To improve ecological literacy, I must seduce your friends

ecology wordcloud

My mission statement as an ‘ecology blogger’ has now become – to lure you away from Facebook and Twitter. Just for a minute. To coax you out, I must first seduce your friends. Because you’ll follow them as you ignore me.

Social media can take ecology and conservation to the world. But endless messages on Twitter and Facebook make it hard to leave social media platforms and read shared materials. We all share links without reading them. Sharing without reading may boost empathy among the converted, but it can’t raise ecological literacy.

To raise ecological literacy we need readers, not just sharers, and to encourage people to read, we need enthusiastic endorsements: ‘like this is %^&*ing awesome, read it now’.

Endorsements come from great stories. ‘Information dissemination’ doesn’t cut it. No one shares links to Wikipedia. Our stories have to be captivating, memorable, fun, motivating, accidentally educational and – most of all – short.

Waiting for a new ecology story
‘Sing Write for the kid with the phone who refuses to sing read’ – Amanda Palmer. (Photo: NY Times).

As more and more readers view the web on a mobile phone, each story sets sail on a tiny screen. Short paragraphs, and lots of images, are as important as small words. Every page scroll kills a reader.

Lots of superb communicators pack big science on small screens, using videos, podcasts, images and text. The greater challenge is: how do we impart a corpus of knowledge, an entire discipline, in short, sharp clips? How do we teach ‘Plant Ecology 101’ in 500 word grabs, 2-minute videos and podcasts? More importantly, how do we do this so readers don’t realize what we just did?

Every post needs a hook and juicy content. Every post must stand alone, to be read in isolation or random order. Can we cut, paste and scramble our linear texts to create a kaleidoscope of informative vignettes?

That’s doable. I listened to the awesome podcast Radiolab for years before I realized it was a ‘science show’ (listen to this; you’ll never return). But it is a tall order for an individual. It’s hard to jumble styles and create an unpredictable mix of engaging tales. Writing one good story is hard enough; writing a series of posts so each engages a different set of readers is tough.

Fortunately, we don’t need to do it alone. Every reader collates stories from a multitude of sources: social media, email, RSS feeds, blog subscriptions and more. Each source provides the ingredients for readers to mix, match, savour and share, in any combination they choose.

Don’t hate the media, become the media. – Jello Biafra.

Social media provides a platform to connect the world. We can share unread links among friends and preach to the converted, or we can write to be read and raise ecological literacy. It takes a lot of work to hew a short story from big data, so when you do, make sure to:

  1. Cut it in half, and cut it in half again.
  2. Cull the content, hone the metaphor and nail the narrative.
  3. Meet your accidental, curious and uncommitted audience on their own turf; on their mobile phone.
  4. And seduce every reader – not just to share your work – but to enthusiastically spruik on your behalf, ‘this is %^&*ing awesome, read it now. Right to the very end’.

Update

This post was re-published in CSIRO’s online magazine Ecos in August 2014. You can read the Ecos version, plus many other great articles, here.

The word cloud at the top of this post is based on an image from ecologist Brody Sandel’s web site. The extraordinary mosaic is by the artist Michael Mapes; you can enjoy more of his work here.

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26 thoughts

  1. At last year’s Sydney Writers Festival Tara Moss said that there is no ideal length for a blog post. It depends on the topic you are discussing, some topics require more, some less. The topic of this post has been discussed many times by many different commentators, so it doesn’t need to be long. An issue that is not familiar to readers or is not discussed much online or is contentious may need to be longer. You are right about narrative. Sometimes the effort to restrict the word length can kill the narrative, on other occasions the same effort improves the narrative.

    One of my most popular posts this year was over 2500 words which I generally think is too long for my posts, but on this occasion I thought the subject of the post warranted it.

    I read your posts to the end because they are concise, on interesting subjects and written in an engaging style. I don’t read 1200 words of waffle. I’m quite happy to read a long post on my mobile phone if it is well written.

    And I never share anything on Twitter without reading it first! I want to provide my followers quality information, not junk.

