In his famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” for the magazine Gangrel, George Orwell (pen name for Eric Blair) identified his motivations for sharing his ideas in writing. Communicators’ motivations intrigue me. In my own research, I’ve identified science bloggers motivations to write blogs. Let’s see how they compare to Orwell’s motivations to write…
Orwell identifies “four great motives for writing.”
Oh the Ego
The first is sheer egoism, or the “[d]esire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grownups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” Who can deny this motivation (especially in the words of Orwell!)?
Internal motivations also drive most science bloggers to blog, including the simple enjoyment of writing about science and the desire to express oneself or be a “voice” in larger conversations about science. After writing to popularize science, “writing for myself” is the most oft-mentioned motivation science bloggers give for blogging.
/Writing for Myself/ Personal Interests, Things I find interesting and exciting; Personal Passions and obsessions, Close to my heart, I have a strong opinion about it; A place to throw out ideas, answer my own questions about science; Entertaining myself.
On the other hand, self-promotion, for example raising one’s research profile, isn’t a commonly self-expressed motivation among the science bloggers I’ve talked to. I’m sure there’s some egoism behind all public forms of writing. But for the science blogger who isn’t blogging for fortune or fame (any scientist who blogs is usually giving up valuable time to blog for free), enjoyment of the process (and maybe the comments, shares and tweet mentions that come along with publishing a blog post) is key to blogging regularly for any great length of time. The impact, positive feedback and visibility that one gets from science blogging, however, is a key motivation for continuing to blog over time once one has started. (Yay for sheer egoism, Orwell!)
For the Love of Words (or Science)
Orwell’s second motivation is aesthetic enthusiasm, or “[p]erception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” Put another way (by Orwell of course), this is the “[d]esire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
Make that perception of the beauty of science, or the desire that others see the beauty and excitement of science, and you have a key motivation behind the writing of science bloggers. Science bloggers will sometimes call this the “wow” factor – if something science-related makes them say “wow,” they write about it. As one blogger puts it: "So […] stories like, ‘oh! I just discovered this, and it’s exciting, so, surely some people out there would agree with me.’” (Jarreau, 2015).
Even more spot on for science bloggers, translate Orwell’s aesthetic enthusiasm motivation to the desire to share scientific insights which one feels are valuable, are not being covered by the mainstream media and ought not to be missed.
In in-depth interviews with 51 science bloggers in 2014, nearly half of the bloggers expressly mentioned being motivated to blog to make science accessible to a broader audience, beyond what scientific journals do to disseminate information about new research. Many said they blog to share scientific information and experiences that are interesting, exciting and deserved to be shared.
Pursuer of Truth
Orwell’s third motivation is historical impulse, or the “[d]esire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
Science bloggers certainly have an impulse for finding out and disseminating science truths. A majority of the 51 science bloggers I interviewed in 2014 expressly mentioned being motivated to blog to add to incomplete, inadequate or hyped media reports about science, for example by highlighting research that isn’t being covered elsewhere and putting news accounts of science into a broader context. In a survey of over 500 science bloggers around the same time, I found that the most oft-mentioned reasons for having started a science blog (after to practice my writing skills) were to educate others about science and to correct scientific misinformation online.
It’s Always Political
Orwell’s final motivation is political (in the broadest sense of the word) purpose, or the “[d]esire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
All you have to do is add “with science” or “based on science” to the end of that sentence to get at another of science bloggers’ motivations to blog. I’ve found that science bloggers often mention, when asked about their motivations to blog, wanting to correct misperceptions about science and advocate for science or on behalf of a scientific issue such as climate change. Motivations to share science online today may be even more in line with Orwell’s political purpose motivation than they were when I was interviewing science bloggers in 2014, as pressing scientific issues are increasingly politicized. A testable hypothesis?
But while we all, deep down, likely blog to enact some kind of change in the world (I write to get more people to see the value of evidence-based science communication), that doesn’t mean this motivation dominates our blogging experiences. The freedom of expression and creativity that blogging allows scientists, for example, is often a strong pull in its own right.
Orwell, the Blogger
If only Orwell lived today - I’d read his blog every day of the week. His writing motivations overlapped with those of most science bloggers today, who write for themselves, to share things about science that excite them, but also to be heard as public intellectuals (oh the ego). Like Orwell, science bloggers blog to share what they see as fascinating scientific information, insights and experiences that might otherwise remain hidden in technical texts and research labs, in everyday language (for the love of [science] words). They also blog to explain science in a way that gets at its truest meaning and interpretations, in proper context, without hype (pursuer of truth), and to expose scientific misinformation or enact change based on scientific evidence (political purpose).
Science bloggers have other more specialized motivations, including taking advantage of the casual writing style that blogs offer, highlighting areas of science oven overlooked in the media, promoting public scientific literacy, practicing their scientific writing and exploring ideas related to scientific research projects in a public sphere with other online scientists.
But it doesn’t surprise me that Orwell came close to defining the key motivations for science blogging in an essay on writing published nearly 70 years before my dissertation. Go on, Orwell, and keep being awesome.