Creating a Buzz but is it worth it?

Sakharov has a facepalm moment

There’s always some­thing that can pro­duce des­pair on the Internet. Photo: dbking/Flickr

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?

How do you write for Buzzfeed?

A few people have asked this. Follow the menu bar from News, Entertainment, Life, Video, More and so on to the right. You’ll see a mag­ni­fy­ing glass icon for search, and a head and shoulders icon for pro­file. Click on this to register with the site.

Once you’ve done this, you should have an image for your­self in this space. Mouseover it, and you’ll see a New Post link appear. Click to write your post.

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.

A graph showing 4300 page views

Buzzfeed is very open about their page views to registered users.

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.


Dr. Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov by dbking/Flickr. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by licence.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?