Jack Oughton Science Communication and the Age of the Internet
Introduction: The Information Age
We have entered the information age. The Internet is the largest and most convenient source of
knowledge mankind has ever assembled. More information is being generated and being communicated
faster than ever before. With some training, a user can find almost any piece of information ever
uploaded onto it. It’s potential as a tool for communicating information is almost limitless, and its
popularity as a communicational and informational medium is rapidly growing. Just as the older
generations who did not acquire the habits of computer usage die out, successive generations are being
brought up in an increasingly technological environment, with a great emphasis on computing and the
Currently, only 20% of the world has Internet access, however that in itself is a potential audience in
excess of 1.3 billion people (ITU, 2007)i, and with the exception of places where access to certain
content is restricted (such as China), each of these people is a potential reader. The decreasing cost of
personal computer and Internet access, combined with a rising standard of living in many newly
industrializing countries, and the exponential growth of global population offers the possibility of billions
more in the decades to come (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2008). Most major organized human
endeavours, from international corporations to governmental departments have come to appreciate the
importance of the Internet in promotion and communication of their messages. A new job industry
around using the Internet to communicate has arisen, which has created a demand for specialists in new
fields such as Internet marketing and search engine optimization.
Although often used synergistically with older methods of communication, the Internet can also
function completely independently from other media sources with powerful results. Multimillion dollar
companies have been built with no corporate footprint in the tangible world (Edelstein, 2001). The
Internet has its own unique celebrities, subcultures and cultural memes which are now spreading
offline. In the same way, educational webpages with no offline presence are appearing, providing the
casual user access to an abundance of scientific information, from wildly different sources.
The Internet has had a disruptive effect upon the established order, and there are numerous examples
of organizations which have resisted the change and suffered because of it. In 2005 Rupert Murdoch,
head of the multinational News Corporation, acknowledged thisii; “the next generation of people
accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of
expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, and where
and who they will get it from."
Science communicators in this rapidly changing environment will have to also adapt to these changes, or
like their cousins communicating the news, be left behind. It is imperative to make the functional and
growth potential of the Internet known to the astute and socially aware scientist who wishes to
communicate, network and gather attention, because in this increasingly technological time, public
understanding of and engagement with science and technology (PEST) is more important than ever.
Communicating Science Online - A Crash Course In Internet Marketing
The science communicator’s objective is to interest people in science, and once interested in it,
Compared with a more conventional method of establishing communication, such as printing a journal,
a science communicator can establish a web presence with much less effort and investment. Although
the site qualities on offer are poor, many domain brokers offer free sites, paid for by compulsory
advertising and branding. No specialized skills are required either, with Content Management Systems
(CMSs) such as Joomla! Allowing people unfamiliar with programming to create pages on a ‘what you
see is what you get basis’. Likewise, the discerning science communicator with a larger budget and more
time can hire a freelance coder off the Internet and pay for a memorable web address and professional
looking site. The site can then be modified at any time, from any location with Internet access, quickly
and with the ease it was uploaded. Uploading a site is only the beginning however; next, the attention of
Internet is required.
Generally, people find the websites that provide them the information they need through web portals,
relevant linked websites and search engines. A web portal is a resource provided for and by a specific
community, which contains a list of relevant websites related to the portal’s content, it is essentially a
directory. An example of this is About.com, which provides access to thousands of different specialist
subjects, including scientific ones, each maintained by an expert in the specific field. Web portals are
excellent for fostering a sense of community among likeminded individuals, and could provide the newly
created science communication site some initial exposure. As the new web site is integrated into the
community, relationships with other sites, readers and science communicators may begin to form and a
reputation can be built up.
Know Your Audience
The method to potentially gain the most exposure is naturally the hardest; this is the optimization of
search engines. Search engines are a tool for Internet users who want information on demand quickly.
They work by trying to find content relevant to a search term the user inputs. Their usage is massive,
and it is in search engines where the potential to attract non specific readers is largest. For a new
website to attract significant search engine traffic, it must secure one of the first results which appear
on the search page, on a keyword relevant to it, preferably a popular keyword. Keywords can be used
effectively to appeal to different kinds of audience. For example, to attract people interested in
astronomy, the scientist could attempt to secure a result for the keyword pulsar. Likewise, the scientist
may be aware of the correlation between science fiction fans and astronomy and may choose a keyword
such as star wars. This could allow him to bring in (and possibly convert into a future audience) science
fiction fans. This awareness of differing audience demographics is crucial, as science does not mean the
same thing to everyone. Different age groups utilize the internet differently; younger and older users
focus on communicating, while middle-aged users focus more on seeking information. (Miller, 1996).
