Hey, I quit ScienceBlogs too! (Once upon a time.)

12Jul10

I had been reading this whole tempest-in-a-teacup about ScienceBlogs and Pepsi with varying degrees of amusement and irritation at both sides. I haven’t regularly visited SB in years; peripherally, I’ve watched some of their best writers slowly migrate away, their biggest name devolve into a one-note atheist crazy cat lady, and the remainder sort of just become a big echo chamber. So when the big faux-pas happened, I mostly just snickered at all the little ants freaking out as the neighborhood boy took a leak on their hill. As a former employee of SEED magazine, I’ve got no love for Adam Bly, but watching the SBers try to out-outrage each other over something that seemed obtuse rather than evil didn’t make them look good either.

Then this came to light, and I also read this. And it just reawakened all the strong feelings I used to have about how the sooner that poncey little twit was publicly discredited and the SEED Media Group permanently shuttered, the better off science journalism/communication would be. But it also reminded me of way back when I too was a ScienceBlogger, and I too found reason to quit in a huff. (Spoiler alert: this doesn’t have any great relevance to journalistic ethics, but it is a fun story to tell.)

Five-ish years ago (when I was jerkier and unmarried-er), I and a few rookie science-writer friends decided that there needed to be a science blog that took the piss — that was more Gawker than The Loom, more Maxim than Discover. So over beers and pizza in the East Village, FrinkTank was born. (It’s long gone now, but The Wayback Machine still has some posts archived. Beware: they are as immature and NSFW as you would expect from four twentysomething single guys. We called our blogroll The Reacharound, for god’s sake.)

We used pseudonyms because we wanted to protect our bylines and straight jobs, and also because we were inexperienced pussies who didn’t want to get yelled at by anyone we cracked wise about. We wrote some funny stuff, pulled a prank or two, and became something of an under-the-table guilty pleasure for other science journalists. (Their number probably wouldn’t fill my apartment, but they were definitely out there.) Good times.

Then one day ScienceBlogs offered us a slot. We couldn’t believe it. While other bloggers were explaining how the polymerase chain reaction works, we were using it as a springboard for dick jokes. We didn’t really see how FrinkTank fit the SB mold, but we a) relished the opportunity to get more exposure and b) to fling spitballs at Adam Bly from within his own house. (Hey, I said we were immature.)

We did get (slightly) more exposure, and some of the SBers actually enjoyed having a black sheep in the herd. We also made some wicked burns on SEED and its founder/publisher, whom we once described as a cross between Dr. Evil and Pee Wee Herman. But we didn’t do it gratuitously — only once in a while, just to show our readers that we hadn’t been housebroken. Mostly we just got a kick out of doing our thing as usual, and occasionally hearing (from moles we knew “on the inside”) about how someone freaked out in an editorial meeting because we used the word “twat” in a post (what will the advertisers think!?!?), or how Adam angrily asked one of his cronies to “do something” about us because we said that Chris Mooney (his star blogger and a SEED contributing editor at the time) looked like a midget on TV.

But there’s something about ScienceBlogs (or maybe just blogging) that inflates one’s own sense of importance. We weren’t immune. We started writing more outre content, and taking more vicious jabs at our corporate parent. When one of us (I honestly can’t remember who) called Adam Bly “the Sun King of science-media vaporware” in a post, we just thought, “Eh, what’s he gonna do?” Apparently that was the last straw, because we soon heard he was calling for our heads.

Actually he was only doing what any despotic media owner would in this situation, which was demand that we drop our pseudonyms. Not a terribly unreasonable request, given what assholes we were being. (But entertaining assholes, you see! Like John Stewart, or Lewis Black!) Anyway, given that at least one of us had worked at SEED before starting FrinkTank, we knew that just he’d throw us all out on our asses from pure spite as soon as we unmasked. So we dug in our heels and claimed persecution and moved FrinkTank off of ScienceBlogs in a big belch of digital hot air. By the time it was all over, even PZ Myers was saying that Bly shot himself in the foot by driving us away.

But he didn’t, not really. The truth is, it didn’t matter, we weren’t important, and no one really gave a crap after a week. And a few months later we all got bored with FrinkTank and shuttered it. If I took anything away from the whole silly experience, it’s just that old saw about not taking things personally and getting all worked up because odds are it barely matters anyway. It was a helluva lot of fun, though.

As for what this has to do with the current flap… well, not much, other than that SBers could probably have stood to take the Pepsi blog less personally while voicing their (understandable) dismay about it, as if Bly did it to fuck them each over individually by tarnishing their beautiful little reputations. Even if that were true, it’s small potatoes. Which is why I’m glad that this dirty laundry about his corrupt editorial policies has come to light, because it reminds me that there are legitimate reasons to loathe him and his presence in science journalism besides the rather mundane fact that he’s a pretentious, vindictive, thin-skinned twerp who stiffs his freelancers, couldn’t edit his way out of a paper bag, and sics lawyers on talented ex-employees out of spite when they escape his diseased little company.

