Social media platforms are filled with multimedia. This hasn’t always been the case and many people have experienced it as a gradual transition, the kind which can easily escape your notice as the service you use every day subtly changes in character. The reasons for this are relatively clear. Mobile internet speeds and access have rapidly increased and it’s simply much more viable to send and receive video than was previously the case. Platforms like Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), Vine (2012) and TikTok (2016) have multimedia at the heart of what they do. Partly in response to these challengers, established platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made multimedia much more prominent than was previously the case. The result is a social media in which video, audio and images play a much more prominent role than they did only a few years ago. An internet which had one been primarily based around text is increasingly awash with multimedia.
This creates a challenge for social researchers. It’s exciting to see so many podcasts and videcasts being produced in order to communicate research. It can easily seem as if there have never been more academic voices in the public sphere, speaking in their own words in powerful and innovative ways. However there are questions which remain about this and they are ones which funders will undoubtedly ask in time, if they are not doing so already. How many viewers should we expect a video to achieve? How many listeners should a podcast aim to attract? What constitutes a satisfactory return on investment? It can be off putting to raise these issues when you are someone who is enthusiastic about the creative engagement we are seeing taking shape all around us. But asking these strategic questions can help us secure this activity and make it a sustainable part of research communication, as opposed to a brief flash of creativity which faded away when people started querying its financial viability.
The danger when asking how many views we should expect a video to receive is that we choose the wrong benchmark. No one expects that academics video would receive the billions of views that have been enjoyed by the most popular YouTube videos of all time. What is sometimes called the Billion View club began with Psy’s Gagnam Style in 2012 and has grown rapidly since then. But even if we recognise that academic videos will tend to be fringe features on YouTube, with the possible exception of TED and comparable series which can often feature in the tens of millions, it’s nonetheless easy for our sense of scale to be defined by such high profile offerings. Social media is often defined by large numbers, not least of all by the firms themselves who rely on these metrics to demonstrate continued growth to their investors. For these reasons we need to be conscious of what we take numbers to mean, where we get our benchmarks from and what this means for how we see our digital engagement.
The vast majority of academics videos I’ve watched have a few hundreds views or less. Is this a problem? I suspect funders might come to see it as one, at least in terms of the investment required to produce the typical video. If we don’t think it’s a problem then we need to develop a language in which we can talk convincingly about digital engagement in qualitative terms. If we don’t see success for social researchers in terms of numbers, what would success look like? I’m convinced the answer lies in the dissemination mechanisms, the cultural initiatives which enable individual items of content to be shared online, as well the relation to community which they entail. Blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that are successful tend to have a lived engagement with a community which has coalesced around a shared interest in the project in question. Patreon, Substack, Flattr and Buy Me A Coffee condense the relationship down into a formalised gift relationship. These projects enable us to increase the quantitative success of our multimedia, making it easier to ensure an audience by pre-aggregating it in one place. But they also open up the possibility of a much richer, qualitative engagement which moves beyond the quantitative measurement of audience.