“My baby’s all grown up,” mused Christopher Mims, retweeting an unconfirmed announcement posted nineteen minutes earlier that Scienceblogs.com, the site he helped create and launch for the Seed Media Group in January 2006, would be sold to National Geographic.
Retraction Watch’s Ivan Oransky had the scoop. Just after 3 p.m. on Monday, one of Scienceblogs.com’s most popular bloggers, Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, broke the news that:
Scienceblogs is going to be folded into a new organization sometime soon — basically, we’ve been bought. I can’t discuss all of the details just yet, but let’s just say it is a prestigious national magazine with a healthy bottom line that will do us a lot of good.
At 6 p.m., Oransky had even hotter gossip:
Retraction Watch has learned, from a source familiar with the negotiations, that the buyer is National Geographic. We don’t have any details at this point, and Nat Geo has not returned a request for comment, but we are confident in reporting this We’ll add more details as we learn them.
On Tuesday morning, Oranksy followed-up after having obtained a recording of a conference call between ScienceBlogs management and bloggers and various members of National Geographic senior management. It turns out Seed is retaining ownership of the site with National Geogrpahic assuming control of operations, editorial content, and ad sales by June 1 of this year.
“From this point forward, it will be National Geographic leading the charge and managing the website on a day-to-day basis, while ownership of the property remains with SEED media group,” its chief financial officer and vice president of finance and operation’s Vera Scavcic said on the call.
It will take a while to sort out the finer details, of course, but the reaction on Twitter following Oransky’s initial tweet about the deal was instantaneous.
“Now I get to write the totally uncensored super-secret history of Scienceblogs. Only ten people will read it, but, oh boy,” Mims, now a blogger at Grist among other things, quipped a moment after his first tweet. Thirty-eight minutes later, at about 6:45 on Monday evening, he decided to do it, reasoning, “The portion that won’t get me sued shouldn’t take but 5 minutes to bang out.”
So began the engrossing, hour-long tale, told over the course of over sixty well-crafted tweets, under the hashtag #SBHistory (the tweets are condensed into paragraphs, with the hashtags removed, but otherwise unedited).
SB was born in a meeting btwn myself and Adam Bly, who has probably trademarked his name so he can sue anyone who says it aloud. Seed was flush with money at the time, and we were looking to expand. I was newly hired, times were good. We were looking for ways to build traffic to, of all places, Seedmagazine.com. It was impossible not to notice all the excellent science blogs that were then scattered across Blogger and self-hosted sites.
Mims went on to explain that he had his eye on Myers—an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris—whose Pharyngula blog was already very popular:
I wanted to have PZ and all the other science bloggers blog alongside us on SeedMagazine.com. The idea was, journalism and blogging were the same thing in different formats. This was a quasi-radical idea at the time. Obviously e.g. Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Discover and zillions of other outlets have gone on to realize that dream. But that wasn’t what our fearless leader envisioned. He wanted a totally separate thing.
This is the part of the story where I elide a bunch of biz details because a) boring b) I probably said I’d never disclose them. So ScienceBlogs was born as a wholly owned subsidiary of Seed Media Group. Look it up: it’s based in Delaware. Here’s how we chose the initial invitees to SB: We let the intern do it. No one else had the time. It was basically just me and a tech person (whose name I’ll elide) at that point anyway. Intern made a spreadsheet including estimated traffic. We sorted by that field, invited the top 20. We also threw in some of his personal faves, lifting a handful of blogs out of obscurity. I mean, I looked at all of them, it wasn’t completely hands off. A surprising number of bloggers said no right away. I’m looking at you @BadAstronomer :)
Now we had to build the site. We bought the domain from some guy whose kids had purchased it just a few months before. I didn’t now what “DNS” meant. But suddenly I had to point some “DNS” records at a “host.” I called my friend at MIT. I chose the hosting company b/c they were located in my hometown, and occupied what used to be a mall near my house. What was the name of that hometown hosting company? Rackspace. Yeah. @BoraZ @arikia @katherinesharpe Yeah this is deep, deep history here. Pre-cambrian.
Anarchy was built into the site from day 1. No one would have signed up if we hadn’t given them free reign to say anything. This is the advantage of starting from nothing: No institutional reputation to ruin.
Eager followers gathered as Mims continued. “Psst. If you’re missing it, @mims is tweeting the super secret history of ScienceBlogs,” John Rennie—who writes a blog for PLoS, which hosts one of a newer crop of online science blogging communities—whispered about an hour into the tale.
“@mims dude can’t you put this all into a one long blog rather than tweets?” George Musser, Scientific American space and physics editor and solar blogger, asked. In response, Mims announced that he would continue in a blog post later, but quickly relented at the urging of Martin Robbins, a blogger in the Guardian’s community.
“No… keep tweeting, I’ll have it in a storify later. We’re all hooked!” he wrote to Mims and Musser, referring to a site that allows people to search for Tweets, photos, and videos, drag them into a template, add context, and construct a story. It was his first attempt at using the tool, and he posted the impressive result after Mims finished his story a while later. (“I love this. A fascinating history of Scienceblogs.com, written in tweets (by @mims) and collected via Storify,” New York University’s Jay Rosen wrote less than two hours after its posting.)
