P&B: Brian Koberlein

This is the 4th edition of People and Blogs, the series where I ask interesting people to talk about themselves and their blogs. Today we have Brian Koberlein and his blog, briankoberlein.com.

Brian is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and Senior Science Writer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

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Let's start from the basics: can you introduce yourself?

I'm a child of Midwest American farmers, and I'm the first in my family to attend college. I earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics researching black holes in the early universe and followed the traditional academic/professor path for years. Over the past decade, I migrated from academia to science writing, and I'm now Senior Science Writer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

What's the story behind your blog?

I've had personal web pages since the early days. Academic websites for students, archives for research, the occasional essay, and the like. All of these were hosted by my university at the time, so other than a few scraps on the Wayback Machine they have been lost to entropy.

I never planned to start a blog.

Back in 2012, I was writing a textbook on computational astrophysics for Cambridge University Press. It was almost like writing a second dissertation, and it meant spending tedious hours focusing on the minutia of equations, citations, and accuracy. After a couple of hours of that, your brain starts to crave distractions. That turned out to be blogging.

A friend of mine had given me an early invite to Google+, so I started playing around with it. Between teaching and grading, I'd work on the textbook for a couple of hours, then log into Google+ just to flatline a bit. I started making posts like "I've just spent the past two hours computing how the radius of a white dwarf varies with mass. Let me tell you about it." The posts got attention because space stuff is cool, then Google started promoting my posts and my follower count went through the roof. By mid-2013 I was the second most popular science blogger on the platform. By the end of 2013, I had 25 million views. Thanks to Google's promotion of my work I had a real audience, and I started to take it seriously.

I started my current website because I wanted a repository of all these Google+ posts I was doing. A backup I could control just in case Google decided to kill its platform, gods forbid. The posts section of my site is that repository. At first, I was "blogging" on Google+ and publishing copies to the website. As the platform started to lose its shine, I switched to publishing directly on my site, then posting links on Google+

By 2015 my blog was popular enough I started getting asked to write posts for various websites. Science writing started as a side job, but it was certainly less stressful than academia, so when NRAO asked me to work for them, I took it. My current job is a direct result of my blog.

My website continues to be a repository of things I write online. Unless it's paid work where an institution gets exclusive rights to the work, I post a copy on my site. It's also more than just science writing. I also post essays, general thoughts, and even short fiction.

What does your creative process look like when it comes to blogging?

For science posts, inspiration usually comes from either a specific research paper or questions from readers. If it's a topic I'm really familiar with, then I generally bang it out, proof it, then publish within a couple of hours. If it is a more complex or subtle topic, then it usually takes me a day or two of off-and-on work. If the article is for NRAO, Scientific American, or the like, then there is an editorial process that happens over weeks.

When I write fiction the process is very different. For that, I have a few close friends that read drafts and give feedback. A few things end up being posted on the site. A lot of fiction I write goes into a folder, and may or may not get posted down the line. I'm still figuring out the fiction side of things.

Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?

I work from home, so I have a home office with a little table for my laptop in one corner and a big rolltop desk in the other. All the general work of emails, Zoom, and administration I do at the laptop table. Writing is done at the rolltop desk.

For me, physical space and process are central to how I work. It's to the point that the type of writing I'm doing determines the process. If I'm writing a blog post, something intended to be immediate and online, then I type it. Fiction seems more thoughtful to me, and I do all of that with a fountain pen and paper. The tools I use set the mindset for me, and the way I've oriented the rolltop desk creates a small quiet space where I don't have any distractions. I think I enjoy the physical process of writing as much as I enjoy creating written work.

A question for the techie readers: can you run us through your tech stack?

My website is static and generated through Hugo. I enter posts in Markdown using Sublime Text and push them to a Git repository on GitLab. Then Netlify is flagged and generates and publishes the site. My domain is registered through Hover.

I'm a big believer in having separate tools for separate jobs. So domain registration, composition, and hosting are all separate services. That way I'm never dependent on a single platform for everything. Before I switched to a static site, it was generated through WordPress and hosted on a VPS.

Given your experience, if you were to start a blog today, would you do anything differently?

The first incarnation of my website was in WordPress using a template. WordPress is easy, but it tends to lock you in. If I were to start again, I would start with a text-driven site with almost no formatting. Because a website is public, and the internet remembers, it's difficult to think of your website as a work in progress. But that's the real power of creation. I had a huge advantage with Google+ in that I was forced to focus just on the writing, and the layout was not up to me. By the time I started creating my website, I had a good idea of what I was trying to create and say. Websites can evolve. They aren't forever printed and bound like books.

Financial question since the web is obsessed with money: how much does it cost to run your blog? Is it just a cost or does it generate some revenue? And what's your position on people monetizing personal blogs?

When the site was hugely popular and running on WordPress, costs were around $200-$300 a month. That was one of the big motivators to switch to a static format. Now costs are pretty minimal. Annual domain registration for briankoberlein.com (and similar domains I don't want poached) runs about $90 a year. With images my site is about 4 Gb, so GitLab storage runs $65 a year. Netlify is $20/month. So in total things cost a few hundred a year, which I can cover out of pocket.

I like when people create honest and interesting content, and if monetization allows them to create, then I support it 100%. Most "quiet web" sites are created by people with a certain financial privilege. It limits the range of voices we hear, which is a terrible loss. Paying for creative work is how we show its value to the world. And until we live in a socialist Star Trek utopia, it takes money to have the time and space to do creative work.

Personally, I'm not a fan of generic ads and ad networks, though I understand why some people use them. I like tossing coin to sites I find interesting, particularly if they don't seem popular. So things like LibrePay, Ko-fi, whatever. I also really like it when there is something I can buy from you. If I love your blog and you put out an ebook or album, I'm likely to buy it.

The only other thing I will add is that I don't think anyone needs to justify asking for support through "hosting costs money" or the like. Art is worth supporting, so even if the money I send goes to paying for your truffle brownie habit, you do you.

Time for some recommendations: any blog you think is worth checking out? And also, who do you think I should be interviewing next?

A couple that people might not have come across:

Final question: is there anything you want to share with us?

I suppose this is primarily directed at younger or newer creatives, regarding “the algorithm” of search engines and social media. I think for most creatives there is a drive to get your work seen. Online that means figuring out a way to go viral, get likes, or rise in the search engine rankings. That’s a perfectly fine goal, but you should know that if the algorithm chooses you it has nothing to do with the quality or value of your work. And I mean literally nothing. The algorithm is nothing more than a capitalist predator, seeking to consume what it can, monetize it quickly, then toss aside. If you make the algorithm your audience, you get very good at creating for an audience of machines rather than humans. Creating for humans is harder, it may get you ignored by the algorithm, but your work will be better for it, and it will find an audience in time.

This was the 4th edition of People and Blogs. Hope you enjoyed this interview with Brian. Make sure to follow his blog (RSS) and get in touch with him if you have any questions.

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