October 22, 2011 | 38
What is the first thing you do when you want to find something out these days? Head to that dusty collection of encyclopedias in the attic (or *gasp* a LIBRARY!?) or call up the closest friend/relative who knows something about something? Like me, you probably “google” whatever it is you are interested in finding. And, like me, you probably google lots of variations of the something you’re looking for because results are not always satisfactory. Furthermore, if you are like me, you get distracted by LOLCats, new music and Lonely Island videos and forget what on Earth could have drawn you to the internet in the first place.
As I was preparing another, (perhaps) more substantial post for this blog, I was looking for informative videos about sticklebacks. I won’t spoil the future post, but sticklebacks are small fish that live in the ocean and during the last 10,000 have been trapped in coastal lakes. Thus, they have arisen to become model organisms for studying rapid evolutionary change. This was an aspect I wanted to highlight in the larger context of that post.
Unfortunately, the search for informative YouTube videos of stickleback evolution was rather futile. At the least, videos describing some of the fascinating evolutionary research that has been done. Perhaps I have not done the search justice, used the wrong terms or what not – but that’s not the point. The point is that what shows up on the first page of search results is more important THAN ANYTHING. Here is what the top 5 Google search results are for “stickleback evolution”:
Don’t get me wrong, there are some great resources in the list, but numero uno sticks out like a sore opposable thumb. That is the top result on the internet for one the fast growing areas of research in evolutionary biology. There are over 13,500 references to stickleback evolution in the Google Scholar database. Yet kids doing school projects, science teachers whose knowledge may be outdated, parents keeping tabs on what their children are learning, and anyone else who is not a research scientist will never see those. They will not go check the scientific literature in Google Scholar. They wouldn’t even have access to the articles if they did. They will go to the Google search engine and type the words they want to know about and get those search results above, most likely clicking on the top link first.
Now, I prefer visuals like video, infographics and figures. It is always a challenge to find good ones existing on the internet and very time-consuming to make your own multimedia content. Most people don’t have the tools and technical know-how, much less the ability to work on “labor of love” projects without financial compensation. These realities reflect the available content that is easily searchable. This is the golden axiom of internet: They who have the resources, shall have algorithm rank! Well-funded institutes can produce well-crafted material. This is apparent if you repeat the aforementioned search on YouTube itself:
There is nothing wrong about the scientific quality of the videos in this list. But… look at the times? 50 minutes, 10 minutes? What nonspecialist is going to sit through these online lectures? Ok, certainly some are fascinated enough by stickleback evolution to do that, but those aren’t the people that need reaching out to. When someone wants information, whether its a teacher, student, parent, or even a blogger… they likely want it to be short, factual, entertaining and from an authoritative voice. From outsider’s perspective, I doubt that the above are entertaining and they fail on length. And it is not for lack of time in our lives. People have plenty of time to be entertained, I am sure they still have plenty of time to learn about stickleback evolution on the web. More fundamentally, it is about lack of attention span.
What I am getting at here has little to do with the sticklebacks, really. They are a case study because I was trying to teach myself about the research done on rapid evolution using them as a model species. I did find decent video on them as well – though, not from YouTube and further down the google search results list. If we want accurate scientific information on the web we need to approach from a new angle. No one cares about your video of your cutting edge invited research lecture at top-notch University. Scientists, particularly in publicly contentious areas like evolution research but also climate change or stem cell research among others, need to make an investment in creating high-quality, viral content. And no, I don’t mean viral in the biological sense.
Viral content is not just a buzzword that I’m throwing around. It has the unique characteristic of being broadly interesting across a range of audiences such that it is rapidly and widely shared. The two key components that evolutionary biologists, in particular, need to focus on: broadly interesting and widely shared. When content goes viral, it means much more than just lots of eyeballs gazing at it. This is the justification for doing any form outreach! Why do anything if it not going to reach the maximum pairs of eyeballs possible?? But, just as importantly, viral content reaches mainstream media and tends to infuse itself further in society and propagate to new audiences that you might have never realized you could ever reach. THAT is the power of viral content! Maximize your reach with minimal effort. Its the perfect cost-benefit argument for the typical cash-stretch outreach effort – if it works.
