‘Whither the geoblogosphere?’ Given the current upheavals in the wider science blogging ecosystem, it’s a rather timely question for this month’s Accretionary Wedge to be addressing. To look forward, we first need to acknowledge how far things have come in the past 3 or 4 years. When I first joined Scienceblogs, I had been blogging for about 15 months, and one of my reasons for kicking off to start with was that no-one else seemed to be doing it. But by early 2007, a few more regular geobloggers had come to my attention – enough for me to set up the allgeo aggregator feed, which aimed to promote cross-linkage and interactions between them all.
Now, things are substantially different. Now there must be considerably more than a hundred active geology blogs in the allgeo feed, and their combined output has turned it into a bit of a firehose, which is itself only a fraction of the wider geoblogosphere. While it’s wonderful that new voices are continually being added to geological conversations online, I worry that perhaps they are getting a little lost in the background chatter, and not getting the attention and encouragement that they need, and deserve. It’s a good problem to be grappling with, but it is a problem nonetheless.
The other significant development over the last few years – one that I think we geobloggers can regard with some pride – is the community that we have built together. We’re generally a friendly, generous and welcoming bunch, and I feel I’ve made some real friends (some of whom I’ve yet to share a pint with in real life). The community has even expanded beyond blogs – look, for example, at the geological community on Twitter. And yet, in the wider science blogosphere, I can’t help but feel that geology is still a little bit under the radar, compared to bio-medical blogging particularly. I suspect that there are still plenty of earth science folks out there with things to say, and eager to share them, who are completely unaware that there is an audience ready to listen and spread their message. If we are to continue growing as a community, and broaden to properly reflect the off-line earth science community, I believe the geoblogosphere as an entity needs to become a bit more prominent than it is at the moment.
Up until recently I was a member of a prominent science blogging network. This model has some obvious plus points. If one blogger in the network brings in new visitors, the integration and cross-linking within that network will cause some to spread out to read other blogs on the network. A front page and subdivision of posts into subject-specific channels, with their own RSS feed, provide a portal for people to easily find content that they are interested in, regardless of who has written it. Editorial filtering, by highlighting particularly interesting posts, or ones that are discussing a story in the news, on the front page, also help to point more readers to good content.
I can testify to the benefits of these ‘network effects’ in getting more readers. But there are some disadvantages to having such a tight, self-contained network, too. Perhaps the most obvious of these is what I refer to as ‘the Cambridge Effect': if you find yourself in an important and well-regarded community, the goings-on within it can seem much more important than anything going on outside it. Even quite interesting and exciting events beyond your borders can end up passing you by completely, not because you wouldn’t be interested, but because you’re not looking in the right direction when it happens. There are far more geology-related blogs now than any collective can feasibly accommodate – and there will be even more in the future – and I believe that good content should be highlighted and promoted wherever it happens to be posted.
Furthermore, I think a broader, more inclusive approach does not preclude exploiting network-like effects to drive traffic to particularly good or timely blog content. Modern web tools make it possible to splice and dice RSS feeds from a variety of sources with relative ease. You might still need a front page – but that front page does not need to only link to other pages on the same server. The only reason that you would need to do so is if you are trying to sell advertising space or build a coherent brand, neither of which I think are especially relevant for us geobloggers. And we have already proven that you don’t need to be on same server to build a strong and vibrant community – indeed, the allgeo feed could be regarded as an example of a (I think) relatively successful server-independent networking tools.
This should give you some idea of the thinking behind setting up the all-geo.org domain. My idea is to turn it into a ‘front page for the geoblogosphere’, which will link to good earth science content wherever it crops up, and allow some filtering, which could be used to generated more focussed RSS feeds that could be piped elsewhere; and tagging, that will build up an easily searchable catalogue for future use. It won’t be an aggregator in the strict sense, because I want to apply some editorial control to the process, so that it showcases the best writing that appears every week. So like California serpentinite spat, or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.
Who would provide this editorial layer? Whoever wants to be involved. I’m still working out exactly how to implement things (progress is being made), but the aim is to allow anyone who wants to filter and/or tag posts to be able to do so, either regularly or in a one-off sense. I’ve discussed some of this with a few people over e-mail already, but anyone else who wants to be involved is very welcome to contact me via e-mail (c dot j dot rowan at gmail dot com) or make themselves known in the comments.
Of course, the task of building a stronger, more diverse, more visible geoblogosphere is bigger than any one approach, or person. But I believe that, if we could implement something like this, it would be extremely beneficial for bloggers and readers alike. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.