An interview with Bora Zivkovic

Jan 12, 2013

For years, Bora Zivkovic has been interviewing attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences about their careers, aspirations and views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. Read all the interviews in his series and meet some amazing people.

Today we turn the tables on the Blogfather and ask him a few of his own questions.

Bora is a prolific blogger, and he’s no doubt already covered his questions in long, thoughtful posts on his blog, A Blog Around the Clock, so I’ve asked him to provide links to relevant posts. I’ve also added a few new questions. I thank my lucky stars that Bora and I have become such fast friends through our ScienceOnline collaboration. But, there’s a lot I still don’t know about him. Let’s see what he’ll share with me, and you.

Bora, welcome to The Coconut Wireless at I’ve been blogging longer than you, but you’ve taught me countless lessons on how to blog, build networks and connect with a global audience. Would you, please, tell my 10 readers a little bit more about yourself and what drives you? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I was born in Belgrade — then Yugoslavia, now Serbia — where I grew up surrounded by artists, theater people, writers, journalists, philosophy professors, intellectuals of various stripes, and an occasional scientist. I always loved animals and nature, but had to learn about it from books, as nobody in the family really knew how to identify birds and insects and other animals one would encounter when venturing out of the big city into the great outdoors.

I started riding horses when I was five years old, and horses, horse trainers, and other people inhabiting that world — less intellectual, on average, than our usual dinner guests, but bringing in different types of worldy wisdom — taught me valuable lessons on self-reliance, self-confidence, personal courage, ability to make stuff with my hands out of whatever materials are available, ability to make friends with people of all ideological and intellectual backgrounds, and the value of friendship — how a small band of good friends, by trusting each other and working together, can move mountains and accomplish great things.

Combination of my love of nature and animals, and my work with horses, led me to start my studies in veterinary medicine at Belgrade University. In 1991, after participating in ultimately unsuccessful anti-Milosevic demonstrations in March, and with the war looming dark on the horizon, I sold my horse and used the money to buy a ticket to America. I boarded on one of the last trains out, to London, and flew from there to JFK and then straight down to North Carolina. The war started a week later. I stayed in North Carolina ever since.

On my first day in Raleigh, after a couple of months of traveling and trying to figure out what to do, I met Catharine who a year later became my wife — yes, 21 years together! We decided to start our family right away. After a couple of years working at a horse farm in North Raleigh and being treated as a family member by its owners, I received my green card and decided to abandon the idea of becoming a veterinarian but instead to go back to my original love, biology. I did my graduate studies at North Carolina State University, studying how birds’ brains measure time of day and time of year (circadian rhythms and photoperiodism in Japanese Quail) under the mentorship of one of the pioneers of the field of Chronobiology, Dr. Herb Underwood).

I earned my MS in 1998 — the same year I became a US citizen and voted for the first time. I did all my PhD work, but never defended my Dissertation. Instead, I started political blogging, and then science blogging, while adjunct teaching BIO101 to adult students at NC Wesleyan College. In 2006 I joined the network, owned by Seed Media Group, now a subsidiary of National Geographic. In 2007, I landed a job with Public Library of Science literally in the comment section of my blog. I worked (telecommuting all along) there for three years as Online Community Manager, mainly focusing on PLOS ONE.

In 2010, after the infamous #Pepsigate affair, I left both and PLOS and landed my current job as Blogs Editor at Scientific American), a dream job where I learn something new every day, both working from home in our farmland neighborhood between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, NC, and on my monthly visits to our New York City office. We launched the blog network) in June 2011 and I’ve been enjoying working with bloggers and editors every single day.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past, present and on the horizon?

Looking back, it is interesting how my projects gradually switched from focusing on my own career goals to the projects that are mainly focused on building and strengthening the community.

