When I think back to my first encounter with scholarly communication, I hear the theme song from the Knoff Hoff show playing directly in my head. Every generation probably has its own first memories of science and where, how or by whom it was communicated. So while I think of Joachim Bublath on the Knoff Hoff show, others will think of @diewissenschaftlerin on TikTok, at least if we briefly focus on the German-speaking world for this blogpost. Furthermore, scholarly communication in the following always refers to external scholarly communication, i.e. the communication of science beyond the specialist community.
Scholarly communication has always changed. This applies to its topics as well as the media used, the groups of people communicating, and the formats used. What was, what is, what is coming, what is going, what is staying, and what is coming back in scholarly communication? These questions are so big that it would take more than one blog post to address them. Still, I want to approach them for at least a few aspects of media and scholarly communication. So let’s talk a bit about auditory and audiovisual media in scholarly communication from TV shows to YouTube videos to Twitch streams.
When is the time?
Television shows, such as the scholarly communication formats Knoff-Hoff-Show or Die Sendung mit der Maus, are part of linear television, also called broadcasting. Here, individual shows are combined into a television program that is broadcast and received simultaneously. A television program is therefore consumed synchronously. It is an editorially produced linear audiovisual offering, the course of which cannot be influenced by the consumer (Karstens, 2020). Whether the programs are broadcast live or as recordings is initially independent of this. Consumers must be sitting at the right terminal at the right time and select the right station in order to watch the program of their choice. By analogy, radio is an editorially compiled radio program that is broadcast as a linear audio offering and received simultaneously.
For both media, consumers must watch or listen to the broadcasts synchronously with the broadcast and therefore sit at their respective devices at the same time. Individual local recordings are excluded, and the same applies to repeats as to initial broadcasts – you have to be on the right device at the right time and select the right station.
The trend toward non-linear offerings in both auditive and audiovisual media has progressed further and further in recent years (Statista, 2020). We are not talking about storage media such as CDs, DVDs or Blu-rays, whose use is declining, but about streaming. This is content that is made available via the Internet for individual and time-independent retrieval. Streaming is therefore consumed asynchronously. If we think of scholarly communication, video streaming and podcasts are the most relevant asynchronous media, comparable to television and radio (Fox et al., 2021, Table 1). Here, the boundaries partially merge and video streaming in this context can also be understood as audiovisual content in social media, since audiovisual content is also available there on demand, i.e., as video on demand. We are therefore not only talking about streaming services and media libraries, but also about YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
In contrast to television and radio, video streaming and podcasts not only do require consumers to watch or listen to them at the same time as they are posted on the respective platform, but all consumers are sitting in front of their respective devices at different times. Well-known scholarly communication formats of this non-linear offer are the YouTube channel maiLab, the podcast Methodisch inkorrekt and the already mentioned TikTok channel @diewissenschaftlerin. In the asynchronous provision of the initially synchronously broadcast television program Quarks in the media library, one enters a mixed field.
Who is communicating?
Science is communicated by many different groups of people. In addition to active researchers who communicate directly, there is also institutional communication by research institutions and science journalism. A rough distinction can be made here between communication from science and communication about science (Bonfadelli et al., 2017).
Thanks to the rise of social media and their distribution, every person and institution can now not only consume content, but also produce it themselves in a very low-threshold manner. Whereas for television, radio, media libraries and streaming services, a selection of programs and appearing persons is made editorially by those responsible for them, social media offer everyone a potential stage. The choice of who is to be the featured person is usually a personal decision, since the content is user-generated.
Thanks to these developments and the fact that researchers are increasingly expected to actively communicate science themselves (Rose et al., 2020), more and more researchers are bringing their research or science in general directly to the public. In addition to well-known researchers who have large accounts – in terms of the number of the following – there are therefore countless medium-sized and small accounts of researchers. In a 2017 study, nearly 46,000 scholarly communicating accounts on Twitter were identified and analyzed (Ke et al., 2017). Of these, about 39% had fewer than 200, about 12% had more than 1,000, and only about 1% had more than 10,000 following (own calculations based on freely available raw data from the study). What is particularly exciting is that through and in social media, more and more non-researchers are communicating science. This phenomenon can be seen on YouTube, among other places (Boy et al., 2020). While Citizen Science is currently in strong focus, this phenomenon of Citizen Science Communication, if we call it that here, has been less discussed.