    1. Hello Yvonne, thanks for your comment and thanks for the link to your blog post. It’s a powerful essay and I can see why it was so popular. There are no wasted words there. I hope other readers take the time to read it too. Best wishes Ian

  2. I love your blog, Ian, and always read it to the end, no matter its length or my device. I’m not on facebook or Twitter, but I do email links, and have emailed your blog many times, always with enthusiasm.

    Not only do I love your subject matter and writing style, I love the pictures you choose, and the people you quote. I only know a few Dresden Dolls songs, and here you’ve paraphrased my favourite. And I only have one tattoo, and that is a DK symbol…

    I’m not sure if there’s anything valid there, but you are most welcome to use any of my images in your blog. (instagram.com/ekrayson) I would be honored!

    Emily

    1. Hi Emily, thanks very much for the generous feedback, I’m glad you like the blogs. It’s not often that two cultural references in the one blog both resonate with someone else 🙂 Your photos are stunning. I’ll definitely search through them for future blogs, thanks very much for suggesting them. Best wishes Ian

  3. An interesting post Ian. My experience since going on Twitter is that links to my blog have had virtually no effect on the number of hits. Surprised me somewhat considering the number of Twitter views from people who must have the natural world as an interest.

    1. Hi Duncan, that’s interesting. When I first joined twitter I was very lucky as two ‘super tweeters’- @tim_beshara and @bootstrapES – enthusiastically promoted many of my posts, which increased my blog readership a lot. (Many many thanks to both of them). Some of my posts prove to be a lot more popular than others, and retweets on twitter drive a lot of that popularity. I think a lot of the boost comes when my posts get retweeted to new audiences with different backgrounds, as that way they get exposed to new audiences who wouldn’t otherwise know of them.

      Duncan writes a great natural history blog from Gippsland http://bencruachan.org/blog/ and I’d encourage everyone to follow his posts; you’ll learn lots about plants, birds, moths and more. Best wishes Ian

  4. Hi Ian, I don’t look at word lengths before starting to read a post. If it’s interesting and engaging then I’ll read it to the end. Like Perkinsy above I always read a link before retweeting – I want to know exactly what I’m sharing!

    I follow a blog that has a lot of waffle around the important stuff but it’s very engaging and helps the narrative flow (it’s a hiking blog) – it’s defiantly never less than 500 words and I look forward to each new post. Of course, this style won’t appeal to everyone and isn’t the best format for a more technical blog like yours where conciseness is the key. ‘Acceptable’ word length and reader patience can depend on the style of the blog.

    I read your blog because I want to learn more about ecological principles and ideas, and I’m really glad that you make the time to blog.

    When I read a good blog and want to tweet about it I’ll sometimes just retweet it if the title already says it all, maybe add a hashtag if I can think of a good one and can squeeze it in, or sometimes do as you suggest and tell my (few) followers ‘Fantastic post from @ANother about [topic] #hashtag’.

    Retweeting this post, I’d be tempted to comment ‘another author vacillates over word length for blog post’ which isn’t very fair, I admit (the post was great – it was the questions at the end that sowed the seeds of doubt), and far from a rave review. I’ll come up with something better.

    1. Hi Dayna, thanks for your thoughts. I like asking questions at the end of blogs as it encourage lots of comments and discussions with readers. However I think I’ve made a rod for my own back this time. The blog is really about the need for vibrant popular ecology writing, and – as you point out – doesn’t anguish over word lengths at all. I took it as a given that brevity is best. My final questions have side-lined the comments into a discussion about word lengths, which is a shame, but is understandable and is solely my fault. I’m glad you enjoyed the post nonetheless, best wishes Ian

  5. What you remember is often the last thing you hear/read. The points you make in the post are really good, and I hope people who are writing more technical blogs (than I do) pay attention to the real message of your post. Thanks Ian : )

