We’ve been experimenting with what we can do with articles, and our latest experiment happened earlier this week. 7 Deadly Secrets of Carnivorous Plants is on Buzzfeed. It was a bit of a challenge, and not entirely successful.
If you’re not familiar with Buzzfeed, there’s still a good chance you’ll have seen one of its articles somewhere. Buzzfeed is notorious for its listicles, articles that are lists that may or may not make sense. Looking over right now I see 19 Signs You’re A Chocoholic, 30 Squeaky-Clean Laundry Hacks and 11 Feet that Look Like Robert Pattinson’s Face. I really didn’t make that last one up or go looking for it. These pages are shared across the web and seen by thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. It’s reasonable to ask “What is going on here?” and, confronted by 16 Mustached Cartoon Characters Without Their Mustaches, conclude it’s the collapse of western civilisation.
This isn’t really fair. Buzzfeed is listicles in exactly the same way that Twitter is about what people had for breakfast. At the same time as all these articles, Buzzfeed is also featuring The Rise And Fall Of Mikheil Saakashvili. I could see the Mail Online running a story like 14 Famous Movie One-Liners You’ve Been Quoting Wrong For Years, but not stories like in the sports section. The site has aspirations to much higher standards than its detractors would admit.
It is possible to cover science in the Buzzfeed format, but it’s likely to be different to typical media coverage. The current buzzword for this kind of thing is The Visual Web.
The Visual Web is a page where the image is the key element. The best example is Pinterest or Instagram. It’s said that this kind of site is undervalued because of gender issues. It certainly might be undervalued by science researchers. Scientific articles are heavily text-based because that’s the way to convey precise information, and even then people complain they’re misinterpreted. The Visual Web is the opposite of this, so is it usable for science communication?
I set out to write a proper Buzzfeed article. Not a parody, or ironic homage, but a straight down the line listicle. There are other templates that Buzzfeed uses, but the listicle is the easiest to follow.
Next I thought about what I wanted to do. At first I thought I’d have a go at plugging Capture mechanism in Palaeotropical pitcher plants… that we recently blogged. I dropped that idea rapidly. Blog posts often are pointers to things elsewhere. In contrast Most Buzzfeed articles are dead-ends. They’re not designed to lead you on to somewhere else. An entry intended to get people to click out of Buzzfeed would not work.
Whatever the article is supposed to achieve, it’ll have to do it on site. What is it supposed to do? Again, it’s worth looking at the site. Watch This Mesmerizing Timelapse Of Over 700 Hot Air Balloons Lifting Off is entertainment, as is every other article on the site. That’s not a dig against Buzzfeed, most news is entertainment. If you designed something from scratch with the intention of informing people, you wouldn’t come up with the Daily Mail.* So I wanted something entertaining, that connected with botany.
Moving on from pushing one paper, I thought I’d highlight many, so I picked a few I liked and then searched for a few more relevant papers, so that each paragraph would be connecting to a (free-access) paper for people who to go deeper, but would still work as a stand alone for the 99% who didn’t want to work through a research article. In the end I got a few papers from Annals of Botany and PLOS One, and one each from Proc. R. Soc. B, AmJBot and JXB. The key aim was to normalise botany, rather than deliver a lecture
What are the results?
The writing system Buzzfeed uses was very simple to use. From submission to featuring on the Community page was four hours, and once that happened there was a big lift in readers. The comments below the Buzzfeed article are very positive, which shows that while few people will click through to papers, it’s appreciated by the people who do. Quantity is a bit more of a mixed picture.
It’s now around 4300 views and it’s going to stay there for the long term now. If I’d posted the same thing to AoB Blog, I’d expect about 400 views, so there’s more, but there is a question whether 400 readers on this site is better than 4000 on another.
I think in this case, it’s not an either/or proposition. As I said above, the Visual Web is a different approach and with 800 words, this post definitely isn’t for a Visual Web audience. It’s not simply that we’ve sent however many people their site instead of ours. It’s more a case of reaching an audience that we haven’t reached before, and it’s comparable to the attendance of an Oldham Athletic home game.
Just one article is a small sample to draw definitive conclusions from, so that suggests I should write more. Most of the time I’d prefer to put something here, or on Facebook where people have self-identified as being interested in Botany. It’s also usually a lot easier, but if we have suitable material with the potential for mass appeal, and we can tell a story in a Buzzfeed-style, then it is probably worthwhile posting another one to see what happens.
*Feel free to swap out that title with another of your choice.
- RSA Blog: Why Buzzfeed is dumbing up