There’s nothing like a good blog in the morning.
I’m a voracious reader (and, yes, a bit of a nerd). So for me, there are few greater pleasures than digesting the latest posts from my favorite blogs—whether they’re scientific, political, or news from the RPG world. (Okay, maybe I undersold the nerd part a little.) As the 21st century rolls on, the number of great blogs continues to grow—with ever more people spilling their passion onto the (web)page, just waiting for readers like me to devour.
Even as a frequent blog consumer, though, the process feels a little opaque at times. Sitting alone in front of a screen, it’s not always clear who else is out there. Who really makes up that blog’s community, of which I’m unwittingly a part?
This question has particular poignancy in the science community of late, as scientists increasingly wonder how they can target their message to a public that often seems at odds with their beliefs and values. Online science media has the potential to engage new audiences, and expose them to different ways of thinking about science-related issues—provided it targets the right readers.
Minding the SciComm Gap
The science of science communication is something of a niche academic enterprise, although interest in the field has been growing in recent years. The motivation to better understand empirically how science can effectively target different audiences is best encapsulated by the National Academies Press, who undertook the Herculean task of developing a comprehensive narrative on the state of communication research in the sciences. The report, while raising a number of key themes and strategies, highlights the fact that there are still substantial knowledge gaps. There’s quite a lot we don’t understand about how public engagement operates, and how scientists can connect with those not stationed in ivory towers. (A nice serial summary of the NAP report can be found at the What’s in a Brain? blog.)
Last month, researchers at Louisiana State University did their part to fill this gap by focusing a lens squarely on the science blogging community. They wanted to know: who precisely are science blog readers? What motivates them to consume online science news?
To get at this question, they collected questionnaires from a few thousand readers across forty blogs and asked them to, among other things, identify their reasons for interacting with the blogs. Based on this survey (and some fun computational techniques like principal component analysis and Bayesian clustering) they identified overarching motivators that tend to drive blogging behaviors. Using those motivators, they broke bloggers down into discrete behavioral archetypes.
Blogito, ergo sum
What was the result? They found that bloggers come in three basic flavors: the one-way entertainment user, the information seeker, and the super user.
As the name suggests, one-way entertainment users are motivated by the entertainment value of blogs and are driven by the need to satiate their scientific curiosity. Of the three groups, they score the highest on what the researchers call ‘ambiance.’ Put plainly, these users prefer to read blogs because of a particular blogger’s unique perspective or writing style. They earn their one-way moniker because, out of all of the groups, they’re the least likely to create their own content—or to share content with others on social media. They also happen to be the largest group of the three.
The information seeker is motivated by the ambiance factor as well, but unlike entertainment users these bloggers are a little more goal-oriented. They prefer to use blogs as a way to find information that they can’t access through traditional media outlets. This information can be academic—keeping up with the latest research—but not necessarily so, as they also absorb news on current events from blogs and use it as a fact-check against other media sources. Science educators fall into this category as well, as information seekers tend to use info on blogs as educational tools.
Unlike one-way entertainment users, information seekers are attracted to the idea of the blogosphere as a community. They interact with blogs as a means of connecting with friends and peers, for advice and emotional support from others, and to gain a sense of involvement with something greater than themselves. Correspondingly, they are much likelier to create their own online content, to interact with others when developing content, and to share with the blogging community.
Lastly, there are the super users. These intrepid blogonauts score high on all of the identified motivating factors. They are by far the most likely to create and share science-related content, and are the most frequent return visitors to blogs.
Implications for scientific communication writ large
While the blogger categorization is interesting, what’s especially compelling are the similarities among the users that, in a broader sense, actually betray a striking homogeneity. The study found that nearly two-thirds of science blog readers have some of level of formal (degree-earning) science education, and nearly three-quarters are either interested in pursuing—or are already pursuing—a career in science. When their basic knowledge of science was challenged (using questions developed by Pew), not only did they out-perform U.S. adults, they outperformed U.S. adults with post-graduate training—placing them in the the top tier of the scientifically literate. Here’s how the researchers put it:
The readers of science blogs as a whole are an elite, highly educated group of mostly scientists and future scientists who actively seek out science media content. They are the epitome of the active audience, seeking out niche media sources online to fulfill their psychological and information needs.
Like any study, there are caveats that warrant caution about generalizing the findings. Most notably, the study included only a handful of blogs that could be considered “mainstream” (e.g. only one blog was hosted through Scientific American), so the study may overestimate the aristocratic tendencies of bloggers.
Still, the findings suggest important implications for how scientists will want to think about their communication strategy with the public. Science bloggers and the American public, on the whole, occupy vastly different online universes. The average American—who’s less likely to believe in evolution and more likely to fear GMOs, compared to scientists—is simply not a part of these blogging communities.
One can speculate why this is the case, and the academic literature provides some hints. My preferred explanation is preference bias: people gravitate toward news and content that already conforms to their values.
This should raise a big red flag for science communicators, especially those who implore public engagement but do so primarily through online science news venues (like myself, admittedly).
But in the meantime, I’ll continue to read my favorite blogs, and write posts for whatever specialized audience that has self-selected to read them.
It’s why I go online, at least. And probably why you do, too.