Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?

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In the wake of the ScienceOnline 2011 conference, a familiar spectre has reared its inevitable head – the echo-chamber argument. The central question is this: do science bloggers solely speak to each other and those with a pre-existing interest in science, or are we capable of reaching a broader selection of readers? As Emily Anthes asked, “Who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?”

This is a worthwhile question and I’d be disappointed if a gathered group of scientists and journalists – two professions who are paid to be skeptical – didn’t ask it. The concern is also real. With newspaper sales on the decline, people aren’t exposed to science stories nestled among other topics at the turn of the page. It’s hard to achieve the same effect in the heavily tagged and increasingly specialised world of the internet. Surely, it is said, only people already interested in science will only subscribe to a science blog’s RSS feed, or click on the Science section of the Guardian or the New York Times.

This is a fairly limited view of how the modern internet works. The same issue came up when I ran a panel on online journalism at ScienceOnline 2010, and I have been writing the same response ever since. Here’s what I wrote last year:

Towards the end of last year, Carl and I covered a story on the sexual conflicts of ducks, where scientists studied the massive, corkscrew-shaped penises of drakes by getting them to unfurl said mighty organs into a variety of glass tubes. The videos became an internet sensation and the story was linked to from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Digg and all manner of forums. Tens of thousands of people watched ducks penetrating flasks, and perhaps a fraction of them even picked up some science while they were at it. As Carl said, “Duck fetishists can learn about sexual selection.”

Of course, sex has always sold, but this case study highlights the ability of the web to find massive audiences, if the right story is presented in the right way. It also shows how science stories can automatically find their way to people who aren’t necessarily interested in science. “Be a virus and infect people’s minds,” urged Carl, and there are many examples of people taking up his advice. Because of his science tattoo series, Carl got to talk about science in an interview with a tattoo magazine. A story I wrote about nanotechnology in 17th century swords turned up in all sorts of places, from Reddit to role-playing forums to online blacksmithing communities. Ars Technica itself uses an interest in technology as a hook to get people from gamers to IT specialists to read science stories.

This culture of sharing is going to be increasingly important, especially as social media becomes increasingly popular. You don’t expect people to come to you. You go to where they are or, better still, you get other people to take you there.

When I link to a post on Facebook or Twitter, it reaches a few thousand people. Some of them will pass the link on to their friends and followers, and it ripples outwards. At every iteration, the stories land in front of more potential eyes, with increasingly diverse interests. The big question is whether these ripples can duplicate or replace the effect of randomly coming across science stories in newspaper pages. I believe they can. The benefits may be relatively limited for the moment but they will grow as the use of social media matures.

New media, old problem

During my panel on online journalism, I said that bloggers have a tendency to forget that the problems of new media are ancient ones. The echo-chamber argument is a perfect example. Specialist science magazines like New Scientist or Discover or Scientific American have been wrestling with the problem of netting fresh audiences for decades. To get their perspectives, I emailed a few of their editors.

Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American, says that while most of the magazine’s subscribers already had some interest in science, fewer than 10% of them are scientists. The same is true for New Scientist. Its editor, Roger Highfield, told me that most of the magazine’s print readers have a science degree or higher, but most are not directly involved with science any more. “[They] range from “company CEOs to students, teachers, art gurus, pensioners, unemployed and pop stars,” he says. “So there are lots of different echoes.  In fact this ‘echo chamber’ image is a bit simplistic, as simplistic as the idea that bloggers simply reflect the prevailing gossip or the agenda of the mainstream media.”

So how do the editors try to get fresh readers on board? DiChristina lists “all the standard ways” including apps, link swaps, syndication partnerships, PR and marketing. “Digital media give us lots of new ways to engage our audience”, she says, with the result that “readers in general are consuming more science information than ever before”. Her predecessor (and blogger) John Rennie says, “On the editorial side, the usual strategies for drawing in larger (or newer) audiences tend to involve the kinds of “gimmicks” that established science readers often notice and sneer at, not without some justification.” This includes connecting science to news events or cultural trends, or crowd-pleasing stories.

Rennie adds, “For obvious reasons, science magazine publishers and editors give the challenge of expanding out to new audiences a lot of thought—not always very fruitfully. He told me that science magazine readers are characterised by their psychological profile – they are interested in science. They cut across all ages, incomes and other demographic groups, which is a pain for marketers. “The lack of some secret reliable trick for extending circulation is probably one reason why the science magazine niche isn’t bigger than it is.” Our readers tend to be passionately devoted… but it’s hard to find new people of that stripe efficiently.”

Getting people in and keeping them there

Having discussed the echo chamber concept in an ironically navel-gazing way, here are my thoughts on escaping from it. Of course, some people are quite happy there, which is fine. This is for those who want to reach broader audiences.

