Grabbing eyeballs with a blog

Nick Denton is one of those interesting fellows in online media: my first impression was that he runs gossipy sites and therefore must be shallow, but then you discover that he’s actually got very finely tuned antennae to what people want to read…and if it’s gossip, then so be it. But at the same time there are some real insights into what draws and keeps the attention of those fickle creatures called human beings. This routine memo from Denton summarizing the popular stories of the month is wonderfully revealing, and a good lesson for anyone writing on the web.

Kevin Purdy’s highly informative story about the effects of caffeine on the brain in Lifehacker was the breakout story of July. And the reader interest in the piece highlights — do we really need a reminder? — the draw of the explanation. There’s too much news on the web; and way too little explanation. Fully a quarter of the top stories are straight how-tos or otherwise helpful or informative.

Do we really need any reminders of the other patterns either? The stories to which people respond are the stories to which they’ve always responded, since way before the internet. Readers enjoy strong opinion, such as Charlie Jane’s attack on Night Shyamalan. They like mysteries, especially photoshop mysteries, as Gizmodo demonstrated with its coverage of BP’s photoshopped PR pic.

Apply those ideas to some of the arguments going on in the skeptical/atheist communities right now. Good, controversial, interesting articles combine strong opinion (“Joe Blow is an idiot!”) with explanation (“And here’s why!”). One thing I would agree on with some of the recent bleeding hearts of skepticism is that strong opinion doesn’t work when it stands alone, but explanation and analysis can work persuasively enough by itself — if you can get people to read it. The combo, though…that’s the big win.

(via Carl Zimmer)

Say hello to Scientopia

Many of the Scienceblog expatriates plus a few others have formed a new collective, Scientopia. It looks like a good bunch of people and a new and maybe better bottom-up approach to organizing a blog network — I’ll be reading them and looking forward to their growth.

Although, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of their published code. It throws around the word “respect” way too much, which happens to be one of those words that annoys me, because it is too easily assumed when it should be earned. I don’t respect everyone who blogs on science, and not everyone respects me (nor should they)…but it does put me on edge when a group announces a demand for mutual respect and also lays out a protocol for eviction, when I know that several of the people in the collective had little respect for some others on the Sb network. I have no respect for the pretense of respect.

But let’s all hope for the best and much success to Scientopia.

A lesser controversy at Scienceblogs

The case of the various kinds of blogs hosted on ScienceBlogs has come up on Newsweek, and I get quoted trying to explain how I’m unperturbed by a couple of institutional blogs here.

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time–they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

There is some confusion out there, however. I do not claim to represent the University of Minnesota. Mark Chu-Carroll did not claim to speak for Google. My point was that if you take any blogger and look at the chains of affiliations they have (as we all do), we do not try to argue that every possible connection is a direct conflict of interest that demands a prominent disclaimer on the web page.

We ought to reserve the term “ad” for situations where an interest has paid money to be promoted, as PepsiCo did. The Weizmann Institute did not. Google did not pay to have Chu-Carroll peddle the company line, and he didn’t. The University of Minnesota did not pay to have me scare away recruit potential students, although I may have done one or the other, accidentally. Weizmann, SETI, and Brookhaven have that in common with me and Chu-Carroll, and none of us cross the ethical barrier in the same way that PepsiCo did.

I actually think it’s a good idea for institutions to have blogs at places like Scienceblogs. One thing I mentioned (but was not quoted) in my email to Newsweek is that the real challenge for institutional blogs is for them to be interesting. I rather like this quote from Carl Zimmer that summarizes their problem:

I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.

It’s not just Scienceblogs

This isn’t exactly schadenfreude, it’s more like merely recognizing the ungainly nature of the beast — but blog networks are always going to struggle a bit. Take a look at these posts from the Nature Network. It’s not doom-and-gloom, it’s just wrestling with the medium, as we’ve experienced here in recent weeks.

I do have a solution for any financial problems, though: we just need to peddle more T&A and celebrity gossip, like Huffpo. Isn’t that a bit illiberal, though, to build your brand on the backs of salacious stories about women? Not to mention the quackery and woo.

