Blogging Transitions – some initial thoughts

People change, and thus, so will their blogs. The issues that arise from this fact are being addressed by a session at ScienceOnline, co-hosted by Sciencewoman and Propter Doc, entitled ‘Transitions – changing your online persona as your real life changes’

As you move from high school to college, then to grad school and postdoc, and finally get a job in academia or elsewhere, you leave your name (and thoughts and pictures) all over the Web. When you are blogging as a student or postdoc, your style and choice of topics probably reflects your position in the Academia. How do you change your blog once you get hired (without alienating your regular readers) so it works for you in your new position? How do you manage your online persona so what is out there on the Web about you reflects what you do at the moment and not the shady past?

This is a timely subject: right now, the vast majority of bloggers have probably only been at it for at most two or three years, and probably only a tiny minority have kept it up for 5 years or more. In the future, it’s likely that more and more people are going to have to confront the fact that having established a voice for themselves, and found a community of like-minded bloggers, readers and commentators, that circumstances – or they – have changed. As Sciencewoman puts it:

Then, WHAM! You defend your thesis. Or you get a new job. You have a baby. Or get a divorce. You move to a new continent. Your blog gets assimilated by a Borg. Or you decide to come out of the pseudonymous closet.

Suddenly, you find you’ve lost some confidence in your writing. Maybe your usual stream of topics has been cut off. Maybe you worry about the appropriateness of your blogging in your new professional capacity.Maybe all your attention has been shifted to a topic that you aren’t sure would interest your readers. Maybe your audience is suddenly intimidatingly large or less supportive than before.

What do you do? You can’t go back to the way things were. Your life or your blog has crossed a threshold, and now you are having “relationship issues” with it. How do you get your blog, your life, and your career to play nice with each other again? How do you make your blog work for you as you shape your professional and personal identity?

SW and Propter Doc have asked me to contribute some thoughts on this topic for their session. My blogging trajectory contrasts with theirs: I dropped my anonymity long before I had more than about 5 readers, and blog about my particular -ology with a light sprinkling of wider academic and career topics, whereas they both write primarily about career development and structural issues in academia under their respective pseudonyms. So I’m going to do my best, but in a way what I’m going to do here is throw a few thoughts out there which hopefully you guys will discuss, rebut or refine for me, so I can actually contribute something meaningful to this session. So please comment, I’ll push what I can into the discussion at the conference, and report back afterwards.
Blogging choices and anonymity. Many people who blog about academia and careers do so anonymously, using a distinct and separate online persona. There are cogent reasons for doing so, especially if you’re casting a rather jaundiced eye over the academic landscape. Although you can never entirely ensure your anonymity, it is possible, with care, to avoid “outing” yourself to the casual browser. However, if you want to start talking about your science, you should bear in mind the fact that before too long, you’re going to provide more than enough information to uniquely identify yourself. In my case, I’ve written about palaeomagnetism. I’ve written about working in New Zealand and South Africa. I’ve written about field trips I’ve been on, and conferences I’ve attended. Even if I hadn’t put my name up in lights, I might as well have done. Primarily academic bloggers feeling the science communication itch should realise that one transition might force another – possibly less desirable – one.
Your blog as a career tool. As a counterpoint to the above, as far as I can tell most of my colleagues are completely unaware of my online activities. Earth Scientists as a tribe do seem to have been a little slow to get on board with this Interweb thing, which might contribute to my feeling that I’m still under the radar despite not hiding my blogging activities. But we may all be overestimating science blogging’s current reach and impact within our Universities, at least amongst the Powers That Be. Furthermore, regardless of what you may or may not be writing about – be it full-on snark or high-level discussions of string theory – the fact that you’re doing something online might well automatically carry negative connotations; as Julia put it to me once, “because it’s on the internet it is assumed that it’s full of LOLZ, bad spelling, pictures of cats and nothing with any intellectual merit.” Right now, it’s probably much easier to use your blogging for scientific outreach than it is to convince your superiors that blogging does genuinely constitute outreach.
So, don’t invest your time in blogging about your science in the expectation that it will be specifically recognised or rewarded. However, I would argue strongly that it does have real and clear professional benefits – in my case, my blogging has broadened my scientific horizons, and (I’d like to think) made me a better writer and teacher. So you might well get a career boost, just in a second hand kind of way.
Change is inevitable. Some blogging transitions are voluntary, some are enforced, and some… just happen. The very act of blogging changes you; interactivity, through linking and commenting, is one of blogging’s strengths, after all. Highly Allochthonous is a very different beast from the one I envisaged at the outset; I never intended to write anything much about my life in academia, for example, and I certainly never intended to write anything about gender issues, or academic controversies. Even on the more pure geoblogging side, I didn’t really predict I’d be posting geopuzzles, or delving into historical or philosophical angles. My forays into these waters were all initially a response to posts from other bloggers, feedback and questions from my readers, or just the fact that writing about stuff for other people, rather than just reading it yourself, changes how you think about it.
So, you might surprise yourself with where you end up going on your blogging journey. I certainly have. But I also feel I’ve benefited immensely from the detours. After all, life would be extremely boring if you always ended up where you expected.
Blast away.

Categories: academic life, bloggery
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Comments (3)

  1. BrianR says:

    Your post almost exactly describes my own feelings and thoughts when it comes to science blogging … good, now I don’t have to write it, I’ll just say “what Chris said”.
    Good luck w/ the session … definitely report back.

  2. Chris says:

    This is so true for me right now. After handing in my thesis and moving about the world, I’ve had very little real-life contact with other geologists. Plus the act of handing in my thesis has given me a break from having rocks on the brain 24/7.
    I’m determined to bring my blog back from its current hiatus, though, and once I yet again have something to procrastinate in doing, I’m sure my blogging will pick up.

  3. Chris Rowan says:

    I hope so, Chris – for one thing, we need more podclasts! Especially now I might be in a position to participate…