As the Internet matures along with the people who use it, these patterns will change, and science
communication will have to change with them. The science communicator must be aware of the kinds
of audience he needs to target. Knowing this he can tailor his presentation to fit their profile. He needs
also be aware of the way in which they are using the internet. The first is the casual web surfer, who
clicks expediently without a particular end in mind; these are people who are usually trawling the
Internet as a leisure activity. The objective here is to entice this reader to devote his leisure time to the
website. I believe that these are the most important potential readers because they provide an
opportunity to expose a potentially receptive mind to the many fascinating varieties of science, and if
they do not already hold an interest in science, persuade them to return.
The second type of reader is the searcher who is looking for a certain piece of information, and
depending upon the relevance of the site to the information desired, attracting the attention of this user
can be difficult or easy. This is the case of nurturing and developing the user’s scientific interests if the
information they are searching for is scientific in nature, or if not, trying to attract them anyway.
Unfortunately, the process of search optimization is particularly complicated, involving the manipulation
of search engine algorithms by keyword positioning, complicated website interlinking techniques and
more ‘trade secrets’ that industry professionals do not reveal. A new website would find it incredibly
hard to secure a high ranked result on such popular keywords, and would probably have to wait until it
had built up a larger readership, or target less common keywords. The last few years have seen the
emergence of academic search engines specifically for scientists, such as Google Scholar, these are
certainly invaluable resources for scientists and science students. They are designed to specifically
search for academic information, for example, returning results from online research journals and
websites maintained by credible scientific organizations. They facilitate the particularly labour intensive
process of proper citations and referencing.
Once he has attracted a reader, a science communicator can deliver his message in any way he chooses,
for example, through videos, text, pictures, audio, and educational games. A website can be used to
capture the email addresses of interested readers and send them scientific information relative to these
interests. Websites can also be used to distribute more traditional physical media, for example, ‘starter
Going Viral: How To Get Known By Doing Nothing
Viral Marketing is another massive advantage conferred by the speed and connectedness of the
Internet, information is spread among the potential readers without the need for the communicator to
do anything more than ‘infect’ a few people with the original information, such as his site address. As
the information is communicated between readers the number of people ‘infected’ with it increases
exponentially, much like the proliferation of virii. This was done with immense success by Hotmail.com,
and there is evidence that it could be applied to any number of fields, including science communication
In my opinion the most powerful usage the Internet presents the scientist is the opportunity to directly
interact. Using email, instant messaging and social networking websites, scientists can now
communicate with each other and form networks at an international level, quickly and easily, co-
coordinating their efforts and exchanging information, with all the benefits this would bring to co-
integrating different science communication groups and sharing workable ideas. Studies have found
that in some disciplines 70% of European scientists use the Internet to collaborate in research and
development, and that greater Internet use is correlated with more productivity. (Barjak, 2004)
This networking can also be applied to the PEST; by default, interacting with audiences via the Internet
has already engaged them in technology, but it is much more useful than that. In 2005 the term Web 2.0
was coined, it refers to a paradigm shift in the interactivity of the Internet.
For example, a scientist can write entries on his online journal (blog), which can then be commented
upon by any reader, the scientist can respond to these comments. Another example is in chat rooms,
where a scientist can communicate with multiple learners in real time, via text, audio or video,
regardless of the actual locations of the participants. Many scientists now run their own blogs and
personal websites, for example, the moderately infamous Dr. Fred Alan ‘Quantum’ Wolfiv, which allows
any reader to get in contact with him personally and learn about theoretical physics.
With Web 2.0 no longer is the communicator restricted to the conventional PUS (Public Understanding
of Science) model of simply presenting information for the learner to digest. This model of teaching,
although prevalent since the early 19th century, with the rise of compulsory schooling in Prussia
(Hohendahl, 1989), is now outdated. PEST allows learners to feel more involved, and communicate
themselves back to the teacher. This feedback empowers the learner, but also allows the scientist to
change how he is delivering the message, if the learner is unclear about certain things. It allows
scientists to understand better the learner’s perspective and refine their communication accordingly.
Secondly, Web 2.0 allows the spread of your content on someone else’s website, a hugely successful
example of this is seen on the Youtube.com, in which fragments of science documentaries videos are
uploaded by non-scientific site users, an example of viral marketing at work. The rise of meta-tagging
allows users to label content contextually on websites like YouTube, the advantage of this for science
communicators is for them to quickly get their message seen, through the leverage of an already
popular website, and often without the difficult process that would be required on a dedicated search
I Get Paid
Finally, the Internet provides a glorious opportunity for the enterprising science communicator to
generate income for himself or his research organization. I believe this to be vitally important, as most
scientific organizations are not directly funded and rely on more uncertain funding sources such as
donations. A successful science communication website has the attention of a dedicated and targeted
readership community, which means that there will be opportunities for those who wish to advertise to
the demographic that visits such a site. These advertising costs could help pay for the site or even create
a profit. Many science communication sites sell educational materials as well, using the website’s
exposure as a way to reach more customers, and the tools available, such as video, to make the
products more appealing to buyers.
