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Youtubers in science

Video channels gain prominence in communicating information on research via the Internet

The voice behind the channel Nerdologia, Atila Iamarino produces videos in his home

personal archives The voice behind the channel Nerdologia, Atila Iamarino produces videos in his homepersonal archives

With the special theory of relativity in 1905, Albert Einstein demonstrated that the energy of an object varies as a function of its mass and velocity. One hundred and eleven years later, the same theory was used to put an end to a controversy that has inspired comic book fans for decades: which superhero has the strongest punch? In one of the first videos published by the channel Nerdologia (Nerdology), on YouTube, biologist Atila Iamarino suggests that it is the Flash, and not the Hulk or Superman. In a humorous tone, citing comic books and physics formulas, Iamarino explains that to achieve a speed near that of light, Flash would be able to land a punch with an impact equivalent to the explosion of 4 million nuclear fusion bombs, releasing enough energy to set fire to all of earth’s atmosphere. The video went viral, meaning that it spread quickly on the Internet and had over 1 million views.

“We managed to reach a wide audience, not necessarily interested in science,” says Iamarino, who has just completed post-doctoral research at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, University of São Paulo (ICB-USP) and plans to devote himself to science communication. “This was possible because scientific concepts can dialog with an audience whose interests are different, like comic books, movies and games,” he adds.

In recent years, video channels on YouTube (also called vlogs) that address science and technology have gained popularity as a medium for science communication via the Internet. In countries like the United States, young people now known as Youtubers produce short science videos, running about 5 minutes each, often using few resources, that in some cases have received more than 200 million views. The phenomenon is characterized by the engagement of a young audience, including children and teenagers.

Owners of the video channels are mostly early-stage researchers or undergraduate and graduate students. “Vlogs are reaching a more diverse audience, unlike science blogs, which are more restricted to the public interested in science,” says Rafael Evangelista, a researcher in the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism at the University of Campinas (Labjor-Unicamp). According to him, this is because the video channels dealing with science use an informal language, similar to that used in entertainment, making references to the pop culture universe represented by TV series, for example.

In March 2016, Brazilian Youtubers launched an initiative to strengthen this model in Brazil. It is called ScienceVlogs Brasil (SvBr), an online network of 21 channels of science videos. The idea was put into practice after a meeting held in early 2016 in Campinas. “We realized the importance of uniting around a common goal: making the channels better known to the general public and encouraging the emergence of new channels,” explains biologist Rafael Bento Soares, one of the creators of SvBr.

The initiative, says Soares, also seeks to ensure the quality of the vlogs. “With a ScienceVlogs quality seal, the user will know that the content is based on good science,” says the biologist, who in January 2016 founded NuminaLabs — a scientific content management company — with colleagues. One of the company’s goals is to manage science video channels and promote partnerships between them and research institutions. According to him, many of these institutions are interested in developing science communication projects, but do not know how. “The Youtubers have experience and could act as service providers by producing videos.”

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Within months, SvBr accumulated nearly 35,000 subscribers on YouTube and became the gateway to channels previously little-known to the public. This is the case of iBioMovies, a biology vlog created in 2012 by high school teacher Vinicius Camargo Penteado, who also developed the platform. “At first the channel had 700 views, and 200 were from my mother,” he jokes. “In 2014, the team that produced the videos with me stopped temporarily, and the project got stuck in limbo.” After linking his channel to the SvBr portal, however, Penteado noted a jump in the number of views. A month ago, he announced that he would return to producing the channel. “I’m excited, although it is hard to do everything alone,” he says.

One of the first Brazilian channels to bring science to YouTube was Manual do Mundo (Manual for the World), created in 2008 by journalist Iberê Thenório and his wife, occupational therapist Mariana Fulfaro. In the videos, the couple discusses scientific content, but not very explicitly, diluting it with experiences, recipes, jokes, magic and other activities. The goal, they say, is to help stimulate public interest in science, but without speaking exclusively about science. The channel has over 5.6 million subscribers, which made Thenório and Mariana Internet celebrities. Today they are invited to appear on TV programs.

Unlike Manual do Mundo, which has a team and sponsors, lonely work with few resources is the reality of most Youtubers. Camila Laranjeira, 23, a master’s student in computer science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), spends most of her free time writing scripts and editing or recording videos for her channel, Peixe Babel (Babelfish), dedicated to robotics. “I do everything alone in my room,” says Laranjeira, who started the channel during her undergraduate days. “I realized that many friends and relatives did not understand basic technological concepts. I created the channel because of my desire to explain things.”

The subjects covered in the weekly videos are chosen based on suggestions from friends. Laranjeira mentions that much of her audience is made up of undergraduate students, children and teenagers. One of her first popular videos was entitled Iron Man’s real life, a reference to the Marvel Comics hero. “The video is not about Iron Man himself, but about an exoskeleton developed in the United States that will be used by soldiers in combat. If I had used the term ‘exoskeleton’ in the title, it would certainly put off many people, since it is technical jargon,” says Laranjeira.

