About the site: a mission statement

John Hawks at Denisova Cave

At Denisova Cave. Photo by Bence Viola

There are few totally stable things on a weblog, but some sort of mission statement ought to be one of them. Mine has been more or less stable for a couple of years, and honestly, I haven't thought about it much since I wrote it. But things do have a way of changing, and that includes one's motivation for writing. So, this is the April 2012 version of the mission statement.

I started writing this blog for two basic reasons: first, because there are some really interesting issues in paleoanthropology that are not well covered in the mainstream science press, and second, because I needed a good way to organize my notes.

It turned out that the solution to the note-taking problem also made a nifty solution for writing about interesting issues. Blogging software is one of the best methods of content management around. It became very simple to take notes on things I was reading, spice them up with a bit of information and context, and blog about them. In large part, what you see here are my own notes, the very ones that I use to write my research papers and books.

Of course, things changed when people actually started reading the site.

About six months after I started writing, I had a steady readership with around 300 visits a day. This was quite an accomplishment, around twice the number of students I was teaching at the time. My online readers initially included many of my colleagues in the field. This was no random sample of people interested in paleoanthropology, it included some highly influential opinion-leaders. I cannot express how much I was encouraged by the early praise of a few people.

Now, you have to understand -- I never advertised the site anywhere, or told anyone about it. I have to admit, I was worried that other people might not think this blogging thing was such a hot idea.

For one thing, I didn't have tenure. As useful as I find the blog to my own research efforts, it is not research itself. I don't get any credit for it, in other words. Other academics wondered why I was spending my time this way, when I could be spending more time turning out research articles. I didn't worry about it too much -- my research record is solid -- but other prominent academic bloggers have been denied tenure.

For another thing, I'm honest. I'm critical when I review weak work. I point out when people say silly things. Of course, I always am charitable, because people can be misquoted by the press, and we all know that sometimes words just come out wrong. I'm even more critical of science reporting that gets the facts wrong. Over the years, I've heard from people who don't like honest criticism, and they're entitled to their opinion. Happily, most people like the honest approach!

Since those first months, the site has had basically monotonic growth. The current figures, for April 2012, are that I receive an average of 10000 visits a day. My readers are roughly half drive-bys from Google and other sites, and half regulars. During the course of a month, I am visited from over 140 countries on all continents, including Antarctica (Hi, McMurdo!).

Remember, I thought I was a success when I had less than a twentieth the readers I do now. So really, I'm delighted, and I think that the readers represent a great increase in both interest in the field, and in peoples' willingness to find out deeper details behind the stories in the news.

As my readership has increased, my writing style and inspiration has changed a bit. Mainly, I've gotten better at it. I have a much more natural style and a quicker rate of posting than when I started out. I would recommend to anyone that if you want to get better at writing, then you have to set out deliberately to do it everyday. I've added more pop-culture elements, which my students hate because they don't seem to watch as much television as I do.


Hunting for ghosts?

I write a lot more about my own research than I did when I started the blog. In those days, I worked with other scientists who were afraid that results wouldn't have as substantial an impact if they weren't kept secret (embargoed) before their release. Nowadays, most of my close colleagues see the huge benefit of an open approach to research. We're putting out many results just as soon as we are confident in them, and documenting much of our process of data analysis before we publish the results in journals. We think this is a better way to do science, more likely to achieve solid results and less likely to result in stupid errors.

Unlike many weblogs, I've never had a comments section here. Sometimes people ask me why I don't have comments. I don't have anything against them; in fact, I get quite a bit of pleasure out of reading comments threads on other blogs. I like a good flamewar as much as anyone else. But I really don't have time to administer comments in the way I would need to, and I definitely don't have time to be an active participant. So that takes away a lot of the interest -- if I spent a lot of time moderating a comment thread, it would definitely distract me from what I've been doing well.

Still, this isn't a one-way conversation. I link to and respond to other weblogs, and include links to a number of newsgroups. If you are reading here and are inspired to write something, maybe you should consider starting your own site! It doesn't take a large investment of time, and it can be much more rewarding than being hidden in somebody's comments.

Or send me an e-mail. It's not so hard to find, and I really do reply most of the time. One of my regular correspondents complains that I never write back to him directly; I always reply in the form of a blog post. I always warn people that I teach several hundred students in an average semester, who have my e-mail priority, but I write back to almost everyone who writes me -- especially if it's interesting!