The more you do…

It is by now, I hope, pretty obvious that I’m rather keen on the old science communication thing and devote quite a lot of time and effort to it. However, there is a rather annoying Catch 22 built into this that for me seems to be coming increasingly prominent and rather awkward. The more posts I publish over more time, the more readers and critically, comments and questions I accumulate (and random e-mails and messages on Facebook etc.). However, the more this happens, the more time I have to commit to dealing with them, when I feel that I’m already reaching my limit on what time I can give over to sci comms and outreach stuff (joining Twitter might turn out to be a major mistake on that front).

Leaving questions unanswered is rude. Leaving incorrect or odd statements unanswered rather gives the impression that I agree with them (potentially confusing other readers). Shutting down comments stifles proper discussions and stops me getting good feedback. Giving a brief answer is often all I feel I can do (not least when I have a whole site setup for Q&As with many more experts on there) but that’s likely to be unsatisfying for the reader.

So what can I do? Blog less to attract less interest? Not really what I want, and what about all those two and three year old posts that still regularly attract new comments? Leave things unanswered? Unhelpful at best and puts people off. Do what I can and hope it’s enough? Also far from ideal but, sadly, probably the best use of my time.

What I suspect people don’t realise is how much time this can take. For them, it’s only one question or comment, but for me it’s just the latest one. A great many of my readers I suspect only know the blog and by extension only think of me through it, so it’s perfectly understandable they want to ask me. From their perspective I’m putting myself out there as a communicator, so I’m by definition willing and able to communicate about this stuff, and by putting up a post I’ve demonstrated at least some knowledge of the issue and a willingness to write about it, and the format of a blog with open comments means that there’s an instant option to leave a question not seen with books of TV even if they reach millions more people. But for me it can be yet another question and it sucks up time I don’t think I have and not replying can make me look unfriendly or unhelpful (despite what I have done) when of course ironically if I did no blogging or outreach at all, I’d merely look hermitic and would probably never get any questions in the first place.

I rather suspect this is true of a number of other bloggers and science writers. Those with truly popular blogs get deluged in comments and questions and thus have the ready excuse of ‘I can’t do everything’. Which for me if how I feel, even if it’s not how it looks. Sorry for the whinge, but there are times when this starts to get on top of me, and it seemed worth at least pointing this out as I’m not sure people realise it.




18 Responses to “The more you do…”

  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 11/02/2012 at 12:42 pm

    One thing that you MUST do is simply say “no clue, sorry” when something is that tiny bit too far out of your field. Don’t start researching things, not ever! Not even in your own old posts!

    Aside from that, I feel with you. I’m glad I get few comments with questions on my blog.

    • 2 David Hone 11/02/2012 at 12:54 pm

      Yeah, I guess I’m delighted that I have inspired people to try and learn more, I just want them to go out and try and learn more and not just try and mine me for that information.

  2. 3 himmapaan 11/02/2012 at 1:04 pm

    Not a whinge in the least but a perfectly understandable explanation.

  3. 4 Acleron (@Acleron1) 11/02/2012 at 1:23 pm

    There should be no problem in any reader accepting that every comment/question will not be answered. The time you spend in this form of communication must be awesome anyway.

    The content of this blog is much appreciated by this reader who is uneducated in the area. Several times I’ve not understood something which has led to a pleasurable experience of finding out.

    What I would have given for this easy access to information plus the excellent commentaries supplied by experts such as yourself in my early career in research.

  4. 5 Zhen 11/02/2012 at 2:13 pm

    I don’t know if it’ll work, but you know how some forums have this no reviving old topic rule? Perhaps you can use a similar approach with your blog? Close commenting for blog posts older than 6 months or something like that.

    • 6 David Hone 11/02/2012 at 3:19 pm

      I think I’d have to do that manually so it’s a bit of a pain, but it’s not that much of an issue. Look at the recent spinosaurus vs everyhting poat, it’s accumulated hatfulls of comments very quickly, and that’s won’t stop me getting random e-mails from people asking questions or expecting me to provide information for them.

  5. 7 Adam Smith 11/02/2012 at 3:21 pm

    Sounds like you’re becoming a victim of your own success 😉

  6. 9 kuhlmann 12/02/2012 at 12:59 am

    You can’t answer everyone on the whole Internet.

    Put a note on the site reminding everyone of that, and…stop reading comments. Don’t make a resolution to read them and not reply: don’t read them. Anyone that you actually need to hear from will email you. Make a separate mailbox for the blog, and block two hours a week to read and reply to it. At the end of those hours, delete every message that you didn’t reply to. If it wasn’t important enough to answer then, it will not get more important later. Your future self won’t have more spare time than your present self, so don’t kick things that aren’t important to you, down the road to him.

