Why Blog? To Change the World — and Blow Off Steam

Why do bloggers blog? It sounds like a trick question, but a study of top political bloggers finds their motivations evolve over time.
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Blogging has its burdens. If you doubt it, try coming up with an interesting thought every hour or so, shaping it into a coherent, compelling and carefully worded item and then sending it out into the world for potential ridicule by everyone with a laptop and a point of view.

For the few bloggers who manage to draw a large readership, the financial rewards can be significant. But the hours are ridiculous, and the pressure to produce enormous. So why do it?

Newly published research suggests people are motivated to start a blog by one set of reasons and motivated to continue by quite different considerations.

In the journal New Media and Society, a research team led by Brian Ekdale of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports on a survey of 66 top American political bloggers. They were selected from 2006 rankings of most-popular blogs and represent points of view across the political spectrum. Web sites they blog for include Daily Kos, Hullabaloo, Right Wing News and Pajamas Media.

The bloggers were presented with a list of 13 motivations for starting a blog and ranked the personal relevance of each on an 11-point scale. Reasons included, "to provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream media" and "to help your political party or cause" and "to let off steam." They then went through the list again and recorded how well each reason reflected their current motivation to continue blogging.

The researchers found the three strongest initial motivations for blogging — "to let off steam," "to keep track of your thoughts" and "to formulate new ideas" — were all based on the bloggers' personal emotional or intellectual needs. Blogging, at the outset, was an outlet to clarify the person's thoughts and/or express feelings such as frustration or anger.

But when asked why they're blogging today, those three foundational motivations either decreased in importance or increased very slightly. In contrast, the extrinsic motivations — notions such as "to serve as a political watchdog" and "to influence public opinion" — saw "significant and sizable increases." (The one exception was "to critique your political opponent," which only increased marginally.)

"As they continued to blog, and their blog posts reached wider audiences, they realized they could extend influence out to their audience, the media and political parties," the researchers write. While their initial motivations did not fade away, this newfound influence provided additional motivation, leading these bloggers to be even more enthusiastic about what they do.

In a particularly interesting aside, the researchers report the respondents who rated the extrinsic motivations most highly "were more likely to post both favorable and unfavorable information about candidates they support. They were also more likely to participate in political activities such as signing petitions, contributing money to campaigns and attending protests or rallies."

In other words, if you feel your job is to inform the public, fact-check the mainstream media or simply help society, you're more likely to present a fuller picture of the politicians you report on, even if you have a specific point of view. On the other hand, if you're basically using the blog as an outlet to channel your anger or hone your already-solidified positions, you're less likely to admit the other side may have a point.

That's a distinction worth pondering for both bloggers and their readers.

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