Engagement | Sara Yeo
“Engagement for me often takes the form of engagement with friends on social media—things like viewing, liking, sharing, and retweeting. I want to understand how and why people develop the opinions that they hold about scientific topics, so understanding how they engage with and consume information is a part of why I include that concept in my work.”
2018 Interview Highlights:
What does the term “engagement” mean to you?
I think the term is really broad in its use in a lot of spaces. My flavor of engagement might differ from others because of its focus on media; I look at engagement with science on different types of media, particularly the social interactive forms of media.
How do you assess or measure engagement?
I don’t necessarily measure engagement as part of assessment. But as a researcher, my focus is on the mechanistic side of things. So when I operationalize it, I think about social normative cues around engagement, such as the retweets and the likes. For example, in an experiment that we’re conducting, we’re going to change the number of retweets to a large number or a very small number and see how those affect outcome variables.
What led you to study engagement?
I study science communication, but more specifically I think about how people form attitudes and opinions from the science information that they might encounter in media. So engagement for me often takes the form of engagement with friends on social media—things like viewing, liking, sharing, and retweeting. I want to understand how and why people develop the opinions that they hold about scientific topics, so understanding how they engage with and consume information is a part of why I include that concept in my work.
What are some of your specific projects where engagement was a central concept?
I’m currently working on a project related to humor in science communication. My collaborators and I are focusing on how scientists or people who communicate science use humor online. There are two parts of the project. One part is to quantify and characterize the types of humor that we might encounter online, so it’s content analysis of humor and the hashtags related to science humor. We are focusing on Twitter and Instagram right now. That’s where the engagement part comes in: how many retweets and likes various communications receive and how that changes how we think about those particular issues. Then the follow-up part is to conduct a survey and an experiment examining not only the types of humor but also the engagement, the retweets (or the favorites in the case of Twitter). We’re looking at how that affects any attitudinal outcomes.
Why do you think engagement matters for science communication?
One of the reasons why it really matters is that we have to have some metrics for the success of science communication. At least, we need to start to evaluate our communication of science. Engagement can be an important one of these metrics. For my work, why I am interested in engagement and why I think it matters is that engagement in the form of social interaction can influence our attitudes, our perceptions, the risks we take, and things like that. That’s why engagement matters to me, from a researcher’s perspective.
What are the big questions for science communication over the next 10 years when it comes to engagement?
I have just been thinking recently that if you’re interested in science communication, it’s not obvious where to go to find information about that. We really don’t have that place. So I think that some of the infrastructure is still in its infancy, in terms of both research and practice. We also need structure within that, and we need more interaction and dialogue about science communication between researchers and practitioners. We should be cocreating these projects. How can I, as a researcher, help practitioners with this communication? How can I help them with the empirical research part of it? Those are the questions I think we should tackle.
Do we have enough research on the types of advice we can give to communicators?
As a researcher, I always feel like we don’t have enough research on that. But I think from a practical standpoint, I want to be able to say something about what you can and cannot do. So I think there are some rather basic pieces of advice that we can give, which a lot of training workshops already give. But giving real issue-specific advice is trickier. I think all issues are going to differ in how you communicate them, because the nature of the issues are different. That research needs to be done, and it needs to be done with the input of practitioners, because they are confronted with the challenges of communicating that. I could make up and carry out an experiment that I’m interested in, but if it doesn’t really help anyone, it’s not useful.