Find out who you’re actually reaching. I talked about this at the Bloggers and Boundaries session at ScienceOnline 2011. Every year, I run a “Who are you?” thread here to find out about my readers, their stories, and their backgrounds. They are a diverse bunch, remarkably reminiscent to the groups that the magazine editors described to me. Some are scientists, others have some level of science education but have since moved away from it, and others were completely uninterested until they read the blog. Most of them don’t comment regularly. Unless you ask, you’ll never know.

Think about your audience. This is the important one – you have to realise that no one is obliged to read your stuff, which turns writing into a battle for attention. Avoid jargon, learn the basics of good writing, tell stories, and so on. When you do get uninterested readers coming to your site, you will have seconds to draw them in or lose them. You have to make the most of these fleeting opportunities. I invoke the words of Tim Radford: “You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the Tube [London’s subway system – Ed], who, given a chance, will stop reading in a fifth of a second. So the first sentence you write will be the most importance sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you may feel compelled to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.”

Remember what a “general” audience looks like. Science communicators like to throw around phrases like “laypeople” and “general public” without truly considering what they mean. Is someone who did a science degree but now works as an accountant part of the “general public”? What about someone who dropped out of school but reads popular science books voraciously? What about a biochemist who is reading about quantum physics? All of these people regularly feast upon science as part of their mental diet and their patronage shouldn’t be discounted.

Beware of inadvertently turning readers into outsiders. Jargon is an obvious way of doing this – you end up excluding people who don’t understand your words. There are other less obvious ones. In-jokes and geek references can exclude people who don’t identify with that culture. Swearing can exclude schoolchildren because schools often have language filters that block sites with too much profanity. The use of pronouns can create barriers – if you say, “We’ve always known that…”, the audience might well ask, “Who’s we? I didn’t know that. I guess you’re not writing for me.”

Tap social media. Sites like Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon are very useful for getting hordes of incoming visitors, beyond one’s typical readership. This is more of a passive solution. You can’t game these sites; people who constantly submit their own material don’t get very far. I also wonder whether they’re a solution to the echo-chamber problem or merely an extension of it. Take Reddit: science posts are tagged within the science category and only the really popular ones rise beyond that to hit the main page. And who uses sites like Digg and Reddit in the first place? Nonetheless, it’s a start.

Infiltrate non-scientific sites. Whenever I get a link from Boing Boing, Andrew Sullivan, Slate or Three Quarks Daily, I do a little happy dance, not just because it means extra traffic but because these aren’t science sites. Those are the people we really need to work with if we want to spread beyond the echo-chamber. If you’re blogging about, say, female reproduction, are you better off trying to get Reddit hits, or to be syndicated to Marie Claire? If you have a great story, do you want to write for New Scientist to the New Yorker?

Set your expectations correctly. You may want to reach a general audience, but think about what that would look like. Remember that the magazine editors face the same problems and they have substantial marketing budgets. Unless you’re spending a similar amount into marketing, the majority of your readers will inevitably have a science background, simply because they’re most likely to seek out your content.

Even highly targeted marketing campaigns have a large amount of “cross-sell”, to use horrific corporate jargon. If you ran a campaign aimed at women, you’d inevitably reach men too. If you targeted poorer socioeconomic groups, rich people would also see your campaign. You can skew those ratios by buying media at the right times or places – e.g. running ads in specific newspapers or magazines, or airing them at specific times. But blogs cannot afford such tactics. We have to rely on free avenues like social media. Our “cross-sell” is enormous. The big question is whether you are also attracting a more general audience – you will not do so exclusively.

What medium are you talking about? Different online media have different uses, strengths and weaknesses. I write this blog for a broad audience, and I expect it to reach one. But Twitter is a more personal medium, which I also use to network, talk to friends and colleagues, and discuss a broader range of interests. I’m happier with my Twitter world being narrower. This should all be fairly obvious but I have seen different media conflated on numerous occasions, with people saying the insularity of science tweeters as evidence of the blogosphere’s echoing nature. It’s like damning your saxophone because your piano sounds a bit tinny.

Finally, be better. There is only one thing that is absolutely necessary to reach and keep new audiences: you need to be writing good content. You can cover a niche or specific topic, you can write with stylistic brilliance, you can become a curator extraordinaire, you can specialise in reactive analysis… there are hundreds of ways to do it and everyone needs to find theirs.

Do what you can. I’ve written before that if I really wanted to influence the minds of people with no existing interest in science, I’d become a teacher. Except I’d be a dreadful teacher. I am, on the other hand, a competent writer.  Play to your strengths. To me, this post (and indeed this entire debate) is more about encouraging people to constantly reflect upon their audiences and their goals, rather than to criticise any specific approach.

And if you do make the echo-chamber criticism, please provide some solutions. Because if you say that we’re all in an echo chamber without providing helpful suggestions of how to move beyond it, guess where that puts you? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a room-like place, where sound bounces repeatedly off the walls.

With that in mind, leave your $0.02 in the comments. I’d be interested to know if readers have any thoughts on how I specifically (and blogs more generally) could expand the reach of my (our) writing.