Another fish down the drain – can YouTube change behaviour?

Social media platforms and the web are increasingly common sources of scientific information. But what do the number of hits or clicks actually mean?  Is it just about making information available? A new study tests whether science on the internet can change behaviour.

I recently went to my first science communicators conference. Lots of people on iPads, every session with a twitter hash tag, and lots of interesting discussion about why and how we communicate science. My challenge? Find a session with a streamstory.

Luckily, amid the hair-pulling over the whole climate change communication conundrum (CCCC?), Miriam Sullivan from the University of Western Australia came to my rescue. She had chosen the care of aquarium fish as the science content to test whether or not watching YouTube can influence behaviour *. Given the average Australian spends more than five hours watching YouTube every month, this is not an esoteric question.

Fish are the forgotten family pet. Just like cats and dogs, fish are intelligent, long-lived and can feel pain. As Miriam points out however, you would never flush your dead cat down a toilet. So lets apply science to try and improve the lot of pet fish.

It turns out regularly cleaning out an aquarium is one of the most effective ways to keep your fish healthy. So two 50-second YouTube clips were recorded encouraging pet fish owners to regularly clean out their aquariums.

Nearly 200 fish owners took part in the online experiment. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Two of the groups were shown different videos designed to improve their tank cleaning habits, either a sad video about pets dying or a funny video of fish pooing. The remaining control group were shown no video at all.

After a month they were again asked how often they cleaned their tanks and what they remembered about the video (if they’d watched one). Essentially those who felt they were uninformed about fish care but wanted to improve tended to change their behaviour (clean the aquarium more often). Those who felt they were already fish care experts tended not to change.

When it comes to remembering the message, comedy appears to beat tragedy, with 88% of people who saw the funny video recalling it after one month compared to 60% who recalled the sad video.

For me, the fish care video raises some interesting points about communicating science more generally. Perhaps YouTube and the more modern modes of science communication aren’t all that different to the workshops and factsheets of old. Making facts available is only the beginning of the science engagement story.  We need to remember who we’re talking to and how we tell the science story.

*The full article on which this post is based is: “The goldfish test that can change your behviour” by Miriam Sullivan, University of Western Australia


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