Foreword: Everything in here has been buzzing around my head for the last few months. It has nothing at all to do with the recent trouble at ScienceBlogs.com, and the main reason I have waited until now before saying anything is that a few of us met with Lou and Matt last week to discuss some of these issues, and I didn’t want to preempt that discussion.
If you know anything about me, then you know that I’ve done my fair share of flag waving (and criticism) of this whole online networking shtick. Search for On the Nature of Networking here for examples. I’ve been involved in online fora since forever, it seems: I started by reading the bionet.molbiol.methods-reagents group on usenet, followed by various hobbyist groups; took in the Science Advisory Board; numerous PHP-type fora; and so on and so forth. I started an online diary–a proto-weblog, really–in about 2001 although I’d been running a website since about 1995. I’ve used the internet for my own gain (and perhaps it has used me, occasionally), and initiated various life- and career-changing events that wouldn’t have been possible without it. “Web 2”, or “social media”, has naturally played its part in this too.
So you might be surprised that recently I’ve been questioning the whole “why” of it. What is the point of online networks?
A couple of years it became a bit of a joke among some of us that there was a new scientific networking site every week. Each one promised to be the “Facebook for scientists”. Of them, I can only remember a couple; perhaps ResearchGate is the one that sticks in the mind, and that for all the wrong reasons (questionable marketing practices being the least of them).
The problem that all these sites came up across was that they didn’t really offer anything that scientists wanted. Scientists already have enough to do online (and don’t underestimate the power of email for making new contacts): so it’s difficult to know what yet another “web 2” site can do for them. Of course there are exceptions: the Science Advisory Board has an active online community, based around its business model of selling opinion to suppliers (and crucially, it rewards scientists and medics for taking part). There are other fora and sites based around tangible products, or shared interests (Mendeley and LabLit are examples in each case). Other sites offer sharing of protocols and methodological tips.
So what is the point of a site that simply says, “Come and be social”?
This is a problem that Nature Network faces. There is no real product, no added value for participants. Sure, you can meet people here, and make lasting friendships (I have done, and I’m very grateful for them). But once those people swap emails, facebook contacts, twitter nicks or whatever, then what is left to do here?
If that isn’t bad enough, the fora at Nature Network are badly organized and very difficult to navigate. It is all but impossible to casually pop by, ask a question, then come and see what’s happening a couple of weeks later. I had to ask where the private bloggers forum was a week ago! (And yes, I’d posted on there previously.) Martin Fenner and myself and a few others launched a ‘good writing’ forum here. Heaven only knows where it is–I keep getting email alerts but nobody knows it is there, nobody can find it; you can’t see it when you rock up to Nature Network all fresh faced and bushy tailed.
So I’m beginning to wonder, does Nature Network itself have a point any longer? If as I’ve argued above the value comes from finding that people exist, then after we’ve met each other and moved on, is it time to let it die a natural death?
Oh, you say, what about the blogs?
It’s not MT4, it’s a very naughty boy.
I’ve been writing here since 2007. It was pretty quiet back then. I was, truth be told, pretty darn stoked to be asked. Nature! There seemed a small number of good and interesting writers, and there was a certain cachet associated–at least, for an academic.
But then things started to go a little wonky.
The cracks in the blogging platform started showing. They’d always been there, but as the bloggers got more sophisticated, they began to expect more; and the platform wasn’t delivering. Moveable Type 4 was promised, and promised, and promised…
It become a running joke. “MT4 will fix that,” people would aver when faced with a technical glitch. Other bloggers would nod knowingly. No space to upload images? “MT4 will fix that.” Wonky HTML? “MT4 will fix that.” Inability to customize blogrolls? “MT4 will fix that.”
Then, MT4 finally turned up, and what a disaster that turned out to be. I was locked out for a week. I had to have two different logins–one for my blog, and one for the rest of the network. I still have to log in each time I want to comment on a different blog. When I’m logged in, I have to refresh the page to write a post or report spam (and I have no idea what happens to my spam reports by the way). It takes a geological epoch to log in some days, I have to log in every five minutes (and I’ve learned to copy comments to the clipboard before hitting ‘submit’ because there’s a good chance it’ll all disappear into the ether) and if I go to a bookmarked link (because as I said above it’s impossible to navigate) without being logged on I get a really helpful blank page.