    I too do an odd thing that’s of interest to many people, and I’m not any happier about not keeping in touch than you would be. I’m sure it costs me in PR, but the cost of the time it would take me to read and deal with every person who thinks they need to hear from me, is greater. As you say, the choice is between answering your mail and producing your content.

    Which would we, your loyal readers, prefer? DUH.

    Rave on.

    • 10 David Hone 12/02/2012 at 9:04 am

      2 hours a week! Gah, like I have that much time! Not that I’d need it, it doesn’t take that long.

      The problem with what you propose really though is that it leaves no record. If people want to known what animal photo X is of, i could get the same e-mail 30 times and have to answer it each time, leaving the answer in the comments (in theory) saves a lot of repetition.

      The issues isn’t the comments inherently, more that people can be very demanding at times and I don’t think they realised because for them it’s just one question, or because they think I can drop everything to help them becuase it’s what I appear to do.

      • 11 kuhlmann 12/02/2012 at 9:30 pm

        If you get a lot of emails about the same thing, adding a footnote to a post would be a legitimate way to respond.

        Anyway, if dealing with comments and blog-related mail isn’t taking as much as — truth, now — two hours a week, this ain’t that big a deal! I’ve said my bit…when it’s taking eight hours out of your week, then maybe time to bring the hammer down. ^_^

      • 12 David Hone 12/02/2012 at 9:43 pm

        No it doesn’t take 2 hours. But realise how much I am already doing when I already spend time on writing a post every day for this and do stuff every day on Ask A Biologist, plus odd bits on, even an extra 5 minutes can be a hassle sometimes.

  7. 13 Mark Robinson 12/02/2012 at 3:43 am

    I, for one, really appreciate the time and effort that you put into this blog (and other things like AAB). I understand that you fit all of this in around earning a living (and actually living) so I keep my Q’s to a minimum and try to confine them to the likely area of your knowledge, plus not be too tangential to the OP.

    I imagine that one of the frustrating things for you is where someone asks you a Q for which they could easily find the answer via Google or Wikipedia in about the same time that it takes them to type the Q. You prob have to walk a fine line between encouraging inquiry and rewarding laziness.

    • 14 David Hone 12/02/2012 at 9:06 am

      Yeah, that’s basically it. The other one is when people ask ludicriously specific questions (like is that specimen XYZ coz I awlays thought that had a busted 3rd maxillary tooth, so it looks more like ABC but i read this paper that said it was LMN but looks too big to be DEF…..). If you have that level of detail of knowledge it won’t take you any longer to find the answer out than me, so do it yourself coz it’ll take ages.

  8. 15 Robert A. Sloan 12/02/2012 at 4:40 am

    Gee, I hope my comments haven’t had too many of the Odd ones. I know I love your posts and always appreciate your comments threads too. Many times a question I thought of asking has already been asked and answered by the time I comment, so I don’t post it.

    For the record, no need to reply to any of my comments that boil down to “I liked it.” I type “thanks” to a lot of comments on my blog or my post when there isn’t much more to say and you now know I know you’d be polite enough to do so. I appreciate every time you’ve replied to one of my comments and answered a question or clarified something for me.

    Also if I just reflect what you wrote, you don’t need to answer unless I got it wrong because I didn’t understand. Corrections and clarification appreciated, if I reflected it accurately, smile and move on. I’ll take “no comment” as positive either “thanks” or “you got it” and not feel slighted.

    • 16 David Hone 12/02/2012 at 9:08 am

      No, don’t worry. 95+ % of the comments are great – I don’t want to stop good questions and discussions and feeback. But I don’t want people to use me as a personal secretary or more importantly think that just because I don’t reply to something I condone it.

  9. 17 peteykins 13/02/2012 at 10:13 pm

    Blogger has a setting that doesn’t allow comments after a post is however many days or weeks old; WordPress probably has something similar.

    Anyway, as an amateur enthusiast, this is one of my favorite blogs, and I do enjoy the follow-up discussions in the comments. I believe I’ve asked a question or two, but I usually end up looking for answers myself, and inevitably fall into Google/Wikipedia holes which can take hours from which to extricate oneself. Good stuff!

    But I’m a blogger, too, and people who basically want you to do their Googling for them is a vocational hazard. *shrugs* Comes with the territory.

    Keep up the great work!

    • 18 David Hone 13/02/2012 at 10:46 pm

      “and people who basically want you to do their Googling for them is a vocational hazard. *shrugs* Comes with the territory.”

      Indeed it does. But I don’t want to put them off by not answering but nor do i want to actually do it! 🙂

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