After leaving graduate school and the dreams of a tenure-track position in the academia, and starting to sail into the unknown future at the time when blogging was still laughed at, I primarily focused on my own blog as a project. In the early days of science blogging, before professional science writers joined it in large numbers, most science bloggers were active researchers. As such, they had restrictions on what they could do with their blogs, as they needed to keep their careers safe. Out of the lab, I had much more freedom to explore the potential of the form, so I did a lot of experiments. I was the first blogger to have a blog post cited as a reference in a scientific paper. I was one of the first to translate my own scientific papers into plain English on my blog. I was one of the first to publish unpublished data on my blog. I posted my entire BIO101 lecture notes that are still, years later, garnering quite a lot of traffic. I wrote a series of “Basics” posts explaining the fundamentals of my own discipline of chronobiology. And, through my blogging, I got to publish another paper — a study done out in the field for which I did not have to get out of my pyjamas — and then of course I blogged about it.

But over the past several years, my interests have shifted. Instead of pushing my own career as an individual, I am now much more interested in the way I can help build, support and grow a community of people who, by using the Web, spread science and scientific way of thinking to a broader swath of general population. It is a synergistic system, really: as community sustains itself, grows itself, as a part of that community I myself am taken care of – this is how I landed both of my last two jobs (PLOS and SciAm), due to my efforts in helping the community grow.

As you well remember yourself, after attending the Triangle Bloggers Conference ’05 and PodcasterCon ’06 in Chapel Hill and ConvergeSouth ’06 in Greensboro, as well as local blogger meetups you organized, I had the idea that something similar could be organized with science as a focus. I often have great ideas that alight and fizzle out quickly, but implementation is something else altogether — it is something that requires good planning and sustained effort. Which is where you come into the picture. And this is why we work so well together – you are always able to channel my wild energy, make a plan, and make sure we follow each step and get stuff actually done. At one of the meetups (at 3CUPS cafe, I believe), you took me aside and suggested we could turn the idea of a science blogging event from just an idea into reality. The following January, the first ScienceOnline — then still called North Carolina Science Blogging Conference — was held on the UNC campus. The rest, as they say, is history.

The seventh annual ScienceOnline is about to start in a couple of weeks. It is going to be bigger and better than ever, with 450 amazing participants, each doing something novel and cutting-edge using the internet to communicate, teach or do science in brand new ways.

ScienceOnline is now a large global community (much larger than the 450 who will gather later in January) of people with similar goals of moving science into the 21st century. They are scientists, students, teachers, writers, journalists, bloggers, web developers, and more, and they are interested in many aspects of this, from scientific publishing, collaboration, altmetrics, to citizen science, to science education and popularization, to political action, to science writing and journalism. And all those elements are interconnected and synergistic, so when people in this community find each other and talk to each other — offline or online — ideas spark, collaborations ensue, and new projects get started. Bloggers are more likely to cover papers that are Open Access. Collaborations are easier and faster to establish on social media than at scientific conferences. Science writing gigs and jobs are more likely to be offered to people who are active, useful and respected members of the online community. Online activity breeds trust, and everything else follows from there.

But even more importantly, ScienceOnline is now an organization under the leadership of Karyn Traphagen. The annual flagship event in Raleigh is just one of the things we do. Satellite events, (monthly, biannual or annual) are sprouting around the world (Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco already did a test-run in Fall, but several other cities are planning it for Spring and beyond), thematic events will start happening in 2013 (e.g, ScienceOnlineTEEN in April), and Watch Parties are being organized around the world. There are now regular ScienceOnline tweetups happening in several places (e.g., New York City, the Triangle area, D.C., Chicago, Providence, Los Angeles). And we have our own projects, each also designed to build and grow the community, to get people connected, and to produce something of value, from our aggregator (which will see a re-design soon), to platform — watch out for more news about its development at the close of ScienceOnline2013 event), to Open Laboratory, the annual anthology (yes, printed book) of the best science writing online. And there is more to come …

Outside of official ScienceOnline work (and my own job at Scientific American), I have recently been involved in some additional projects. One is Science Studio, a multimedia equivalent of the Open Laboratory, in its first year highlighting the best science podcasts, which is spearheaded by Rose Eveleth and Ben Lillie.

Together with three other science bloggers, I am in the process of getting a project funded to edit a book that can serve as a manual to science blogging, something that can be useful to both researchers and journalists if they want to use the blogging platform to the greatest advantage.