Now, those are technical glitches that presumably could be fixed (maybe in MT+6 weeks as I’ve taken to calling it). But not only should it never have been allowed to get to that state, each little thing that’s wrong makes me less inclined to participate. Hence the low rate of posting here recently.
But there’s more than that.
One of the things that attracted me to NN in the first place, as I say, was the cachet of Nature. Now, I’m no longer a research scientist, so that doesn’t really draw me any more. But also, NN has a bit of a negative cachet in the rest of the blogome–where, actually, I’m more interested in being seen and accepted. It has a high barrier to casual commenting (the lifeblood of blogs!)–a stratospheric barrier to non-scientists. Furthermore, there are too many blogs hosted here.
Is that a problem?
Well, yes. Being invited to write on NN was something special, back in the day. And now we have a load of–quite frankly–boring and badly written blogs cluttering up the Network. One of the great things about NN was that the most recent blogs would appear on what I like to think of as the ‘front page’: network.nature.com/blogs/. At a glance I could see what was happening in the community; the blogs and the comments. It was easy to keep abreast, to engage, to see what was going on. Now the amount of traffic makes it very difficult indeed–and yes, I could use RSS to keep track of the things I’m interested in, as I do for other non-networked blogs, but then where is the point in Nature Network?
Moreover, where is my visibility to the outside world? This walled garden has its advantages; we’re more civil, generally, and have some really great conversations because of the set-up; but with all the noise going on what are the chances of being featured so that the outside world can see me?
Is that an ego thing? Maybe it is, but for the love of Pete I’m a blogger. If there’s anything bigger than my ego I want it shot and brought to me on a plate right now.
Seriously though, NN is just too big to work, now. The number of comments is lower, the half life of posts much shorter; the noise is louder.
So I’m led to ask, what’s in it for me? NN gave me a free platform, a little bit of publicity, and I’ve given them a shedload of good writing, free publicity and a fair amount of goodwill, I’d wager. Now, I think I’d like something back. I’d like some acknowledgement of what I’ve done and can do, and at a bare minimum that should include a site that works and some decent visibility.
After all, I have technical chops. It’s not that difficult to set up an independent blog, and market it successfully. And today, when my posts are buried beneath boring reports of suck-up meetings and the technical problems that make writing here a chore have mumbled along for half a year, I’m wondering whether it’s worth staying.
Harsh? Maybe, but there’s more.
Currently, Nature Network is looked after (babysat?) by Lou Woodley. She’s the only full-time Nature staffer with responsibility for the place. She works hard, she tries hard, and she does a pretty good job with limited resources and tools. Matt Brown helps out, but he’s freelance so can go and do more fun stuff if he wants. The problem is that Lou is working pretty much in a vacuum. Where is the upper management support for NN? Where is the vision?
If there is no serious commitment to NN at NPG (and if I’m wrong about this and there is vision and real belief in NN’s mission, I’d like to know the name of the senior manager responsible, please), then who’s to say the plug won’t be pulled tomorrow, or next week, or in MT+6 weeks?
I get random people asking me for help with marketing or their experiments. All right, I can get that anyway because I don’t hide online, but there seems to be this sense of entitlement to my opinion just because I’m on NN. I can do without that, actually. I can do without the bugs, I can do without the lack of visibility, I can do without getting snapped at when I point out a bug or complain about something; I can do without people thinking I get paid for this, actually. Yes, I have a lot to be grateful to NN for, but over the last year more and more it feels like what I’m getting out isn’t worth what I’m putting in anymore.
So, there’s a couple of questions that remain.
First, assuming that NPG in some way benefits from my blog, what do I as a writer now hope to gain from Nature Network? What’s in it for me?
Second, is there any reason I shouldn’t move my main blogging activity to my own site; and/or set up a separate, independent blogging collective for some like-minded individuals?
For much of the next two weeks I plan on having no internet access. I’m going to think about these questions, and maybe a plan will have crystallized during that time.