Why a Young Scientist Created His Own Video Channel About Science
by Joe Hanson
My name is Joe Hanson. I’m the creator, host, and writer of It’s Okay To Be Smart, an educational YouTube series that aims to educate, entertain, and inspire curiosity through science storytelling. My mission is to provide a place where anyone with an internet connection can engage with science, get a little smarter, and join a global community of similarly-minded curious people. This is offered free of charge and, most importantly, free of intimidation, which is quite different from the experience most people had in science class. That’s exactly the point!
In 2013, I walked out of the lab with a Ph.D. in biology, hung up the funny hat that came with it, and started making educational science YouTube videos full time. That was a gamble, since I had exactly zero training in video production, but I saw an opportunity to succeed where traditional media had failed, communicate science to (mostly) Millennials, where they (we) were online and in their (our) own language.
Speaking of “Millennials” and “language”, there’s a Google Chrome browser extension created by web designer Eric Bailey that replaces the word “Millennials” with “Snake People” on any webpage. It makes tech think pieces a lot of fun to read, but it also reflects how Millennials Snake People are often viewed. We, the Millennials, disconnected, too busy watching the Kardashians and Twitch streams of video games or whatever this guy from Finland is going to crush in a hydraulic press this week to care much about anything, especially not science.
When I entered the ivory tower in 2006, the year I started my Ph.D. studies, I frequently overheard conversations about how “people” were less engaged with and interested in science, despite it being more important than ever. In 2006, according to the National Science Foundation, only 15 percent of Americans said they “followed science news closely.” In 2007, Americans were asked to name some famous scientists, and the top names were Al Gore, Bill Gates, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein (two of those aren’t scientists, and two are dead). By 2009, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an article decrying the decline of science journalism and society in general.
In 2010, my internet world was Tumblr, the Millennial playground that birthed half of the internet’s memes and most of its GIFs (sorry, Reddit, it’s true). What I saw on Tumblr were communities of fans. They were passionate, self-organized, and socially conscious. Fandoms congregating around everything from Doctor Who to My Little Pony to One Direction slash fanfiction (you might have to Google that last one). They knew everything about their faves. They created and shared content that supported the community and simultaneously was the community.
“Disconnected and disinterested” didn’t sound like the Millennials I knew. I didn’t want to believe it, but science isn’t about belief. Instead, I developed a hypothesis and went looking for cold, hard data.
This was my hypothesis: We can build a fandom around learning. Thus, It’s Okay To Be Smart was born, a Tumblr dedicated to scientific curiosity. I went to where science fans already were, and we formed a community on our home turf.
Imagine you’re at a party where you don’t know anyone. You could sit in a chair, waiting for someone to come up and talk to you about exactly what you’re interested in, but that’s a lousy way to make friends. Legacy media outlets like newspapers and radio were stuck on this model for a long time, one that said audiences would come to them to learn about whatever. This was a shortsighted mistake, one that many media companies are only now facing up to, and sadly, one that many realized too late.
Now imagine you’re at that same party, but everyone’s holding up signs that list what they like to talk about. There’s a few people with signs that mention “space” and “planets.” You like space things. You like Jupiter. Suddenly you’re in the middle of a conversation about NASA’s Juno mission with people who love the same thing. These new friends can then walk off and share our conversation with a third group of people that you’ve never met.
This was my strategy for It’s Okay To Be Smart. I plopped myself down in the middle of a big party called Tumblr and held up a sign that read “science.” But I also held up signs that said “GIFs” and “art” or whatever pop culture thing I was into that month. If no one came up to me, I read their signs and went to them.
In 2013, this Tumblr experiment evolved into a YouTube series produced by PBS. While the media has changed and my reach has expanded, my core approach remains essentially unchanged: Find fans of science, talk with them, and inspire them to share our conversation with their friends. I am far from the only person to have this idea.
The Facebook page I F**king Love Science, today followed by nearly 25 million people, took much the same approach, and has grown into a media company valued at several million dollars.
October 21, 2015 was a historic day. That’s when we officially entered “The Future,” the date the flying DeLorean time machine dropped Marty McFly into a world of digitized clothing, self-driving cars, and hoverboards. Now that the future is actually here, we face a new risk: Anyone who grows up today lacking a basic understanding of science and how it enriches their life risks being locked out of our economies, our governments, and in many ways our society.
Making a science YouTube show has proven to me that Millennial disengagement and disinterest are myths, but that some of our cultural divisions are real. Our social filter bubbles, reinforced by where and how we consume media, risk excluding Millennial audiences from important conversations if we do not actively engage them in their native digital ecosystems. Thankfully, I see a different future.