Blogging from the Poles: How We Started A Group Blog (And What It’s Teaching Us)

Paper airplanes in one hand, filled glasses in the other, and a finger on a keyboard, we launched, toasted, and went live with Polar Dispatches – our new group blog about polar science — on an appropriately cold night in January. The logo? A paper airplane departing the icy north for more inhabited parts of our planet, where many decisions that affect the polar regions are taken:

PolarDispatchesV3

People start blogs all the time, but for my group, this symbolic moment reflected months of learning, planning, and discussion about what we do, why, and what would we like to share. The idea sparked at the Leopold Leadership training last June and matured over time with a range of input from Leopold Fellows, including posts on this blog.

I had set out with the vague notion that a blog would provide the people I work with (students, postdocs, and colleagues) and me a forum for talking about our science that would be different from the scientific journals we submit papers to. It should be a place to share fieldwork stories, ideas that had yet to mature, and intelligible accounts of the science we engage in. Something that would engage whoever stumbled across it.

What I had not foreseen was how much we would learn just from going through the exercise of setting up the blog. Creating it became a group project, with shared tasks and responsibilities, that, in a microcosm, reflects our vision of how science should progress: through collaborative action aimed at advancing global knowledge over individual achievement. It also became rapidly clear to me that the project was only possible because of the diversity of views we brought to the discussion table.

In a nutshell, here are the steps we took:

Step 1 – Write a blog mission statement

We decided that we needed to tell people what our blog was about and why we were doing it. This led to some soul-searching to answer a pretty basic question: why do we do what we do? In contemplating this we greatly benefited from a Leopold blogpost by Elena Bennett and Chris Buddle (and links therein) on how to draft a mission statement. Each group member was asked to produce a statement of just a few sentences. As we went through these one by one, it was clear that even though there were some commonalities, each one of us had emphasized a different part of what we do. The diversity that emerged was refreshing and only their combination truly conveyed what we do and what drives us.

Here is a “wordle” that best represents our combined mission statements:

mission_wordle_v4

The size of the words reflects how often they appeared relative to the others (we obtained the graphic via wordle). “Polar,” “climate,” and “understand” popped out as emphasis points.

We then distilled the statements into the single statement that appears on the blog:

We are physical scientists who study the high latitude ocean, ice, and atmosphere, as well as the ways each of these interacts with each other. We use innovative methods to collect and analyze data from remote, challenging regions where few or no measurements exist, and use these data, models and theories to unravel the inner workings of the climate system. We engage in rigorous, fundamental research that is attentive to the needs of society. We are driven by scientific curiosity, a sense of wonder and awe for the natural world, and a commitment to document and understand the rapid, ongoing climate change in the polar regions.

This blog is about polar science and unlike our scientific, peer-reviewed papers, is intended to be understandable and accessible by everyone. In it, we tell stories about science—our own and others’. We describe what we know, what we don’t know, how we try to find answers, and how we sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Our goal is to engage and inform people on the science of the polar regions and the gradual accumulation of knowledge that informs national and international policy decisions as well as everyday decisions by people around the world.

Step 2 – Choose a blog name

Everyone proposed at least one name and then we voted. “Polar Dispatches” won by just a few votes over “My Other Car Is A Greenland Fjord,” which will soon be the group’s bike bumper sticker.

Step 3 – Create the cyber infrastructure

With the name chosen, we  swung into the world of cyberspace and bought our web address so it wouldn’t get scooped up by some new drone-operated postal service (or worse, a competitor!). I can’t remember why, but we eventually bought it through a site called Hover. The options for buying site names and the reviews of these options can keep you busy for days. We grabbed the Twitter name, too (@polardispatches). Next, we chose a blog platform. The two main ones are WordPress and Blogger. After some discussion by the subgroup that had already stepped into the 21st century (which excluded me), we picked WordPress. If in doubt, ask someone younger.

Step 4 – Create the logo

I have already given away what our logo is, but this too was a collective exercise. After we came up with a plan, the graphics folks at my institution helped with design.

Step 5 – Write the rules

We set the following editorial standards:

  • What can we blog about? This is a science-based blog where policy discussions have to be science-based (that musk-ox burger recipe will have to wait).
  • How often?  Once a week. After a slow start, followed by a few threats, we seem to be on a roll…
  • Advertise? Tweet, retweet, tweet. We found that if we tweet something back and forth among ourselves a few times, eventually someone else picks it up.
  • Who? Well, there are about 10 of us, and if we add some guests, that comes to 4-5 posts per person per year.

Step 6 – Set the editorial staffing

Editors rotate, and I read everything (so that I still have a job after each post). Help from our institution’s communication guru has been essential.

Seven posts later, here we are. There is, of course, the question of who will actually read them. We are tracking visitors and their numbers have been growing. But then again, most views are likely from our extended families. To a large extent, the achievement is not so much in becoming popular but in the learning that both developing the blog and writing for it has involved. It has turned into an amazing tool for practicing science communication, for coming together as a group, for weighing the implications and consequences of what we write, and above all for sharing that sense of wonder for the natural world that drives us.

Fiamma Straneo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a tenured associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For the latest from “Polar Dispatches,” subscribe here or follow @polardispatches on Twitter. Follow Fiamma @fstraneo.

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