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The (potential) rise of Reddit in science communication

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Reddit, the website considered by many – including itself – to be the front page of the internet, is a force to be reckoned with. Essentially a digital notice board, people post links to content they find interesting, and then users comment and discuss the content accordingly.

However, this is a bulletin board with a difference: with around 36 million user accounts, and 234 million monthly unique visits, Reddit is potentially the most popular noticeboard ever, and could be the next frontier for science communicators everywhere.

Mainstream journalists are already sitting up and taking note of the site, with popular content from Reddit populating online news stories on websites such as the Independent, the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail. At the same time, Reddit hosts thread after thread of popular news stories to share with their ever-growing online audience. The website helps news, including popular science pieces, disseminate through to the mainstream news outlets more and more often.

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Stories about content posted by Reddit users is becoming increasingly popular with mainstream media, especially the Daily Mail

There are communities on the site centred on shared interests, and they span from the mundane to the outright bizarre. There is already thriving community of science enthusiasts on Reddit, with one thread on the website (known as a subreddit) dedicated to sharing science news articles or journal publications. The subreddit r/science, has nearly 10 million subscribers, and last year received on average three million unique visitors each month, with some of the busier days seeing upwards of more than a quarter of a million views.

Volunteer moderators oversee postings to the page, and have stated that overarching goal of r/science is to “bring science to a level that can be understood and appreciated by people from every educational background”. In an interview with the moderators back in 2013, they said that they feel “like we have a unique opportunity to make a space to really celebrate good, unsensationalized, reference-packed scientific journalism”.

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The subreddit r/science contains posts to research papers, news articles and also question and answer sessions (known as Ask Me Anything) with scientists

In the past, r/science has paired with journals such as Nature to bring together editors and subscribers of the thread, encouraging them to discuss openly and with authority the research they are writing about and any queries the users of the thread may have.

One of their most popular features is their Ask Me Anything Series (AMA): users of the site can submit questions directly to whoever posts asking for questions, who will then answer publicly, stimulating debate and attracting sometimes thousands of comments. The most popular of these was by Stephen Hawking; he answered nine questions, and the thread attracted nearly 10,000 comments as a result.

Some science communicators have also taken centre stage for an AMA session: science writer Celia Elliott provided advice for researchers wishing to communicate their research more clearly, while only last December Randy Olson, “scientist turned filmmaker”, answered questions on how to encourage more scientists to embrace storytelling. Ian Sample, science editor at the Guardian also did an AMA last January, answering questions on his new book, Massive, about the search for the Higgs boson. All have proven popular, which shows there is definitely an audience who is engaged in science communication and want to discuss how to spread their enthusiasm for science further.

The community are advocates of science communication, disseminating research to the masses and are a keen eye as any for picking through the latest research papers. If scientists themselves are already engaging with Reddit directly, and journalists are pulling content from the front page to put in national newspapers, science communicators should be taking more notice of Reddit too.

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Stephen Hawking has posted to the site, alongside other researchers through to politicians, including President of the United States Barack Obama (photo: hawking.org.uk)

Posing this question to a few people who work in public engagement, some suggested that with so many social media platforms to nurture, adding another into the mix can seem overwhelming. Others said that the interface didn’t seem as user-friendly as they would like, while some just weren’t sure what the site was or how it worked. Scanning through r/science in particular, much of the content still tends to be links to articles and research, and no discussion around the wider world of public engagement of science.

This could be seen as an opportunity for those in science communication to share their projects, ideas and creative content, with the potential to reach an entirely new, global audience, while also harvesting inspiration from what is making them tick too. It’s also a very accessible platform: once you tackle the learning curve of knowing how to use it, you’re potentially tapping into an audience of millions.

For a learned society or institution like ours that has members that want to share their work with the world, an AMA on r/science may be the perfect way to do it. A completely new thread could be populated with more targeted, public engagement content: there already is an r/scicomm page, but it is pretty desolate at the moment and could do with some populating. Reddit’s diversity and reach means there are nearly infinite ways it could aid public engagement.

If Reddit just seems too overwhelming, consider just visiting the page, seeing what is popular on the site, and go from there. It’s a great way to find out about the latest news and trends in science if nothing else, and can be an ideal starting point to find some inspiration for your next project or piece of writing. If the worst comes to worst, you just end sharing pictures of your cat to strangers on the other side of the world, there are still definitely less productive ways to spend your time on the internet.

Philippa Skett

Philippa Skett

Media Officer at Institute of Physics
Philippa is the IOP's media officer, who oversees all of the social media associated with the organisation and also deals with external press enquirers.
Philippa Skett
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2 thoughts on “The (potential) rise of Reddit in science communication

  1. Hi Angela, it is, although one of the joys of reddit is to find a subreddit you find most interesting, then scroll through to find out things you didn’t even know you didn’t know about in the first place! r/science is a great place to start, but with a subreddit for nearly every subject, you can usually find a whole community discussing nearly every subject under the sun…and if you can’t, you can always sign up and start your own!

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