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GIFS: informal but informative

Posted by on February 26, 2014

Ripetungi Shark AttackJenni Lacey, membership marketing officer at the Society of Biology, explores the use of infographics and GIFS in science communication

Over the past few years there has been an explosion of infographics, GIFS and short videos online communicating a science message. My news feeds, friends’ pages and twitter stream are constantly full of bite-sized and visually engaging examples of scientific discoveries or just an illustration of the wonders of the world around us.

This probably says something about the friends that I have online but it also got me thinking about the power an infographic or GIF has to convey a complex message and is this changing how we share science? Many of the people I see sharing these images aren’t scientists –they are people who’ve been struck by a snapshot of science that they’ve seen and felt compelled to share with others.

The image that really got me thinking about this was Joe Chernov and  Ripetungi’s Shark Attack inforgraphic, illustrating the estimate by scientists that 100 million sharks are killed every year. As you scroll down the image it goes, seemingly, on and on creating a confusing blur of red shapes; the message when you reach the bottom is quite clear – humans are a much bigger threat to sharks than they are to us.

It’s exciting to think that as well as providing a route for sharing examples of a happy duck running towards the camera or people jumping onto frozen lakes, increasingly GIFS, along with infographics, are being used in public engagement and science communication. Online communities have been created to bring people together in using design and data to “make sense of complex issues”. is just one of these communities which as far back as 2011 featured a series of infographics on the human body from using data from the  National Geographic’s The Incredible Human Machine series. Whole books have also been written on the subject such as David McCandless’ Information is beautiful.

There is clearly a huge appetite for science via social media. IFLS – a Facebook page created in March 2012 dedicated to sharing cool and interesting science-related pictures and facts – now has a staggering 10.5 million likes. There are also sub communities on redditdedicated to showcasing interesting and entertaining chemical reactions” which has over 100,000 subscribers, and groups discussing information graphics and data visualisation.

It hasn’t escaped scientists that GIFs, infographics and even online games are now a valuable way to share or encapsulate a complex message, as well as engage the audience in the process of carrying out science. However with the development of this new way to communicate science there comes responsibility and the need to remain accurate and precise when using social media to share work.

The recent Fraxinus Facebook game asked the public to help with fighting ash dieback by sorting data on the disease. The aim was to use the power of social media to find a way of stopping the spread of the Chalara fraxinea fungus which threatens ash trees. The project was a huge success and produced valuable data, however, unfortunately people who are colour blind would not be able to distinguish the colours used within the game. This excluded them from being able to usefully take part, a point that perhaps could’ve been addressed in the development of the game.

These ways of conveying and sharing information are helping to create a new language and tone for talking about scientific discovery – they can be more informal, more accessible and fun but it’s important to remember that the message shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of entertainment or compromised in an attempt to get more ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. Personally, I will continue to enjoy seeing conversations popping up when someone enjoys a GIF or video of elephant toothpaste for the first time.

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