Microblogging for Science – I’ll Tumblr For Ya
Remember recently when for the . . . what was it, 9th time? . . . some poor NY Times lackey got picked to write this month’s “Blogs R Ded” article? This isn’t about refuting that, because A) it’s ridonkulous, and B) Scott Rosenberg already took the pot on that one.
It struck me while reading the fallout that despite how savvy, talented and productive many internet science communicators are, very few of them have embraced true microblogging. Ed Yong has a Posterous, but, uh . . . that’s almost all I could think of. I realize that most science communicators are on Twitter, but I don’t really view Twitter as a microblogging tool anymore. To me it has become a social news and information stream. Beyond that, barring the occasional hilarious hashtag, a single tweet is more often a link or a comment than it is a stand-alone piece of content. Microblogging, rather, is best represented by sites like Tumblr and Posterous.
So why do have so few people in the science community embraced microblogging? I guess that the simplest answer is they don’t know it exists. Or don’t care. Here’s how most conversations go when I tell people I have a tumblelog (that’s what they’re called):
Me: Yeah, I have a Tumblr page that I run. It’s really fun.
98% of People: What the f&%k is a Tumblr?
Trying to explain what a tumblelog is to someone who has never seen one is like trying to explain a giraffe to an eskimo. Even after I describe it, people either assume that it’s like emo-Twitter (which it’s not) or that it’s like a starter blog for tweens (which it also is not).
Maybe I can use some examples to show you the value of these new blogging tools, and why they should (?) matter to you:
Tumblr used to have a feature called the directory, where you could submit your Tumblr site under some heading (like animation, or design) and then have your friends recommend you every Tuesday, effectively bumping you up the list. But the truth is, no one really used it to find new pages, and no one’s page is about just one thing. Two weeks ago they launched the EXPLORE page (capitalized due to its obvious importance). Instead of a directory, posts are curated based on tags, and popular content is bumped up in real time.
“But wait! Isn’t that just like Twitter? It’s a real-time news feed, too!”
True, Twitter is a feed. But it is a complete gonzo-feed. Without curation, almost incomprehensible. Go ahead, start a search for the hashtag #science on Twitter. It’s garbage. Useless. How does Tumblr do it differently? They employ teams of actual human editors (for no pay, of course, only the honor) to curate the topic for which they have been hand-picked by Tumblr staff. Here’s the result. The major distinction is that finding good content through Twitter seems to be highly dependent on who you follow, whereas on Tumblr . . . content speaks. Nowhere on Tumblr will you find how many people follow a particular user. Quality is the only currency.
Let’s take a closer look at how it works. They say it’s The Easiest Way To Blog (TM)! When you go to a Tumblr page, like mine, you see what appears to be a normal blog format. Fully customizable and built around a defined feature framework (like WordPress). But a Tumblr user sees something different behind the scenes. Behold the Dashboard:
It’s a timeline of everyone you follow, just like a Twitter feed. But the content is right there, no 140 character limit. Youtube video? Right there, ready to play. Photo and blog post? Right there, in full. Animated GIF of a cat wearing a monocle? Right there, GIF-ing all day long. This is a key feature, because you aren’t clicking link-browser-twitter-link-browser-read . . . it’s all neat and tidy in one place.
Users can “Like” a post, or they can instantly reblog it to their own page and feed, with all attribution to the original source and poster locked in the whole way down. 5,000 notes (the term for likes and reblogs)? You can see everyone on Tumblr who has liked or reblogged that post with a few minutes of scrolling. It’s better than re-tweeting, because the entire history of a post exists.
Ok, so that’s how it works. So what? Why is it useful??
When that NY Times article came out claiming that blogging is on the wane, the main argument was that young people are turning to sites like Twitter to share information. That’s true, Twitter is still growing every day. But 57% of Twitter users are between 26 and 44 years old. It is not the land of youngsters, by most definitions. Tumblr? Well we don’t know their exact user statistics at this point, but it’s safe to say that more than half of users are under 35 years old. And that’s why it’s important that science feel at home over there.
What are we online to do? Why are we here? For most of us who write about stuff like this (science, the web, etc.), I would say it is either to express ourselves or to teach. And if you want to teach someone, who better than young people? The attention span of a young person is short, and they will always respond better to a medium full of rich content and when surrounded of their peers. Long form and traditional text blogging is awesome, and it serves its audience well (I mean, I do both, and do them for separate reasons). But you miss out on one of the largest audiences on the internet, and one of the most important to the future of science, if you don’t go play on their turf.
Tumblr is currently serving up over FOUR BILLION page-views a month over their network (that’s roughly triple the views for WordPress.com), and a vast majority of that is to a younger audience who have sponges for brains. How powerful is this network of connected micro-bloggers?
On February 22nd, I saw a Tweet about some pictures of an abandoned particle accelerator in Russia (I don’t recall from whom, sorry). They were spooky and awesome, and using Tumblr’s instant-share button for my browser, I made one into a post in about 45 seconds. And then I proceeded with my day. Later that night (the same day the “Explore” function was launched, actually), I got on to check my page. I had gained over 1,000 followers in a single 7-hour period. The post made it to the top science post of the day and was on the site-wide radar page for hours. That post, as I currently write, has 3,819 likes or reblogs. Using out-of-date numbers from an interview with Mark Coatney (now Tumblr’s media evangelist) last year, that means the post was seen by around 1,591,250 people.
A picture. Of a particle accelerator. In Russia. Nothing else I ever write will be seen by that many people. That’s probably true for you, too.
Is that “meaningful science writing”? No, of course not. But when a person is surrounded by their peer group online, and then they are presented with sound science, they will have a positive association with it. Whether it’s a photo, a song, a video clip, a link to an article and a short note from me . . . every small piece of science that people come across when they are in their comfort zone makes science a bigger part of their life and makes them more comfortable with it. I’m sorry to say it to so many talented writers out there, but pages of words just won’t do it sometimes. Not when it comes to just getting science onto the retinas of those who need it the most.
So I hope that more people, and journal and media outlets, will embrace this new frontier. Many of them are already there (and many, many more). I have to ask myself sometimes, “Why the hell does Wired Science or Boing Boing not have a Tumblr?!?!” Traditional blogging can be a lonely island, and the past year has proven how important networks are to even traditional online science writing.
Tumblr won’t replace Twitter, because it doesn’t have its beautiful simplicity and mobile sensibilities. It has a less-than-great record of server outages (although who could anticipate that growth?) It also won’t replace blogs, because it just isn’t the optimal medium for traditional long text posts (cough*JLVernonPhD*cough But it will be important, and I invite you to try it. Sure, there’s an entire page dedicated to Tom Selleck by waterfalls with a sandwich, but hey, that’s fun too. And like any tool, there’s right and wrong ways to use it, and things that the hive mind do and don’t like.
So there ya have it. I’d love to know what you think of Tumblr and sites like it (although Tumblr has pretty much won the battle of microblogging already). Are you writing about science on Tumblr? List yourself in the comments and I will add you to my list. A very short, incomplete list:
http://germgirl.tumblr.com/ (Maryn McKenna)
http://scienceofkissing.tumblr.com/#/ (Gallery site for Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book)
(Check the comments for a nice addition of pages from Bora, because he pretty much keeps track of the entire internet!)