In May, a special science communication session was held at the Annual STS Conference in Graz, Austria, to “study the potentials and problems of web videos in science communication”. Special interest was aimed the impact of such videos on the public communication of STEM subjects.
Crastina got in touch with one of the organizers, Joachim Allgaier – a sociologist, media researcher and deputy director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Society Studies – STS – at Alpen-Adria-Universität in Klagenfurt, Austria.
Hi Joachim! Tell us about the STS conferences and why you decided to focus on Web videos in Science and Research Communication in this year’s edition.
The STS conference in Graz is an established international conference mainly focusing on Science and Technology Studies but also on related topics and subjects. This year it was taking place for the 15th time. The colleagues in Graz organizing the conference have invited me to propose a session last year and also this year. Last year Matthias Wieser and I have decided to focus a session on STS Studies of Social Media, in which we aimed at bringing STS and media media studies closer together, a neglected area so far. This year I have teamed up with Andrea Geipel, who is currently doing PhD research on science communication via YouTube, and organized a double session on webvideos and science/research communication.
“I think webvideos have a huge potential for science and research communication for various reasons”
Audience research shows that many members of the public, and not just the young ones, get their information on science and technology topics from video sites such as YouTube. Webvideos, however, so far did not get the attention they deserve in the science communication research community for various reasons. One reason is that they are far more complex to research empirically than for instance short Twitter text messages, because far more elements are involved. It was our aim to make a start and bring interested researchers and others from various fields and countries together in this special session in order to study the potentials and problems of webvideos in science communication, which has worked pretty well I would say.
Why should webvideos matter to the early career scientist?
I think webvideos have a huge potential for science and research communication for various reasons. One reason is that they provide far more opportunities than the usual journal article. In fact, there are already some scientific journals out there that publish in the webvideo format, such as The Journal of Visualized Experiments or the Journal of Video Ethnography. I guess we will see much more of this in the years to come. Obviously text, images and illustrations are also possible in the webvideo format, but also animations, moving images and all kinds of combinations of the visual, textual and auditory level. Of course, it very much depends on the purpose and audience of the specific webvideo but the possibility to use various languages and subtitles at the same time can be quite useful sometimes as well. For instance, in a recent contribution Anna Lydia Svalastog and I have looked at the use of YouTube videos during the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa.
“The audio information could also be understood by people who have difficulty reading or who could not read at all.”
Some have been used to convey information on how the virus spreads and how to protect yourself from getting it. This information can travel very fast from smartphone to smartphone and one big advantage of the webvideo format was that it allowed to use various spoken native languages, as well as diverse sets of subtitles. The audio information could also be understood by people who have difficulty reading or who could not read at all. Some videos focus very strongly on the visual level alone to reach various audiences and age groups such as the brilliant example The Story of Ebola.
Please give three pieces of advice to the young science or tech person who wants to understand more about the potential of video as a tool for science communication.
Consider that YouTube science channels such as Vsauce have tens of millions of subscribers and most of the videos there have far more than a million views. So in principle huge audiences could be reached via such channels and we are still in the early days of digital science communication. So why not watch some science videos yourself, for instance by Brady Haran or from The SciShow. You might be inspired to do somethings similar or something even better. If not you might still learn a thing or two or find some suitable clips you can use if you are teaching. In the long run you might also consider making a webvideo about your research yourself or with your teammates. Today an average smartphone will do to shoot, edit, upload and of course watch webvideos. What counts more than technical brilliance is a smart idea and your authenticity.
Using webvideo platforms such as YouTube also allows for direct interactions with various audiences. In this sense they provide an interesting and fruitful space for publicly engaging with science and technology. This means once a webvideo is uploaded there is still more to do. Reading and replying to the comments of the viewers is a very valuable opportunity for public exchanges about science and research. It can also be fun and it is a great way of sharing your knowledge with interested members of the public. The webvideo format makes direct interactions with audiences possible, something that is still quite new and was not possible in this scale in the heyday of television. Very successful YouTubers are always very attentive to the inputs and comments provided by their social online communities.
However, where there is light there is also shadow. In my current research I am studying what kind of information you find when you are looking for science and technology topics on sites such as YouTube. As mentioned before you can find wonderful examples of innovative science communication, but you will also find heavily biased information coupled with financial interests or straightforward pseudoscience, miracle cures or conspiracy theories about science and technology. There is no quality control taking place on YouTube and you will also find lots of contents which are worlds apart from scientific consensus views. The problem is that many people do get informed about science, research and technology on such sites as YouTube and these biased results are likely to pop up as well when people are looking for information about science and tech, because they have often been tagged as such. In this sense I’d like to encourage every young science or tech person to have a look at what they find in their area of expertise on sites such as YouTube. If you spot something that is totally outrageous maybe you want to put things right in the comments or even think about posting a video reply. If you as an expert in your field won’t do this who else should be doing it then? If you don’t find anything at all that might also be an opportunity to be the first who explains or addresses the topic publicly in this popular format. In this sense it would be one possibility to bring science back into society and to provide a foundation for fruitful public discussions about your research topic.
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