Case Studies: How Not To Be A Science Communicator
The SETI Institute is an example of an organization which has adapted and integrated the Internet into
its strategy for enormous success. The website is visually appealing, uncluttered and functionally
designed, the index page providing a clear explanation of what the Institute does with easily navigatable
tabs. The Institute uses the website to offer a number of services and products, such as the gift shop and
the extremely inventive adopt a scientist scheme, in which donators can pay money to get directly
involved with a researcher, even accompanying them on expeditions! (an excellent example of PEST).
The multifaceted nature of SETI is explained concisely and in non technical language, such as the
research performed by the Institute and the numerous different related centres and arrays. The website
has a podcast (a live Internet audio broadcast) which informs listeners about the latest discoveries being
made by SETI, and advances in fields such as physics and astrobiology. The podcast is also non technical,
and by its broad scope of content appeals to a large audience. The site also has a more technical section,
which publishes its peer reviewed research; I would speculate this would make the site a useful resource
for professionals as well. This site succeeds at the major important criteria in generating PEST;
educating, being interesting and accessible, and in proactively generating revenue. Still, I believe that
the website does not allow involvement of readers enough, and could make more use of Web 2.0
technologies, such as video. I also think that the implementation of community building tools such as
chat rooms and forums would be wise.
The Max Planck Institute for Art History is a site that could learn some lessons from SETI. Although the
subject matter is arguably not as compelling as SETI, the site is utterly devoid of the vibrant sense of
character and activity which made the SETI site so effective. Apart from the fact it defaults into German
when certain links are clicked (making it illegible to me), the site has no interactable elements to engage
the reader. And, despite the site being for an art gallery, there is a distinct lack of pictures, but lots of
formidable walls of text. The site teaches the reader nothing more than the physical location of the
institute, and does not actually make clear what it does.
With an abundance of information comes a deficit of attention. Information Overload is now a real and
worsening problem. There is now well in excess of 20 billion distinct web pages, and like the face of the
sun, every second the Internet reorganizes itself as new pages are changed, removed and addedv. Each
of these pages competes for an individual’s time and attention, and even in the most obscure niches,
there are often hundreds of sites of a similar nature. Someone who wishes to learn or find something
quickly can simply type a search keyword and have millions of results return to them. We now have a
problem, not with access to knowledge, but of categorizing and prioritizing it, separating the digital
wheat from the chaff. The effects of this information overload are more serious than they appear,
contributing to billions of dollars in lost productivity (Spira, 2002) and physical stress (Shenk, 2001) to a
new generation of people struggling to handle the weight of more information than they could take. A
typical mid-sized organization today accumulates more information in a week than the whole of
humanity did between the years 1-1500 A.D. (Agarwal, 2006)vi
We live in an attention age, where the attention of the average web surfer is now a rare and valuable
commodity, and in tandem with this, it appears the perceived value of information is falling, because it
is now so abundant. Research studies have shown that users begin to abandon websites if they have to
wait more than 5 seconds for a page to download (Lee, 1999). Scientists compete with less intellectually
intimidating websites to attract the attention of increasingly discerning and disinterested readers.
Another potential problem we face is from the insecurities the Internet brings. Sites are hacked on a
regular basis, for no reason other than the challenge it presents. The implications of ‘cybercrime’ range
from simple website vandalism to the compromise of credit card details and user passwords. Websites
are also vulnerable to periods of downtime, where the server that hosts them on is either taken down
for maintenance of experiences mechanical failure. Naturally a website cannot communicate science if it
is not reachable, and there is no way for the scientist who runs the website to control these
Most significantly, there is now a problem with credibility. With the anonymity of the internet and
publically editable sites such as Wikipedia becoming more perceived as authoritative (Korfiatis), the
possibility for the dissemination of incorrect science appears to be growing. Many journalistic sources of
obviously credible information such as JSTOR.org require paid subscriptions, and are simply inaccessible
to most people. The ease that scientists can now upload their own work allows scientific information
into the public domain which has bypassed the peer review process. Among the non-scientific
community the possibility is emerging that popularity is seen as more important that scientific accuracy,
and that the layman has trouble distinguishing credibility of information sources online. (Treise, 2003)
If “Knowledge is power”, then the Internet is obviously the most powerful tool available. I believe that
in the years to come, Steps must be proactively taken to ensure that with the abundance of scientific
information available, the public are clearly aware of where to find credible sources. This must be done
by building, growing and promoting effective and appealing sci-comm resources online.
The message remains the same, scientists must stay current with the evolving technologies of
information if we are to continue to educate and proliferate a public interest in science.
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