  6. A NEW QUESTION TO THINK ABOUT… Building on the great responses above, perhaps I can re-steer the discussion in another direction. This post was triggered by my questioning how to write better ecology posts to reach a wide audience – not just for a blog that gets read on a PC or laptop, but increasingly for readers who access information on a tiny screen on a mobile phone. Hence a better question to share information among readers might be – What are great examples that you enjoy, of online educational information – in text, photos, or videos – that work really well on a mobile phone or tablet? What is it about them that makes them work well? What are the best examples that we can all learn from and emulate? Best wishes Ian

    1. A Dave Ashton vegetation profile repeated at same place 20 years apart. It would work. Three lines of text, two images. A complex story told so simply.
      Dave’s Big Ash transects could have told David Lindenmayer where Leadbeater’s Possums lived in the 1950’s. Dave Ashton wasn’t looking for possums but he recorded so much more than plants…

      1. Hi Kate, that’s a fascinating suggestion. I wonder how many readers would know which type of forest some of his profiles were drawn in? Perhaps this could make an interesting competition – guess the forest type and dominant species that a profile was drawn in, followed by a story about what pattern or process the great professor described in his paper. I’ll think more about how the beautiful old profile drawings could be used. Thanks for the idea, best wishes Ian

  7. Hi Ian, You are on the money as usual. As an English teacher I would suggest language and communication have morphed at a speed that would give even the author of ‘Future shock’ a start. Sexy language however often eludes many target audiences. Your blog does an excellent job in reaching a wide audience because, allow me to say, it is in common speak and not weighed down with jargon and terminology.

    I once ran an environmental radio programme ‘Common Ground” which ground to a halt because of this oversight. Specificity leads to the potential for conflict, so it is better to communicate with a view to allow an audience to interpret. Not easy with science!

    Alain de Botton has some suggestions as to how to make content more relevant (see his net newspaper – The Philosophers Mail) but poignantly points to the need in public media to return to rich pictures that inform and not just represent. e.g a picture of Obama in front of the Oval room as opposed to one of him pretending to be shot by a four year old playing in the oval room – which says more about the president?

    1. Hi Runar, yes I agree with your point about detail and specificity. My first drafts are usually over twice as long as the final blog is, and along the way I end up deleting lots of lots of details, as I realise they are distractions rather than key content. As well as jargon, I think numbers can be a big impediment, and I often belatedly realise I’ve got too many numbers or stats summaries in the post, so out they go. As Douglas Adams memorably showed, the take home message is never a number (think ’42’).

      Thanks for the reference to Alain de Botton’s work. I need to read more of his work. I was sent a link yesterday to a blog post he wrote, which you prompted me to read, on communication, which is really good and well worth a read. It’s called ‘Advice for those who want to change the world’ and is very relevant to conservation. http://www.philosophersmail.com/utopia/advice-for-those-who-want-to-change-the-world/ Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  8. “…endless messages on Twitter and Facebook make it hard to leave social media platforms and read shared materials. We all share links without reading them. Sharing without reading may boost empathy among the converted, but it can’t raise ecological literacy.”
    Well said, and an important point. I left FB a long time ago, after realizing it’s a colossal waste of time. Not much of real substance. What you’ve said here is something that I guess I knew, and am guilty of (forwarding something I haven’t finished reading) but the fact that you have articulated it makes me — and others — aware, and I think will make a difference.

    1. Hi Helen, thanks for your comment. I think Twitter and Facebook and the like have great potential to communicate and share ideas, thoughts and information. The trick is how to use them in ways that benefit us all, rather than let them overtake or distract from other important parts of life. Thanks again & best wishes Ian

  9. Hi Ian, Great post, I found a lot to think about.

    I only became engaged with social media recently when I created a blog and have slowly teaching myself the ropes. Its been really interesting examining the insight tools, which show that far greater numbers of people like or favorite a link than actively click on it.

    On my end – I notice there is a strong temptation to instantly share something that I find interesting. But often when I take the time to critically engage with the article and read around the topic, I find that the hook used to draw in readers is misleading.

