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The Role Of GeoBlogs

This is an accretionary wedge.

The Accretionary Wedge has put out a call for posts on the purpose of geoblogging and the geoblogosphere.

… how bloggeology can impact society and “real geology”, should and can we promote the “geoblogosphere”, and are blogs private business or public affairs, and institutions underevaluating the possibilities given by this new method of communication?

Should it have a role in disseminating research?  Should geoblogging be factored into academic- or business- employees“ evaluations?  Can, and how should, the expertise and enthusiasm of  geobloggers be harnessed to effectively reach and educate the broader public?

1) Should and can we promote the geoblogosphere? Does it have an impact on society? To me, these two questions are highly intertwined. It is also the toughest question of them all so I am going to break it down into more manageable pieces and answer it first.

a) What is a geoblog? To answer that, let’s ask: What is a blog? Having been a blogger for more than a decade, I find that the term “blog” defies accurate description beyond logging in an electronic, online format one’s thoughts, opinions, creations and media finds. That’s it. A blog is not strictly a journal or online magazine dedicated to a single topic. Nor does it always serve the purpose of discussion, education or service beyond merely existing. There are blogs within blogs, thanks to categories and tags; a blog is easily transformed to cater to varying audiences through filters and switches. Lastly, a blog need not belong to a larger community of blogs for validation and content consumption. Given what a blog is not, I then submit that even a single post that discusses a geological topic and presents itself for online scrutiny constitutes a geoblog. It is after all a web log on geology.

b) What is the geoblogosphere? Blogging is an extremely democratic medium in that anyone can have a blog and write on any topic of their choosing sans an editor(ial board), a publisher and a significant budget. A blogger doesn’t need the validation of a group of peers as long as he or she has studied the topic, has credibility in the area and is open to discuss and debate any claims made in the blog at hand. The democracy of blogs is furthered in that consumers, for the most part, do not have to penetrate a group or buy into a subscription in order to gain information on any given subject. Therefore, in my mind, the ideal geoblogosphere is not about circling (sphering) the blog wagons and creating an echo chamber in which only the bloggers largely recognize and understand one another. In fact, it’s not about a sphere at all. A conscientious community of online geoscientists understands that geology must be accessible to all and in as many ways and forms as possible.

c) This is why I’m not a “geoblogger” despite the fact that I’m a structural geologist, geophysicist, geospatial technologist, science educator and very prolific blogger. As my About section or flipping through a few pages of posts will tell you, I am passionate about a lot more than geoscience, especially New Orleans, Indian-American issues and politics, and blog about these topics almost daily. This does not dilute the contents of my blog, however. Far from it, writing passionately about various topics has brought disparate people together here, to learn more about and discuss the ground beneath their feet and how it affects and is affected by the decisions we humans make at the surface and many that are out of our control. If I were to make this place a geoblog and call myself a geoblogger, I am othering and then removing geoscience from the floor of public discussion, and far be it from to me to intimidate my readers through the exclusion inherent in labeling.

This is not a question of being a lumper as opposed to a splitter, and there is an urgent info-sharing need within the science community for blogs on esoteric topics in geology and other sciences. In this day and age of increased educational and economic specialization and attempts to extinguish critical thinking in schools and society, however, my chosen responsibility is to protect against the building of ivory towers and to promote renaissance thinking. It airs out the minds of geoscientists and non-geoscientists alike and keeps us open to new ideas. When we have more well-rounded, scientific-minded people, not just scientists, the rest will follow.

d) The importance of community and credibility is not lost on me. I identify as a New Orleans (NOLA) Blogger. Again, anyone familiar with or interested in New Orleans and writes about it online is a NOLA Blogger. Period. Yet, at critical times like Hurricane Katrina, The Flood and the ongoing recovery as well as the latest BP Oil Spill nightmare, it helps not to be the lone informed scientist/activist ranting and raving into the electronic ether hoping someone will pay attention. Knowing other people who share your passion and ideas and the resulting link love, retweets and online discussion forums, i.e. an online community, eases the upstream battle, raises an issue’s visibility and increases the odds that something is going to be done about it.

e) Geoscience blogging has a very real impact on society and policy. That New Orleans was not flooded by Hurricane Katrina but instead by shoddily-built and poorly-maintained levees and incompetence at all levels of government is a fact kept alive by the New Orleans blogosphere five years later, not the news media. Online communities like The Oil Drum consist of and attract those educated in the intricacies of oilfield geology and engineering to dispel myths and promote facts to laypeople, in the absence of transparency on the part of those in charge of the recovery effort. Just look at the places the California Serpentinite issue has gone thanks to geologists networked via their blogs, Twitter and societies. The job is endless, but so is legislative and public ignorance.

