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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

The Road to Scientopia

John Rennie

The constructive chaos triggered by the PepsiCo fiasco at continues to evolve, in ways that I have to hope will ultimately be to the advantage of bloggers, scientists and the science-reading public alike. The latest evidence is that as of 10:00 a.m. EDT today, there’s a new game in town:, “a new blogging collective to educate and entertain anyone interested in eclectic voices of science,” according to the press release announcing its launch (emphasis added).

We invite the world to ponder, argue, converse, and laugh along with us. Each blog is produced by an individual or group that retains complete editorial control of its own content. Some bloggers are moving from other networks; others are creating new blogs. At launch Scientopia will consist of 24 blogs, including the following:

The Urban Ethnographer ( Krystal D’Costa

This Scientific Life ( GrrlScientist, formerly of Living the Scientific Life, and Bob O'Hara

Skulls in the Stars ( Greg Gbur

Adventures in Ethics & Science ( Janet Stemwedel

Good Math, Bad Math ( Mark Chu-Carroll

WhizBANG! ( Pascale Lane

The complete listings can be found on the home page. More blogs will be added in the months to follow.

The Scientopia network is more than a collection of individuals: it's a scientific community. It serves the common goals of sharing our love of science, while respecting the diverse interests of its members. At Scientopia, the community -- of bloggers and readers, engaging with science and each other -- is not a side effect. It's the whole point.

To my mind, that last part about community is the most important, and the one that bears most strongly on the raison d’etre for blogging networks. Individual blogs with their individual authors’ voices can link to one another informally as easily as networked ones can; they can encourage cross-talk and mutual traffic, too, in loose alliances. So why have the formal structure of a network at all?

Part of the answer is of course practical: having an organized network can spare some of the authors the technical headaches and redundant costs of being on their own, and some uniformity of presentation and layout (if it’s good) can be beneficial. But the real advantages, which are less easily defined ahead of time, have to come out of the ongoing association and conversation among the bloggers. They have to figure out collectively what makes them a true community where synergies are even possible. Do they all share a similar set of values or interests? Can they find practical ways to advance the cause of the network beyond pushing their own blogs? Is there a shared identity of some sort for the network that gives the individual bloggers room to breathe?

This is the gauntlet thrown down for all blogging networks, not just scientific ones. If Virginia Heffernan’s recent column in the New York Times reacting to Scienceblogs and the PepsiCo mess (in which she made several ill-informed assertions) contained any point worth considering, it was that Scienceblogs had become so motley in its offerings that visitors to the site—and maybe even some of the bloggers there—might not know what to expect. Nothing is wrong with variety and diversity, of course, but it’s easy to believe that bloggers might not always be comfortable with the direction that some of their neighbors or the network as a whole might seem to be taking.

Maybe such tensions are inevitable in any mixed network beyond a given size; maybe they are even good in the long run. What the fracturing of Scienceblogs and the formation of new networks promises, though, is the possibility of new experiments in community within the theme of science blogging. I’ll be very curious to see how Scientopia’s efforts pay off, and certainly wish them all success.

Lest anyone doubt that Scientopia’s formation was directly shaped by the unmarked advertorial misadventure at Scienceblogs, the release also notes that, “When the networks run with commercial interests in mind, the priorities of the bloggers and readers can get lost. Some bloggers began to wonder: what would happen if the bloggers and their readers came first? From this discussion sprung”

Just so. Of course, the long-term commercial viability of science blogging (or of networked blogging in general, or of individual blogging in general, for that matter) is all still up in the air, as so much of commercial media is these days. But it sounds like making money at science blogging isn’t the primary objective of the Scientopia folks: they just want to converse well about exciting topics in science. And if that’s utopian thinking, then that’s a dream I’m happy to share.

Update: Bora Z. has added his own welcome for Scientopia at the new digs of A Blog Around the Block, which includes a nice summary of the latest whereabouts of many former Sciblings.