In March 2012, Elise Andrew was working on her dissertation in biology at the University of Sheffield in England. She had been analyzing data sets for six months and was ready to beat her head against the wall. Science had become less enjoyable, and she wanted to get back to the “the fluff and the easy stuff.”
Her friends had been encouraging her to start a Facebook page for all of the fun, science-related posts she had been putting on her personal profile. In a bout of boredom, she created the page, humorously named it “I fucking love science,” and intended to do no more than amuse her sixty or so classmates.
By that night, she had a thousand subscribers. Now, only six months later, almost 2 million people follow her page. Andrew has become the queen of Facebook’s most successful science news page, with an audience larger than the city of Philadelphia.
The overwhelming response to Andrew’s page speaks volumes about the power of social media and the popularity of non-traditional forms of news communication. While print news is redefining itself in this digital age, science appears to have gone on to gain popularity in the form of photos, memes, 100-word blurbs, radio shows, and YouTube videos.
Andrew was not the first to promote science on Facebook. Established publications like Nature, Science News, National Geographic, and Astronomy use Facebook and other forms of social media like Twitter to dispense news. Nor was she the first individual. But she was the first to drop the ever-entertaining F bomb, and her page makes regular use of casual, sometimes profane images, jokes, and web comics.
By popular demand, Andrew founded several other pages with more defined topics: Evolution, The Universe, and The Earth Story. Now working with the LabX Media Group in Canada, she delegated these pages to teams with a deeper understanding of each topic, since she decided she was not qualified to talk about physics and astronomy. “I fucking love science” remains her primary, private project.
Though originally created as a release from the tedium of research, Andrew’s Facebook pages now act, in her words, as a gateway drug to science. “I got a message recently that was like, ‘I only understand half your jokes, but I spend all my time googling the other half,’” says Andrew. “How much of a cool way to learn is that?”
Like other science news administrators, Andrew posts links to sources with more in-depth explanations of scientific concepts she may present in a short hundred-word post, in the hope that a passing, superficial interest may be deepened through personal research.
Getting people to educate themselves out of pure curiosity is not a new educational wish, as noted by Robert P. Williams, an academic administrator at Kahla Middle School in Houston, Texas, and creator of the Facebook page “Science Is A Verb.” The internet and social media have certainly helped individual quests for knowledge.
Williams had founded “Science is A Verb” in 2009 to provide educators multi-media resources to teach science, and it has become an intimate, even international forum for former students, children from other countries, and educators to mingle, ask questions, provide answers, and debate. “Science is something that is hands-on, it’s experimental,” he says. To him, students should be active and inquisitive, and providing the forum and means for their questions to be answered is important in fueling that spark to learn science.
Facebook is just one forum out of many, Williams acknowledges. Adults seem to prefer Twitter, but as an educator of teens and pre-teens, Williams has noted that the youth gravitate towards Facebook and Instagram. Using those platforms for educational or communicative outreach is just a matter of exploration—using memes for education is not out of the question either.
“As the communicators, we need to be where the public is,” David Orloff, entrepreneur and science communicator, explains. “If they’re on Facebook, then we need to be on Facebook.”
Orloff’s website, “The Cell: An Image Library,” conglomerates high-quality images of cells so that scientists can visually compare their findings and learn from each other. His ultimate audience is the scientists, but he initially used Facebook to help build a user base.
And, as Andrew discovered, a surprising amount of scientists respond on Facebook. Authors of research papers that her pages share may comment and answer questions on her post. Andrew has begun using the scientists in her audience as a sounding board to ascertain the accuracy of infographics she wants to share on her pages, a fact-checking measure that seems to gain her more respect and attention.
Andrew’s influence has become undeniable for both scientists and communicators. Both Orloff’s and Williams’ page experienced enormous traffic and subscription doubled when Andrew shared a few of Williams’ original infographics and Orloff’s cell images.
“[Andrew’s] page consistently has more people talking about her page than people like her page,” says Orloff, explaining that her social presence exceeds her obvious fanbase. Even if people do not actively like—or even actively hate—“I fucking love science,” they are likely to see one of the page’s posts appear in their news feed.
While Andrew has posted technical science articles, particularly recent research for the “Evolution” page, the disparity between the number of likes for hard science and those for more humorous posts has not gone unnoticed. Williams, whose target audience is teachers and students, does not even post certain items he considers too technical.
“We know that if we post about some cool, cute animal, it’ll get five thousand shares,” says Andrew. “…a series on evolutionary medicine and cancer and stuff like that…is not even going to get a tenth of the reaction that a picture of a koala bear will. But it’ll still get three hundred, four hundred likes, and that’s something still.”
To educators and communicators alike, making hard science appealing to the general public is a familiar challenge, and enjoying the victory regardless of its apparent size is important to stay motivated.
“You post a Carl Sagan quote, and it’ll get ten thousand shares, and most of those probably don’t know who he is, and of the ones who don’t, ninety percent will share that quote and never do anything about it every again,” says Andrew. “But a few of them will look him up on YouTube, they’ll download Cosmos, they’ll watch it. And even if it’s just one person that ends up doing it…isn’t that better than nothing?”
While they celebrate the small victories, the rather closely-knit network of Facebook science page administrators are working in collaboration on future social media projects. Whether their target audience is specifically scientists, specifically teachers, or anyone passing through, they recognize that they have a powerful feed into people’s curiosity.
“That’s the nice thing about social media,” Andrew notes of the incredible reach that online science communities seem to have. “You’ve got that viral aspect. Something is going to be seen by someone who knows someone. Everyone’s connected, and that’s what’s great about it.”