A quick spin around the web reveals all sorts of interesting websites for biology, and all sorts of highly used, interactive forums and social networks. However, there doesn’t seem to be any crossover between the two. Why is this?

This blog provides space for comments, and CSH Protocols allows for questions and suggestions on every article on the site. Most science publishers are trying to create networks (how many times have you read the phrase “myspace for scientists”?). Yet participation has been slow to catch on (an optimistic view), or they’re a complete failure (see this article in The Register, “A panel of science web publishers said scientists had consistently shunned wikis, tagging, and social networks, and have even proven reticent to leave comments on web pages.”).

Is there something inherent to the biology community that makes the standard social networking and chatroom sorts of websites uninteresting? I find it hard to believe that we’re that much busier than any other field of research (physicists and computer scientists seem to have their online meeting places of choice). Perhaps it’s the hierarchical nature of biology that make these sites less interesting to us as a group. Those who have the time to visit such sites are trying to keep their heads below the parapets until they’re better established. If you have to identify yourself on a site, then stating an opinion about someone else’s work or theory leaves you in an exposed position and could later come back to hurt you in a job search. Those who are established enough to be open with controversial opinions or get away with critiquing others are the older, busier scientists who don’t have time to chat online.

Do anonymous opinions really matter to us, if we don’t know the source? Is it that these networks can’t really supply the things we need as a community, that the “wisdom of the crowds” is not as valuable as carefully vetted, verified information?

My theory is that we’re still waiting for a “killer app”, as they say in the computing world. Right now, what you’re seeing are attempts to translate things that have caught on for other communities into the world of bench science. Very few of those things immediately make sense or provide valuable services (interesting article on how Wikipedia “sucks on science” here). What I think will happen is that someone is going to come up with a valuable tool, and community will form around that tool in a natural manner, rather than trying to shoehorn community into sites artificially.

I’d ask for your thoughts on what that tool will be, but really, who am I kidding? Someday when you’ve created it and built an empire, drop me a line and tell me I was right.