Vulgarization revisited: the internet and the new spaces for public history
With the proceedings of the last Sic&Histoire#2 event (held on 23 March 2016) soon to be published in the journal Sciences de la société and the next such event – Sic&Histoire#3 – to take place on 23 November 2017 in Avignon1, the Com’en Histoire blog is delighted to welcome a new author, Manon Champier, alias Manon Bril. As part of our “Ateliers des médiations” workshops, she looks back on her work as a specialist popularizing ancient history on her YouTube channel C’est une autre histoire (That’s another (hi)story). This blog post is an opportunity to revisit the notion of “vulgarization”, a term which is being used less and less to refer to the science communication practices, even though it has been revitalized on the web by different actors.
This post is a sequel to my talk at the Sic&Histoire#2 day, in which I looked back on my science communication activity on YouTube. The main aim was to discuss the different ways of popularizing history, as well as their limitations and usefulness in terms of sharing knowledge about this discipline with others. It must be pointed out that popularization is still held in poor esteem in some academic circles. Sometimes seen as “belittling” research work, it has been a victim of various prejudices, even though it is of crucial importance for the future of research in the humanities and social sciences. This rejection is all the stronger when it comes to popularization through the new platforms provided by the internet and especially YouTube. These communities, operating with their own social codes, are unfamiliar territory for academic audiences, and hence suffer from a bad reputation, even though in my experience they provide valuable tools to reach the so-called “general public”. This post is an opportunity for me to look back at my own practice of science popularization and to raise more general questions that concern anyone active in this area, while raising academics’ awareness of the importance of these practices.
Before presenting my journey as a science “vulgarisator” and suggesting some lines of reflection, I first would like to address some vocabulary issues and explain how I use certain words, some of which have specific connotations. The notions of “science communication” and “vulgarization” are indeed a cause for debate within the information and communication sciences. The term “vulgarization” [that translates the same in French] is often perceived as derogatory as it stems from the term vulgar [vulgaire in French], which has quite negative connotations today. Yet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when vulgarization first emerged, the term simply referred to the dissemination of knowledge in so-called “vulgar” language, i.e. in plain, common language, like French or Italian as opposed to Latin. It was only as the nineteenth century wore on and with the rise of the bourgeoisie that the word started to become pejorative. This initial meaning of the word, which does not come with any kind of connotations, is gaining traction again today as, on the internet for instance, the term “vulgarizing” is often used [at least in France]; which is why I often use it in my work. Finally, on the internet, the word that stirs up the most debate at present is YouTuber. The term videographer [vidéaste in French] is sometimes preferred as it covers creators who use other distribution platforms, not only YouTube, and defines their activities more broadly than merely in connection with the internet giant. However, as YouTubers is the predominant term, I have used it regularly and without attaching any particular connotation to it ever since I started my public history work about two years ago.
An unusual journey
As a young academic, I did not start out on YouTube right away. It was the experience of scientific mediation that was the MT180 competition [similar to Three Minute Thesis], organized by the CNRS and the CPU, that sparked my interest in the dissemination of knowledge to the general public. In a nutshell, PhD students have to present their research in three minutes in an accessible way. Being awarded the Audience’s Choice Prize at the Midi-Pyrénées regional final taught me that there is an audience for my subject and my style. There was also another experience that made me want to launch a YouTube channel: I took part in a short film contest organized to celebrate the city of Toulouse’s 2000th anniversary and created a video about the city which created quite a buzz on social networks. This again underlined that an offbeat, tongue-in-cheek tone could draw in an audience and help convey content. So, creating a YouTube channel to popularize history was a way of combining the two experiences – video and the internet – as well as the idea of popularizing my field, history, and the reception of Antiquity to be more exact. That’s how I ended up launching my YouTube channel, C’est une autre histoire, in September 2015. To date, i.e. at the time of publishing this article, it has around 80,000 subscribers. It has been publicized by several traditional media organizations like Arte and France Culture and benefited from partnerships with leading institutions like the RMN-Grand Palais and the Geneva Museum of Art and History .
My short experience in extension has already shown me the recurrent nature of some issues, which can be summarized in three main questions:
- Does popularization belittle the researcher’s work and can everything be popularized?
- Are all formats and tones acceptable (type of language used, humour, etc.) or do you need to respect the sacredness of the discipline to a certain extent?
- These issues allow us to further explore the different ways of popularizing science and the medium of the internet, especially the video form.
