Spreading Science Far & Wide Takes Time, Design and Reader Empowerment

This week I’ve been reading Spreadable Media by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. The book provides compelling arguments for both the fact that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” and the idea that sharing is not a passive activity for digital natives, but a social construction of value and meaning made even more prominent by digital networks. Spreading science is as good as spreading chocolate. Food Thinkers, Flickr.com.

“‘Spreadability’ refers to the potential – both technical and cultural – for audiences to share content for their own purposes, sometimes with the permission of rights holders, sometimes against their wishes.” – Spreadable Media

Spreadable media circulates through the social connections of audience members, while “sticky” media engages audiences at a central location, promoting click-throughs to content often behind a paywall or on a website where advertising co-exists. Spreadability, according to Jenkins, emphasizes producing content in easy to share formats, like embed codes, modifiable and interactive content.

One of the central themes at the top of my head while I read Spreadable Media and write this blog post is the future of science journalism. I’ve been assigned by EMBO Reports (a science journal where I freelance) to write a piece on the subject, and I now look for signs of what future science writing could look like in everything I read.

It’s easy to imagine the traditional news media outlet – let’s pick on the New York Times (which actually produces great science journalism) – as an example of the “sticky” model. It’s an online form of a legacy media structure, designed as a unified experience (the newspaper), where the division between producer (journalist) and audience (reader) is rather clear. Other than moderated comments and reviews and temporary (24 hours only?) time periods for comments below select news articles, collaboration in the production or analysis of news between the news outlet and audience is rare. (But yes, of course, each article has social media share buttons featured prominently at the top corner.)

I’m not picking on the Times, but rather every (science) news outlet that seeks in some form or fashion to more tightly control the experience of the reader. For science, I think this type of experience has consequences. Science is an iterative, continuously updated and revised, collaborative, ideally interdisciplinary process of discovery. Scientific results and findings are inevitably interpreted with respect to a range of scientific, cultural and societal contexts. Observational studies especially, for example those linking disease conditions with factors such as diet or vaccination, are open to interpretation by audiences unfamiliar with scientific methodology and the rules of cause-and-effect investigation.

Traditional news outlets are often delivering the science news article as a discrete experience on its own webpage, barred in most cases from audience comments, annotations and peer-production, shareable only as a link to the original page (certainly not embed-able or open to audience revisions). In this case, we are ultimately relying on the producer (journalist) of the original article to get it right the first go-around, to anticipate various interpretations in scientific, cultural and societal contexts, to anticipate questions that can no longer be asked once comment sections are closed. How do we expect news stories to grow, evolve and contribute to our collective understanding over time if all these stories exist in their own little closed-off universes (the webpage; the permalink)?

According to Jenkins, all media platforms differ in the opportunities they offer for participation, preservation, and mobility. The New York Times news article may be well-preserved over time in its original form, with its original accuracies and inaccuracies, but perhaps it offers less in terms of participation and mobility across the web (other than through sharing of links).

I spoke to Bobbie Johnson recently for my upcoming piece at EMBO. Previously the Guardian's technology correspondent in London and San Francisco, Johnson co-founded Matter, a place for “deep, intelligent journalism about the future” on the innovative (if I do say so myself) platform Medium.com. In telling me about Matter, Johnson stressed the idea that new forms of science news writing should push beyond outdated constraints of print, broadcast and Web 1.0 (including length constraints, matching the release of news content to the flow of the work week, worrying about distribution, and treating yesterday’s news as dead news) while yet preserving the best of traditional news practices, including fact-checking.

Johnson’s ideas strike a chord with Spreadable Media. I think we need to increasingly internalize the concepts of social sharing, citizen journalism and co-creation as valuable means of creating, distributing and interpreting science storytelling. For example, many stories at Matter are actually written in response to audience inquires and questions on particular topics, Johnson told me. What stories, what information do audiences want and need? For traditional news outlets, this question has long been answered by the cultivation of traditional news values and criteria of newsworthiness. But in a time when an increasingly large portion of audiences have access to tools making their own voices heard, what is the role of gatekeepers and news factors? Why don’t we ask the audiences themselves, both the citizens and the scientists, what scientific questions and issues they’d like to see addressed? Not that we should cater solely to audience requests, but we should ask whether news decision processes as applied to science should be modified to account for digitally empowered public voices.

“Newsrooms are still struggling to future out what their new roles may be […] when citizens may make demands on what journalists cover and may cobble together information from a range of resources if traditional news outlets fail to provide desired information.” - Spreadable Media

How could science storytellers better involve audiences in the processes of making, circulating and interpreting their content, while maintaining the quality of their stories? Science blogs have certainly helped to fill the shapeless gap in interpretations of science within the digitally networked public sphere, guided often by the informed (but yes, also sometimes uninformed) voices of scientists, science journalists and other science storytellers. But as most science storytellers will tell you today, single-author blogs are NOT replacing the traditional science news media anytime soon, nor should they. But that doesn’t mean we should thank our lucky stars that Legacy media is still alive and be satisfied with our traditional, centralized science storytelling experiences.

How could we link responsible, skeptical, fact-checked science news with citizen accounts, the collective intelligence of readers and the expertise of niche science bloggers? Could we create more platforms that, like Matter, link the questions of readers to quality content? What about a platform that would allow readers to follow up on studies on their own – ask questions of story sources and annotate stories as new developments are known in science? What about the integration of blogs and specialist interpretations with traditional news stories, as Scientific American is doing to some extent by putting blogs in the same digital spaces as feature articles? I think traditional news stories could do a better job linking out to blog content, just as many bloggers consider the hyperlinked text as a sign of credible and contextualized storytelling (i.e. you don't believe me? Go read my source).

I think the “collective intelligence-gathering and meaning-making processes” that Jenkins talks about in Spreadable Media should increasingly be applied to science news production. The question is how. Traditional digital structures simply can’t do it. I love the “annotation-like” commenting feature on Medium articles, where readers can comment directly within the body of the story, on specific words, sentences and paragraphs – and then share these to Twitter. It seems to allow comments to be more specific, and less prone to wild tangents, than they would be if tucked down at the bottom of the post. But can we push this change of commenting structure even further, allowing science stories to evolve over time to incorporate collective knowledge and contextual factors?