This is that mandatory post that blog writers write once they’ve been blogging for a year. I started Ecology Bits about a year ago (I’m not a stickler for exact dates) and here’s my take on what it’s been like to be writing in the ecology blogosphere. (Yes, it does, too, exist.)
One thing that I thought — and still think — is missing from the ecology blogosphere is the voice of early career scientists. And in particular, postdocs. But blogging as a postdoc can be a bit scary, because putting your opinion out there might be risky to future job prospects. I think many potential postdoc bloggers see it as some risk with little reward. I tend towards risk-prone and I have a need to write, so I went for it anyway. And in my experience — with just a year of blogging under my belt — the rewards of blogging are many and potentially particularly large for postdocs and other early-career people who are just starting to form a scientific reputation.
Here are some things that surprised me about academic blogging:
The time investment was greater than I expected. My goal in starting out was to blog about once per week on Wednesdays. I had a #50posts goal. From having written science outreach blogs, I figured that each post should be about 500 words long. That was a good bite-sized length for conveying science things to non-scientists with enough depth to be meaningful, but not so long as to lose people’s interest. But almost none of my Ecology Bits posts are that short. Most are around 1000 words, some get up to 2000. It turns out that I tend to want to write longer pieces that have more nuance to them. And it turns out people are willing to read 1000 words at a time. The result is that while I did write 48 posts in my first year (and some partial drafts of unpublished posts), writing them took longer than I expected. Perhaps an hour or more apiece. What that meant is that when I had deadlines or big things going on in my personal life, the blog is what got dropped. And I’m okay with that.
People actually read what I write. I don’t really mind blogging for an audience of one. Long ago when blogging was fairly new, I wrote a travel blog that was mainly aimed at and read by my family. Writing Ecology Bits, I figured that at least a couple other blog writers would check it out. But I’ve been delightfully surprised. On average, at least 300 people read each of my posts. (“Read” meaning visit the page, since I don’t have any way of knowing how much is actually read.) And it turns out that a variety of topics hold people’s interests. My most-read posts are on open data, family planning, an Excel bug, and advice for postdocs and grad students.
I started using Twitter as the result of having a blog. I had an account on Twitter and lurked occasionally and had participated in the 2015 March Mammal Madness. But I wasn’t a Twitter user. That changed with the blog, in large part because some discussion of some posts happened on Twitter and not in the blog comments. As I began following my readers, I was introduced to more perspectives on science and sciencing. I began to be involved in discussions and cheerings-on and consolations and eventually discovered there were enough interested ecologists to start an online book club. I found a community. It’s been enlightening.
Having a blog forced me to create a professional website. I wanted to have a blog, but I didn’t want my online presence to be defined by it. Part of this is due to the unease of blogging as a postdoc. So while I had planned to put together a professional website, starting the blog really kicked me into taking the personal website seriously. Having a personal website has then meant that I’ve been found for reviewing purposes (including paid reviewing) and it’s helped me define my research program.
I’ve become “known” to some fraction of the ecology community. At the ESA Meeting in Fort Lauderdale this past summer, several people that I was just meeting for the first time told me they enjoyed reading my blog. That is a really weird — and really satisfying — thing to hear. (In talking to other bloggers, this is apparently a common experience.) I was asked to lunch by a grad student blogger who enjoyed reading my blog. When my graduate advisor (who definitely doesn’t read blogs) told me on the phone that he heard I was “writing some things on the Internet” and to keep it up, I realized that some of my blog posts were being mentioned and discussed offline. Very satisfying. And I feel a certain camaraderie with other blog writers, many of whom are also on Twitter.
I’ve been more willing to comment on other blogs. By having a defined presence as a blogger, I’ve felt emboldened to comment on other blogs. What I mean is that I’m not worried that I’m only going to be defined by my comments, but rather a larger corpus of online material. One day, while procrastinating, I read and commented on a Chronicle of Higher Education piece. In my comment, I expressed an opinion and linked to a few of my own blog posts to support that opinion. Within a couple days, the original writer contacted me and we had an interesting email discussion. Separately, an editor from another publication saw my comment and the linked posts and must have been impressed, because she asked me to write a new piece for her publication. I agreed and we are working on that piece now.
I had a post that went viral. One Wednesday in March, I turned on my computer only to discover a bazillion emails in my inbox — all from Twitter. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Something happened.” I quickly realized that my post on the problem of multiple moves for the early career academic had touched a nerve and was being shared widely. After turning off Twitter email notifications, I spent the morning marveling at how quickly the post was being read. It was surreal — and a little scary, as the post broke outside what I saw as my safe little ecology bubble. By the end of the day, it had been read more than 9,000 times, and as of now has been read 26,500 times. And that’s just on Ecology Bits. A couple days after the initial post, an editor for Inside Higher Ed approached me about publishing on their site. A slightly modified version was published in April, and they paid me for it. Based on the number of comments and using the 1%-of-readers-comment rule, it’s likely that this one piece has been read more than 50,000 times on both sites combined. I find that amazing. More satisfying than that, though, have been the many comments — both on the posts and via Twitter — of thanks: “Thank you for putting this into words. It’s so hard. I’m moving again.”
In summary, writing Ecology Bits has been a surprisingly good experience this past year. I have met many people I wouldn’t have otherwise — both in person and online. I have felt welcomed by an online ecology community that spans blogs, Twitter, and video conference, and very smoothly translates into in-person relationships. The blog has opened doors to more writing. It has increased my income. And it has had a positive effect on my professional life by increasing my visibility and forcing me to define my online presence. I hope this year that more ecology postdocs take the challenge to put their voices out there. The ecology community needs to hear us and it can be a great experience personally.