Why do I Blog?

Written by: C. Titus Brown

Primary Source: Living in an Ivory Basement

Why do I blog?

I’ve been blogging now for almost 8 years, since around when Grig Gheorghiu started the Southern California Python Interest Group. Since then I’ve gotten a PhD, taken a postdoc, had one child, started a faculty position, had another child, and basically gotten way, way busier. Why do I keep it up?

Colleagues — even the more digitally enabled ones — roll their eyes when I talk about blogging. We’re all inundated with research, home, travel, teaching, and writing; how can I possibly fit blogging in on top of that? And why would I bother?

I reflexively respond to these colleagues dishonestly, by arguing that blogging has helped me in grants, papers, research, teaching, and collaborations, and that I am getting way more exposure with my blog than I would ever have expected. But that’s a kind of white lie.

I fit blogging in by ignoring other things.

And I take the time to blog for the same reasons that Paul Graham outlined in his post, The Age of the Essay: because of the surprises it brings me, and what I learn from those surprises.

The evolution of my opinions on software reuse, for example, followed exactly the path I described in my last post: inanecdotal science, I figured out that bad software bugged me because I had to reproduce it; in automated testing and research software, I realized that lots of people were confusing replication, reproduction, and reuse; and in thoughts on making science better, I argued myself into believing that remixing was key to progress in science. Looking back, the progression is inevitable and the arguments logical; at the time, I really had little or no idea where I was heading.

As another example of the utility of blogging in personal growth, I posted a detailed description of our k-mer filtering ideas at the beginning of this assembly mess. My confidence in our approach was boosted immeasurably when Jared Simpson seemed to think I wasn’t full of it (although it took me a few months to realize that this was the author of ABySS).

I don’t actually blog to point out that Mick Watson is wrong (or anyone else) — honestly, I find that it’s easier and better to discuss ideas (often phrased as arguments ;) with the incredibly wide range of very smart people available through the Internet than with my local colleagues. My greatest fear is that people will stop disagreeing usefully with me, because then life would become really boring.

Sure, the exposure I’ve gotten through the blog has been nice, but no one ever got tenure (or even a grant) off theirKlout score. At best, it’s reputational: it helps you in some cases, hurts you in others. I am quite sure I’ve pissed off a number of silent observers with some of my blog posts, and I’m also quite sure several of those silent observers have served on grant or paper review panels of mine. I’m not sure if the negatives are counterbalanced by the positive effects, but we’ll have to see.

If anything, some of the exposure has made me a lot more cautious, a process I hear is linked to this unpleasant business of “growing up”. I know at least one grant manager reads my blog occasionally (hi!) and I’ve gotten friendly cautions that I might want to be more circumspect about some things. I regularly chat with people who say “please don’t talk about this on your blog, m’kay?” I know at least one of my chairs reads the blog, which makes me nervous when I use words like “sabotage” to describe interactions with MSU. On the other hand, it’s worth reflecting that our private e-mails are only a hacker away from publicity, so maybe this isn’t that big a deal… hard to say.

Is blogging “necessary” for scientists, going forward? I don’t think so, and I actually hope not. I just happen to have the blogging gene, but I’m quite sure that the time I’m spending on writing blog entries is costing me in other areas. For example, it decreases my paper output. I spend lots less time on software development. It’s definitely costing me some family time. So it’s a mixed bag, and by no means a unchallenged positive.

I do hope that we continue to move past this rather blinkered academic idea that time spent on “non-traditional” research activities like blogging, Twitter, education, and the rest is a definite waste of time; I think my blogging ishelping me get important papers and grants out, and it’s certainly helped in my teaching. I have some pretty good Klout-like stories about blogging that I’ll share in a few years, too, but those are happy surprises when they happen.

So that’s why I blog: to air my opinions to myself and others. I’d love to talk sternly about the importance of societal impact by scientists, and how we need to become better communicators (we do!) I happily tell my chairs about how I get invited to things because of blogging and Twitter, because it means they don’t yell at me as much (work in progress). But at the end of the day, I write blog posts because I want to figure out why I think what I think. I writelong blog posts because short blog posts don’t let me do that very well. And I choose topics where I’m at least reasonably knowledgeable, because otherwise my blog posts are definitely and absolutely not worth reading.

Why do you blog? Or why not?


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C. Titus Brown
C. Titus Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. He earned his PhD ('06) in developmental molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology. Brown is director of the laboratory for Genomics, Evolution, and Development (GED) at Michigan State University. He is a member of the Python Software Foundation and an active contributor to the open source software community. His research interests include computational biology, bioinformatics, open source software development, and software engineering.