Wait a minute, those are perfectly fine reasons. Oh well, bonus!

About these ads


27 Responses to “Hey, I quit ScienceBlogs too! (Once upon a time.)”

  1. We loved FrinkTank – everyone did though, honestly, never knew it was on Scienceblogs because the signal to noise ratio gets pretty high over there so just assumed it had died.

    It does seem to be mostly self-serving. Even in the midst of the had wringing, they made it about themselves, with 90% of the articles being written by them and the confusing litany of ‘I am ethical for leaving but you are totally ethical for staying too’ posts can be maddening to outsiders. The good news for Seed is, the event weeded out the people who object to that sort of thing, meaning Adam can now make some real money doing it.

  2. 2 Me

    Ha, glad to know an old fan! I still think the scienceblogging world needs a voice like that… I’m just not the one to do it anymore.

    Self-serving? Eh, only as much as anyone writing online ever is (myself included)… like I said in the post, I think a bloated sense of one’s own value-in-the-cosmos is par for the course if one deigns to blog at all. I think they had legitimate grievances over how SB deployed/handled the Pepsi blog, but the wailing did go a little overboard.

    In a perfect world, Bly would have integrated his experimental revenue-streams into the SB ecosystem in a way that didn’t idiotically inflame its core constituents and it would be a good example for other entrepreneurs to follow. But that would require Adam Bly not to be Adam Bly, as Christopher Mims devastatingly explains here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/jul/09/seed-editorial-independence-scienceblogs?showallcomments=true#CommentKey:959a2e0e-2037-4220-9148-35d53afb25a7

  3. Loved Frink Tank. I remember when you guys left. Sad day…

    It’s easy to poke fun at self-importance from a distance, but the underlying issues behind Pepsigate are actually pretty interesting and relevant, particularly since these kinds of concerns are likely to arise at other nascent blogging conglomerates — inevitable tension as blogging moves into professional mainstream between aspiring careerist and idealistic amateur? :)

    Hurt feelings and bruised egos will all subside. Things will shake out however they will, and Science Blogs will go on, with a changed roster… and a slightly more tarnished rep in journalistic circles.

    • 4 Me

      Agreed on all counts, and I look forward to more talented writers setting up shop elsewhere, so I don’t have to die a little inside every time I click an interesting link that enriches Adam Bly (even the tiniest bit).

      The wrinkle that made the PepsiGate problem finally resonate with me was when someone remarked that Google News’s “dumb” bots will crawl the SB site and feed material to GN equally, whether it’s actual news/editorial or sponsored/”corporate shilling” content. Which is a real problem, especially if the casual SB reader doesn’t know that such co-mingling is happening. Just kind of interesting that the spillover between edit and ad can taint things far beyond the literal boundaries of ScienceBlogs.com…

      A new web-savvy set of ASME rules should call for a mandatory meta tag on crawled content that can tell a robot whether it’s edit or ad. But that might be asking too much (or just be a silly idea).

  4. That’s a site I’d read.

    Now, I’d like to think that all that left can stay at their new (or old) home despite the drop in hits. I’m sure some, if not all, will eventually go back. Money talks.

  5. 6 razib

    “Money talks.”

    1) SBers don’t get paid that much

    2) haven’t you noticed people are talking about not being paid for months anyway?

    i can spend more on dinner & drinks in one night at a sports bar than 90% of SBers pull in in a month.

    it’s the fame & glory. you’re part of the club and what not. the $ is skin in the game and some incentive. doesn’t hurt. but not enough that most people would budget for it.

    good to know what happened with frinktank. the whole “have to be pseudo” thing seemed like a thin rationale at the time we heard about it in the back channel.

  6. 7 JMW

    Just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of old FrinkTank fans. A very funny site named after one of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

  7. FRINKTANK!!!111! Science plus yo momma crazy deliciousness!!!111!

    I loved your pranks, you zany bastards!!

  8. 9 Gaia

    Love it! A cross between Dr Evil and Pee Wee Herman: brilliant.

  9. You might not be able to fill your apartment with Frink Tank fans, but you definitely could fill it with ex-Seed employees who share your sentiments about Adam Bly. I would be there on both occasions. Thanks for writing this.

  10. I also think that Frink Tank was fantastic . It is important to take the dourness out of traditional science education, and y’all did that better than anyone.

