By Peter Griffin 17/06/2022

It’s hard to believe that when we created Sciblogs in 2009, the iPhone was only two years old, being a ‘Youtuber’ wasn’t really a thing and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok didn’t exist.

But Science blogging was a big thing, particularly in the United States, where a number of scientists had carved out roles for themselves as influential and widely-read bloggers. The platform, which we drew inspiration from in creating Sciblogs, had millions of monthly visitors anchored by PZ Myers and his wildly popular Pharyngula blog. Scientific American had its own impressive blog stable too.

In the UK, Ben Goldacre was attracting a similarly large following with his Bad Science blog, which spawned the best-selling Bad Science book and provoked us to think for ourselves in evaluating the ‘science’ news we were being fed every day.

Sciblogs was an effort to give our own science communicators a safe place to express their views. At the time, the New Zealand media landscape had fairly limited outlets for scientists to go deep on issues they cared about and which they felt were important for the public to know about.

We had the opinion pages of the major newspapers and news websites, where climate sceptics traded passive-aggressive columns with climate scientists. We had a healthy blogging ecosystem, ranging from Kiwiblog to Public Address, but nowhere where science nerds could congregate and argue in rambling comment threads.

Ask forgiveness, not permission

So, without asking anyone for permission, which likely would have been unforthcoming given the tricky editorial issues that can go with publishing blogs, we set up a WordPress blog and started recruiting scientists and science writers onto our platform.

The likes of Alison Campbell (BioBlog), Ken Perrott (Open Parachute), Physics Stop (Marcus Wilson) and Gareth Renowden (Hot Topic) were already blogging and generously offered to syndicate their blog posts via Sciblogs.

A host of others gave their time and words generously in those early years, including Siouxsie Wiles (Infectious Thoughts), Shaun Hendy (A Measure of Science), Brendan Moyle (Chthonic Wildlife Ramblings), Mark Hanna (Honest Universe), Grant Jacobs (Code for Life), Robert Hickson (Ariadne), Helen Petousis-Harris (Diplomatic Immunity) and John Pickering (Kidney Punch).

Bloggers would come and go. Many started with a roar, then realised how much damn work is involved in publishing blog posts on a regular basis, quickly burning out. Others were there for the long haul and have been published right until the end.

Aimee Whitcroft, my colleague at the Science Media Centre, applied her incredible ability to expertly wrangle technology she’d only just encountered, to provide some of the backend capability for Sciblogs.

It was a gentler time for science-related discourse. Sure, comments could get toxic and climate change discussion, in particular, proved problematic. We launched Sciblogs just as the ‘Climategate’ emails were leaked and the Copenhagen climate talks ended in failure. But blogs were a hotbed of critical thought, the comment threads in particular regularly teaching you something you didn’t know and regularly more interesting than the blog post that preceded them.

Scibloggers had each other’s backs

In hindsight, those early years of Sciblogs were the sunset age of science blogging. I just visited Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog for the first time in years. His last post was on December 5th, 2017, which is about as good a date as any to symbolise the day science blogging died.

At its best, a thoughtful and provocative Sciblogs post could attract hundreds of comments, intense debate and a formal letter of complaint from the Climate Science Coalition to the Royal Society and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, attempting to have us shut down.

The Scibloggers had each other’s back, supporting each other in the comments and sharing tips on blogging. Often, an editor from the Herald or Stuff would call up asking whether they could republish a post. That really opened a door for some of the Scibloggers, particularly Siouxsie and Shaun, who both would go on to win the Prime Minister’s Science Communicator’s Prize.

They realised that they had a safe place on Sciblogs to craft their ideas, which could then be picked up for a prime-time audience in a mainstream media outlet. Shaun used his A Measure of Science blog to test his ideas in a series of posts that would go on to form the basis of Get Off The Grass, the book he co-wrote with the late Sir Paul Callaghan.

Then, gradually at first and then in a sudden, unsettling rush, came the rise of social media, the reduction of ideas down to 140 characters and the influence of news feed algorithms. I can’t remember what year it was, probably around 2012 or so, when Facebook introduced one of its major newsfeed algorithm changes.

Previously, our Sciblogs posts shared on Facebook went far and wide, attracting a lot of likes and shares, and boosting traffic to the site immensely. All of a sudden, it was hard to get any traction with a post. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was unfurling his deviously clever business plan.

After amassing a billion or so users, he changed the algorithms so that most newsfeed posts from publishers like Sciblogs received very little “organic” traffic. Instead, we now had to pay to boost our posts just so they would be put in front of people who might be interested in them.

Meanwhile, scientists were enthusiastically taking to Twitter, live-tweeting science conference proceedings and, in many cases, managing to successfully blend science commentary with day-to-day ramblings in their Twitter feed. Epic Twitter threads began to replace blog posts, Twitter comments standing in for blog comments. At its best Twitter was a brilliant place for free-wheeling philosophical discussion on the big science-related issues of the day.

But it was clear social media was no longer just a place to drive traffic to blogs, but was replacing them entirely. Meanwhile, Youtube was coming into its own as technology made it easier to self-produce slick videos and animations. A number of science-themed Youtube channels took off and attracted millions of subscribers. I still consider Youtube to be the source of some of the best science content being produced today. The visual medium has captured the imagination of a new generation of science enthusiasts. A decade earlier, those content creators would have been bloggers.

Science commentary has gone mainstream

New outlets for more in-depth science commentary were also appearing. The Spinoff started a science section and Newsroom teamed up with several universities to run opinion pieces from academics. The Conversation set the standard with a highly-effective platform for academics that gave them control over their content, but also a really effective dashboard showing exactly how many people had engaged with their articles, which were released under a Creative Commons licence and regularly published by mainstream media outlets.

The pandemic saw an explosion in scientific commentary across the board, with incredible science communication via the likes of Siouxsie virtually everywhere, including her fantastic collaborations with this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Communicator’s Prize winner Toby Morris.

We have a much more diverse ecosystem of media outlets than we did when the Science Media Centre and Sciblogs arrived on the scene and incredible depth in our community of science communicators too. It’s been thrilling to watch it develop.

Blogging has been superseded and I was quite comfortable with that. Sciblogs gave a voice to a wide range of contributors, several of whom are now some of the country’s best-known scientists and science communicators. It served its purpose.

The current state of social media troubles me. In its early days, when I would media train scientists, I’d urge them to build a presence on Twitter and Facebook to promote their work. But I wouldn’t issue the same advice today.

Those algorithms that Zuckerberg used to turn the Facebook newsfeed into a money-printing machine have led to anonymous trolls, outrage and abuse. It makes the fights we used to have in the comments on Sciblogs look quaint in comparison. I hope, through social media platforms taking more responsibility and governments applying regulatory pressure, that the “digital town square” as Elon Musk calls Twitter, becomes a more hospitable place for our best thinkers to air their ideas and engage productively in debate.

A big thanks to everyone who was part of the Sciblogs journey over the last 13 years, whether as a contributor, reader, interning for Sciblogs or helping keep the various plug-ins and WordPress widgets together. Former SMCer Sarah-Jane O’Connor did a fantastic job shepherding Sciblogs through its senior years.

We published millions of words, tens of thousands of comments and for a decent period of time hosted a thriving hotbed of thoughtful scientific discussion.

Job done, pull the plug. So long Scibloggers and thanks for all the memories.