And I am very excited about organizing a panel called Killer science journalists of the future, which is not just going to be a one-hour panel at WCSJ2013 in June in Helsinki, but an ongoing project — preparing for the panel by doing everything in public, getting community feedback, and actually showing instead of telling. We took a little break over the holidays, but expect to see our activity ramp up soon.

I’m sure I’ve bored you a few times with my crossing-a-river metaphor for how I live my life. If you have a metaphor or philosophy or goal for living your life, please tell us about it.

I have joked before that I want to be like Honey Badger when I grow up. But not really. Sure, honey badger has a clear goal, sticks to it despite difficulties, and is generally in the “go get it” mode. Useful to think like that if one is prone to giving up too easily. But in many ways the video is opposite of what I think is the best way to accomplish big goals. Sure, a dedicated, focused individual can get honey, and perhaps even kill a cobra. But one should aspire to bigger goals . And bigger goals require collaboration of more people. By ignoring everything and everyone, by pushing forward regardless of what others say, and by stepping on others in pursuit of one’s own small selfish goals, the honey badger deprives himself of being able to participate in communal efforts that can accomplish much, much more.

So, my metaphor is almost opposite of Honey Badger, and is much closer to the ideas of Friends in Low Places and Horizontal Loyalty.

You first started blogging about politics, but certainly you’ve found your niche in science blogging. If you had to change your focus, what would we find you writing about, and why?

I quit political blogging when I decided I wrote everything I could about the topic. I find it boring to keep repeating myself, so when I ran out of ideas, I stopped. I still keep up, though, by reading trustworthy political bloggers and following smart political journalists on Twitter.

I often write about the new media ecosystem, about blogs, social media, state of science journalism, and have at least three posts taking shape in my head right now (I hope to post them before ScienceOnline2013). As the world is changing so fast, I guess I will often have something new to say on these topics.

But one area that always produces surprises, and can always excite me, is science. I cannot envision a time at which I’ll think that I have written everything I could about science. Science itself provides new ideas and new material every day, so I intend to write about it forever.

You’re known as the Blogfather, in part because of the way you nurture other bloggers, grad students and young scientists. But you’re also a father and a husband and a son. Tell me what family means to you.

Hmm, this is a two-part question, right?

I think the nickname “Blogfather” is the best nickname I’ve ever had. Sure, there are other blogfathers. I have my own — Publius, who later blogged at Obsidian Wings and whose long-form blog was initially a model for my own, where I started commenting before I ever started my own blog.

But I try to do more than just be a model blogger for other bloggers. I try to take an even more active role – discovering talented writers, helping them get started, promoting them until they can do this on their own, introducing them into our community. Some science bloggers now prominent in our community started their blogs on my laptop!

When I picked the bloggers I wanted to have at the moment of launch of the SciAm blog network, I mainly avoided including superstar journalists (I hired only a couple of those, let other media companies scoop up all the others) as we already have plenty of those — I see them every time I go up to New York and look around the SciAm newsroom, typing busily at their desks. About half are exciting but reliable, veteran bloggers who I could count on to keep blogging excellent stuff every week, keep the network going. But the other half were new people I took some risks on — some of them had written as few as seven, or three, or just one blog post before starting at SciAm. But I detected talent, sensed they would take the bull by the horns and turn into great bloggers and writers once given this opportunity. And most did — some of them did much better than even I expected. And now they are stars in their own right, getting better, more lucrative offers from other organizations — which I regard as a WIN for everyone involved: they ‘made it’, they will get paid for it, there will be more and better paid science writing out there, and I have the satisfaction of knowing I helped them get there (and joy of being called the “Blogfather” by them).

And now that the network is well established and humming along nicely, I intend to do this even more — give new people a chance, both on the Guest Blog and by giving them their own spots on the network. I also started a blog dedicated to helping new writers (despite their usual age, I tend not to use the word “young” as at least some of them are entering the business of writing later in their careers, perhaps leaking out of the research pipeline), The SA Incubator, where Khalil Cassimally and I do whatever we can to highlight and promote up-and-coming science writers and to provide them with resources they need to succeed.

