Analysis of Bad Astronomy

Through an analysis of Bad Astronomy, a blog written by Phil Plait, I will examine the author’s rhetorical effectiveness based on the blog principles of Aaron Barlow, Kenneth Burke, and Donald Murray.

I think it may be best to present a little background information before beginning the analysis.  Phil Plait is an astronomer, lecturer, and author.  His experience in the astronomy field includes ten years working on the Hubble Space Telescope and six years on astronomy education.  The purpose of the blog is to praise the wonders of what Phil denotes as “real science”.  The focused audience of Bad Astronomy are not explicitly stated in the blog, but after reading the posts it seems apparent that the focused audience are people who appreciate science as Phil does and also want to stay informed of the what is happening in the world of science.

Now I wish to present six recommendations outlined by Aaron Barlow in his book Blogging America: the New Public Sphere which are believed to improve the success of a blog.

  • The Short Horizon
  • Quantity
  • The Gestalt
  • Specialization
  • Instant Feedback
  • Need for Triage

As summarized in the text of the book, the short horizon of blog content results from the short prominence of a blog post.  Readers most likely read each entry of a blog they are following once and at the same often miss other entries.  This because of the probable fact that readers rarely go through blog archives and RSS feeds.  Quantity follows from the short horizon.  Blogs do best when their authors post early and post often; the more often an author writes on his/her blog, the more likely readers will remember them.  Barlow suggests it is important to write a blog as a gestalt (for those of you who don’t know the meaning, gestalt is defined as an “…organized field having specific properties that cannot be derived from the summation of its component[s]” (dictionary.com)) because there is much less focus on discrete work in blogs than there is in most other media.  Blogs are identified by gestalt characteristics rather than discrete posts.  Blogs do best when they have a definable gestalt, meaning the blog entries should all theoretically focus on one core idea, instead of each entry containing its own individual topic.  According to Barlow, because most responses are received within hours or days after a post, the huge amount of feedback encourages collaboration and argument, and pushes authors to work with their audience’s reactions in mind and to address them.  The need for triage is a result the short horizon and the sheer quantity of blogs and content.  It is important for blogs to contain information outside its domain, and when this happens, the role of gatekeepers is to point readers to select pieces of content.

Following the model above, let’s now analyze Bad Astronomy.

  • The Short Horizon– For the most part, Bad Astronomy seems to have a short horizon.  There are not many posts that received comments from one single reader numerous times.  If a post did receive multiple responses from one reader, these comments occurred usually within a few minutes of each other.  The comments don’t really continue beyond of couple of days after the entry was posted; the longest a discussion looks to carry on is about two to three days.
  • Quantity– The blog has a large quantity of entries.  Phil posts a couple of entries each day and each is posted at morning hours or early afternoon hours.
  • The Gestalt– Bad Astronomy is formatted like a gestalt.  The individual blog entries discuss different elements of the blog’s main idea, they do not all focus on one similar idea.
  • Specialization–  Bad Astronomy is a definable gestalt.  The main idea of this blog is astronomy (would you look at that, the main idea is within the blog title) and anything referring to the galaxy, space, Earth, planets, etc.
  • Instant Feedback– There is a high quantity of feedback within this blog, resulting from the high quantity of blog posts by Phil Plait.  The comments a given entry receives is immediate; the time period between a blog entry and the first comment it receives is minutes.  Not only is the feedback for each blog post immediate, but it is also high in quantity.
  • Need for Triage– Bad Astronomy writes information not only original to the author, but also includes information of multiple mode types retrieved from outside sources.  These sources are linked to the entries through hyperlinks.  The blog also organizes other source blogs within sidebars on the page.  Along with these links to other blogs, Bad Astronomy includes links to its recent blog entries and also to recent entries of the other blogs.

Kenneth Burke writes in his Philosophy of Literary Form the use of blogs is to create an ongoing and unending conversation between a focused community.  This is known as discourse.  He asserts this discourse is grounded in the current situation of the community, but also believes the discourse is affected by what one symbolically aligns with or defends.

How does this apply to the blog Bad Astronomy?  Quite honestly, Bad Astronomy nearly follows the assertions of Burke to the letter.  All the blog posts do not flow as one conversation and do not follow one main idea, though considered to be a good thing by Barlow.  The entries are written as individual elements of one larger idea, but they do not flow as one conversation.  Despite this, the posts incite discourse within the community, which is based on the quantity and content of the comments.  The community takes idea(s) presented in the blog post and further discuss(es) it/them amongst themselves.  The author writes posts involving current events which occur within the community interests (astronomy).  The entries Phil writes are sometimes objective and sometimes subjective; usually, Phil remains unbiased when posting something concerning news within the astronomy community, though he inputs his opinion when the subject raises his interest or concern.

In his text Following the Voice of the Draft, Donald M. Murray describes the unphysical yet audible voice one hears when reading a text.  He references the voice as music heard when reading or writing, suggesting this voice describes the heard quality in writing.  Consequentially of this heard quality in writing, he suggests authors write in the voice of their readers.  Murray also presents a number of categorized elements which affect the voices of the author(s) and reader(s).

  • Ethnic, regional, and class elements
  • Situational, responsibility, and professional elements
  • Generation and time elements
  • Task elements
  • Institutional elements

Bad Astronomy is written to an audience that have similar interests in astronomy as the author has.  The content of the blog seems to be affected only by three categories:

  • Situational, responsibility, and professional elements– The information Phil writes in the blog is largely associated with his professional experience as an astronomer and astronomy educator.
  • Generation and time elements– The blog discusses current events within the astronomy community.
  • Task elements– The apparent goal of Bad Astronomy is to keep the community informed of what is happening in the field of astronomy, while at the same time educating the community on different elements of the astronomy field.

Bad Astronomy is written for a specific audience, an audience which has similar interests to that of the author.  The appeal to the audience is the publishing of current information or something that is in any sense interesting.  None of the educational or informative content is old and outdated.  Also, because of the author’s professional experience in the field, the information he provides suddenly seems to be more valid.  The readers of Bad Astronomy are less likely to question the information provided in the text because of this experience.

By comparing the blogging principles of Barlow, Burke, and Murray to Bad Astronomy, it is apparent that the author, Phil Plait, has done a sufficient job establishing a goal for the blog, focusing on an audience, and appealing to this audience.  His blog is current, informational, and interesting.  Bad Astronomy has done a fine job maintaining an audience, which is clearly shown by the high number of followers and the high quantity of comments, showing readers’ engagement in the blog.

Phil Plait
Aaron Barlow
Kenneth Burke
Donald M. Murray

Work Cited

Barlow, Aaron. Blogging America the New Public Sphere. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California, 1973. Print.

“Gestalt | Define Gestalt at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com | Find the Meanings and Definitions of Words at
Dictionary.com.
Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gestalt>.

Murray, Donald M. “Following the Voice of the Draft.” Blackboard. Web. <https://blackboard.chapman.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=%2fwebapps%2fblackboard%2fexecute%2flauncher%3ftype%3dCourse%26id%3d_52152_1%26url%3d>.

Plait, Phil. “Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine.” Discover Blogs | Discover Magazine. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.
<http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/>.

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