f) Topical bloggers that come together to educate, advocate and organize is a plus, but a loose confederacy, which tightens in times of need, is more than sufficient. Again, geoscience awareness impacts policy, but only if those that make policy, down to the voters, have a healthy dose of geoscience in their everyday discussions, as it is those conversations and attendant concerns that later become laws. In order for this to happen, readers must feel welcomed and included at “geoblogs.” Unfortunately, any “sphere” always faces the threat of becoming insular, and this is made worse in circles of highly educated people competing about how much they know. Proximity to academia doesn’t help, either. For instance, during some discussions of the various BP well “kill” methods over at The Oil Drum and associated online chats, some well-versed in the oilfield often pulled the Oh My God I Can’t Believe You Don’t Know That or These Civvies Just Don’t Know What Goes Into Oil Production card on people asking innocent and valid questions in order to further their own understanding. Do I want to read the work of an authoritative and confident blogger? Yes. Do I want to fight against a lot of jargon and inside banter designed to deflect? No. So, I don’t know how promoting a “geoblogosphere” (as defined by whom?) helps.

The rest of the questions don’t require hefty paragraphs, so I’ll answer them quickfire.

2) How can bloggeology impact “real geology?” A blog is just another medium, but one that doesn’t suffer the physical access restrictions of books or journals. As I said earlier, there is a very real need for the open-access sharing of research, especially the publicly-funded kind, within and outside the geoscience community. Moreover, increased exposure to research outside one’s specialty does great things for creativity and scope.

3) Are blogs private business or public affairs? They can be both. My only caveat for corporate blogs, given their well-funded reach into society, is that they provide ample disclosures and open, moderated discussion sections. This gets into the generally horrendous (read: clueless) nature of corporate outreach online and blogging as advertising, but I feel that this can be combated with a genuinely conscientious marketing department. Or as a friend said, “It’s about understanding customers’ needs and giving relevant, useful, interesting, entertaining content.”

4) Are institutions underevaluating the possibilities given by this new method of communication? It’s not a new method of communication, but academic institutions sure treat it as such and with suspicion. More than the odd professor, I really wish geoscience schoolteachers and geology departments would begin blogging more. Never have two groups needed to do more outreach. The former party is usually not strictly an earth science teacher and therefore resource-hungry while the latter tries so very hard to attract students into its curriculum. It’s often the case that a geology department has a very good relationship with local schools but what about towns that don’t have universities? I think these two parties blogging, networking and reaching out, especially to one another, can net some excellent, mutually-beneficial relationships.

5) Should geoblogging be factored into academic- or business- employees“ evaluations? Again, a blog is just a medium, a tool for getting the message out. So, outreach is key here, not blogging for blogging’s sake, and that is what employees ought to be evaluated on if that is also the culture and practice of the company.

With that, I am going to open the floor to comments, questions and polite pushback. This is a living, breathing blog, so thoughts here evolve and/or deepen with time and discussion. Please check back for any updates.

3 comments… add one
  • Lockwood July 22, 2010, 4:46 PM

    You put your finger very nicely on why I don’t feel entirely comfortable calling myself a geoblogger: I blog about lots of different topics. My goal at the outset was to share things I found interesting or amusing, and there’s a lot of geology that fits that description. I have kind of hoped that people who visit my blog for the comics stumble across the geology, and to an extent, that has been the case. I agree that there’s a risk of becoming exclusionary, but I’m not seeing evidence that that is happening in the geoblogosphere broadly.

    • Maitri July 22, 2010, 4:58 PM

      Lockwood, Hi there and thanks for your reply. I will have to add your blog to my feedreader. My concerns stem from “promoting the geoblogosphere,” when we don’t really know what the hell it is. Promoting something involves a certain amount of packaging, which immediately places definitions and limits on the concept. If we’re talking about getting more people to blog about geology, in general, I’m all for it. But, if it’s about asking folks to join/read a Geoblogosphere (TM), count me out.

  • David Bressan July 23, 2010, 5:32 AM

    Thank’s for the post, very interesting the consideration how a blog, and subsequent a blogosphere should even be defined. I only have to note that I used the term geoblogosphere in the broadest and not to serious sense, including in it all earth-science interested people.

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