the uses of blogging

Michael and I have been talking through ideas for posts on this blog about blogging itself. These discussions range quite widely and you can expect some challenging words from Michael in due course. I had a strong feeling, however, that I wanted to start the discussion around the theme of the uses of blogging – by which I mean the actual practical uses that people put this radically accessible self-publishing platform to. And my mind settled easily on Maxine Clarke, who is a friend and colleague at Nature Publishing Group, and with whom I’ve had a blogging connection for over two years now, as representative of this theme.

Maxine’s primary personal blog – Petrona – was a Typepad Featured Blog a year ago, and I think the reviewer exposed the brilliant core of Maxine’s experience of blogging: “Maxine has been a science journal editor for most of her working life, but in reading Petrona it can seem like she was reborn once she became a blogger. It started as an experiment, but then became substantially meaningful to her, if not her favorite personal pursuit. She is blown away by the power of connection in the international community of bloggers, and is open when pondering the collective blogging life: "Perhaps the effects will be similar to the society-changing effect of mass introduction of TV. This new power, however arises from not only being a mass media like TV but by being an open, interactive system, controlled at the individual's level; enabled by information technology, not a passive recipient of it. I sometimes wonder what Orwell would have made of it all."

Maxine started poking around with one blog and rapidly engaged with the medium (from authoring best practice and blog etiquette to promotional tricks) and the platforms (increasing her production and technical skills along the way), and now has multiple personal and work blogs running, and uses them each for different purposes.

Maxine has found a number of uses for blogging, and kindly agreed to write an article for The Digitalist, describing these uses, both in her personal and her work life.

In the first part of her article, Maxine highlights how book blogging has enriched her reading life; in the second part, she outlines some of the constructive uses of blogging in her professional capacity.

PART ONE – personal blogging

My experience of blogging is long on the Internet timescale—just over two years. I am not young or frivolous, I have a demanding professional job, I’m a parent and a commuter, so I am always horrendously busy. Yet for those two years I have managed to quarry an hour or so in the evening to read blogs and, most nights, to write a post myself. Why, when I could be doing something more “useful”?

The answer, in my case, is simple. I am, like many of us, “too” busy for anything else. I have neither the time nor the energy to socialise in the evenings, and in any case want to see my children occasionally. I would like to have stimulating discourse with friends or like-minded people, and to find out and discuss new ideas and concepts. Before blogging, these aims seemed impossible to achieve. I don’t want to spend what little leisure time I have passively sitting in front of a TV screen (somebody else deciding what information I receive), or asleep over an open book, which after a hard day tends to happen after half an hour or so.

My first steps at blogging involved creating the website, teaching myself how to make a blogroll and (eventually) tag my posts. I decided to write about books I’d read and films I’d seen, as I was short of creative inspiration and certainly did not want to share with the world my problem toenail or the failings of the coffee machine at work (ants in the drinks). Using an RSS reader and keying in the word “books”, I found some other blogs on similar subjects to mine. I followed the posts and began to get to “know” the bloggers concerned by what they wrote. I dropped some blogs and discovered others, initially from the blogrolls of the ones I liked most. I began to write some posts about similar topics, picking up their points and providing my perspective. It wasn’t long before, to my great excitement, one of them left a comment on my blog. Soon, I was part of an online community.

The core of blogging is, of course, writing posts, reading what other people write, and joining in online conversations in the comments or “back blogs” as they are sometimes called. Once you’re in the swing of it, though, there are lots of directions in which you can go, and many opportunities present themselves, a couple of which I’ll highlight here.

Book reviews. If you are, like me, a bookworm, you will soon stumble across the opportunity to review books for special-interest websites (in my case, Euro Crime) or for book-sharing sites such as the excellent Revish. Even though this activity is not a source of income, it is a rich source of publishers’ review copies of books – with which I am regularly inundated. In my case, my blogging and reviewing have resulted in invitations to book launches, author events, cultural evenings and even reviewing for national newspapers. I was recently invited by a publishing company to a “bloggers’ brunch”, in which I and some other book bloggers had informative conversations with the publishers, editors and each other, about the various uses of the Internet for people who love books, and the impact of the Internet on the book-publishing industry. Many book authors are bloggers: I have had some fascinating online conversations with authors of books I have reviewed online, on all kinds of topics. When one has read a really gripping or involving book, this can be really rather a heady experience.

