Ten Years!

On Monday I was at a meeting at MIT. When it broke up in the afternoon, I breathed a sigh of relief. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together lots of people who share science in one way or another–in museums, on Facebook, at street fairs, in books, and so on–and have them talk about what they saw in the future. Thankfully, I got to the end of the day without anyone stopping to say, “Now, we really need to talk about how blogging is going to change the landscape. Carl, maybe you could stand up and explain how blogs work?”

I had reason to dread this, because I’ve experienced variations of it over the years. People were wondering whether blogs were here to stay long after they had infiltrated the entire body of journalism. But it seems that, at long last, no one even thinks of blogs as something new and strange. And it felt particularly satisfying to me to go unbothered on that point this particular week. Because today marks the tenth anniversary of The Loom.

It’s hard to escape reflection when a ten-year anniversary rolls around. In 2003, starting a blog was still something people did as an experiment, or as a short-cut around traditional publishing, or as an open journal. Science blogs–the few that were around at that point, at least–were a mix of journal-club-like musings on new papers or righteous rants by scientists about bad reporting on science. As I got familiar with the software (because blogging is, when you get down to it, publishing software), I used it to write essays about science, toy with video, and find other ways to be a science writer than what I’d been doing up to then. (Like curating science tattoos.)

I don’t think many people blogging about science in 2003 would have guessed at the upheavals that would sweep across journalism in the years that followed. I certainly didn’t. And I was also surprised at the vague suspicion that somehow we science bloggers were to blame for the shuttering of newspaper science sections across the country. I was even more surprised to find myself in journalism classrooms where teachers asked me to explain the laws of good science blogging. When I said that blogging was software, and that you could make up your own rules, my answer did not satisfy. Clearly, blogging had achieved a cultural heft if rules were now required.

Its peculiarity dwindled as big publications established their own blogs. But the online world was also concocting new ways to communicate (or waste time, depending on your view of such things). Twitter and other outlets lured people away who wanted to have public conversations but didn’t want to learn WordPress. (I will spare you the “In my day, you had to build your blog from twigs and paper clips!” rant.) Recently, some high-profile blogs shut down, and so now we’re getting routinely exposed to think-pieces declaring that blogging is dead.

Does that mean that the Loom at ten is a zombie publication? I don’t think so. And I think the “blogging is dead” meme overlooks how bloggy all journalism has become. While blogging is just software, it has fostered certain social behaviors–an informality, a personal voice, a willingness to hear other voices such as commenters, an interest to respond to those voices, and a dedication to backing up claims with evidence in the form of links. Those behaviors now extend far beyond publications that we arbitrarily identify as blogs.

That’s not to say that these behaviors don’t pose their own challenges. Popular Science, for example, has gotten so tired of trolls in their comments that on Tuesday they simply shut down comments altogether on their stories. While I have no intention of shutting off comments on the Loom, I certainly appreciate how unpleasant a few commenters can make a thread with anti-scientific rants, insults, narcissism, and other conservational toxins. That’s why I keep an eye on comments and intervene when they break dinner-party rules. But I have always been well aware that I can always shut comments down–because blogging is software, and turning comments off is a feature of that software. I don’t think shutting down comments or banning trolls is automatically a cause for high dudgeon. After all, no one prevents even the nastiest trolls from starting a blog of their own for free. (“In my day, you had to pay for the privilege…” Oh, sorry again.)

For me, ironically, the biggest challenge for the Loom is that ever-expanding blogginess. In May, I started a weekly column for the New York Times, where I can write in a personal style about new developments in science that intrigue me. I write short essays sometimes for Slate or other publications. Ten years ago, by contrast, my options were stark. They were a) magazine features, b) newspaper articles, c) other. The Loom was the only place for Other. Now Other is everywhere.

So I’d love to hear from you about where you think I should steer the Loom in its next decade. The comment thread, after ten years, remains open.