Pay attention, here’s the science bit

Matt Locke, Vice-President for Engagement, British Science Association and Founder, Storythings

That familiar jokey exhortation takes on a different cast in times when it can be hard to keep anyone’s attention for long. Those of us who connect to the internet live in a state of media overload. There’s never been an era when we’ve had access to more stories, more opinions, more half-baked theories, more puns, more trolling, or more cat pictures.

We’re now in the middle of a shift from an era of one-to-many distribution of mass media to one of many-to-many circulation via digital and social media. We get half of our culture from traditional media channels, with commissioners as gatekeepers, and the other half through social channels where friends, followers and algorithms regulate the flow.

How does that knowledge affect our mission to integrate science with the wider culture? In old media distribution the levers of power lie with the owners of the channels, the editors, the companies making the content and the talent leading the stories. If we want science to play a bigger part in old media, we know what to try. We lobby gatekeepers to commission our stories, and nurture talent like Brian Cox or Maggie Aderin-Pocock to be our storytellers.

But what happens in the ever-increasing part of the media world dominated by sharing and “likes”? Here, the reach of stories is not decided by a commissioner or editor, but by millions of people sharing stories in their social streams, and complex algorithms deciding which of these stories to amplify. How can we make science an integral part of a culture made up of streams instead of schedules?

Circulation has different characteristics from one-to-many distribution. Circulation networks are ‘spiky’. Stories can get sudden peaks of attention as they are shared, for reasons that are hard to pin down. But they burst and fade quickly, replaced by a never-ending torrent of new stories.

The challenge with traditional media was to get scale – to convince one of the gatekeepers to grant access to a channel which commanded the attention of millions. The challenge in an age of circulation is to go beyond that spike of viral attention. To get people to come back to your story. The challenge is not scale, but engagement. Scale now is random, capricious and has little cultural impact. To change culture, you have to aim for sustained interest – for advocacy, debate and participation.

We do know something about what drives results in circulation networks. Most of the analysis so far has been on what drives spikes. Not surprisingly, the triggers are emotions that we all share. Stories that shock, make us laugh, feel nostalgic or evoke empathy induce sharing, but are quickly forgotten.

The triggers for engagement and participation are much more specific. In 2007, the BBC commissioned research on what drove people to actually, physically do something – to participate. Across a range of activities, from marching on the G8 conference to going on a photo-safari with friends from Flickr, it was not the brand, the story, or even the cause. In every single case, the most important trigger was seeing something as a threat or an opportunity for their micro-community – their existing network of family, friends or co-workers.

In one interview, a woman described organising a Comic Relief fundraising event at work. She felt the need to help others, and liked the feel-good factor of charitable work. But her motive for organising the specific event was that her workplace had recently hired new staff, who needed to get to know each other. In other words, if ‘going viral’ is about millions of strangers acting individually, then participation is about two people sharing something that makes them feel closer to each other.

What does all this mean for science? We know it can create spikes of attention. Sites like I Fucking Love Science or The Kids Should See This regularly share complex STEM content to millions of followers. But how can we influence culture at a deeper level?

Perhaps science has, in its method and aesthetics, an advantage here. We participate to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Participation connects us with the bigger world around us, and makes us realise and value the inter-connectedness of things.

Science does this too. Sure, it can deliver the emotional tweaks that drive viral spikes – via amazing images, jaw-dropping facts and incredible discoveries. But it can also reveal deeper stories about the underlying structures and patterns of the universe. We can immerse ourselves in these deep stories that tell us more about our identity and place in the world. The kinds of stories that we binge-watch on Netflix are complex, demanding and high quality. How could we tell similar stories about science?

In his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues that the storylines of contemporary TV shows like The Sopranos are far more complex and demanding on the audience than shows from the 1960s and 1970s. With the right characters and storyline, we’re more than prepared to immerse ourselves in complex stories, and binge-view them for hours at a time.

As we learn how to make culture in an age of circulation, it’s understandable that science organisations will want to find out how to win a place in our noisy social streams. But we should be aiming for binges, not spikes; for engagement, not just attention. We need to look for the deeper stories that science can tell – about what makes us who we are, how we got here, and our place in this awesome universe.

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