  11. I remember FrinkTank too. Y’all picked up the first ever article I published under my real name and got me a shit load of traffic of and offers…like as soon as I went out from this moniker. Made my fuckin year and made me some money! Fuck yeah, man…2006 was a good fuckin year.

    Anyway, ho hum. nice post etc., keep up the good work etc. The Atheist Cat Lady (LMFAO) is comparing i9t to the sinking of the Titanic today. Bye bye SB :)

  12. Right, right. The creation of a blog which can harm the professional careers and credibility of 80+ people is unimportant, but Bly’s corrupt editing policy…why, that’s significant!

    I totally see the difference. On the one hand, this recent incident did not happen to you. On the other hand, an entirely different incident did happen to you. Got it.

    • 14 Me

      Thanks for breaking up the love-in. It was getting boring anyway.

      I *did* say up front that this story had little to do with journalistic ethics and with the SB flap in particular (see above: “..not much..”), so there is that. I also said that my first knee-jerk reaction to the PepsiGate thing was wry amusement/annoyance, but then when the scope broadened, it made more sense to me why people were (legitimately!) getting so upset and taking it so personally (although I do think comparing it to the sinking of the Titanic, as PZ Myers did today, is hyperbolic, and that taking it *so* personally doesn’t really do anyone any good in the end). But mostly I just wanted an excuse to tell my little story about an old humor blog. For incisive commentary on the whole thing (and how Bly’s corrupt editorial policies are the broader problem surrounding the PepsiGate thing), you can’t sum it up more clearly than this (you may have already clicked on this but here it is again):

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/jul/09/seed-editorial-independence-scienceblogs?showallcomments=true#CommentKey:959a2e0e-2037-4220-9148-35d53afb25a7

      Related: a little bird tells me that the idea mentioned above of creating meta-tags to distinguish editorial from ad/vertorial content online is getting some attention from ASME and Google. So if the only good this navel-gazing blog post did was indirectly help that to happen, that’s good for all of us, right?

      • 15 Me

        Also related, on the subject of “taking it personally”: you made me think about this more just now. I certainly “take it personally”, too, on matters that may seem to outsiders (like my wife) to be not worth the bluster. E.g.: the totally assholic behavior of a certain technology executive regarding a certain faulty phone-antenna design. Why? I don’t even own an iPhone. But I could talk your ear off about how that’s just a symptom of a bigger “eff you” coming from the company in light of the blahhhhhhh….

        The interesting (and sad) thing is that in both cases (PepsiGate and iPhonegate) the “overlords” didn’t feel compelled to do anything about the problem until the “peasants” revolted. Would that have played out the same way if the revolt-ing *hadn’t* exhibited the “I’m taking this personally”, frothing-at-the-mouth vigor that it did in both cases? Maybe not… who knows.

  13. But Dr. Evil already IS kind of a cross between Dr. Evil and PeeWee Herman, isn’t he?

    • 17 Me

      Recursive Pee-Wee-ness had not occurred to me. Interesting.

  14. 18 RPM

    I quit ScienceBlogs too!

    Good to see the veil partially pulled back (on both FrinkTank and Bly). I was psyched to see you guys join back in the day, and bummed when y’all left us.

    ScienceBlogs was a fun little operation when it first started with a dozen or so people. Over the years, it’s become an unwieldy beast not worth visiting.

  15. 19 humanmichael

    intriguing that your link to pharyngula (referring to it as the blog of a “one-note atheist crazy cat lady”) only links to posts under the topic of godlessness. it seems you are looking only for that one note, and tuning the rest out, while there is an entire song playing. sure, there are 1080 posts in the “godlessness” category, but there are 1854 in the “creationist” category (which is relevant to biology), 1013 about politics, 997 about “weirdness”, and hundreds in other categories. just seems a little dishonest to paint it in such a light. obviously pz is an outspoken atheist, but to label it a “one note” blog while linking only to the “godlessness” category is a bit disingenuous.

    • 20 Me

      Ok, “one-note” was unfair.

      • 21 humanmichael

        only slightly.

        but anyway, the more i learn about smg, the less i like. yeesh


  1. 1 The PepsiGate linkfest « A Blog Around The Clock
  2. 2 YourTechWorld » I’ve got your missing links right here (17 July ‘10) | Not Exactly Rocket Science
  3. 3 Herding cats, ethically « Evolving Thoughts
  4. 4 A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem « A Blog Around The Clock
  5. 5 The Scienceblogs Scandal as a Study of Organizational Culture | Thoughts of a Neo-Academic
  6. 6 Letting The Inmates Run the Asylum: Are Blogging Networks Compatible with Publishing Business Plans? « The Scholarly Kitchen

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers

%d bloggers like this: