Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Science Blogging Communities

This is the text for the "pre-production" version of my first AWIS column. I sent the column out for editing yesterday, I should be able to review the edits in a few weeks, and the issue will come out in February. For those of you who would like to read it before then, though, here it is :)

Since the days when my brother and I would divide up the newspaper comics over breakfast on Saturday mornings, one of my favorite strips has been Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse.” I have always enjoyed the way that this strip captures the day-to-day affairs of the Pattersons and their community, and humorously highlights the network of relationships that make up a life. From the exasperating to the touching, their joys and concerns, their worries and triumphs, are ones that I can relate to. Just like Elly Patterson in her periodic conversations over coffee with friend and neighbor Connie Poirier, I too might hold similar conversations with my friends about our families and our neighbors, our lives and our careers.

Yet, unlike Elly, I have no Connie across the street to meet for coffee in my kitchen. My family and friends are spread across a dozen states and countries around the world. Although we may meet for the occasional lunch when one or the other of us is passing through town, these visits are often separated by months if not by years. There is all the space of time and distance to fill in those few spare hours and there is little opportunity for regular accounts of the affairs of an individual day or week. Although I have co-workers and acquaintances that I am friendly with, I sometimes feel the absence of a strong support system of nearby friends and relatives with whom I can share the events of my everyday life.

I am not alone. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Americans will move an average of 11.7 times over the course of their lives. The frequent mobility and rapid pace of the modern world can make it hard for almost all of us to maintain a local network of social supports. Still, the advances of modern technology offer opportunities to foster new kinds of community in our ever-changing lives. One of these can be found through the increasing prevalence of online blogs, which range in formality from regularly updated, specialty news reports to more casual, personal online journals. Online communities have formed among bloggers who write about similar themes, and among these, a growing population of female science bloggers has emerged. This loose category includes not only women in the life and physical sciences, but also those engaged in math, engineering, and computing fields. Many bloggers write independently, although several contribute within formal networks like ScienceBlogs, or to more informal groups like the Scientiae Carnival.

Many female science bloggers did not originally start their blogs with the intent of joining a greater online network. One woman, who blogs as the Bean-Mom, remarks that, “When I started, it was a personal outlet for me. I didn't expect the community that I would find.” Still, that community has grown and now connects women from across the country and throughout the world. Although fellow bloggers may never meet in person, through their blogs they can read the stories of others like themselves who are facing similar challenges, both professional and personal, from teething toddlers to disastrous data sets.

Female science bloggers often write about their science and their work, and use their blogs to discuss their projects and flesh out their ideas. However, just as often they write about life, of which their science is only a part. Herein lies one of the greatest values that many find in this community. Alice, one of two authors at the blog Sciencewomen, writes that, “The bloggers in the "women in science" blog community blog about their personal lives as much if not more [than] their research: about their pregnancies and promotions, their challenges and juggling, things that make them snicker or that drive them nuts, and how they go home with themselves at the end of the day. Those posts put people's broader work in STEM in a life context, and make me feel like I can also carry on going on my own track.” The Bean-Mom expresses a similar sentiment, commenting that reading the posts written by other female scientists “has helped me to see that I'm not alone in many of the things I've felt and struggled with. And I love seeing the way that science bloggers support one another. We can vent about things both small and large, and receive advice, empathy, and support.”

The openness of the online forum is fostered in part by the inherent anonymity of the internet. Blogging uniquely lends itself to intimacy while simultaneously preserving a measure of distance and privacy. Although a few bloggers, like Alice, write under their real names, many, like the Bean-Mom, remain pseudonymous. This anonymity can make it easier for bloggers to share their stories with less self-censorship, and without worrying what their co-workers or superiors might think of them. Even in supportive work environments, talking candidly about issues like second-guessing a career choice or admitting that giving 110% to every project is taking a toll on relationships with friends and family can be difficult. None of us wants to project the image that we cannot manage our responsibilities, or to come across as complainers. Yet our reticence can create internal tension in ourselves, and also fosters the illusion that we each have our work, our family, and our relationships in perfect and elegant balance, when the reality may be infinitely more precarious.

In online blogs, however, women tell a different story. They write freely about both their embarrassing presentations and their successful grants, about both sleepless nights with fussy infants and angelic Kodak moments. Common threads swiftly become apparent in the joys and frustrations related from each individual life, and in the struggles to find solutions to common concerns like childcare or workplace bureaucracy. Somehow, this is oddly reassuring. If none of us has everything under perfect control, maybe our uncertain balancing acts are normal after all.

In addition to fostering openness about personal affairs, online blogs also offer an especially egalitarian arena for bloggers to express their thoughts and opinions. The Bean-Mom observes that, “Grad students and postdocs are able to say things to [professors] here that they would simply never say in real life …[The professors], in turn, receive input and a perspective that I think they probably do not get from their own trainees…and are able to give their own direct, unfiltered advice and perspective in return.” She remarks that the anonymity of the internet seems to foster a level of frankness among individuals as they share their feelings and experiences that might not otherwise occur. The Bean-Mom admits that this can “contribute to some flare-ups now and then” but feels that “by-and-large this community is well behaved!” Although anonymity can limit closeness, it can also offer a layer of protection that allows bloggers to be more straightforward with each other. This candidness may make it easier for individuals at all stages of their lives and careers to learn from and understand one another.

Just as I now no longer receive a printed newspaper and instead read my comic strips on the computer, online blogs now allow participants to support and share in one another’s daily lives when close friends and family members may be distant. These communities have the ability to connect people from many places who have, or are, or will go through similar stages in their lives and in their work. They can allow participants to share their thoughts honestly, and to both teach and learn from one another. Online blogging communities may not take the place of good conversations with old friends over coffee. However, they can offer similar kinds of support as well as provide their own advantages. As such, they are a valuable resource to have.