    Definitely agree that in order to improve scientific literacy using social media, we need to encourage active participation and engagement from communicators and followers alike.

    1. Hi M of T’s, yes, like you I’m continually learning new things about blogging, social media and how to ‘write better’. I wish I knew a lot more when I started as I could have improved many of my early blogs a lot. Still, I guess I’ll look back at the current blogs later on and think they look pretty amateurish too. There’s nothing like putting something out there regularly to help improve your skills, and knowledge of how it all works, is there. Best wishes for your great blog too – http://meaningoftrees.com/ Cheers Ian

  10. Hi Ian and thanks for a great post.

    I’m a scientist who uses social media to try to talk to people about environmental issues and help them to make important lifestyle changes, without them realising that that’s what I’m doing. I use very personal stories and anecdotes to try to get people to think a little bit more about their choices and how they may impact on the world around them.

    No idea if I’m doing it right or just preaching to the converted, but at least a few of my readers have learnt new things about the ecology of this remarkable planet we call home.

    Cheers from Peru, Toni.

    1. Hi Toni, thanks for writing in, I’m glad you liked the post. And thanks too for the link to your great site – http://shapeofthingstocome.org/ . You work in an amazing place. Do you follow Manu’s blog at http://manuelinor.wordpress.com/ ? She writes about similar issues to those in some of your posts, but from a more local experience. You might like it. I think a great part of this ‘new media landscape’ is that there is no one way of ‘doing it right’ as there are so many different vibrant voices, and everything keeps changing so quickly. We all complement each other well. Keep up your great work! Best wishes Ian

  11. Hi Ian. The internet seems to be getting choked up with articles that are just numbered lists of things with very little of interest to say. “The top 5…” “Our 10 most…” Lately I’ve found myself not even bother clicking on this stuff because I know I’m not going to get much out of it and these articles just seem designed to attract hits to a website. On the other hand I visit your blog because your posts do delve deeper and are thought provoking and I learn something. So don’t worry about the word length, if the content is interesting then I’ll keep reading til the end.

    1. Hi Darren, there seems to be a vibrant industry in designing click bait headlines like “5 headlines you wish you didn’t read. I liked #4 best”. I guess it highlights the huge amount of material online and the competition to get readers to follow links to web sites.Given the headline / title of this post, I can’t criticize the trend that much though 🙂 I’m glad you like the articles I write. The next one will be back to straight ecology again I promise. Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  12. A local Land Care group has established an ongoing relationship with a local primary school, involving the kids in plantings, checking out critters in wetlands, painting nesting boxes for sugar gliders etc… I think this is the key; getting the young interested and therefore receptive to your message. Adults are notoriously difficult to change and I doubt you’ll ever get much bang for your buck via your approach. To switch on the public, the seed must be planted as young as possible; a handy byproduct being that some of those seeds will create the next generation of Vince Serventy’s and Ian Lunt’s 😉

    Many of our betters in the chattering classes dismissed Steve Irwin as an ignorant bogan, but I think he was also a great planter of seeds.

    1. Hi Mel, one of the challenges in writing blogs is that you never really know the demographic breakdown of your readers. As far as I can tell from people I meet, readers of my blog range from late teens onwards, but I don’t know the breakdown within this huge range. So there’s still some potential to ‘switch on’ younger readers, even if the ‘old’ ones are more set in their ways 🙂 Thanks again for commenting, best wishes Ian

  13. Hi Ian – nice post – I note your blog has developed significantly since my last visit – I see you are choosing very engaging imagery – have you notice whether that makes a difference? And, I never re-tweet without reading the link – that would be like citing a paper without reading the discussion (let-alone the abstract). JC

    1. Thanks JC, I’m glad you liked it. I’m afraid I don’t have any way to tell if the images make a difference to how popular a blog post gets. My impression is that the biggest influence is how engaging readers find the text. The most engaging blogs trigger lots of shares on social media, which greatly boosts the number of readers – just like in this post 🙂 Thanks again & best wishes Ian

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