Social media and science communication:

What are your benchmarks of success?

I’ve been blogging, tweeting and making videos online for over seven years. And I still struggle with the question “is it worth it?”

When I started blogging in 2007, I used it as a discipline to force me to read up on new ideas and research, learn to write better, and hone my communication skills. Of course I wanted people to read and comment on what I wrote, but this was secondary to the benefits I received from the act of writing. My measure of success was my grasp of developments in my field, and my ability to talk and write about these clearly.

I still consider these metrics important. But they’re no longer enough.

When talking about science communication, I often tell my audience that it’s about getting stuff out of the heads of experts and into the heads of people who can make use of it. This is what I strive for as an academic and a communicator, and it’s become the bedrock of why I invest so much of my time in communicating about science on social media.

Yet social media isn’t my day job. And no matter how much I believe that it’s important, every hour spent writing pieces like this is an hour lost to something else I should be doing.

Which is why I’m constantly grappling with how I determine the worth of the videos I make and the articles I write.

II suspect that this dilemma is particularly pertinent for people who don’t get directly rewarded financially for their communication work, and have to fit it between the cracks of their paid jobs. For me, there’s always a proposal I could be writing, a paper that needs working on, research that should be done, lectures that need preparing, assignments that need grading, committees to serve on, collaborations to participate in… It’s a long list, and the cracks are pretty thin.

Yet I still carve out time to create videos for Risk Bites and write for 2020 Science. It’s mainly because I believe providing people with information and insights that they may find useful is important, and because I have rather strong opinions on the social obligations incumbent on academics to return society’s investment in them.

That said, there’s never an article or a video where I don’t think “why did I bother?” after posting it. Inevitably the video or page views are less than I hoped for, and there is deafening ambivalence from Twitter. And the gulf between the aspiration to communicate and the reality of so few people caring looms large and dark.

The problem is, I don’t know how to benchmark my successes and failures. The writers and video makers who most often inspire me are those who get millions of views, and thousands of comments. Against these, my hundreds of views and single digit comments pale into insignificance.

To be honest, these are probably not the most advisable benchmarks for most “between the cracks” science communication content online. They often come from content creators where talent, topic and opportunity have conspired together to make them the exception rather than the rule. The chances for the same happening for even a talented full time academic to achieve the same are few and far between.

So what are appropriate metrics of success for us “between the cracks” communicators?

If you write for a blog for instance, how many reads are considered doing well? Do comments matter, and if so, how many is good? If you make videos, how many views make each hour of production worth while? And if you hang out on Twitter, what’s the quality and quantity of retweets and engagements that make your time feel well spent?

I don’t know the answers to these questions I’m afraid, but would love to know how others handle them.

I do know that I get disheartened with anything less than 1000 reads of a blog post (I spend most of my time as a writer disheartened!) and I secretly wish for tens of thousands of views (fantasy in most cases).

It gets even harder with video, where each minute of YouTube time represents hours of hard work. In this case, I can’t help but find posting a video that just gets a few hundred views to be a crushing experience.

Yet should this matter, or am I missing the point?

Maybe for those of us who aren’t social media superstars should be content with the few hundred people we connect with. There’s certainly a strong argument to be made for quality in engagement rather than quantity — although this is tougher to measure.

If I’m honest though, underneath the question “is it worth it” every time I see those low levels of engagement, lies the more fundamental whisper of doubt: “am I worthy?” Deep down, I find it hard to shake the belief that low views simply mean that I’m a lousy writer, and can’t make videos to save my life!

Of course, this is a very egocentric view, and one that smacks of the cardinal sin of placing the communicator above the person being communicated with. It’s also heartening to remember that some of the most popular posts and videos out there aren’t always so great, while many fantastic pieces are all but ignored — fame is nothing if not fickle. But still …

There is another problem here though. And that is an obsession over what may be less than informative metrics.

Views are easy to track — they’re a very convenient metric. But they may not always be the most useful metric when it comes to how impactful science communication using social media is.

This is particularly the case with video.

If I look at the videos I make for the YouTube channel Risk Bites, I find it hard to justify the time and effort based on views alone. Each video takes between 10–30 hours to make. Over the past two years I’ve uploaded 88 of them. These represent over 1500 hours of work. As I type, the channel has 3,291 subscribers, and a grand total of 402,639 views.

An average of around four and a half thousand views per video, and two hours of my time per subscriber, doesn’t make me feel great — especially when I look at channels like ASAP Science with 3.3 million subscribers, and 300 million views!

But again, what are the appropriate benchmarks? What is an appropriate measure of worth here?

In the case of YouTube, it probably isn’t views, but rather the time people actually spend watching your videos.

Using this metric, Risk Bites videos are being watched for between 5,000–10,000 minutes per week. That’s nearly 24 hours per day.

Comparing this to my student contact time as a professor — an average of around 14 student-hours per day (50 students in a 2-hour class per week) — the channel isn’t doing so badly. In terms of contact-hours, I’m reaching more people online than I am students in person.

Of course, this doesn’t account for the quality of the engagement. But this type of self-referential metric begins to make more sense than looking up to YouTube superstars.

Is it enough to make everything worthwhile? On a bad day I’d still say no. There’s still that demon on the shoulder who whispers “if your content were good, you’d have more viewers” — not to mention all the other things I could be doing with the time that goes into each video.

And yet…

Every so often, someone tells me how useful, how helpful or how inspiring something I wrote or filmed was to them.

And just for that moment, everything is worthwhile.

I suspect that it’s this personal connection that is the ultimate benchmark of success for most “between the cracks” communicators like me — that knowledge that something you did or said resonated with someone else, and helped them see the world a little differently.

In the meantime, I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with how the value of time spent on science communication via social media is weighed — especially if you are someone who does this in addition to your day job. If this sound like you, how do you benchmark your success?

Update: Hilda Bastian has written an honest response about her experiences and motivations that I would highly encourage you to read — access it here.