So, how do we do this? We need people dedicated to producing the content and putting it out there. We also need a network that gets the viral infusion started. Believe it or not, I would argue the latter point is the easy part. You see, there is a world online with eager science communicators and enthusiasts who are just waiting to point at something and scream from the top of their lungs “OMG SCIENCE!! LOOK!! SO FREAKING AWESOME!!!!”. The exist on blogs, on Twitter, in the Google + machine, amidst the Tumblr-weeds, on Reddit and just about any other social networking site has a community of science lovers and scientists on it. That stand at the ready to be awed by your content and share it among their networks. This “nerd army” is great start to getting content to go viral. And all you have to do is tell them: send an email, tweet, direct message, chat or whatever. The service doesn’t matter to the soldiers in the nerd army, because it’s all the same – it’s communication.
But, we first need to create the content. This is the hard part, and going to a huge effort to pull off, but I guarantee it will be worth it. There are many great examples of science content out there, Creature Cast and MBARI are great examples of a good content producers. For Creaturecast’s beautiful produced videos with fun, vivid artwork and camera footage, their videos often reach a couple hundred to couple thousand viewers – 7 notable exceptions out of 37 total videos were viewed 55,000 (2), 23,000, 17,000 (2), and 12,000 (2) times. It is no doubt these numbers show how successful their content was, but it deserves to go even bigger. Creature Cast is specifically the outreach project (with NSF funding) of a single lab. MBARI, on the other hand, has been wildly successful with thousands to millions of views. Of course, MBARI is an institution with a public relations and outreach team, as well as dozens of scientists capturing fantastic footage right outside their door. Their authoritative position as an institution likely contributes to their success, though I would make an argument that the creativity of Creature Cast is more in tune with viral content.
It is often difficult to predict what content ends up going viral. Many advertising campaigns have tried hard to make viral advertisements. While several have taken off, many fell short of expectations. Given the cost that large companies will put into advertising, the cost to benefit analysis may not be as great as the potential for science content. To get great content up and taking off, labs and scientists need to rethink how they approach this form of outreach. The traditional approach is to do such things as a lab activity. This worked very successfully for the Dunn lab, which produced Creature Cast, in part because they had funding for a student to spend time to create these masterpieces. So one method is to include funding for you and your student assistants to make content in grants. The other is for institutions or labs with funding to hire out professional outreach or science communication specialists.
Both options are a win situation for science communication. On one hand you give students exposure and experience in developing communications materials and instill in them a sense of commitment to this ethic that will more than likely carry on throughout their careers. On the other hand you are putting your work in the capable hands of people with a solid science background who know how craft messages and market content. It is these latter people, the professional communicators, that could really get your content distributed widely. Additionally, it frees up your lab to keep making discoveries, publish papers, and train students. Either investment strategy is a good bet for both the lab, institution, and the public. The key lies in harnessing the creativity to make good content, solid messages, and thoughtful marketing.
Evolutionary biology is in dire need of a PR campaign. There are some great initiatives out there already, some that are getting off the ground and some that exist only in brilliant minds that have yet to be tapped. Sticklebacks tell an amazing story of evolution and there are many facets of the story that can grab the attention in various ways if done right. But this is not about sticklebacks, it’s about evolution and science. It’s about improving the standing of STEM education in society. It’s about nurturing an appreciation for the STEM fields to keep our country competitive, keep jobs being created and keep up progress in making new and innovative discoveries about our world. Few talk about science as a job creation vehicle, but I challenge you to find one thing around you that is not the result of STEM research. Consistent vigilance and communications efforts are imperative to maintaining public support of science research and future job creation.