How do we get into the conversation?
As far as the possibility of activating, involving, interacting or influencing the consumer is concerned, the audiovisual and auditory media mentioned offer different possibilities.
It is possible to influence a radio or television program at any time by changing the station, but the possibilities usually end there. However, there are always formats that overcome this, starting with the ZDF wish film in the 80s. The possibility of actively influencing individual broadcasts or aspects of them, i.e., the integration of interactive components (Franzen et al., 2015), has also existed and continues to exist: from televoting in live shows to the hall bets of Wetten, dass..? to the telephone talk radio program Domian. The latter was a partially combined format for radio and television. Involvement and influence on radio content has always been different than on television, through music requests and live moderation.
The term social TV attempts to capture, among other things, how viewers can interact with each other via social media by consuming a television program simultaneously (Buschow & Schneider, 2015). But interaction can also occur in a time-delayed manner, especially when a television program is consumed synchronously by one part of the viewers and asynchronously by another part via the media library, such as the example of Quarks mentioned earlier. Jan Böhmermann has perfected this link in Neo Magazin Royale to such an extent that the respective “hashtag of the week” can even be found in the episode list on Wikipedia. Another particularly interesting aspect to note in the context of social TV is that interaction or influence is almost only possible through media breaks, such as the use of telephony or social media via a second screen (Buschow & Schneider, 2015).
But let’s turn back to scholarly communication and now also to asynchronous offerings. In the Methodically Incorrect podcast, listeners comment and discuss asynchronously via the website and social media. Often aspects from this asynchronous communication are picked up in later podcast episodes, or there are audio feeds of comments. In addition, listeners can influence individual podcast contents via experiment suggestions or references to particularly bizarre esoteric products, among other things. What is taken up and thus passed on to all listeners is ultimately decided by the two podcasters.
With asynchronous offerings via social media, interaction can generally take place without a media break. Although comments and discussions on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok are textual, while the content is audiovisual, they are part of the platform and linked to the respective content.
Let’s switch briefly to the perspective of the producers. In the case of asynchronous offerings, the producers can prepare, research, develop a schedule, and record the video or podcast undisturbed, either in its entirety or in small stages, and correct errors. It’s pre-produced. Interaction takes place downstream, both between the consumers and with the producers.
In a study whose data was collected in 2020, researchers investigated which formats and content of scholarly communication on Instagram and TikTok generate a particularly high level of interaction and what exactly this looks like in each case: What do users watch in full, what do they share, and what do they get into discussions about (Habibi & Salim, 2021). While the results are undoubtedly exciting and helpful for the development of asynchronous scholarly communication on these platforms – I explicitly recommend reading them here – the study cannot make any statements about the still relatively new synchronous formats on these platforms: Instagram Live and TikTok Live. So let’s take a look at precisely these formats.
What will come back and what will be different?
The following table shows the various media and offerings, including examples, and divides them into four quadrants based on the dimensions of time (synchronous/asynchronous) and composition (editorial/user-generated) (based on Jensen, 2008). Compared to the media discussed so far, livestreaming via services such as Twitch or Clubhouse fills the last quadrant. It should be noted that this classification does not represent a hard distinction. For example, in the case of user-generated media, the platforms overlap and Zoom livestreams are more often handled like lectures broadcast into the digital realm followed by a Q&A session.
Livestreams are consumed synchronously, but they are not put together editorially and it is not determined editorially who is allowed to broadcast, but the content is user-generated. Livestreaming thus brings back something that some people already saw slowly disappearing with linear television: people tune in at the same time and consume audio and audiovisual media synchronously. One could almost think that social TV is returning, only this time there are no editorial decisions about what is broadcast. Perhaps Twitch and YouTube were even on the minds of respondents in 2013 when it was suggested that “this development will favor new players, lower existing barriers to entry, and create new competitive relationships” (Buschow et al., 2013).
