Friday, July 9, 2010

The Big FAIL

For those of you in the real world, you may not have noticed when the proverbial shit hit the fan at ScienceBlogs last week. Being on vacation, I discovered the controversy a few days late myself, when the flotsam and jetsam started hitting my twitter feed (#sbFAIL if you want to search for comments there).

ScienceBlogs, a subsidiary of SEED Media Group, provides an SciBlogs aggregation of 80 bloggers interested in science and associated issues: working in academia, women in science, science-based medicine, and assorted other topics. I follow a number of blogs there regularly and link to them in the blogroll in the right column.

Some of them may be changing their blog sites soon.

ScienceBlogs provided what I believed was an ideal model of an online “magazine.” Bloggers provided independent content that was fresh, interesting, and (sometimes) controversial. By virtue of the traffic this collection of individuals attracted, ScienceBlogs could get advertising to support the site and its authors. Many of these authors write under pseudonyms [can you call it a pen name in this digital age?], so they could have bias or conflicts of interest we know nothing about. Others could be Googled so we could know their issues. I mean, Google sees everything.

Seems a new blog popped up recently in the health and medicine channels. Food Frontiers turned out to be a paid blog; not ScienceBlogs paying the blogger, but Pepsico paying to post material on the site. Food Frontiers departed abruptly from the ScienceBlogs model. Many bloggers felt it compromised the reputation they had Photoxpress_2311306worked so hard to build for themselves and for their site.

 Many of them fled.

Some of the Sciblings (what the ScienceBloggers call themselves) wrote about the whole mess. One of my favorites was posted by Abel Pharmboy who addressed the way the whole episode could have been approached without the ensuing failure.

And failure is the only word strong enough for this fiasco. The offending blog has now been removed from ScienceBlogs (although it still lives on at the Pepsi website). Stories started circulating about behind-the-scenes issues and complaints (poor technical support and late payments), including other ethical problems with SEED magazine, the parent company. It seems the wall between advertising and content never was particularly strong. As a magazine editor myself, I know the pains we take to keep editorial control isolated from those who sell the ads. SEED allowed those barriers to break on several occasions.

I thought about presenting the ScienceBlogs model to groups to convince them to become blog aggregators. Go out on the web, find the bloggers writing about your area, and invite them to post at your site. The group can generate enough traffic to interest advertisers. Now, I would be hesitant to present ScienceBlogs as anything but a warning to others.

Once your reputation goes down the toilet, it can be almost impossible to scrape it out of the sewer.

I had once applied to write at ScienceBlogs, but they never invited me into their fold. And now I’m pretty glad about that. Could this bias what I’m writing today? Yes- but I’m telling you that. Blogger transparency in practice here.

There is still an air of chaos among the Sciblings, especially those whose choice to stay or go has not yet been made. One thing is for sure: ScienceBlogs is irrevocably changed by this episode. And probably not for the better.

Exit sign image courtesy of PhotoXpress.

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