QUEST member Arko Olesk (Tallinn University) explores what impact mediatization and related trends might have on science communication.
When you work on making science communication more effective – as we do in QUEST – it is sometimes useful to take a step back and look at the processes that shape communication in the society in general. Pulling the focus away from science for a moment can help us understand the trends that will eventually have an impact on how science and society interact, therefore allowing us to tailor better strategies for science communication as well or to prepare us for the next challenge.
I recently chaired a session at the Estonian Social Sciences Conference on mediatization – the theoretical concept that seeks to explain and analyse the changes in society in relation to changes in media and communications. At the core of the concept is the fact that our lives are deeply interwoven with media, both in the sense of our use of media technologies and the omnipresence of mass and social media channels. This has come to shape how we do many things in our private and professional lives and societies in general, from the games that children play to the way politicians run their countries.
Mediatization also affects science. My own presentation at the session discussed why and how some scientists have become visible in the media. Interviews with some visible Estonian scientists showed that often researchers make conscious efforts to gain media attention and learn strategies that improve their chances of being an effective public communicator. They make these efforts not only to guarantee that there is quality science communication in the public sphere but also to use public visibility as a vital resource in the competition for students, funding and public trust.
Scientists are not the only one who have discovered the power of media. As Berit Renser (pictured in the photo above) showed in her presentation, the ‘antipodes’ of scientists, i.e. representatives of esotericism (fortune-tellers, healers, New Age promoters) have now also a strong presence in social media. The transformation of their rituals to the cybersphere has not reduced the magic attached to these practices but only increased their popularity.
This poses a challenge to science communication: whether and how we should counteract such non-scientific ideas and practices? This challenge might require some truly innovative approaches to science communication, perhaps coming from companies working with virtual reality or gaming.
This potential was highlighted in the presentation by Indrek Ibrus, using education, healthcare and tourism as examples. At the same time, he warned that platformization – a process where a few major companies or service platforms start dominating the field – can seriously harm innovation. What could we do to encourage innovation in science communication?
Finally, Marju Lauristin and her colleagues brought our attention back to the crucial point: know your audience. Their major investigation into the media use patterns of the Estonian public revealed telling clusters: from avid media users to the disengaged ones. Such segregation can be recognized as a major cause for both recent political disruptions and for the rising prominence of controversial science topics, such as the anti-vaccine movement. Knowing the media use patterns of various groups can help us design better strategies to reach them.
The conference session showed that understanding processes with complicated names – such as mediatization or platformization – can guide us to vital questions about science communication and help us improve our activities.