A scientist’s guide to social media: YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok
Can you summarize your research findings in less than 200 words? Describe your PhD using nothing but emojis? Dance the "Renegade" while reciting your thesis? While these may not seem like make-or-break skill for an optical engineer or laser scientist, you might be surprised at just how much social media can impact your work.
In the final segment of our series on social media, we cover the most popular visual platforms—YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.
Video is everywhere. You see it on your social media feed, on skyscrapers, on the back of your airplane seat—even podcasts have visual components now. Video market expert Wyzowl reports video consumption has increased during the pandemic: People watch an average of 18 hours of online video per week, an increase of two hours per week compared to 12 months ago.
For scientists seeking a way to communicate their work to the public, video should be a top contender.
University of Chicago PhD candidate Nora Bailey emphasizes the importance of engaging the public: "Your audience [on social media] isn't a conference in your field... the advantages really lie in community-building with other scientists—getting out of the academia bubble and helping people get excited about science in general. Any visibility for your own work is just a nice bonus."
With two billion monthly users, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has never watched or searched for a video on this platform. Typing queries into YouTube is a way people find answers to technical questions. "Many people are visual learners; they absorb information much more easily through a visual platform than through reading," says Cory Boone, lead technical marketing engineer for Edmund Optics.
Findability is key with so many videos to choose from, and since YouTube is owned by Google, you can be sure to find an audience if you provide good meta data and descriptions for your content. Don't be put off if you don't get views right away though. On the SPIE YouTube channel, for example, interviews posted five—even 10—years ago still receive comments and questions.
Starting a YouTube channel can seem daunting at first. Bailey advises: "Just start. Don't wait for the perfect time, the perfect video idea, the perfect filming setup. You're going to be continually learning and improving, so just start now."
Still not convinced you are ready to record? Use one of these simple video ideas: an introduction with information about yourself and your research; a plain-language summary of a publication; or a news-type broadcast, like Bailey's weekly videos, that offers a breakdown of important updates in your field.
Meriame Berboucha, an Imperial College London, PhD student based at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, began using Instagram to break the typical scientist stereotype.
"I decided to start my account because I was the only girl in my physics class when I was seventeen," Berboucha says. "I wanted to bring awareness to more women in physics and share my enthusiasm for the subject."
Through her Instagram feed, she normalizes conversations about being a woman of color in science and mental health, alongside sharing her research at SLAC. Comments on her posts are filled with people thanking her for being transparent about challenges in academia, as well as complimenting her explanations of scientific concepts.
Berboucha recommends trying your hand at Instagram's video-creation tools, Reels and Stories, to offer advice to a problem you've faced during your academic career, or share how to deal with a common challenge. Videos such as these can boost your personal brand, as well as build a professional network.
"I've been invited to speak at schools, conferences, and on podcasts through these platforms," Berboucha says. "I collaborate with members of the community I wouldn't have connected with in my day-to-day life."
The latest buzzworthy social media platform has 689 million monthly users, and 90 percent of them access the app every day. Yes, TikTok is heavily geared toward Gen Z, but Boone said it best: We need to meet people where they are. If the goal is science communication, TikTok is a must-have tool for your outreach toolbox.
"TikTok is a great way to teach students about science in an entertaining way, and hopefully inspire the photonics professionals of the future," Boone says.
To get started, try to recreate your most popular outreach activity at home. Prop up your phone and film yourself conducting the experiment. Talk through the steps directly to the camera, and don't be afraid to take a pause or restate something. Thanks to TikTok's built-in editing, you can go back and trim the video, and even add text overlay. "Shooting and editing on TikTok is very intuitive," Boone says.
Don't have an outreach experiment in mind? "Put your phone in selfie mode and talk to the camera for 60 seconds about something you find interesting," Bailey says. Pair this with relevant hashtags—#ScienceFacts, #PhDLife, #Astronomy, #Lasers—to set yourself up for success.
One pitfall of social media is a fixation on the number of views. Berboucha's advice? "It's not about the numbers or fame—it's about what you do with the platform. If you love what you're posting, then you'll find your community."
"Just be yourself," Bailey says.
Tricks & Tips for Recording Video for Social Media
Can you hear me?
People may forgive poor recording quality, but will skip your video altogether if there is weak audio. Record where your device's microphone will only pick up your voice.
Bonus Tip: Add subtitles whenever possible. YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram all have built-in captioning services.
Make it pop
Experiment with lighting. Put a ring light, lamp without the shade, or a window behind your recording device. Added light makes your video look more polished and professional.
Avoid technical jargon. Language specific to your field, without proper explanation, is a surefire way to get someone to scroll past your video. Try to explain your science as if you were chatting with a friend.
Shake it off
Loosen up in front of the camera. A lack of gestures or vocal inflections comes off as robotic. Try singing or doing some jumping jacks before you start recording. Remember, you are explaining your science. Have fun with it.
Follow these STEM content experts across social media:
Emily Haworth is the social media manager for SPIE.
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