Re-opening the Call for Mass Observers; motivations of a volunteer

by Kirsty Pattrick – Mass Observation Projects Officer

Close up photo of a person handwriting an entry into a diary.

“Writing a Mass Observation directive is like taking a thought for a walk” F5186

I was drawn to this lovely quote from one of our Observers. It makes me think of the times I go out walking and the value I put on this as a chance to gain perspective and process my thoughts. It is something that regularly arises when our panel share their experiences of Mass Observation (MO); the chance their writing gives them to think and reflect, and the benefits of this.

Over the years of managing the project I’ve read of our Observer’s motivations and experiences and so often therapeutic feelings are mentioned. It’s not necessarily a driver but it’s certainly a positive experience of participating. That moment to themselves, to stop and think. To put their thoughts and feelings onto the page and to have their opinions heard. This could be on a subject they feel strongly about or something they have little experience of. From Directives (open questionnaires) on Sex Education, Brexit and Kindness to Homelessness, Eurovision, and Protests, we attempt to generate questions on topics they can all respond to.

“It is calming, makes you use your brain and gives a sense of purpose” H1776

There are multiple reasons why people join Mass Observations national panel and as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded we saw a sharp rise in interest. For the majority, it makes them feel good and the process of writing feels rewarding as they know their contributions are valued.

As an archive of everyday life in Britain, people are motivated by writing for history, as a legacy of themselves and of maybe being like Nella Last, one of our most well know wartime diarists. Our Observers also know though, that their writing is being used by current researchers and this appeals, their voice being part of contemporary research.

“I picture someone looking for something, notebook and pen waiting, and scanning my pages in their search. Maybe stopping to read this bit right here, because hi, yes, I’m talking to you, unknown reader” C5706

In 2020 over 5,500 people put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard for Mass Observation. Of this figure 400+ were regular volunteers who wrote in response to prompts on different topics across the year (Spring, Summer, and Autumn). With reference numbers to protect their identity Observers can write openly, sharing their inner most thoughts and feelings. In much of the COVID-19 collection their emotions are palpable, as they document their lived experiences.

“Joking apart, he [Boris Johnson] is an unmitigated disaster for the country. And he is the reason why I don’t sleep. Well, that, and the fear of dying” (H7412)

Motivations to write

“I have learnt things about myself whilst doing it.. I think writing is very therapeutic, not only is the process a good exercise to keep you thinking but that ordering ones thoughts helps to bring about a calmness to me” B7546

There are many studies which have demonstrated the potential benefits of expressive writing for peoples physical and psychological health, both in the short and long-term. For some this could be improved memory, for others, greater psychological wellbeing and/or reduced depressive symptoms (Baikie., K & Wilhelm, K.; 2005).

Last year we asked our Mass Observers why they write, and what they gain from this experience. I want to share some of their responses. It might just ignite the writer in you…

For many Observers, their participation can be an emotional release, using writing as an outlet:

“I enjoy pouring onto the page what has been stacking up in my head – it feels like offloading stressful thoughts and discussing matters with an interested party is hugely rewarding” C7297

“By writing, I can get some things off my chest and also figure out what I actually think about certain topics.. I worry a lot about everything. I find that writing helps me to clarify things and put things into perspective” L6762

Although it is acknowledged that it is not always easy, some subjects can be challenging, others may feel triggering or are of little interest. Observers are keen to respond even if to tell us the subject didn’t appeal. Eurovision was certainly a divisive subject.

“I find the chosen subjects thought-provoking; sometimes, when writing, I discover I have opinions I didn’t know I had (or had never properly articulated). In that respect, I find the process helpful and occasionally therapeutic” H6004

“No one will judge it and there is no deadline. I have also found it quite cathartic; sometimes it’s just very nice to think about something quite carefully that is different from work/home” G6744

Observers share the importance of their voice being one of many and for this to be captured for posterity. Knowing their writing is being safeguarded in the archive.

“I know that my life is quite different in some ways from people who get married, have children, etc – and maybe it is important to me to feel included in social history” H6109

“I feel although my life is ordinary and forgettable to others, it is real, and it is mine… You can never tell what will become of interest to future researchers, so I feel MO is a great way of recording a tiny part of the large amount of otherwise unrecorded history” C3603

“I want to be honest with them, tell them how I feel and let them know that twenty, thirty, forty or even a hundred years ago, there was this bloke called me, and he had something to say” P6988

The strength of anonymity is key for many to respond to difficult or challenging topics. Researchers will know key biographical information, but Observers can write freely knowing their identity is protected. This often provides rich and insightful material.

“I would be less likely to answer some directives if I were not writing anonymously” H2637

“What I get from MO is a sense of “writing for a purpose”… The fact MO is anonymous and stored centrally, rather than somewhere in my house that people may find it and be upset after my death, frees me to be more candidC5847

How to get involved

We have now re-opened our call to new Mass Observers. We welcome volunteers of all ages across the UK and particularly those of you who consider your voice to be in the minority.

The way in which you respond and how much you write is entirely personal. For further information on becoming a Mass Observer visit No skills or qualifications are required, just a wish to write and to contribute, and of course some time.

Kirsty Pattrick, Mass Observation Projects Officer

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

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