Blogging bliss in online oratory
Illustration by Ken Uchida

Most Masters students are happy to see their research published in an academic journal, to be read by academics in their field. However, research by James Baker, a Masters student in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology, into the psychological effects of blogging was no sooner published in the Journal of CyberPsychology and Behaviour than it was picked up by the mainstream press. It was subsequently reported in more than 30 news stories across the world as well as being mentioned in hundreds of online blogs.

“It’s certainly got around a bit,” says Mr Baker, with some understatement. “I hadn’t really expected the sheer amount of coverage we’ve got. It’s been quite astounding.” His supervisor, Professor of Psychology Susan Moore, says she has never seen anything like it. “At first I said to James that the press attention would last a few days and then they’d forget all about it. But it just hasn’t stopped.”

A registered psychologist, Mr Baker set out to research a straightforward question – what effect the increasingly popular activity of blogging might have on the psychological wellbeing of bloggers. The benefits of venting emotions in diary form are well documented, he points out, and have even led to the development of the therapeutic practice known as narrative therapy.

Keeping a blog is a little like writing a diary, Mr Baker says, but with an important difference – it is conducted within the very public forum of the internet. “Historically, research about the internet tends to be negative,” he says. “People assume that computers make people feel isolated and depressed, and that the disinhibition that comes with the internet as an anonymous space leads to bad experiences, like cyber-bullying and stalking.”

To assess how blogging might affect mental health and wellbeing, Mr Baker surveyed new users of the popular MySpace social networking site. He asked them to rate their current mental wellbeing and also asked them whether they intended to use the site to blog. Of the 134 people who completed the questionnaire, 84 said they intended to blog, and 50 did not. Those who intended to blog rated themselves as being more distressed and unsatisfied with their current social interactions than those who did not. Mr Baker surmised that they intended to blog as a way of coping with their stress, but was interested in the effect of doing so within such a public forum.

After two months, Mr Baker surveyed the group again, and found that those respondents who had kept a blog now rated themselves as less depressed and more socially connected than those who did not blog. “The interesting thing was that the bloggers said that not only did they feel more socially connected online, they were also more satisfied with their offline friends and relationships as well. It seems that the connections they made online had a clear spin-off to the satisfaction they had in their outside life.”

ABC Radio’s science program was the first to report Mr Baker’s findings, which were covered soon after by the Discovery Channel and then by numerous online news outlets. The news coverage was surprising enough, but it had a further happy consequence for Mr Baker – triggering literally hundreds of responses in blogs and other feedback.

The original survey did not provide for respondents to comment on why they blogged but, with the unsolicited feedback, Mr Baker was deluged with a rich commentary on his research and on the motivations and experience of bloggers that continues today.

Professor Moore says it has been a unique case of “full-cycle feedback”.

“Usually feedback on research comes via a middleman who interprets the data volunteered by respondents who don’t have the opportunity to feed directly into the research.” But in this case the subjects of the research have had the opportunity to comment directly on Mr Baker’s findings, adding their qualitative comments to his quantitative research.

The overriding response is that blogging gives people the chance to connect with others like themselves. “We’ve had comments from people like a woman with young children who said it was her chance to connect with the outside world. And an elderly person who couldn’t get out, but said he could still have a social network through his blog.”

For Mr Baker, the commentary demands attention. “When a few comments came in I thought it was interesting. When it got to a hundred comments I thought I’d better do something with it.” The tally now is 480 comments, and Mr Baker realises he has material to feed into a PhD.

Understandably delighted that its role as a social connector is being brought to light, MySpace has offered to assist Mr Baker with the next stage of his research.

A story provided by Swinburne Magazine. This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from Swinburne Magazine to reproduce it.