And I also try to help upcoming science writers in other ways. I am on the advisory board of the UNC program for science and medical journalism, and a visiting faculty at the NYU program for science and environmental reporting. I gladly accept invitations to visit (or Skype into) classes in other science writing programs, I suggest new/upcoming writers as conference speakers, I am always on a lookout for jobs and gigs for them, start projects with them, and I try to get as many of them as possible to attend (and even moderate sessions at ) ScienceOnline conference, etc. And with a few of them I took a more active mentorship role, helping them in their regular, day-to-day grappling with the new world of science writing business, giving them confidence in their work, and generally letting them know I am here for them if they ever need my help. And I do all of this for free. I need to find a way to actually make money this way ;-)

I was fortunate to grow up in a wonderfully loving, supporting family. This gives one strength to go out and do stuff, try some risks, sometimes win sometimes fail, knowing that there are always people who love you unconditionally no matter what. Living 13,000 miles away from home was tough. My father died 10 years ago, grandmother nine years ago and grandfather five years ago. I managed to see each of them one more time, briefly, just before they died. But I miss being there all along, being there with them over the last years of their lives, listening as they reminisce about their lives, trying to acquire some of their wisdom. I could not even afford to go to their funerals. And I miss them terribly.

I managed to go to Belgrade only four times since I left (in 1995, 2008, 2009 and 2011), but I hope I can make it a more frequent occasion in the future. My Mom visited us twice so far — in 1994 and 2003 — and I hope she comes back soon. My brother managed to visit us often back when he was in graduate school at University of Chicago, but his later move into faculty position in Portland OR and then Edmonton AB, makes travel harder, so we sometimes meet in New York instead. I just spent a week over the holidays in Edmonton with my brother, my mother and my wife — three of the most important people in my life (others being my kids). I wish this can happen more often.

The last couple of decades had their ups and downs. Adapting to the American culture. Getting into grad school. Getting out of grad school. Trying to figure out what to do next. Getting into dire financial straits. Getting gradually out of them. Being unemployed. Being wonderfully employed. It is the family that provides the safe harbor at the end of the day, the spouse who acts as an achor, grounding me when I want to go crazy, and the kids whose very existence prevented me from doing anything stupid, but trying again and again, until something worked out.

I want my own family to be just like the family I grew up in — full of unconditional support and love. We always treated our kids just a little bit more adult, mature and responsible than what their ages warranted. That forced them to grow up into our expectations, always striving to be better. They know we trust them with their decisions, so they have confidence to try new stuff, explore the world on their own, and it also makes them want not to betray our trust by doing something irresponsible. They know that they are young and that we are giving them plenty of space and time to explore. We are not afraid to let them try and fail. They can choose a career that is hard to turn into a well-paying job, or they can change their minds on future careers every six months – it doesn’t matter. We are always there for them, supporting and helping them in their explorations. Just like my wife is the anchor of stability for me and is my best friend, we also want our kids to understand our family as an anchor of stability for them, their parents as their best friends, and our home as their safe harbor where they can always return in-between adventurous journeys into the unknown. But I don’t want to say too much about them – let them develop their own online and offline personalities, not ones sketched out by me.

Each year at ScienceOnline, you’ve stood before the community and stressed that there are no celebrities among us, that every voice and experience is equally important. I’m really glad you made that a bedrock value since the start. And, yet, in a way you’ve become a celebrity whom everyone wants to hug. How does that make you feel?

I don’t know if that is my temperament, or the way I was brought up, or the result of growing up in an ostensibly egalitarian culture of a socialist country, but I always abhorred hierarchies. I believe that every human being is basically good. Sure, one’s circumstances can push a person into becoming unpleasant, or criminal, or self-desctructive, or a serial killer. But I still believe that at the core, somewhere deep down, everyone harbors a seed of goodness. Thus everyone deserves respect. I have a knee-jerk reaction about people having automatic power over others due to authority based on birth, or acquired knowledge, or success in official hierarchy-protecting institutions. Authority, for me, is something that one has to work hard to deserve, by being generous to others. I am much more easily accepting of authority of someone who, like me, has an egalitarian outlook, than someone firmly entrenched in a hierarchical worldview in which the only way one can climb up the ladder of success is by pushing someone else down. I think we can all help each other go up if we all respect each other, learn to trust each other, and work together on our common goals of making the world a better place for our children.

