A few weeks ago, I blogged about a new paper that came out in Public Understanding of Science on science bloggers’ practices, motivations and target audiences.
In the paper, Mathieu Ranger and Karen Bultitude interviewed seven authors of popular science blogs. Among their findings, most of the bloggers they interviewed cited personal motivations to blog about science: “The most commonly reported motivation was intrinsic in nature, relating to personal interests and enjoyment. Blogging was related to a love of science and a love of writing. […] No mention was made, however, of communicating science to promote scientific literacy, awareness of science, science engagement or some other institutional, governmental or societal agenda related to science” (Ranger & Bultitude, 2014).
At the time that I read Ranger and Bultitude's paper, I puzzled at this finding. Partly because, in my own in-depth research interviews with science bloggers, many (especially those newer to science blogging) did talk about motivations to blog about science that included science outreach and engaging people who might not otherwise read science on a regular basis. So why did the bloggers Ranger and Bultitude interviewed make no mention of such motivations?
As I was coding my research interviews with science bloggers today (research I am doing for my PhD dissertation), I came upon a quote that might explain the discrepancy. I think part of truly understanding science bloggers' motivations to blog about science is pushing beyond the initial response of "I blog for myself." Because there is often more there. Part of the problem is that science bloggers motivations to START their science blogs in the first place, which might include "lofty" ideas about facilitating public engagement with science, are not always the motivations that keep them to keep blogging about science on a regular basis 5 years down the line.
"In terms of my motivation for doing it, it's really kind of a selfish enterprise, in a way. I write about things that I'm excited about, and I think that's what's really allowed me to do this for so long, and become a writer. I think if I was just doing it for the paycheck (laughing) or if I was just doing it, you know, for some other reason, I think it would be really depressing. Because, I mean even though I’d like to say that, you know, I, and I do care about science literacy and I do care about public understanding of science and that sort of thing, it’s so difficult on blogs to understand or to even really quantify how you're reaching the audience or if you're making a difference.
A lot of it seems to be sort of, I haven't heard this term used in a while in the community, but what has often been referred to as “pull” journalism, or “pull” writing, where you basically got the crowd… You almost have a captive audience. In the places I've written for, like, you know my blog was previously hosted by ___ (prominent tech media outlet), and now I’m at ___ (prominent science media outlet) – those are already people who are generally interested in science and geeky things, and that sort of stuff. Maybe, you know, not entirely what I'm interested in, but they’re already sort of in that part of the Venn diagram, whereas trying to get the same things that I write about in a more, you know, popular sort of place, or a place that’s unexpected, is much more difficult. The “push” journalism, or the “push” sort of writing, is really reaching out to people who may most need to hear things that, you know, science bloggers are talking about, or that we wish would hear them. That's really tough.
So, um, you know if it was all based upon science literacy, or public outreach of science, it's really difficult to know the effect that I'm having, so, you know, at least from my personal perspective, the best I can do is do the best job that I can at being accessible and accurate and, you know, hope that I can find ways to get other people. But if I didn't have my own sort of internal reasons for doing this, I probably would've just gotten depressed and stopped a long time ago (laughing)."
I think this quote really captures the interplay between bloggers' internal and external motivations to blog about science. It highlights the challenges and frustrations facing bloggers who are primarily motivated to bring science to citizens not already interested in science, and explains why veteran bloggers might be more likely to cite only internal motivations to blog. Internal motivations, 'I blog for myself,' are the motivations that keep us going when we can't know whether we are truly making a difference or not to science literacy and broader public understanding of science.