly collapse social networks, providing huge amounts of information to rapidly traverse the organization. As the above post stated:

The best committees I have participated in or led, have immediate (urgency) goals. This ad-hoc, short term approach energizes the group.

When AgriLife Communications as Texas A&M University was faced with preparing Texas communities for two destructive hurricanes — the result was some remarkable, effective work across an entire state in very little time.

Build accountability into every meeting. Set a goal for that meeting and designate an individual to evaluate that meeting for immediate and actionable feedback.

It is up to everyone to make sure meetings are more than a waste of time. Simply getting together is not good enough. it is an active process.

And when done well in this fashion, there are few processes that can create a successfully adaptive organizations faster.