In the previous two posts of this series, I discussed the past, present, and future of the internet mailing list--along with the other new technologies jostling for position in the fray. In this final post of the series, I want to address the role of the blog in scientific discourse. What does it bring to the table? What are its drawbacks?
As a case study, let's consider the case of Ida (more properly known as Darwinius masillae). This little primate, announced in the open access publication PLoS ONE and accompanied by a media juggernaut of unprecedented proportions, grabbed the world's attention (including mine). Every corner of the Internet, from the mailing lists to the blogs to the news sites to the home page of Google, was buzzing.
From the nearly the start, people picked up on something unsatisfactory with the story. Whether it was the hype, the conclusions of the paper, or the validity of the name, nearly everyone had an opinion. Within minutes, wonderfully cogent critiques were presented - largely in the blogosphere (see Brian Switek's blog carnival at Laelaps for the cream of the crop). Sure, there was some back-and-forth on VRTPALEO and various other mailing lists, and certainly some (often snide) comments on the social networks, but the blogs were where the real action was!
As a prime example, let's look at the problem of the validity of the name "Darwinius". By the standards of the bean counters at the ICZN, it wasn't valid as originally published! A commenter (among others throughout the Internet) at Carl Zimmer's The Loom really brought the issue front and center, resulting in extensive discussion by a number of professional paleontologists, and two widely read follow-up posts. Perhaps in part due to this widespread exposure, the issue was very, very quickly resolved. Again--some of the mailing lists were discussing this, but the "good stuff" was in the blogosphere.
What is it about blogs that contribute to this phenomenon? To start superficially, blogs are attractive. With just an internet connection and a laptop, pretty much anyone can create a profesionally-appearing, attractive layout with relevant graphics and links. The plain-text mailing lists just don't allow this.
Next, blogs allow a forum for knowledgeable people to speak and be heard. Degreed professionals--such as the guys at SV-POW!--and talented science writers--I'll pick on Brian Switek again as a paleontological example--do a tremendous job of presenting complicated information to the public and professional communities. This sort of commentary and presentation just wouldn't be found at Facebook or a mailing list--it's outside their scopes. Of course, this is a double-edged sword--some bloggers tend towards grandstanding and pandering to the fanbase at the expense of real content. In part, this is a function of the medium--a blog belongs to an individual (or a few individuals), and is in some ways intended to communicate more by decree than by conversation. Whether this is a good thing or not largely depends upon the blog.
This aside, the comment threads are another important part of the blogosphere. As an excellent example, check out the exchange on the recently-published primate Ganlea. Particularly in cases where the threads are of a manageable size, people pay attention. Real discussion is happening there. But, this does tend to fall apart in blogs that are too big. . .
So what is the big difference of a blog's comments from a typical mailing list? The comment threads are more readily accessible to the public - you don't need to access some text-only or subscriber-only archives. The thread of conversation is right there with the conversation starter. And wow, can these comment threads be enlightening!
Can It Last?
I would argue that the real on-line conversation about science has moved to the blogs. But is this sustainable? Only time will tell. Just two years ago, there was only a fraction of the number of blogs we have today. As the medium expands, it is getting tougher and tougher to keep on top of things. I predict that we're going to see more niche blogs developing, too. With so many good "general paleontology" blogs out there, it's going to be more appealing to specialize in topics like the Triassic, or sauropod vertebrae, or aquatic amniotes. We may very well see a fragmentation of the blog audience as a consequence, with a few heavy hitters getting consistent widespread pageviews, and everyone else catering to a more niche audience. Who knows what the future will bring?