The important difference to broadcasting is the generally no longer existing media breaks in interaction. Whereas with television and radio, interaction takes place via a second screen, with livestreaming on YouTube, Twitch or TikTok, interaction can take place on the platform and coupled with the respective content. For example, people comment in real time when others show how they play computer games live on Twitch or check in with Clubhouse and can have their say. This leads to lively discussions among consumers, especially in formats with text chat. Another effect of the lack of media breaks is that the producers can now also see live what is being commented on and discussed. This is in contrast to classic lectures followed by a question and answer session. Questions can now be asked or answered directly, topics can be taken up immediately and polls can be started. This takes the possibilities for interaction and influence to another level. The spectrum can be fully exploited from lean-back to community (Buschow et al., 2013, Figure 3).
Let’s think back to the Quarks program, which is available for streaming asynchronously in the media library in addition to synchronous broadcasting. Something similar can also apply to livestreaming. Without any further effort, YouTube livestreams can be made available as video on demand for an unlimited period of time, on TikTok up to 90 days, on Twitch between 14 to 60 days, and on Instagram only 24 hours.
Let’s make it a little more clear and look at two examples of scholarly communication on Twitch. The following focus on Twitch is no coincidence, because I am involved in one of the formats myself.
Now live on Twitch
The two colleagues from the podcast Methodisch inkorrekt started livestreaming on Twitch more than a year ago. They were not the only ones at the start of the Corona pandemic in the spring of 2020, as the following figure – created on the basis of raw data – shows (Twitch, 2021).
Twitch offers every person or group the possibility to create an account and start their own channel at any time. The Optisch inkorrekt format is archived on YouTube as video on demand. Shortly after the launch, the associated community Discord server was created. Discord, like Twitch, originated in the gaming environment. A Discord server is a digital space operated by a community with voice and text channels, whereby the voice channels also allow video conferencing and screen sharing. Here, the community can exchange, meet, discuss and grow together, away from the live streams.
Forschungsstrom, the scholarly communication format on Twitch in which I myself am involved, does not yet have a Discord server; instead, Lambert, Henning, and I are increasingly relying on interaction in the livestream itself and using the networking possibilities of Twitch. The live chat is a central anchor point. This is where discussions regularly arise among viewers, and comments relevant to the discussion are picked up and highlighted in the stream. In addition, we streamers chat with each other when we’re not talking and share important links and information so that all viewers can read, research, and experiment along with us.
At the end of the livestream you raid. In a raid, you send your own viewers to the livestream of another channel. You move together as a community and thus network with other streamers and communities. Here again, the comparability to television becomes apparent. Instead of an editorial program, however, the streamers themselves create a kind of program or channel sequence.
Let’s return to live interaction and put ourselves in the perspective of the producers. Compared to pre-produced streaming offers, we are entering a much less controlled and predictable terrain. Discussions that arise in the chat, questions that arise, and even controversies arise live and enable a direct reaction. The preparation and processing of topics and content is thus quite different in places. Other human qualities also become much more important, such as spontaneity, sovereignty and improvisational talent. You have to be prepared for experiments to go wrong, for people to directly criticize or attack facts or statements, and even for someone to drop in who knows more about a topic than you do. All these situations and many more can certainly be dealt with in an elegant and enriching way; one should only be aware of these possibilities and be prepared accordingly.
It gets really exciting when we combine live interaction with the principles of Open Science (Open Source Alliance, 2018, Figure). For example, if scientific articles are not only cited and discussed by the producers, but everyone has equal access to them by sharing the link in the chat, or if projects are presented whose research data everyone can look at and analyze even more closely, the way is paved for deeper discussions. For example, it has happened more than once on Forschungsstrom that viewers have searched for other sources or further information in parallel and thus provided answers that we producers could not research so quickly live in the stream or thus spontaneously presented us with challenges. Asking questions, researching and finding answers together on-the-fly not only conveys science, but also aspects of scientific work and raises the interaction more to eye level.
We need to keep an eye on the challenges and potentials that livestreaming brings for scholarly communication, whether on TikTok, Clubhouse or Twitch. Perhaps we are on the way to more interaction, more community building, more openness and eye level. In any case, I’m excited and looking forward to enjoying scholarly communication again in sync with others, developing a sense of community, and engaging live with people and communities on topics we’re passionate about together.
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