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ResearchBlogging.org

A while ago now I gave a seminar at work called something like The joys of science blogging. (Well, I enjoy it!) It was basically a case for the benefits to scientists and the community of having researchers who also blog about their science from time to time. Don’t think I made any converts at the time but I’m slowly putting the makings of a paper on the subject together & of course that entails doing a bit of reading.

One of those papers got me thinking around the complex reasons why people may choose to start writing a web-log, something described by the authors (who very kindly provided me with a whole bunch of reading as my institution doesn’t subscribe to the relevant journals) as

personal Web pages, usually frequently modified, in which an individual posts information about himself or herself or about topics of interest (Baker & Moore, 2008).

Baker & Moore also comment that

blogs have been described as a medium for planning and organising ideas, and processing emotionally charged situations while engaging in cathartic venting and emotional expression.

Now, I guess my blog (blogs, counting Talking Teaching as well) does tell readers a bit about me: if they’ve followed it for a while they’ll know I have pets, a partner, children; that I’m a trained teacher, interested in education, & a biologist, interested in all things biological & in evolution as an organising, explanatory theme; & that I get really irritated by pseudoscience :) But my reasons for blogging had nothing to do with wanting to share my personal life (so I don’t, much – just enough, I hope, for people to see me as an individual person) & everything to do with science communication, so I was interested to see why the people in Baker & Moore’s study got into it.

Their participants – non-bloggers & intending bloggers  – were users of the social networking site MySpace: 75 men & 59 women, with an average age of 24.5 years (rather younger than most of the bloggers in my own ‘circle’). The researchers were interested in any differences in measures of psychological distress between the 2 groups, as blogging could be described as a form of journal-writing and that writing a journal can have a therapeutic role. They note that a major difference between ‘journalling’ and blogging is that the latter is public & offers an opportunity for dialogue with readers. (I’d amend this to “usually offers such opportunities” – some blogs are either heavily moderated, so that any ‘dialogue’ is highly artificial and biased, or else don’t allow comments at all.) Because of this, Baker & Moore wondered if one reason for blogging was to seek or enhance social support mechanisms for the writer.

Participants were assessed on the basis of their actual & perceived social support and their satisfaction with that support, and data were also collected on their mechanisms for coping with stress. The intending bloggers turned out to be significantly more critical of themselves than non-bloggers, & were also far more likely to vent their feelings. As a group they also appeared to be more depressed, more anxious, and more stressed than their non-blogging counterparts, and tended to feel less “socially integrated” and also less satisfied with their ‘face-to-face’ friends (but not with those they interacted with on-line). So maybe they did find blogging a useful way to raise their perceived levels of social support.

Whether this is typical of those in my own ‘circle’ (SciBlogs NZ) or not, I don’t know – all I can say is that I don’t feel depressed or anxious and I didn’t get into blogging to help me feel less so, although goodness knows the day job (the one that pays the bills!) can be stressful at times! However, talking of their study participants, Baker & Moore suggest that perhaps

intending bloggers are motivated by negative affect, planning to write their online diaries with a view to expressing and possibly alleviating their distress.

In other words, a sort of ‘confessional’ – which definitely doesn’t fit the model of science blogging that I’m familiar with. In fact, it would be rather interesting to survey those who blog in a specific discipline from the perspective of finding out why they do it (& I suspect the reasons would be quite varied but – in my own discipline anyway – with a strong focus on communicating about science) and also what they gain from it at the personal level. Takers, anyone?

At first I was a bit dismissive of the whole cathartic/venting thing. However, after a bit of reflection I realised that, well, some of my own writing could probably be said to be venting firmly-held opinions. And also that several of the blogs I read and enjoy on a regular basis (ERV, Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence) also regularly express the author’s personal, strong & evidence-based opinions, and that this is one of the reasons I enjoy those particular blogs so much. But overall, from a personal perspective, I tend to agree with one of the bloggers who commented on Baker & Moore’s paper (reported in a follow-up 2010 article by the same authors): I blog because I like to, because I enjoy writing & love communicating about science :-) And that’s quite sufficient motivation for me.

Baker, J., & Moore, S. (2008). Distress, Coping, and Blogging: Comparing New Myspace Users by Their Intention to Blog CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11 (1), 81-85 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2007.9930

J.R.Baker & S.M.Moore (2010) An opportunistic validation of studies on the psychosocial benefits of blogging. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0202