Going from being a nobody to being a well-known and liked personality in our circles happened very fast. I was not really prepared for it. On one hand, it feels good to one’s ego to be liked and to feel semi-famous. On the other hand, I hate being high in some sort of new hierarchy of popularity in our community. I don’t see myself as better than anyone else. It took me a while to realize that being an editor at Scientific American is perceived by some as being in a position of power over other people, especially upcoming science writers. I want to talk to everyone as equals, and do not like when people look up to me and treat me as a person in power. Are they talking to me because I can potentially help them (or at least not tank their careers) or because they really like me as a person? It is somethimes hard to tell. Whatever power I may have that is real, I want to use wisely, for the good. I want to use whatever influence I have to spread the wealth, to help other people succeed, to help make the new science and media ecosystem grow and get stronger through the efforts of the entire community. And I want people to trust me in that, and to treat me as an equal in turn.

So, 2012 was a year when I had to come to terms with my new prominence in the community. I did a lot of introspection and had long conversations with some of my closest friends, trying to figure out how to be more humble, less bragging, how to deal with this new position of power, how to behave in this hierarchical society, how to make friends and avoid making enemies, and more. It was a physically, intellectually and emotionally difficult struggle for me, but I think I entered the 2013 year with a much clearer view of who I am, who I want to be, and a better awareness of what kind of image I project.

Which brings us to the upcoming ScienceOnline2013 event. As you know, for the past few years, there was a custom for attendees to find me and hug me…and then quickly tweet something using the hashtag #IhuggedBora. It was fun at the beginning. After all, most of the ScienceOnline attendees were my personal friends back then. And I am a hugger — I like physical contact.

But now, not everyone who attends is my old friend. And I don’t want the act of hugging me to be some kind of a ticket into the community, or a badge of approval. It should not be a competition. And it certainly should not be a way to spread diseases (yes, I got my flu shot last month, but things can stick on clothes and spread that way). Coming to ScienceOnline shoud not be about coming to see me or you or Karyn, but coming to see each other. It’s not about me, but about the community and teaching and learning and doing.

So, I am asking people to try to refrain from using the hashtag #IhuggedBora. Good old friends who hugged me many times before and want to do so again are, of course, free to hug me. If you really want to hug me, go ahead, but the event should not be Twitter-worthy. But not everyone is comfortable doing this. So, if that’s what you’d rather do, just shake my hand. Or hi-five me. Or just say hello. Or ignore me and go hug and say Hello to other attendees, people who you really, really want to talk to. Let the conference be about the community and what we can all accomplish together, and not about me. I’d like to sit at the back of the room in sessions and just be one of many people interested in the topic – no special privileges.

Well, one of the privileges of our friendship has been sipping slivovitz together.

Ha! Slivovitz is medicine! It helps us kill all the #scioPlague germs we gather during ScienceOnline! It also tastes good. And of course, it reminds me of home, where slivovitz is something consumed daily. ;-)

So, what’s with always ordering Coca-Cola with just a little ice?
It’s European style. They don’t usually serve ice in Europe, but keep sodas in the fridge to keep them cold. And I keep my sodas in the fridge to keep them cold at home and don’t put any ice in at all. But at a restaurant in the USA, one never knows if the soda will be cold or not. So adding a couple of cubes makes sure it is at least somewhat cold without the obnoxious amounts of ice that seem to be the norm on this continent.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? I’m pretty sure blogging figures in your work. Social networks and media, too. You’re so active online, and many people think you don’t sleep. Is all this online activity worth it?

First 150 years after Gutenberg built the first printing press were a period of intense experimentation with the format. It took that long to get from printing Bibles, church flyers, political pamphlets and Victorian porn, to the emergence of first newspapers and first scientific journals. We are just at the beginning of a similar period of intense experimentation with the Web. Many of us were born before the Web became big and still think in terms of print. We take formats perfected for print over centuries and try to shoehorn them into our web pages. And we are starting with digital equivalents of Bibles, church flyers, political pamphlets and not-so-Victorian porn.

