Online Science Communicator: who he is, what he does and how to become one

Have you ever heard of the figure of the online science communicator“? It is the latest evolution of a historical profession that aims to make science more understandable and easier for the general public.

The science communicator can be a scientist, a researcher, a science journalist, a scholar, or a subject matter expert. He is a person who puts himself at the service of society, using his knowledge to respond to people’s desire for knowledge.

Its importance and notoriety increased greatly during the pandemic. If you too have searched for information on Sars-CoV-2 and on Covid-19, you have probably read, seen, or listened to at least one piece of content created by a science communicator or created in collaboration with him.

The role of online science outreach actually goes beyond simply communicating science. Today, those who do this job, besides being experts in their field, must also know how to communicate and relate effectively with people on the web. He must also be able to shed light on the sea of information on the web, which is all too often inaccurate, incorrect, and of little scientific value.

To better understand what an online science communicator does, I turned to one of our country’s leading science communicators, Dario Bressanini. An enlightening contribution to understanding both the relevance of a background in science communication and the importance of adapting popularization to the online world.

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Who is and what does an online science communicator do?

Ezzuela Zarantonello Wex Content

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniA popularizer, such as myself, is first and foremost a science communicator. That is to say, a person who explains science to the general public, i.e., a much wider audience than those who read scientific articles,

An online presence is indispensable for those who do this work. But “being online” only refers to the type of tool one uses. To be clearer: first, you become a science popularizer, learning to explain science, the latest discoveries or very old ones, showing science applied to everyday life (as in my case), then you use the Internet. Declining it in various ways depends on the audience one wants to reach and the objectives.

Ezzuela Zarantonello Wex Content

What role does digital play in your work?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniDigital is fundamental to my work. I started out as a communicator on paper, writing science articles, which I still do, in “Le Scienze”, the first monthly science magazine in Italy.

The big success actually came later, with the blog. The blog was the first expression of digital, through which people could speak to the world, telling what they wanted without having to go through a publishing house, a newspaper, and so on.

My blog, “Science in the Kitchen,” started in 2007 and was an immediate success. It “launched” me and allowed me to write books and build a small community that slowly grew.

Thanks to this, I became convinced that with the advent of the web and the whole connected world, a series of new perspectives could be opened up—and indeed have been opened up. Digital has therefore allowed me to do something that was previously impossible for me. I owe everything to digital.

And thanks to the blog, I have learned a great lesson: you always have to “sniff out” all the new things that come online. So often, when a new social comes along, I test it to see if it’s right for me. It’s a fast-paced world, so you always have to keep up, but it gives you a huge opportunity.

Ezzuela Zarantonello Wex Content

Are people more interested in science since it is disseminated online?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniI would say that thanks to the Internet, there are more people who have discovered that science is interesting. They are interested in understanding both how it works, i.e., the scientific method, the reasoning behind it, and the procedures, and in seeing how it applies in real life. We have seen this in recent months with the pandemic and, now, with the vaccine.

Online communication makes it possible to reach an audience that was previously unreachable. So it is not so much the people who are more interested; it is simply the number of people who have realized that science is exciting, something that can no longer be conveyed in Italy with the more classic media. Apart from Piero Angela, in fact, I cannot recall more recent examples of science being popularized to a very wide audience.

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On which digital channels are you present? Who do you address?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniI am subscribed to practically all the various channels, even TikTok, although I don’t think I will use it. My blog is still active and alive, although the era of blogs has passed. I use it as a repository and to relate to a small community of devotees who prefer to discuss it here.

Until a couple of years ago, I used Facebook. Then, over the years, I noticed that there was a noticeable aging of the people on this social networking site. It was also becoming more and more difficult to maintain discussions.

Today, Facebook has become a kind of ‘venting ground’, where the so-called “boomers” have lowered the quality of the discussions. I, on the other hand, wanted, and still want, to reach a younger group of listeners and readers. That is why I decided to follow my son’s advice and go where the young people are today: Instagram and YouTube. So I opened my YouTube channel and my Instagram profile, and now, here, I am very active.

I interface with two different, non-overlapping audiences. On YouTube, I have almost half a million subscribers, which for a science channel is a crazy thing; on Instagram, I have 350 thousand followers. All this allows me to reach a very large audience.

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What kind of relationship do you have with your audience?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniDoes it stimulate you to create new content?

Yes, absolutely. The key to being successful as a science communicator is to establish a direct relationship with those who follow us. This is the case for me and for many of my colleagues who use digital media to disseminate in different fields.

To do this, you need to invest a lot of time. I dedicate about 1 or 2 hours a day to responding to various messages, both direct and public, written under videos or posts on Instagram.

The public rewards interaction. You cannot behave like a journalist writing on paper who does not expect readers to comment. On digital, it is different; comments cannot be ignored. Success does not come from being online; the human component is fundamental in order to create synergy with those who follow you.

I listen a lot to what is asked of me to understand which topics might be of interest and which are not. I base a lot of the things I talk about on what I am told.

Those who follow you must know that you are listening to them. Otherwise, you can have a beautiful site with the best special effects in the world, but you won’t be able to build the community, which is the real strength of the Internet.

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Has social media changed the way you do science outreach?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniYes and no; depending on where I operate, I use a different communication register. Let me explain myself better. I still write articles on paper, as I did 15 years ago.

On the other hand, with other tools, I have to adapt to the type of language, including visual language, characteristic of each one.

If I make a video on YouTube, I cannot go as in-depth into a topic as I can in an article or, even better, in a book. A video of mine should tend to last 10–15 minutes, 18 minutes maximum, and I only have to include one concept.

I know that in videos, the attention span is shorter, so I can’t do too much-complicated thinking. I have to select things to say, and I have to say them by adapting my language to the type of platform.

If in the book I use a more technical and precise language, in a video I can afford, and I do it on purpose, to use simple, technically incorrect words. An example I often give is this: ice, in thermodynamic and chemical terms, is said to melt when it turns into water. But often, in everyday language, we say it melts.

This is wrong, but it does not matter because I am interested in the concept and not the term; there will be time to use precise names.

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How do I become an online science communicator?

online science communicator photo dario bressaniniTo become an online science communicator, one must first become a science communicator.

Science communication is a subset of the more general field of communication and has its own rules. So a person first has to learn what it means to popularize science, which means not only being able to explain a complex scientific topic but also learning how to use language and analyzing who is on the other side.

You cannot do like the typical scientist, who speaks using the same technical and difficult language he uses at a scientific congress, because after two seconds, people get lost. In popularization, the audience has to be captured.

To become a popularizer, there are courses, including a master’s in science communication, both at universities and in private. And most already have an online component, which is indispensable now for popularizing science.

One has to adapt to the evolutions of the online world, but also evaluate them carefully. If you want to become an online science communicator, I recommend opening an Instagram page or a YouTube channel. And not to underestimate the new possibilities offered by the web.

Twitch, for example, is now very fashionable and growing fast. I suggest avoiding opening a blog or a Facebook page instead. It is a waste of time, both for technical reasons and because of the type of audience. On Facebook, you reach people aged 40 and over, while the young people are elsewhere.

Disseminating science today, as you will have realized, requires knowledge that goes far beyond mere scientific knowledge.

It has indeed become increasingly important for a science communicator to be online because only then can he reach his audience effectively and quickly. And the data substantiate this fact: during the March 2020 lockdown, Italians’ social media usage alone witnessed a 31% surge in terms of time spent (source: Comscore).

So if you want to become an online science communicator, you will need to know both the rules of good science communication and how to use digital communication media and strategies. And if, in the first case, it will be sufficient for you to pursue a master’s degree in science communication, in the second case,

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