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Go When the Audience Does

New research shows strong seasonal patterns to public interest in wildlife and environmental topics, with important implications for science communicators.

April 24, 2019

Macroscope Communications

When was the last time you looked up interesting facts about turkeys to impress your dinner guests? Maybe you’re so un-nerdy that you’ve never done this, but if you’re like most Americans, you’re more likely to talk about and be interested in turkeys around Thanksgiving than most other times of the year. New research found similar seasonal spikes in Wikipedia lookups for thousands of science and environment topics in more than 200 languages! For science communicators who want to more effectively communicate their area of expertise, this means that we need to not only follow the old cliché of “go where the audience is,” but should also consider when the audience is thinking about our area of expertise!

Mittermeier, J. C., U. Roll, T. J. Matthews, and R. Grenyer. 2019. A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. PLoS Biology 17(3): e3000146.

It isn’t just holidays that influence when people look up science and environment pages on Wikipedia. “In at least some cases they are probably being driven by interactions with the natural world,” says lead author John Mittermeier, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford’s school of geography and the environment. “These patterns can correspond to patterns in nature, like the migratory movements of birds! Knowing about these temporal variations can be relevant to conservation practitioners in a few ways. If you are running an outreach campaign, coordinating its timing with an existing spike in interest might be one way to maximize interest. Alternatively, if you wanted to highlight a pattern such as migration or the seasonal blooming of flowers, using Wikipedia in this way could be helpful to figure out which species would be the best flagships for those phenomena.”

Such seasonal patterns may be intuitive in some cases, but they’re important to be aware of for anyone hoping to maximize the impact of their public engagement. “Audiences care more about things that are relevant to their lives,” says Rachel Pendergrass, the founder of Science Art Fusion science communication consulting. “When those topics are relevant, If you can make it easy on your audience to find clear, accessible information, you're not only getting your message out there, you're also providing a valuable service to your audience, something that may just lead to a more lasting, trusting relationship with them.”

Shark researchers (such as this article’s author) have long capitalized on the temporary spike in public interest in sharks associated with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week to get our expert scientific advice to the public. “During Shark Week and gearing up to it, my goal is to be part of the conversation,” says Victoria Vásquez, a graduate student at Pacific Shark Research Center who actively uses social media and organizes in-person events geared toward public ocean-science education. “Since Shark Week receives wide attention every year, I think of it as sort of a 'Trojan Horse' opportunity. I use this time of year as an opportunity to reach an audience that likes Shark Week, but isn't necessarily the same audience that engages with ocean-related interests on a regular basis.”

These results are useful not only for scientists interested in outreach, but for those studying public understanding of the environment. “It shows that people are often paying attention to events in the natural world around them, which I think is a positive sign for conservation,” Mittermeier said. “As these data sets grow over time, we could potentially use changes in them to gain insight into how human attitudes toward species are changing.”

If any scientists or educators are interested in looking for seasonal spikes in Wikipedia searches for pages in their area of expertise, a detailed explanation of where the authors got their data and how they analyzed it is available in the paper’s supplementary online materials.

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