Blogs are all the rage these days. A blog allows the blogger to tell a story about something of their interest. And people sometimes read it. The problem with blogs is that anyone can have a blog, and in that way blogs are like opinions. And everyone knows that—like toots—everyone has opinions and everyone knows exactly what they smell like. So, when Dave said he had a blog, Sean (one of them) was less than impressed. Many of you probably don’t know that Dave’s blog grew out of a syndicated column in some local newspapers in the Southeast (like here). At the time, that did impress Sean, but when Dave told Sean he’d transitioned to an online-only format, he didn’t give him much support. In fact, it should be said that Sean was a jerk about it. Which is why Sean is the one who should be praising him about this noteworthy milestone. In short, boy, did Dave prove me wrong.
When it comes to scientific blogs, most of these stories must have some level of prestige so the potential reader to take them seriously. Dave Steen's Living Alongside Wildlife has grown over the years as a reputable source of evidence-based information about human-wildlife interactions. And Dave's objectives over the years haven't changed—dispel wildlife myths, educate non-scientists about wildlife issues and make scientific research accessible to a broader audience. Unlike a newspaper column or other printed media, which answers to a local pool of board members, buyers, or populace, a blog must generate prestige on its own, seemingly out of thin air. Unlike a legitimate scientific journal, which is backed by a society with paying members with advanced degrees and driven by peer review, online scientific journals appear in many cases to be moneymaking schemes for evil offshore computer geeks. So, there is cause for skepticism when it comes to strictly online scientific materials.
Science relies on the power of peer review to determine if a piece of research holds water...but who gets to review a blog? The real answer is no one, officially; however, the general zoological community is watching and usually embraces blogs such as Living Alongside Wildlife, but not without some level of scrutiny. This is the same way that any news source gains prestige as a reputable source of information. Dave uses logic and evidence to tell a story. This is the primary reason why he asks his readers to provide photos about observations or detailed information about species identification. This logic has also led to his constant remarks about why there are no 10 foot diamondback rattlesnakes in Alabama...or anywhere for that matter. As zoologists, we get a chance to hear every possible myth under the sun and it becomes a struggle to convince some folks that the ideas they've had all their lives are wrong. Dave has found a venue for tactfully dispelling long held myths and providing remarkable information to those interested in knowing the state of the art in wildlife ecology and conservation.
Because Dave provides a source of up to date information on wildlife ecology, and is an expert on the topic, he is also critical of local, national or international news sources which occasionally yank the chain of readers in order to gain subscriptions or website views. In one case, Dave called out one contributor to Slate magazine (a formidable online news source), who embellished the growth of “unstoppable” Green Anaconda populations in the Florida Everglades, while downplaying the role of invasive Burmese Pythons, which have been well-documented and studied by wildlife ecologists. Dave cleared up these issues in a guest post, which included remarks from snake ecologists working in the Everglades. Since then, Dave has contributed several pieces or been featured in Slate magazine (like here and here). Wise move Slate.
Dave’s blog has reached out to the public successfully and maintained prestige and the public’s trust. In short, he’s developed a classy column that just happens to be online, which has been read by many more folks than most newspaper columns and certainly reaches more of the lay public than any scientific journal. His blog has national reach. And now, moving beyond its two millionth view, his readers have proved Living Alongside Wildlife’s popularity. Either that, or Dave spends all of his time opening and closing his own webpage. But this can’t be true, because he’s simultaneously kept up a blistering publication record of full-length scientific articles in major journals over the last decade. But don’t take our word for it. So far the greatest complement we’ve heard, besides the endless number of times site visitors have commented approvingly about a story, has been from renowned snake biologist and author Harry Greene, who (appropriately) shared Dave’s blog on Facebook, calling it “truly outstanding.”
We think one of the reasons Dave puts so much time and energy into this blog is because he genuinely cares about and is fascinated by wildlife, especially reptiles. One clear, and repetitive, message that the reader receives from his blog is that there's not a logical reason to take a picture of a "12 foot long" dead rattlesnake, when a live 3 foot rattlesnake is truly amazing in its own right. The conservation issues related to many of his post are very serious. As readers and as reptilian ecologists ourselves, we can vouch for the urgency of the conservation messages raised by Living Alongside Wildlife. Reptile populations are among the most imperiled, due to the uniqueness of their life and natural history. Dave is putting these issues at the forefront of his message, along with the conservation and awareness of all wildlife, and now with over TWO million served.
However, this tribute isn’t going to be all smoke blowing or horn tooting, so we now turn to the other issue we’ve always had with Dave’s blog and his casual (non-science) writing. In fact, the major reason why Sean didn’t like the blog at first was because it’s not Dave. Dave is an incredibly funny and zany guy, and his sense of humor is one in a million. We love Dave, so much so that it makes our significant others jealous, and it pains us that Dave himself has not found his way into his own writing. Dave has fooled you all, and in person he is nothing like the way his blog reads. His writing voice is authoritative, concise, and dry, and Dave is really only one of these things.
So, how has Dave tricked his readers? He’s used an alternate personality for his blog to keep up the level of prestige needed. He’s writing this blog for everyone. He knows that by saying certain things or including unnecessary jargon, he might lose you. He’s really good at staying eye to eye with his readers, something that many of us (both Seans) are not good at. An illustrative example:
The first guest post that one of us wrote included several instances of profanity. They were all pretty luke-warm, and they were all funny, and they were all things scientists in the story really said. In case you didn’t know it, most scientists swear all the time. I thought it would be humorous and informative to include such quotes, to entertain and inform the public that we are, after all, real people. In reference to my query about whether I would be able to get away with it, Dave said, “absolutely not.” This manuscript is still in progress.
Dave’s diplomatic responses to obvious trolls commenting on his blog are priceless. You would think they were more priceless if you knew what Dave was muttering under his breath about these people. For example:
"First of all, there are eight ft. Timber Rattlers out here. I have seen one, with a mate almost that length. I live in West Central Alabama........"
"Let me guess, ‘second of all’ is that you don't have any proof? If you did, you would be able to brag about finding the world's largest Timber Rattlesnake."
"You are so sure that you know the truth when you are not near as smart about rattlesnakes and other snakes as you think you are... "
"I am always happy to learn something new. What evidence should I check out?"
So, we’ve established evidence of Dave’s dry, authoritative web personality, but what about the real Dave?
Well, trying to describe Dave’s sense of humor is like trying to prove to someone that you love your mother; it is just too intangible. The best approximation is this photo:
Thanks and congratulations Dave, we’ll be looking forward to many more millions of views.