A Bah-Bah-Bah Blog Blunder?

Robert Stribley   July 22, 2010
It didn’t take long for contributors to ScienceBlogs to discover the wolf among them. (Image via pierre_tourigny)

The Breakdown: Rob Stribley highlights a recent exodus of bloggers on the popular site ScienceBlogs and discusses the consequences of when you really don’t know your audience.

A visit today to the web’s most popular portal for sciences lovers, ScienceBlogs, reveals something is amiss. Bloggers, many of them well-known and respected scientists, are abandoning their posts and the site is sloughing off blogs like buildings sinking into the sea in Christopher Nolan’s latest mindbender Inception. And what of PZ Meyer’s Pharyngula, the most provocative blog on the roll and arguably the cash cow for the entire ScienceBlogs enterprise? As of yesterday: “On Strike!

The reason for these departures hinges primarily upon Scienceblogs recent addition of a new blog, Food Frontiers to their blogroll. The blog was ostensibly about food nutrition, but it was soon revealed to be sponsored by a large corporation, PepsiCo. As word spread that PepsiCo had indeed paid for this prominent space on ScienceBlogs, the header for the blog was altered to clarify the sponsorship, but the damage was already done. The bloggers and their readers were almost universally outraged and Seed Media Group, who manage ScienceBlogs, pulled the blog within 36 hours.

Know Your Audience
It’s important to note that many of the bloggers and their readers explicitly stated that they did not have a problem with PepsiCo the company, specifically. They were perturbed by the perceived intrusion of a biased corporate presence on principle (the whole point of science is to examine the known universe with strict attention to avoiding bias, right?). So it didn’t matter the company: it could’ve been KFC, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, Toys”R”Us, or ahem, BP (OK, the last would’ve been most egregious at this moment). The point is, it’s utterly remarkable that ScienceBlogs didn’t know their audience, didn’t understand the perception that making this move had the appearance of letting a wolf in with the sheep, however genteel the intentions of the wolf.

Be Transparent
The situation, of course, is also complicated by the fact that ScienceBlogs did not immediately reveal that Food Frontier was being written by PepsiCo employees. It was presented as a blog like any other within the fold, until the sponsorship was revealed. This move engendered an even greater level of distrust for Seed Media and quickly lead to other bloggers coming forward to confess their distrust for the editorial process, not to mention Seed Media’s ethics. One blogger, David Dobbs, framed it well:

“With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in.”

And that was his last post on ScienceBlogs. If Seed Media wanted to experiment with a sponsored blog, they should have done so transparently and labeled it as such from the get go. Instead, they launched the blog unlabeled and without warning their writers, a brief survey of whom would have lead them to question the wisdom of the endeavor anyway.

A quick visit to ScienceBlogs this morning reveals PZ Meyers is still very much on strike. He’s taken to Twitter for now, grappling with the limitations of 140 characters. Whether ScienceBlogs survives this debacle remains to be seen, but bloggers like Meyers have offered some lessons learned, sharing their thoughts on how ScienceBlogs could best move forward. There’s plenty we can learn from their situation, even if they don’t.

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3 Responses

  1. Saheli says:

    Nice write up, Robert. To me the telling thing in Pharyngula’s summary of the situation was his mention the lack of ‘technical support’ for the last year. That sounds like the kind of cost-cutting that, if done in a non-transparent way, will generate lot of friction with cumulative loss of good will, especially in a virtual work place where face-to-face interactions go a long way towards replenishing organizational good will.

  2. Chris Boese says:

    I knew PZ Meyers and his terrific site before it was on ScienceBlogs, and it always seemed to me that ScienceBlogs and Seed Media needed him more than he needs them.

    FWIW, I hope he ditches them totally. I love the fact that academic credibility is being addressed more fully in the blogosphere than it is in the university research and grant-writing industry (and perhaps even more so than in the “holy” academic publishing industry, with their massive journal holdings and impossibly high firewalls, with next to no transparency).

    But the list of highly credibly academic blogging consortia remain, like History News Network (http://hnn.us/), Crooked Timber (lit, http://crookedtimber.org/), or Cosmic Variance (physics, now on Discover magazine http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/).

    Chris

  3. Thanks for those links, Chris. Yes, I suspect we all (including Saheli above) have been following PZ’s exploits for a while. According to his blog (which he’s now resumed), looks like he made some progress with Seed Media in resolving some next steps for moving forward more productively. Still, as this page reveals, there was a lot of blood lost in the meantime:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2010/07/07/oh-pepsi-what-hath-thou-wrought/

    I believe Discover, Wired UK and others are now hosting many of these bloggers – if they haven’t gone back to blogging solo.

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