Wikipedia defines a virus as "a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of organisms". The use of viral terminology to describe the movement and sharing of online content is very apt. However, whilst science has given the phenomenon its name, the question persist as to whether or not it has truly 'gone viral' in online video.
As a source of media YouTube is a titanic entity. With 3 billion videos watched per day it is the most popular place to try and create an online visual phenomenon. Science does form a proportion of the millions of hours of video on the site. But, according to Kevin Allocca, YouTube Trends Manager, "there is a huge opportunity [for science] that we haven't quite seen taken advantage of yet".
Whilst it may not have gained the view counts of Justin Beiber, or people getting hit in the face or kittens, there are people out there who are producing high quality science content. However, there is a vast range in what people have come to term as a science video. Footage of experimental data gathering produced for peer reviewed research is undoubtedly scientific. But, what about content such as the ‘Mentos and Diet Coke experiments’? These videos have been immensely popular and manipulate a scientific phenomenon, without explaining it. Does this undermine the impact?
Kevin Allocca doesn't think so, citing a recent trend in videos he said, "when we had a really cold spell of weather...videos of people throwing boiling water out of a window and it evaporating became very popular, it was really cool looking and led people to question the science of how it was happening".
This shows how the platform could be used as a major venue for scientific discussion and have a similar impact to that of Twitter and blogs in increasing public engagement. Whilst there is undoubtedly a gap for using this media to improve public understanding, there is also the potential of using the enhanced engagement to bring about policy change.
Online video has become an important place to influence both the public and decision makers, and has become a fixture in election campaigning and media promotion. The online video campaigning for changes in politics with regards to science can range from individuals simply talking to camera in video-blogs, to more constructed campaigns.
A good example of the latter are the films made to promote awareness of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, and the issues they were seeking to deal with. One such video was made by Edd's World and took a comedic look at the implications of anthropomorphic climate change, the video has since received over one million views.
One of the individuals involved in the project was Tom Ridgewell, a 'Youtuber' whose videos have amassed over 80m views. Tom's regular content is comedy based, and on the issue of trying combine science with making people laugh he said: "It's very difficult to be funny and accurate at the same time, you've got to exaggerate things, you've got to think of ways to word it more awesomely than it really is. [TVE - an environmental media company] gave us, pages and pages of information and I said okay, I can use about two sentences of this before the video becomes boring."
The issue with how to produce exciting content whilst remaining accurate brings to the surface the age old question: how can the internet be trusted for scientific reliability when there is no editorial control? Given that you can find a video of someone explaining their beliefs in pretty much every form of pseudoscience imaginable it is an important question to ask. However, despite a few crackpots, the overall scientific accuracy for online video seems good. You can also witness, as with any online audience, the 'internet vigilante police' who take it upon themselves to highlight anything they believe to be wrong, and whilst you will also see 'scientific trolls', it is fairly easy to identify those individuals who are just looking for an argument.
Another factor helping to improve accuracy is the rise in content production by noted institutions and respected scientists, "It is hard to make it big without the scientific background" said Kevin Allocca. While the respect for professional scientists is important and understandable, it shouldn’t be at the expense of amateur scientists and enthusiasts. A point reinforced by Rob Bryanton, “I'm always very careful to point out that I am not a scientist, I'm not a physicist, I'm just a fellow who came up with an interesting way to visualise ten dimensions”, he said. YouTube began life as a place for amateur film makers to show their wares, it would be a shame if in its rise to becoming a media dominant force it lost the considered lay people like Rob.
So, it seems clear that science can do more in this platform. But, what is the secret to making a successful video, and can science and scientists harness this? Well, according to the experts, a video needs watch its length, be topical, respond to a question that already exists, appeal to human emotions and to focus on what is going to make people want to watch. These criteria are definitely within the reach of science.
Whatever the reason for science not having taken full advantage of this platform, I believe there are definitely causes for optimism, a thought shared by Kevin Allocca who said; "people are starting to tap into [YouTube] as a basic education tool...a video can tell you more than the page of a text book".
Images: Inspecting film reel, Jeremy_Castillo with a movie camera, A possum and a movie camera 1943, all from Wikimedia Commons.