As you may have read, a group of high-profile and high-quality science bloggers recently left the network that had long housed them because the parent company had done a deal with Pepsi to create a nutrition blog in their midst.
Now we have a high-handed column from the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan, which basically tells these bloggers: Grow up. Get real. This is the way the world works!
Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”
That may be because they have editors who (when they’re good) fight to defend standards against the encroachment of the business side. These bloggers had no choice but to represent themselves.
Heffernan goes on to fume about the bloggers’ “eek-a-mouse posturing” and mines their work for quotes that make them look silly or small-minded. I’ve read a lot of these blogs over the years and don’t recognize them in her portrait.
But she misses the bigger story here, so let me lay it out for you. The ScienceBlogs saga is a version of a tale that keeps repeating itself in our online culture — the one where a group of people who (correctly or not) thought of themselves as a community discover that they are being treated as a commodity.
This has been happening from the very beginning of human congregation online. It happened when AOL got sued by its moderators; it happened when the WELL’s pioneers lost their trust in the businessman who bought the service in the mid-’90s. I’m sure it will keep happening, so let’s try to understand it a little better than Heffernan does.
The ScienceBlogs affair is not a case of a bunch of reporters in a newsroom crying foul because a church/state line was crossed. This is a group of writers who believed they were collaborating in their own little space on the Web, a meritocracy of sorts built on their own labor. Then they woke up to the rude realization that somebody else owned their real estate — and was going to sell some of the space without their having any say in the matter.
As I understand it, the Pepsi blog was not an advertorial; it was a blog manned by Pepsico-salaried nutritional scientists. It might have been a good blog, for all we know. But it represented a change in the rules. The bloggers weren’t consulted. They thought of themselves as party hosts, and discovered that management though of them as “a source of revenue” (in the words of Bora Zivkovic, a SciBlogger who wrote the definitive post on the controversy).
For Heffernan, it might be better to try to imagine that her Times employers had sold the office or cubicle next to hers to some sponsor’s hand-picked writer, who would henceforth fill the magazine page opposite hers: “Here’s a sponsored journalist — have fun together!”
But, really, it’s not the details of the Pepsi blog that are important. After all, ScienceBlogs’ owner, Seed, withdrew the scheme once the bloggers raised a ruckus. It was too late. The bloggers had lost the illusion that they were involved in a community; they saw the businessman behind the curtain. There was no going back.
This loss of innocence is, I think, a nearly universal experience online. It occurs when one’s initial surge of idealistic delight at the freedom and opportunities of boundless self-expression slams into the realities of the media business online.
People who have experienced this will thereafter keep their antenna out and much more finely tuned to questions of ownership and governance and autonomy. They will not use the word “community” without thinking about it. They will also never again feel quite the same unqualified delight in sharing their writing online.
Should the science bloggers have known what was coming? Should they have been less innocent? Probably. But then they might not have been as exuberantly good at what they did.
I don’t think the outcome is a tragedy. The former ScienceBloggers will continue to be science bloggers, producing great posts and forming new communities. I think they’ll just handle the business-and-independence issues a little more carefully next time around. They are learning from their experience; I wish Heffernan had done so too.
BONUS LINKS: Ex-SciBlogger David Dobbs has a thoughtful response on his Neuron Culture blog.
And Jason Goldman, still on SciBlogs, helps point Heffernan to where the “real science” can be found there.
LATE UPDATE: Heffernan has posted a response at Dobbs’ blog.