VidCon 2012: Community-grown science communicators smoking’ it!

by Andrew Maynard on June 29, 2012

I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement.

After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this:

Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program.

I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth.

In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a storm! Think about that – when was the last time you saw a physicist commanding the rapt attention of around 7,000 people in a live show?  Over the past year, Henry has shot up to over 300,000 YouTube subscribers and regularly gets several hundred thousand views on his videos.  His secret?  I suspect it’s in part due to his skills as an educator and the simplicity of his delivery – this the classic “chalk and talk; and a damn good teacher” model transported to YouTube, and it works!

(Minutephysics is one of the few YouTube channels my son watches regularly btw)

This afternoon, Henry was joined by Derek Muller (veritasium) and Destin (Smarter Every Day) to talk about physics on YouTube in a breakout session.  Also in the room were Vi Hart (Mathemusician on YouTube, and currently with the Khan Academy) and Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos and a ton of other science communication projects).  All have an enviable reach on YouTube and videos that get tens to hundreds of thousands of hits.

The room was packed to overflowing.  I’d guess that there were around 150 or so VidCon attendees there, which believe me is impressive in a breakout session when a gazillion other things are going on.  (I think last time I spoke at a major conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, you were lucky if you got 50 people to your breakout!)  And the audience were fully engaged, with the session teetering on the edge of a physics Q&A session the whole time.

Three things in particular struck me in this room predominantly filled with young people – many of them young women:

  1. There’s a hunger for science knowledge and insights amongst these folk;
  2. The world is changing, and this new breed of community-grown science communicators are leaving more conventional approaches to science communication in the dust!
  3. As a science community, if we want to engage and connect with people outside our field more effectively, we need to be actively partnering these YouTube science stars rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Tomorrow we have a breakout session on education with Henry Reich, Brady Haran, Hank Green (SciShow), John Green (CrashCourse) and Mike Rugnetta (PBS Idea Channel).  Another science-heavy lineup that again emphasizes the growing importance of YouTube and its grass-roots science communication/engagement community.

Hank may not have read my blog from last year on upping the science at VidCon, but he certainly got the message it seems!

Update:  In my haste to post, I forgot to mention BrainSTEM – an unconference of science YouTubers held in Ontario Canada a couple of days before VidCon.  The place to be if you want to experience the cutting edge of online scicoms entrepreneurship.  Here’s a flavor from veritasium: