I have been blogging here at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word for 7 years this month! Thank you to everyone who has read and shared my posts over the years!
I remember registering this site, keeping it private and then sitting on it until I decided if it was a good idea. Eventually I gave up deciding and wrote my first post…and I’m glad I did.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about ecology blogging over the years:
What is an Ecology blog? Ecology blogs weren’t really a ‘thing’ when I started, so I had no baseline to work off. And not much has changed, according to a Google trends search for “ecology blogs” vs. “science blogs”. The red line is ‘ecology blogs’ (i.e. no data):
If you ask bloggers and readers, everyone has different opinions on what an ecology blog is. Some ecology blogs are academics writing about doing ecology for their peers; some explain ecological science or application to a general audience; some do both. I prefer audience diversity so I aim for both. But I get far more engagement from non-academic audiences, which I love (see my top posts below). I think it really helps to start blogging with a particular audience in mind, but it’s also okay if that changes over time.
The Ecology blogosphere is dominated by the northern hemisphere. There are very few regular ecology blogs written by researchers from the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia. (And I mean scientists that actually blog, not just use a blog site to promote new publications and lab opportunities). I’m not sure why science blogging is less popular down under. Perhaps blogging in general is northern hemisphere-dominated? Natural history blogs have an active blogosphere in Australia, and New Zealand has a great science communication scene (e.g. SciBlogs, Auckland Ecology, Lincoln Ecology). But there’s plenty of room for enhancement. Come on Gondwanans, let’s show the northern hemisphere how to do ecology blogs!
More ecologists need to do science communication. Ecology has a bit of an image problem, partly because mainstream media consistently separates environmental stories from science stories. Most of the recent ‘top 10’ lists of science bloggers/social media users published by high-profile media/identities don’t include ecologists. Blogs are useful and valued, but not used enough – this recent paper found that 92% of scientists read blogs, 89% thought blogs were useful for science communication, slightly less (84%) shared posts with colleagues, and only 50% had written a blog themselves.
Start blogging as a PhD student. There are so many benefits to blogging during your PhD (e.g. here, here, here). I started blogging just before I started my PhD and I’m glad I did – blogging was an important creative outlet for my mental health during the PhD. Hitting ‘publish’ was a little moment of success to balance out the stresses and failures of data analysis, paper rejections and moments of imposter syndrome. And as an isolated PhD student (at a regional uni, in a very small lab, with no other PhD colleagues researching in my general field) my blog was a great way to connect with a like-minded community. And throw out the ‘how to’ guides for science writing…regular practice at condensing an argument into less than 1000 words is the easiest way to improve your writing skills! Most importantly, keep posting regularly and your blog audience will grow with your career, giving you time and space to learn from mistakes.
Content or A Blog? Audiences grow via interaction effects, not additively. I think this is because people tend to engage with content that interests them, rather than particular sites. The number of shares depends on the number and type of subscribed readers, and vice versa. According to my recent Twitter poll (with a very small sample size), most Twitter users find blogs through shares, rather than relying on ‘Follow’ buttons to read blogs. I suspect this trend is similar beyond Twitter. So, maintaining a blog means rolling with fickle audiences…and publishing elsewhere to build a presence and gain respect as a communicator. My articles in other media have been read and shared more widely than anything I’ve written on my blog, and I suspect the majority of those readers haven’t seen my blog at all. Focusing on writing good content is more important than worrying about your stats.
Blogs need social media partners to expand an audience. I saw this firsthand when I joined Twitter after already blogging for a few years. I suspect this is because most people use only a couple of social media platforms regularly. But there are more than 50 different platforms available. Since I took over curating Best Eco Blogs (created by Ian Lunt) a few months ago, I’ve noticed how much audiences can vary across social media. The Best Eco feed posts a story twice daily, with each story appearing about the same time on Facebook & Twitter. Statistically, there appears to be no difference between overall engagements*, but individual posts can have vastly different audiences. For example, this story about honey possums has received 19 engagements on Twitter and half as many on FB (data as of today); while this article about oral cultural traditions received about 35 engagements on FB and only 5 on Twitter. Bloggers need to be active on at least 1 other social media if they want to build an audience.
Treat your blog like your publication record. Your blog is part of your scientific identity. That means it will influence people’s impressions of you, including future collaborators and employers. Don’t write what you wouldn’t write in a paper or say to your colleagues’ faces; link to sources for any statements that aren’t yours; and share your peers’ blogs (you can do this just by ‘liking’ their post). And remember no idea is original, because there are plenty of people that have been blogging longer than you. When you start writing a post, Google around to find out if anyone else has blogged about this before (tip: just add the word ‘blog’ to any topic search) and link to their blogs too.
My top 3 posts of all time. Great to know that people care about ecology and natural history!
And check out some other awesome ecology blogs in my blogroll on the right of this page.
* Data collected 24 October 2016 for the last 2 weeks (1-22 October 2016), n = 42 posts: moderate correlation between FB & Twitter engagements, rs = 0.42, p = 0.006; no difference between engagements between platforms, (paired) Wilcoxon W = 525, p = 0.12.
© Manu Saunders 2016