Popularizing on the web: between simplification, selection and reduction
Simplification and explanation are often associated with the idea of belittling and distorting scientific content. It usually is the first argument that sceptics put forward. The MT180 contest is sometimes frowned upon, as it is seen as too simplistic to summarize one’s doctoral research – which spans several years – in just three minutes. While it is true that there must be a certain degree of simplification to deliver content to non-experts, simplification is not necessarily reductive. Because, sometimes, it implies getting to the heart of the matter and putting details or overly complex elements to the side. It is above all about making choices. Making the choice of just dealing with one particular aspect of the subject, even if that means breaking it down into several talks, articles or videos, because the audience’s attention may be more limited or more targeted. It means sequencing the content and describing it in a different way. Making choices, accepting that one can’t cover the subject as a whole and limiting oneself in terms of topics is often disparaged, when it is ultimately part of the everyday life of a researcher, who has to produce a 20-page article or a 20-minute talk. Producing a science vulgarization video is based on the same mechanisms: while researchers are constantly striving to shorten their content so that they can publish and publicize it, the vulgarizator is doing the same thing but simply addressing another audience…
The vulgarizator’s objective is absolutely not the same as that of a researcher seeking to make their scientific thinking public via the traditional academic publishing process. Scientific vulgarization involves explaining the gist and the main ideas of a subject, or indeed the usefulness of the research, rather than producing new scientific knowledge. It is neither about teaching nor making a scientific contribution, but rather about raising awareness. Besides, the ability to effectively distil the essence of a subject and make a complex notion clear and accessible is certainly not a skill to look down upon, as is sadly sometimes the case. In fact, it is a very technical skill and far from being innate, especially for an eminent specialist who has worked for many years on the same subject. Prejudices against science popularization are, however, persistent among some academics. Yet it seems to me that this error of judgement is harmful to our disciplines because popularization is more necessary than ever to make the public aware of the importance of research, regardless of the subject or discipline. This now raises our second question: Can everything be popularized?
An objection often crops up when one encourages a colleague to try their hand at vulgarization: some subjects, they argue, are more attractive to the public than others. I have been told several times that my subject is more appealing and less austere than others. Still, when I explain that I am doing a PhD about Athena in the official imagery of the nineteenth century, this is generally greeted with polite scepticism, which leads me to think that it is not exactly appealing to everybody, which is completely understandable after all. Similarly, the latest videos I produced for the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès, for the academic magazine Mondes sociaux, were about paleo-babylonian wedding and the ox-powered liburnian, concepts that any non-specialist will feel alien to and are probably quite unappealing to them. Yet the feedback was generally positive … So, it seems that even subjects which at first sight seem quite austere can rouse the audience’s interest, provided they are made clear and attractive. And making them attractive does not mean distorting and sensationalizing them, but rather making the public understand why this research is useful by highlighting some important issues. For example, simply describing paleo-babylonian weddings would have been of little interest … But it is very interesting to show that marriage could take extremely varied forms and to reiterate, in the current context, that marriage has not always been as immutable an institution as it is sometimes seen today. But to get that social message across, one needs to know how to grab the audience’s attention! And it is here that something absolutely essential comes into play, the importance of which is often underestimated by academics: form.
Between content and form
Form is crucial. In fact, it matters more than content, in the sense that it is more powerful than content. So, even though there are many YouTube channels whose content is questionable to say the least, they are very successful because their approach is effective and modern. From an ethical standpoint, it is obviously much better to have valid scientific content presented awkwardly than the opposite, but when it comes to driving a message home effectively and successfully, researchers need to recognize the importance of how they present their content. In theory, they will know their content inside out and won’t make mistakes, but they might have a tendency to downplay the importance of form and devote less time and energy to it. Of course, my advice would probably be the other way around if I were addressing non-specialist passionate amateurs who wanted to take up vulgarization and needed to work on how one examines sources and goes about creating knowledge. On the other hand, researchers are sometimes not very au fait with the ways things are done right now and with presentational forms targeting the general public, especially on YouTube.
The YouTube format is still derided by or unfamiliar to some generations and audiences. Videos are often seen as too short, too selfie-like (with the face of the anchor constantly on screen) and aimed only at teenagers. It is true that the formats used are very different from the ones seen on television and involve another way of engaging with the video format. The viewer can pause, rewind, click on external links, or listen to the video while doing something else or while working in another window on their computer … The swift pace is very often a response to the “instant” aspect of the internet, but it is also something that YouTube viewers like and prefer, as shown by the fast-paced clips on the most popular channels. Besides, the audience has changed from what it was in the early days of YouTube; the early adopters were young and “geek”. The audience is now as varied as online content itself. More and more people are watching videos on the internet rather than on television, and more and more people are trying their hand at making videos. As an example, I can cite the statistics for my own channel.
Besides being mostly male (as with most YouTube channels), 5.4% of the audience are in the 13–17 years age range, 74.8% are aged 18–34 years, and 11.2% are aged 35–44. Our videos, which are laidback in tone, with music in the background and an urban setting, are often associated with a teenage audience by people unfamiliar with the YouTube platform and pop culture in general. Academic circles are often still unfamiliar with YouTube, but the growing and varied audience it attracts deserves consideration and should encourage us to move beyond or at least question the conventional ways of making and editing videos.
Form is also about constructing a discourse. Training in science communication and vulgarization, such as that provided to MT180 contestants, encourages to use metaphors and images to address the audience, or to “tell a story”, by using relevant anecdotes to help listeners not lose track and above all to allow them to retell the story they have been told afterwards. Absolutely all the vocabulary needs to be explained chosen carefully: it isn’t always essential to use all the technical jargon to understand the main research strands, but if it is essential, one has to spend some time defining the terms clearly. This will of course depend on the target audience, so you always need to figure out who you want to reach. But if you target the much-vaunted and undefined “general public”, in all its broad diversity, it is advisable to use a level of discourse equivalent to that used by a 12-year-old, and always ask yourself if the explanation could be understood by a young person of that age.