Despite the innovative character of Youtubers, with their references to pop culture and lack of formality, Rafael Evangelista of Labjor-Unicamp notes that many of the science channels still follow a model that has been in place for nearly two decades and that still underlies much science communication to a certain extent. This is the so-called deficit model, according to which the population has a lack of knowledge that can only be filled through education by scientists. In this model, explains Evangelista, the public can occupy a passive position, of mere receptor of knowledge, while scientists appear in a position of superiority. “There is the risk of creating one-way, top down communication, as if the population’s lack of knowledge were the result of cognitive impairment. The reality, however, is more complex, and several social and political factors contribute to hindering public access to science,” says Evangelista. Owner of the channel Papo de Biólogo (Chat with a biologist), Vinícius de Paula Ferreira, 23, tries to avoid this way of communicating content in his videos. “I can’t appear as if I were master of the truth. My job is to show how science can be interesting,” says Ferreira, who said he had learned this after working as a guide at the Catavento Cultural science museum, run by the São Paulo State government in downtown São Paulo. “After graduating with a degree in biology, I decided to work towards the popularization of science,” he says. After receiving public acclaim for his work in environmental education, 10 months ago he decided to establish a YouTube channel in which he could talk about exotic animals.

“At first, I made the videos in my room, using a smartphone camera,” says Ferreira, who sometimes would surprise his mother by arriving home with a snake or a scorpion. With the success of the videos, he made a deal with a friend’s production company, and began to produce more elaborate videos, some outdoors. In recent months he has also received invitations to appear on TV programs and give lectures, which have provided him with some financial reward. “The videos are not yet profitable,” says Ferreira. He explains that, for now, only few science Youtubers earn money with their channels, through donations, sponsorship or from YouTube itself, which distributes part of the revenue generated from advertising to content producers. For every 1,000 views, the platform pays a sum that ranges from $0.60 to $5.00, depending on the number of advertisements shown. There are channels focusing on entertainment, games and fashion that publish videos every day and are highly profitable. An example: one of the videos posted by gamer Pedro Rezende, 18, whose YouTube channel provides Minecraft game tips, earned him R$12,300, after 560,000 views.

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While most science channels are just starting in Brazil, countries like the United States provide examples that have become models for those who want to popularize science on YouTube. There, a single science channel can have more than 270 million views, such as Veritasium, created in 2011 by physicist Derek Muller. Considered one of the best references in popular science today, the channel has funding and publishes professionally produced videos that in no way resemble monotonous videotaped classes. For example, to talk about how a nuclear accident can be devastating, Muller traveled to Chernobyl, in Ukraine, and filmed the ruins of homes, hospitals and schools affected by the 1986 accident.

On another popular channel, SmarterEveryDay, American engineer Destin Sandlin filmed his interactions with kangaroos to show how females protect and nurse their young in their pouch. The hilarious video has more than 3 million views. Yet another reference, Minute Physics, created by Henry Reich, uses simple animation to explain complicated physics concepts. The channel has over 3 million subscribers and its videos have been shown on US television programs.

In a study published in 2013 in the journal PNAS, Dominique Brossard, a researcher at the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, says that the lay public increasingly uses the Internet to search for information that cannot be found on traditional news sites. “Scientists themselves are now relying more on social media to communicate with the general public,” writes Brossard. “Young researchers are creating channels for direct communication with the non-specialized public, without the need for intermediaries such as news sites or newspapers.” This phenomenon has been observed for some years in online media like blogs and social networks (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), in which texts written by both journalists and scientists are published almost instantly.

YouTube also hosts science communication initiatives established by the media and institutions, which use the Internet as a way to reach a wider audience. Pesquisa FAPESP has had a video channel on YouTube since 2011. Each month, one or two videos on scientific topics related to the magazine’s articles are published. The channel has almost 9,000 subscribers and over 1 million views. SP Pesquisa, a series of scientific programs broadcast by TV Cultura in partnership with FAPESP, can also be found on YouTube, on the São Paulo State Virtual University (UNIVESP) Channel.

Vinicius Ferreira, Papo de Biólogo: Interactions with exotic animals to attract public attention

personal archives Vinicius Ferreira, Papo de Biólogo: Interactions with exotic animals to attract public attentionpersonal archives

The end of blogs?
A current debate is whether blogs are becoming less relevant because of YouTube channels. “For a long time, blogs were the only form of individual production on the Internet. With the popularity of YouTube and other social media, blogs are no longer the only means for self-expression. I can recommend articles or comment on a subject much faster on Facebook or Instagram, for example, or by recording a short video on Snapchat,” said Atila Iamarino, who still maintains a blog on the Internet, called Rainha Vermelha (Red Queen). According to him, blogs are still necessary when you want to give lengthier, detailed explanations.  The format also makes it easier for the text to be found than on Facebook, he explains.

Rafael Bento Soares, who also coordinates the ScienceBlogs Brasil network of scientific blogs says that blogs are decreasing in popularity. “ScienceBlogs has 48 blogs, of which less than half are active. Some bloggers are migrating to YouTube. And some Youtubers have never had a blog,” he says. Rafael Evangelista, of Unicamp, believes that this new communication model is important because it engages people who want to learn more about science. However, it should be seen as a partial model. “A news report, for example, can present other positions, other views on the complexity of the subject, while a science channel often just presents the point of view of the researcher who speaks in front of the camera. In videos, often it is not clear what is information and what is opinion,” says Evangelista.

To visit the video channels mentioned in the report go toência