Josh Witten co-founded and manages the group science blog The Finch & Pea and works as an independent life sciences & communications consultant in Hartsville, SC. He has a PhD in molecular cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis and worked on RNA splicing regulation at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. In previous lives, he has been a rugby player, a whale-rider, and a magician’s assistant.
One of the iconic scenes in The Blues Brothers (1980), has Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) keeping rhythm with a bullwhip while his brother, “Joliet” Jake E. Blues, sings “Rawhide” to an angry crowd at Bob’s Country Bunker. Did I mention that the stage was shielded by chicken wire to protect them from flying beer bottles? Our philosophical approach to using social media for science communication can learn from the experience of the Blues Brothers.
The Blues Brothers “are on a mission from God”. They need to raise $5000 dollars to save St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud, the Roman Catholic boarding school that raised them. We science communicators are also on a mission, but our mission is not always as clearly defined as Jake and Elwood’s. “Science communication” can mean many things, including education about the principles of the scientific method, explanation of the results of current research, reinforcing the community of science fans, and facilitating communication between scientists.
The missions I just listed are predicated upon having an interested audience for science. The folks who are already enthusiastic fans of science are great; but I think we can all agree that there are not enough of them.
Much of The Blues Brothers is about building an enthusiastic, or at least motivated, audience for music the public was not interested in seeking out. The blues and science have that in common. Neither is as popular as it should be, based on its merits.
Without an audience in place, the Blues Brothers have to take their music to the people, which brings them to the honky-tonk bar, Bob’s Country Bunker. Bob’s Country Bunker does not have the characteristics of a venue for high quality music. The clientele is not a receptive audience for the blues:
Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.
Even within the genres of both country and western music, the patrons at Bob’s Country Bunker are predisposed to be hostile. Remember the chicken wire?
In real life, bands face this challenge constantly. Live music, as part of the nightlife, is dominated by hard working bands getting paid poorly to play in bars with terrible acoustics, no support staff, and an audience that isn’t particularly interested in them, except as background noise.
If you have a substantial audience in place, you can be more choosy. Van Halen famously banned brown M&Ms from their dressing room. This stipulation was not an act of rock star diva behavior, as it has often been portrayed. It was, instead, a tripwire to see if the venue had paid attention to the details of the contract. Brown M&Ms in the dressing room meant all the concert preparations needed to be re-checked before the performance. When the bar you are playing at has chicken wire in front of the stage to protect you from flying beer bottles, you don’t get to worry about the color of the M&Ms.
The vast majority of science communicators, despite being a diverse and talented bunch, are not tapping into a fan base large enough that we can focus on ideal platforms of communication.
Our rock stars are not even really rock stars of social media. Neil DeGrasse Tyson entertains and educates nearly 1.3 million followers on Twitter, which lags behind leaders of the generally pro-science geek/nerd pop-culture movement, like Chris Hardwick (1.9 million) and Felicia Day (2.1 million). They are all crushed by the manufactured (a process publicly televised on UK’s The X-Factor) boy band, One Direction (12.9 million). I had to leave Justin Bieber off the chart (>40 million) in order to make anyone else visible. The audience for science blogs is dwarfed by the audience for political blogs, fashion blogs, economics blogs, music blogs, mommy blogs, etc.
Miriam Goldstein and Holly Bik wrote a groundbreaking article for PLoS Biology, “An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists”, that highlights the need to take the science to people who are not looking for science by omission. The only option in their social media flowchart proceeding from “The general public” answer to, “Who do you want to talk to?” is:
By this I mean the relatively small subset of the general public who are reading science on the Internet, who are not necessarily representative of the overall public.
Miriam and Holly are making a realistic point to practicing scientists about the normal limits of social media.
We also know from science policy debates in the United States that the “small subset” is not sufficient to change policies or secure funding for research. We need to focus on venues that allow us to take the science to the vast majority subset and make them a part of that small subset, until we no longer need the “not necessarily representative” qualifier. And, we have to be okay with that fact that many of those venues will look like the Internet equivalent of Bob’s Country Bunker.
Popular social media platforms are not built for science communication. They all have weaknesses. Some are reputed to have strengths. The social media platforms worth pursuing are not just those that have the best tools for science communication (eg, “Virtual Star Party” using Google+ Hangouts started by Fraser Cain or #SciStuChat used by Adam Taylor to connect scientists and high school students via Twitter). They can also be the ones that have audiences that don’t know they want to be fans of science, yet.
Pinterest has been accurately maligned as a tool for science communication. The presentation is superficial. The terms of service have been historically problematic. The folks that use the service do not seem particularly interested in science. According to Repinly (6 January 2013), the Science & Nature category accounted for less than 2.2% of “pins” and less than 2.5% of “boards”. Bob’s Country Bunker patrons weren’t looking for a blues band. Pinterest users aren’t looking for science. There are, however, a lot of them (~49 million).
How do we win them over? A quick review of the Pinterest accounts for the group blog I manage, The Finch & Pea, and myself tells me that I do not have the answer to that question. I do know that the answers will not come from swearing off social media platforms, like Pinterest. They will come from embracing the situation, warts and all, and getting creative.
The lesson from Jake and Elwood is not to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the venue. The Blues Brothers band did not stubbornly insist on performing their standard blues set at Bob’s Country Bunker. Elwood grabbed a bullwhip. Jake sang “Rawhide”. And, they turned an audience of enemies into fans.
In writing this, I have ignored or omitted references to many talented individuals who are working very hard to bring science to people who do not actively seek it out. They exist. This concept is not revolutionary. This is also not a call for science communicators to chase every new social media fad. That would be exhausting.
I’m asking for creativity. Creativity requires inspiration. Work in a space that inspires you, but think about the weaknesses of these social media platforms as opportunities for creativity, not inconveniences. If a social media platform has a significant audience, then it has the only feature necessary to make it “good enough” for science communication.
This is a reminder to not be precious with your content and talents. Our mission needs to be larger than simply performing for the fans of science that are already in place. Earning more fans of science is a mission that benefits all the other missions of science communication. Even in The Blues Brothers, their efforts to win fans (and enemies) allowed them to command an audience and raise the $5000 for St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud.
What’s your mission?