Blogs as boundary layers: Brian Romans, Simon Winchester, Facebook and earthquakes together at last

At Science Online 2011, I talked about the idea that blogs are like boundary layers where different people and different types of information can mix and have influence on each other. Brian Romans recently wrote this piece on his blog at Wired that jumped out at me as an example of an information boundary layer. In his post, he reviews the controversy that has grown up around a column Simon Winchester wrote for Newsweek called “The scariest earthquake is yet to come.”

Romans is a research geologist and we clearly see his opinion and views in the post – but importantly that’s not all. There are links to two mainstream news articles (Winchester’s Newsweek column and his follow up from the Daily Beast), two other blogs (one by a postdoc geologist and the other by a recent master’s graduate) and a facebook page that recounts an email exchange between Winchester and another scientist.

Linking has always been an important part of blogging culture – link to everything and let the readers make up their own minds. Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything highlights the importance of linking as a defining characteristic in the development of blogging.

Linking is also what makes Romans’s piece different from reading an op-ed or other opinion piece. Reading his posts puts the reader (maybe someone like me with no expertise in the area) in contact with conflicting views expressed through formal journalistic writing, opinions written by scientists, and personal communications between a scientist and a journalist. So it’s not just links, but links to different types of sources. And that makes it a completely different reading experience.

Rosenberg describes pioneering blogger Justin Hall using links to “build elaborate cross-references into his own storytelling…creating webs of meaning.” Examining the effect of blogs on online journalism, Donald Matheson wrote:

“The weblog moves away from the rather abstract authority assumed by such news texts to a more situated authority, in which we hear a journalistic voice choosing material as well as multiple and often discordant journalistic voices accessed through the links. In this context, meaning must be more actively constructed by the user.”[i]

This is what I had in mind when I started thinking about blogs as information boundary layers – places where different sources, different writing styles and different types of claims are mixed together for the reader to make sense of. And, as a reader, I feel like I have a much better understanding of the controversy because of that mixing.

In the past year, science blogs have played a really significant role in scientific controversies and I’m intrigued to see how their growing influence is supported by the ability to provide a space for engaging with different types of information.

[i] Matheson, D. (2004). Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: Some trends in online journalism. New Media & Society, 6, 443-468. (p. 460)


2 responses to “Blogs as boundary layers: Brian Romans, Simon Winchester, Facebook and earthquakes together at last”

  1. I’m glad you saw my post in the way I intended it to be — a combination of op-ed, explainer, and, most importantly, an update on an ongoing ‘event’ or discussion.

    As a scientist who writes/reviews papers, the whole culture of linking on blogs seems very natural — similar to citations in technical papers. In fact, it’s the *lack* of links/citations in Winchester’s article that bothers so many scientists.

  2. Thanks Brian, I enjoyed reading it. And I think you’re right about the connection to academic citing. Reading everything in quick succession through the links in your post made that difference really striking.

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