By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR
What do googly eyes, mermaids, the Loch Ness Monster, and superheroes have in common?
There is little connection, other than the same, simple power to grab attention and offer the chance to connect with a non-science audience.
Even if the involvement is at the most superficial level of merely pasting googly eyes on random sea creatures, at least it is the start to possibly greater interest and inquiry, according to scientist blogger Andrew David Thaler.
“Googly eyes make everything better,” Thaler told participants at a July 2014 workshop, Blogging your Scientific Research. “We wanted people who don’t think about the deep sea at all, to think a little more about the deep sea.”
A side project to his popular blog, Southern Fried Science, the tumblr site Deep Sea Fauna … with Googly Eyes gets about 100,000 hits a day just from posting pictures of marine life with googly eyes, Thaler said: “It’s unbelievable how popular it is, yet incredibly simple.”
Presented by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the blogging workshop was supported Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) as part of an ongoing effort to help researchers strengthen their communication skills.
Writing about science
Thaler noted that there exists a difference between the two types of writing typically referred to as science blogging — journalists interested in science, writing about science, and scientists who are interested in becoming better writers, spreading their message and sharing their research with a broader audience.
Although people typically don’t differentiate between the two, Thaler told the group of mostly researchers it was important to keep the divide in mind even though the communities often overlap.
“If your goal is to be a scientist writing online, don’t try to replicate the model journalists do,” he advised. “The most important service scientist bloggers can do beyond educating the public is responding in real time.”
Keep in mind, though, he said, “As soon as you are writing about science for an audience that is not exclusively your peers, you are an activist.”
He added he wasn’t trying to discourage anyone, but rather he wanted to highlight awareness of the politics and potential mine fields. Writing publicly does have tangible effects on a career, so be strategic about the topics explored and determine the intended direction.
Also, give thought beyond content to how a page looks, Thaler said: “Layout is an integral component of effective blogging. If the content is hard to read, people aren’t going to read it.”
Tapping into topics of interest
Thaler said he launched Southern Fried Science in 2007 without any grand goal. Today, the site’s marine scientist writers hail from a wide range of specialties and take on a variety of topics, while aiming to bust myths early in the news cycle. The site bills itself as “a place to learn about marine science and conservation and explore the oceans.”
It opened my eyes to the idea that we need to look at communities tangential to our own, like the comic book geek, science fiction community.
Mermaids and the Loch Ness Monster, although not real, always grab attention and offer an opportunity to engage and educate. Animal Planet’s fake mermaid “documentary” generates about 100 emails from people every time it airs, wondering whether mermaids are real and if scientists are hiding the evidence.
“I say, ‘No, why would I do that?’” he said, laughing. “It would be awesome if it were true.”
Likewise, Thaler added, the “discovery” of the Loch Ness Monster on Apple maps fueled an email inbox explosion and followed with a quick debunking: “By catching the first wave of the news cycle, the information spread with the disinformation.”
The Huffington Post, Forbes, CBS News, Fox News, and many other web sites reported the alleged finding, but at the same time quoted the Southern Fried Science response that the image was merely a boat wake.
Another lesson along the way, Thaler said, was that “geeks love superhero science.”
“It was a huge article for me and the website,” Thaler said, referring to a blog post about what it would be like to be Aquaman. “It opened my eyes to the idea that we need to look at communities tangential to our own, like the comic book geek, science fiction community.”
In the 2012 post, Thaler wrote about the marine environment Aquaman would have to endure if he were real, from the water temperature to osmotic pressure, decompression sickness, and how many calories needed to maintain a swimming pace of 10,000 feet per second.
“It was tremendously fun to write and it got huge attention because it was a little different,” said Thaler.
Defining, reaching an audience
When writing, consider the big picture, potential reach and depth of content. Whatever the intended audience, define it before writing.
Know that intricate details, science jargon and mind-numbing data will narrow the potential reach whereas keeping information broad and basic will be more inclusive.
Also, sharing blog posts through social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter can attract bigger audiences, deepen the conversation and develop a greater impact.
Although some people question what they see as the banality of social network sites, the platforms provide good networking tools and drive traffic to a blog, where an archive of content will both draw and keep an audience.
Thaler said it was important to manage comment threads to make sure they are open and productive, responding to dissenters as a means to educate. Although there are people who operate under managed personas and intentionally sow controversy, he said he always assumed good faith.
Ultimately, he said, the importance lies in the writing: “Becoming a better writer, makes you a better scientist. When you are constantly thinking about writing, you become a better writer. Being a better writer benefits your science.”
(Image credit: Background from the premiere episode of Bob Boyle’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, “A Tale of Tails.” Art Director: Bob Boyle; Design Supervisor: Steve Daye; Background Design: Brian Johnson and Kyle Neswald; Color Supervisor: Teri Shikasho; Background and Color Key: Kristin Donner, Holly Kim, Janice Kubo, Melanie Pava)