Lastly, while humour is far from being a must, it can be extremely useful. First, to take away the sacred aura of content which may seem austere and elitist; second, to provide breathing space, re-engage listeners whose attention is starting to flag and facilitate memorization. The listener will remember a joke and often will have to recall the content to tell it again. These are theoretical elements, of course, and always need to be adapted to the context, the objectives and above all the target audience, but they can be valuable tools to get a point across. It is true that some subjects are more appealing or simpler than others, but a well-thought-out format can popularize everything, even the most austere subjects, like those I already mentioned. I believe it is important that researchers know about these tools and how to use them.
The video format and the YouTube platform are ways to step outside the academic mould and to inject greater flexibility into the ways we communicate. Compared with performances or live presentations, making a video offers ways to play with pacing at the editing stage, to use varied illustrations and to be permanently and freely accessible. This free availability is part of a very democratic ideological vision of access to knowledge. Videos are for example sometimes more appealing to people who don’t read much. The “public” dimension of YouTube is thus encouraging more and more people to make their content available. Yet specialists are still few and far between on this medium, which, for better or worse, is mainly used by amateurs and enthusiasts. In my field, there are some very high quality channels run by non-historians, like Ugo Birmar’s channel “Confessions d’histoire” for which the documentation and historical research are very commendable and certainly on par with the quality of the script and the actors’ performances. Altogether, this produces a high quality result. In addition, amateur videographers who are committed to continuous improvement of their content have created peer-review systems and expert auditing of content. Scripts and feedback are exchanged on these channels’ Facebook pages, forums and dedicated sites.
But other YouTubers are not as scrupulous and have one aim: to get “views”, regardless of the quality of the content they offer. These channels, well versed in the internet’s social codes, achieve enormous visibility (over 100,000 subscribers), with sometimes rather far-reaching consequences. Most of the time these are biographies or subjects presented uncritically in a very conventional way reminiscent of secondary-school student presentations, which contributes somewhat to their success because people recognize them as a familiar format. But the use of sources, which are not discussed and often selected without much thought, is more troubling. Most come from Wikipedia, anonymous blogs and the online – not necessarily specialized – press. These YouTubers do not care much about accuracy and chronology or feedback about their work, their only goal being to develop their channel, whatever the cost. Faced with such content, academics have started to react. I would like to cite one example in my field, the research blog published by the prestigious journal Revue des études anciennes on Hypotheses.org. This blog posts articles by researchers providing commentary on online content. While these analyses are more than insightful and relevant in terms of content, it must be noted that the judgements they make still betray academics’ lack of understanding of YouTube. For example, the light, upbeat tone of our show was interpreted as a desire to create a buzz, rather than to genuinely highlight the value of contemporary research in ancient history in a different way 2! Actually, if our only aim was to get “views”, we would resort to other, far less scrupulous tactics, like the aforementioned practices, and history would certainly not be the most profitable medium … Light-heartedness is often held in contempt, which leads to our last question: Are all formats and tones acceptable or do you need to respect the sacredness of the discipline to a certain extent?
As pointed out, the most frequent criticism of my channel is the tone used. It is accused of being vulgar, too casual and offbeat, or at any rate an inappropriate way to talk about history, which after all is a noble, serious business. Some people even make assumptions about the light-hearted tone and the value of the content, arguing that, given the humour, the content cannot be valid. However, such comments do not come from historians who – even though some do not like this form – are well aware that it is reliable, except for some unavoidable careless mistakes. The criticism comes from non-specialist enthusiasts, on forums like the Facebook page of the radio programme La Fabrique de l’histoire (broadcast on France Culture), who have their own idea of what history should be – something grand, austere, noble or even elitist! I have already explained the choices I have made in terms of form and why I think it is important to move beyond traditional academic presentations. I would simply add that questioning the sacred image of the discipline, through form, is crucial. First, because the lofty image of history that some non-specialist enthusiasts have construed for themselves is precisely what will put other people off, thinking that history is not their cup of tea. Second, because it conveys an incorrect image of the discipline, by, for example, implying value judgements as to what subjects are important, interesting and worth studying, etc. In a nutshell, the time is ripe for some disciplines with a somewhat austere reputation, such as History, to move beyond their stereotypes and dust off their image, with the help of amateurs as well as experts. This may involve adopting a different tone, which will not be to everybody’s taste, but would at least have the advantage of raising questions about the different ways of doing things.
This is a translation from French by Jean-François Nominé, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.
- The programme is currently being finalized. We will publish it here once it is definitive.
- See for example this article: Pierre Cuvelier, “Valorisation : peut-on apprendre la mythologie grecque avec des vidéos YouTube ?”, in Actualités des études anciennes, eISSN: 2492.864X, 29/08/2016. Or: Séverine Garat, “Valorisation : à propos de la chaîne ‘C’est une autre histoire’ : Entretien avec Manon Bril”, in Actualités des études anciennes, eISSN: 2492.864X, 20/06/2016.