Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Why blog?

What is the future of my long running microbiology blog? And why do I blog anyway?

This is a graph Where did my readers go?
In June, this blog had it's biggest ever month in terms of pageviews.* There is no one post responsible for a traffic spike, it seems to be a general increase in readership. While pageviews isn't the reason I blog (a number of my blogs have zero pageviews because I don't tell anyone about them, they're my online notebooks) as feedback, pageviews are gratifying because they suggest that other people find what I write/curate here useful.
*Or not, depending on whether you believe Blogger's statistics or Cheatin' Taxweasel Analytics...?

Trouble at t'microbiology blog
At the same time that this blog is becoming more popular, MicrobiologyBytes continues its steady long term decline, nearing the level where it no longer seems to justify the time I spend on it. It's not clear to me why this is. Sure it's summer, and there are a lot more microbiology blogs around now than when I started MicrobiologyBytes, but why do the two blogs have such different trajectories? I know I feel differently about them. After nearly 10 years of microbiology blogging, it's become a slog. I also have much more vested personally in this site, and I'm pretty sure my Marmite personality both attracts and repels readers here. That has never been what MicrobiologyBytes is about. So what should I do?
I don't want to stop blogging about microbiology, largely because I blog as much for myself as for others - it's my personal development, thinking out loud. Everything I publish is under a Creative Commons licence and I don't make any money from blogging. But MicrobiologyBytes is still useful to me as an online notebook and archive, for example, it's a quick way to dredge up what I've learned and forgotten about adenoviruses.

Where does curation fit in? What about all my satellite sites on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr? Does the dead weight of all those publication channels drag me down? My following on all the social satellite sites has more than doubled over the last year while pageviews on the blog itself have halved. What does this tell me? Search traffic accounts for 50% of pageviews on MicrobiologyBytes, referral traffic 30%, so branding on these other sites is important.

What the heck is a blog anyway?
David Kernohan recently published a helpful reflection on three classes of OER:
Three strands of open education. On a scale of decreasing plausibility (1 = evidence based, 3 = fantasy), OERs are:
  1. Reusable Learning Objects - reuse and recycle
  2. Commons - supply side sharing
  3. Disruption - education revolution
For this blog the future definitely seems to be if it ain't broke don't fix it. But for MicrobiologyBytes the answer looks much more like back to basics. My most popular MicrobiologyBytes "blog posts" are now five years old. Clearly, these are not just blog posts, they are reusable learning objects. The are not really "news", they are "content". Jacob Nielsen's latest post Website reading: it sometimes (does) happen has some interesting data on this, stressing the importance of nanocontent navigation. Although users generally scan rather than read web pages, short, pithy subheadings can help users engage with arguments presented in long form writing. I want to experiment more with these ideas, such as putting the take home message in the first paragraph rather than saving it for a final denouement. Did the subheadings in this post help you navigate it?

Back to basics?
Producing high quality, long-lived RLOs instinctively feels like the route forward for MicrobiologyBytes. If I ask myself What do I want MicrobiologyBytes to be?, I don't particularly want it to be a MOOC - too much like the day job. I suppose my ideal role model is, as so often, Ed Yong. It might be argued that my lack of daily involvement with microbiology research distances me from the topic I am writing about and the community I am writing for. I would argue that 30 years of microbiology and science communication knowledge more than counteracts that. And not being an active researcher has not hurt Ed Yong. It's more about the quality and clarity of the writing and the breadth of vision than the ability to stand at the lab bench. To make time for that quality of writing I plan to reduce my curation of other content on social sites. What I mean by this is that I intend to share links via Twitter, Facebook and Google+, but satellite curation sites such as Tumblr will go.

But there is an alternative possibility, to join a blogging consortium to inspire me and renew my passion for microbiology. Either way, I can't see any way I'm going to stop blogging, it's too much a part of me now. Or maybe every blog has its day?

Please forgive all the navel gazing in this post. But that's why I blog. 

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