GLOBAL: The answer to why people blog

An estimated 150 million people around the world write blogs on the internet. Whatever the actual number, and it rises every day, the majority of bloggers use the internet to reveal details of their personal lives. But little is known about bloggers or why so many expose themselves on the web for all to see - that is, until now.

Melbourne psychologist James Baker has been studying bloggers for the past five years, beginning with a research project for his masters degree and now culminating in a PhD at Swinburne University of Technology.

With his supervisor Dr Susan Moore, a professor in the faculty of life and social sciences, Baker has published a series of papers based on the research in the US journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

His latest study focused on 182 experienced personal bloggers and set out to discover why they blogged and what they gained from the experience: "We had previously found that blogging may have many social and emotional benefits in the forms of coping, insight and growth, catharsis, as a free space to communicate, through feedback, through recognition and in social support."

But Baker says that while numerous investigations had explored the motives for blogging and its effects, little research had been undertaken to define "the manner in which one experiences blogging". So he and Moore constructed a survey aimed at examining the way bloggers perceived and experienced their activity, that is, their blogging style.

They also devised a "personal blogging style scale" that classified the bloggers' experiences under four categories: therapeutic blogging, self-censoring blogging, connected blogging, and substitution blogging.

The website gives daily response rates for bloggers and Baker used this information to select the authors of the top 30 most read blog entries in 36 categories on one day. He identified 780 potential participants and emailed them with a request that they link to an online self-administered survey containing more than 150 questions.

The survey asked the degree to which each person agreed or disagreed with statements such as "Blogging helps me gain insight into my problems"; "When I'm upset, blogging helps ease my distress"; and "I don't feel as comfortable discussing personal matters in my blog as I do discussing them with friends".

Of those who responded, Baker selected 87 males and 95 female bloggers who had filled in all the questions and whose ages ranged from 18 to 64. "The rationale behind the predicted relationships was that individuals would bring to their blogs a style of interaction that paralleled their offline persona," Baker says.

The results indicated that while there was some overlap between the different categories, therapeutic bloggers were open and expressive, and more focused on their own concerns than those of their readers.

"They were less satisfied with their friendships; scored higher on depression, anxiety and stress; and used numerous coping mechanisms to deal with stress. For them, blogging provided an emotional outlet to connect with others and to seek support.

"On the other hand, connected bloggers tended to be less stressed or depressed, more satisfied with friendships, received more comments from others and had more subscribers to their blogs. They used their blogs to communicate with other people rather than solve emotional problems.

"Self-censoring bloggers also blog to communicate but they focus on positive self-presentation rather than the more open style of communication usually favoured among friendship groups."

He says substitution bloggers used their blogs to substitute for rather than to enhance face-to-face friendships and social networks. These bloggers went online to overcome loneliness or social anxiety. While they may have been dissatisfied with their offline relationships, their focus on feedback from others and from their readership appeared to be successful because they reported a higher number of subscribers and comments from their readers.

Baker says the more socially-oriented connected style of blogging correlated with measures of friendship quality and perceived social support.

Substitution bloggers appeared to be successfully using their blogs to compensate for face-to-face deficits. Likewise, the more therapeutic style correlated with active coping strategies to deal with higher levels of emotional distress.

Females were more likely to use a therapeutic style of blogging and males were more prone to be self-censoring or substitution-style bloggers. He says previous research found that females were more likely to write personal blogs so they may comprise the majority of bloggers, given that up to 75% of all blogs are personal while the rest are topical, technical or political blogs.

Baker completed his undergraduate degree in psychology and biology at the American elite Brown University in Rhode Island and then did a postgraduate diploma at Monash before switching to a masters in psychology at Swinburne, which in turn led to the research for his PhD.

"My previous studies looked at brand new blogs started by people in the site and we followed them for a couple of months. That research showed there were emotional improvements in well-being, not just for bloggers but those in MySpace in general," he says.

"But blogging, in particular, was related to increased social connectedness and friendships, and improved social integration by connecting the bloggers to friends with similar interests, people they could rely on if they needed something."

Athough the popularity of the Rupert Murdoch-owned site was overtaken by FaceBook in 2008, which started its own social networking feature last year, Baker says MySpace listed the most popular blogs each day from different categories and this helped him locate experienced bloggers on the site.

"The study made me realise more clearly why I'm not a blogger," he says. "I'd really be a self-censoring blogger because I don't want anyone other than my close friends knowing how I feel. I'm one of those people who will tell you how I'm feeling if you ask me but I'm not going to make that available to the whole world and have my boss read it...I don't think so!"

* See University World News next week for a report on academics who blog.