Sunday Salon. One of my early blogging acquaintances is Debra Hamel, an author and academic who, after having her children, taught herself web programming and now lives in a self-described subterranean lair in New Haven, dreaming up innovative book-related (and puzzle-related) activities on the Internet. One of these inventions is Twitterlit, an extremely popular game in which players have to guess the book whose first line is in a daily Twitter post. (Debra also invented the junior version, Kidderlit.) But for me, the Sunday Salon, the concept of Debra and author-blogger Clare Dudman, is particularly special. Debra’s leap of imagination was to create a blog aggregator for people who like reading – on a Sunday, when many people don’t work and have a little more time than usual. Participating bloggers sign up so that Debra can include them in the aggregator (Yahoo pipes, in fact, but it could be any). Each blogger can post on a Sunday (or any other day, actually) about what he or she is reading: if the post is tagged “sundaysalon” the aggregator picks it up. Other Salonists are doing the same thing, so that you can read each other’s posts on the aggregator page, have conversations, maybe read the same books if you like, or not if you don’t. For the first few weeks, there were about six of us in the group; now, after about 3 months, we are up to about 80, with well-known authors and high-traffic, high-profile bloggers signing up. There is no marketing, no advertising, just a community of people (who live all over the world) with a common interest, who have gathered together for a particular time each week.

These are two highlights of the many reasons why I personally find blogging “useful”. I find it a creative yet social activity, which replenishes the spirit. If you like reading, why not join a reading group, you might ask? Well, one’s reading tastes are not necessarily going to be the same as those of the local reading group – and if they meet on an evening when you have to take a child to a tennis lesson, you’ve missed your chance. The Internet is always there, it is perfect for letting you find those six or seven people in the universe who like the same kinds of books as you, and enabling you to interact freely with them whatever their time zone.

Before I began blogging, I relied on reviews in newspapers and magazines, or on the library for my reading choices. Now, I have been introduced to a whole range of excellent authors. Some of the books are old; others were written in another language some years ago and have only been translated recently; others are published by small presses without big advertising budgets. None of that matters in blogging, we are the “long tail” in action, discussing and recommending books to each other irrespective of marketing hype, but because we think they are good.

PART TWO – work blogging

At Nature Publishing Group, where I work, we and our customers are ideally placed to find blogs useful in interacting with each other. Our customers are our subscribers, our readers, our authors and our peer-reviewers – highly overlapping groups. Some of our blogs feature science news (The Great Beyond) or subject-related news (The Sceptical Chymist): informative and entertaining for readers who want to know the latest in science the minute it happens rather than the day or week, or for those who like to join in conversations with the editors about how to coordinate clinical trials or ways to represent chemical models in the published article in a journal. Some of our blogs, for example Action Potential, also support journal clubs – online discussion of particular scientific papers and their implications.

My own particular experience of company blogging is with authors and peer-reviewers. I was asked to write “why I blog” in late 2007, and my response was:

"My professional blogs... are addressed to a particular group of people: scientists who read, review and publish, or would like to publish, in our journals. Therefore, the style I try to achieve is helpful, informative and stimulating, yet not didactic or dull. I aim to highlight the benefits of publishing at Nature Publishing Group and provide assistance to those wishing to do so, in a way that is not too directly promotional, but which is constructive to authors and interesting to them and other readers, as well as encouraging their feedback. Therefore I write about news concerning journal policies and format, as well as announcements of new journals, projects, conferences and online tools of interest to authors and reviewers. I also highlight when journal content is free for some reason, because this means that the authors of those articles are achieving greater "reach" for their articles (as well as making it possible for more people to read them, by my announcement). I also highlight news from the wider world of science communication, for example about quality indicators (citations tools and impact factors, for example), ethics, peer-review and so on, in the hope of stimulating community discussion of these issues, as this can help us decide on our journals' evolution. Finally, I blog to provide an approachable forum for potential authors to ask questions about our publication policies, and to have them answered quickly in a way that can also benefit others, as they can see the responses."

To provide some context for this statement, it was the case that for many years, if you were a scientist and wanted to publish a paper in a journal, you looked at the guide to authors in a printed issue or on the journal’s website, read the instructions, submitted, and hoped for the best. I have now spent a year and a half creating a blog called Nautilus and writing more than 500 posts in that time, on news and views related to authors and aspiring authors of Nature and the other journals published by our company. The blog has many uses: we can seek scientists’ views on new policies when we are thinking of introducing them. These days, there are many conferences sponsored by (say) the US government or the EU, about data sharing, integrity of images in scientific journals, bioterrorism, to name a few. The editors of our journals have to craft and update policies to which our authors sign up as a condition of publication. The blog, therefore, provides an excellent way to seek advice from our authors, the vast majority of whom are working scientists who don’t attend policy meetings.

Peer to Peer, our blog for peer reviewers and about the peer-review process, has a similar role: in early February, for example, Nature ran an editorial on the possible benefits of a double-blind peer-review system (like most other journals, Nature uses a single-blind system, in which the authors do not know who is reviewing their papers but the reviewers know whose work they are assessing). To date, more than 70 comments had been received on this editorial.