So I am mostly just watching, trying to see the Big Picture as much as it can be discerned at this early stage, try to see what the new generations of digital natives are doing with the platform, and how the Web is starting slowly to produce new formats, born of, from and for the Web. I am not one of those people who jumps on every bandwagon and has to try every new shiny thing. But I observe how others use the new shiny things. I read what people like Robert Scoble say about their experience using new shiny things. I carefully read what wise Web observers say, people like Dave Winer, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, danah boyd, Zeynep Tufekci, Scott Rosenberg, Dan Conover, Chris Mims, Anil Dash, Alice Bell and Marie-Claire Shanahan

And I think I have a good nose for detecting important developments while they are still in their inception. That happened to me when I first saw a blog, when I first saw Facebook, when I first saw PLOS, some other things. It took me a while to get on Twitter, but I never disparaged it or laughed at it like many others did, e.g,. “silly, time-wasting thing where uninteresting people post what they had for breakfast…and it has a silly name, too”. People I trust, like you, Wayne Sutton and Paul Jones found value in it, so I decided to wait until the day Twitter became useful to me. When that day arrived, I signed up but I already knew how to use it by observing it from within FriendFeed where many imported their tweets.

As I have said many times, blog is software. A decade ago, that was the only software one could use to say anything online. Today, there are other places that are a better fit for various forms of communication, e.g., YouTube for videos, Flickr for images, Twitter for brief updates and announcements, Facebook for more personal connections. Thus, blogs have become places where people write longer, more serious pieces. This means that the way we view blogs and use blogs is changing. The commenting is changing as so much discussion of blog posts is now happening away from them, on social media. One’s blog is now not the only outlet for a writer, but just one of many such outlets, one piece of one’s online portfolio, and one stage in one’s writing process.

Despite legends, I do sleep. It’s just that I sleep at the same times others sleep, so they don’t notice my absence from social media. One of the things I am trying to do is to get offline a little more often, spend more time with the family, with my dogs, reading books, watching movies, playing piano or guitar, going out to commune with nature, perhaps even exercise! We’ll see how successful I am in this.

What music do you listen to around the house? What percentage of all those books lining the walls and stacked on the floor have you read?

Interestingly, each one of the four of us at home has somewhat different music tastes. We have an iPod in the kitchen with an eclectic mix of music we sometimes all listen to, but most of the time we each listen to our own music on our laptops. Also interestingly, I do not have iTunes or my own iPod or anything dedicated to music. I have some old CDs in the car for those moments when NPR is uninteresting (or I’ve already heard that show before), and I have accumulated hundreds of music videos on YouTube in my Favorites folder, so I sometimes listen to those. My musical tastes essentially stopped evolving when I moved from Yugoslavia to United States. With just a few exceptions, I still listen to the stuff composed before 1991, either in English or in Serbian language.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Wow. This is actually a difficult question. Each year was fantastic, and each year was more fantastic than the previous one. How can one pick and choose any particular moment? The first time Stacy Baker’s students floored us all in their session? The brief but very passionate persentations by John Rennie and John Dupuis in the same session a couple of years ago? The Krulwich keynote address? The very first time anyone ever heard Rebecca Skloot talk about the subject of her upcoming bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”? The incredible blog reaction to Mireya Mayor’s keynote? The look on the faces of SignalShare guys when they saw how much data we were pushing over the wires per second? Or just sitting in the hotel lobby on the first day, greeting my old and new friends as they keep arriving one by one from the airport? Or walking through the snow from Sigma Xi to the Radisson with my friends at the end of the day, talking about the ideas we were just exposed to all day long.

With Karyn at the helm this year, with her amazing creative imagination and her attention to detail, and with your calm and steady support, I am sure the seventh conference will be the best yet. I am glad that you and I don’t have to worry about catering and shuttle details at 4am on Gchat every night for a month before the event. I may even show up rested on the first day, ready to thoroughly enjoy it myself! So, thanks to the entire ScienceOnline community for making the event as great as it is, with everyone taking initiative to make it as best as possible.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Generous. Honest. Trustworthy.

What question were you hoping I’d ask you? Answer it, please.

Hey, this was very long already! But can I ask you one? Is this year’s slivovitz ready for human consumption yet?

It’s ready. And it’s good.

Anton Zuiker

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