So Mims continued as before:
So when SB first launched, there were tons of rough edges. Genius thing our tech person did was set up a private chat back-channel. Bloggers used it to solve each other’s tech issues. So e.g. @razibkhan [Rhazib Khan] was instrumental in squashing bugs. Without him the site would have imploded. At the time Movable Type was the enterprise blogging platform of choice, so it’s what we used. It was like all utopias - at first everyone is full of idealism, people help each other, they’re going to change the world etc. Anyway, the most interesting part of a thing is always its birth. I’m winding down already. Mostly because the most outrageous stories about working at Seed can never be told without fear of reprisal.
“So that’s what we used,” Ed Yong—who launched his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, at Scienceblogs.com before moving it to Discover’s community—chimed in, noting that the bit about Movable Type made him snort Pepsi through his nose. The choice of drink was an amusing coincidence.
Like Scienceblogs.com, Discover was a pioneer in science blogging communities, and began to draw blogs away from Seed’s community as early as 2008 and 2009, when it acquired, respectively, Carl Zimmer’s The Loom and Chris Mooney’s The Intersection. Yong joined in 2010, a few months before the scandal that would usher in a more precipitous decline for Scienceblogs. In July 2010, Seed Media Group was forced to cancel a nutrition blog that it had allowed the Pepsi Company to create after its members began defecting in protest.
But that was long after Mims left and way ahead of his story. After requiring some help from a number of followers remembering how many blogs made up Scienceblogs.com at the outset (it was fourteen, pointed out Bora Zivkovic, the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, who moved his personal blog off Scienceblogs after the Pepsi incident), he kept going:
Basically, after that it was just about finding other interesting bloggers to bring on board. The site literally ran itself. Editorially I mean. The upside of no oversight was… no work for editors. Thus was born the term “cat herding” We tried to come up with ways to incentive ppl to write on the same subject, because we couldn’t tell them what to do. It was an education in the ‘future’ of journalism — no control, no hierarchy, just… self organization.
The worst thing that happened under my tenure was a “takeover” ad that basically broke the site. Flash sucked even worse then. Everything that ScienceBlogs was through the end of my tenure was due entirely to the bloggers. It was 100% them. I was just their chief enabler. ;) I left pretty soon after the site reached about 30 bloggers. For the rest of the history, you’ll have to drag it out of @arikia or @katherinesharpe.
Mims was referring to Katherine Sharpe and Arikia Millikan, former employees of Scienceblogs.com. “No work for editors, just underpaid and unappreciated interns who had to code the whole front page daily,” tweeted back the latter, now the community manager of Wired.com at Wired Digital.
It was nearing 8 p.m. and Mims had been tweeting for an hour by then, but he threw in a few parting thoughts, including some trivia questions for insiders (“Which blogger earned the nickname ‘The Dork?’) and what he’d learned from helping to launch Scienceblogs.com:
1. If you are building a business, ask for an equity stake.
2. The world does not revolve around you. If you leave, things continue.
3. Eventually, bloggers who are talented will be paid what they’re worth and recruited by others accordingly. Labor: market.
Oh and the last thing I’ll say is, SB totally launched my career even though I never wrote for it. I owe it, and Seed, a lot.
So thanks to all the bloggers at SB for being such excellent ppl. I still believe you are the future of science edu/coverage.
“Ditto!” Milliken tweeted.
“My twopence? @mims @katherinesharpe @virginiahughes @arikia made #SBhistory worth being part of. Thank you. Always,” wrote scientist David Kroll, who moved his blog from Sciencblogs.com to Chemical & Engineering News’s CENtral Science network after the Pepsi affair (he was referring to freelance science writer Virginia Hughes, another former employee at Scienceblogs, in addition to the others already mentioned).
Fifteen minutes after Mims had signed off, Rennie and Yong, two of Twitter’s finest comedians, began riffing on a separate hashtag, #FakeSBHistory, most of it directed at Bly, the founder and captain of Seed Media Group. It caught on, and as the campfire died down, a number of people lingered to take cracks.
A new story for Scienceblogs will undoubtedly begin soon. According to Oransky’s post at Retraction Watch, David Braun, vice president of news and editorial service at National Geographic Digital Media, told bloggers on the conference call:
I’m looking forward to working with ScienceBloggers - Sciblings, I believe you call yourselves - to complement what National Geographic and ScienceBlogs do. I know that you’re respected in your blogging fields.
Braun also discussed freedom of expression at National Geographic, where he said “high value and standards” apply to all content. The company is “sensitive to our worldwide audience’s expectations of our brand,” he added. “So we avoid unjustifiable offense and are sensitive to generally accepted standards.” Later, after Scibling Ed Brayton asked about a recent post called “Dumbass Quote of the Day,” to which Braun replied:
I don’t want to sit here and comment on a case-by-case basis but I do want to work with you to work this out. We do stand for freedom of expression. We want to aim for a higher level of debate that is respectful and doesn’t offend in an unjustifiable way.
At any rate, it will be interesting to see if National Geographic can restore any of Scienceblogs.com’s former glory. When Geoff Brumfiel highlighted the community in a widely read feature for Nature in April 2009 headlined, “Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?” it had over one hundred blogs. Today it has sixty. We’ll see where it goes.