Although I guess I am also guilty of building an audience with blatant T&A*, too.

*Only in my case, that stands for “tentacles and arms”.

“Tom Johnson” fini

As some of you know, there was a long-running contretemps at Chris Mooney’s Intersocktion blog — Mooney took a comment by someone named “Tom Johnson” as evidence that the New Atheists were inciting all kinds of destructive fury and ran with it, promoting it as a solid strike against the same targets he took on in his sad little book, Unscientific America. Then it turned out that much of the conversation on this topic at the Intersocktion was driven by this same fellow, who was posting under multiple pseudonyms. And finally it turned out that a noisy little blog titled “You’re Not Helping”, which castigated New Atheists for “not helping”, was authored by this same little weasel, and that the conversations that went on there were also between sock puppets.

It’s been quite the embarrassment for the gullible Mr Mooney, and of course “Tom Johnson” has really demolished his own reputation.

“Johnson” has apparently sent out apologies to a few of the people he dishonestly slandered (I’m not among them; I guess he doesn’t like me at all). Now Jerry Coyne has dug up details on the background, including having a conversation with “Johnson’s” grad school advisor.

I wash my hands completely of the ugly little anti-atheist muckraker and will not be discussing him further in any context — he’s dead to me. The only good thing to come out of the whole sordid mess was a tarnishing of the reputation of that other anti-New Atheist crusader, Mooney. And now the “Johnson” affair is over.

Rage rising…rising…rising…

Now Bora has left ScienceBlogs. And all is still quiet from Seed Media Group.

A lot of the bloggers here are talking behind the scenes, and I can tell you what it feels like. Bora compares it to Bion’s Effect, where the departure of a few people at a party triggers a sudden end to the event. He’s wrong (Bora wrong? It happens sometimes). This is a situation rather more fraught. The ship is sinking. The Captain stands at the wheel, saying nothing, doing nothing. All of us on board are edging towards the lifeboats, completely baffled by the paralysis up top, and wondering when some action will happen, when the crew will show some life, when steps will be taken to address long-standing complaints amplified by the current crisis.

And the eerie silence continues.

At some point, there will be a loud noise, a sudden lurch (Bora’s departure may even be it), and everyone will abruptly turn and run screaming for the lifeboats. I personally may trample a few women and children to get a good seat. There may be riots and recriminations. Shots will fired, flares will go off, people will be thrown overboard, boilers will explode.

This doesn’t feel like a dinner party. It’s beginning to feel like the goddamned Titanic.

Seed desperately needs to WAKE UP. And hope it’s not too late.

More on that really bad experiment by Blizzard

Blizzard, makers of the games Starcraft and World of Warcraft, is about to change their forum policies and require the display of real names, basically creating a massive privacy leak if you buy a silly game and go online to get some tech support. There’s an excellent summary of why this was a really bad idea here, and apparently Blizzard has an inkling of possible problems — they’re waffling about whether to publish employee names under their new terms. If it’s not a problem for users, why should employees get an exemption?

Also, I’ve been sent a few links to sites where people are demonstrating what can be done with names and a little information: they’re digging up all kinds of amazing info about Blizzard employees. Photos, family pictures, home addresses, financial statements, shoe sizes, wedding registries, children’s school addresses, that sort of thing. I’m not going to post those links here! Personally, I’ve been very casual about my privacy, but we have to respect people’s decision to avoid public entanglements of this sort—and buying a garish box at Electronics Boutique for some casual entertainment should not be a tacit agreement to allow stalkers to track you down.

PepsiCo has been expelled

We just got this note from Adam Bly:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We’ll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.

That is such a relief.

I agree that scientists in industry must be part of the discussion. However, putting that discussion in the framework of an industry-sponsored infomercial compromises it — there are just too many constraints on what could be said. I also don’t believe that PepsiCo in this case was interested in a genuine dialog — what they wanted was a PR whitewash, and they were willing to pay to get it.

Some people are reasonably asking what next. Notice that Bly is asking questions up there! You can help by making suggestions.