Deep Astronomy

  • March 20, 2013

    The Importance of Listening to Your Audience

    Yesterday, we were fortunate to have Oana Sandu from the European Southern Observatory here at the Institute, and she gave an inspiring talk on "Outrageous Outreach." She presented some very fresh ideas about how to think outside the box to present science, including astronomy, to the public.

    You can watch her talk here.

    She focused primarily on what's important to "millennials" — how they see and interact with the world, what their expectations are and what they find important — but a lot of what she discussed goes for many other age groups as well.

    Inspired by her talk, I've been thinking about better ways to communicate my message to a broader audience that may not be getting it. Anyone who's followed me for any length of time knows that my message centers on these topics: the importance of science and astronomy in our lives, the Hubble Space Telescope, and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.

    I'm very interested in reaching people that aren't already "part of the choir," and talking with Oana helped me crystalize a strategy going forward. But I also wanted to share a key component to this that I've already discovered. With all of the digital social avenues we have available to us to get our message out, one thing stands out: We must listen to what our audience is saying about our message.

    The days of pushing content out for general consumption are gone. We must open ourselves to feedback and suggestions, and then change our message to suit those requests. I offer an example from my YouTube channel. Here is a list of the top ten videos on my YouTube Channel over the last 30 days:

    With the exception of the Hubble Deep Field videos, which are always in my top-ten list, every other video was made as a response to comments and questions from my viewers. For years, the number one video on my channel was "The Hubble Deep Field in 3D," but that has recently been replaced by "A Journey into a Black Hole" and more recently "The Largest Galaxy in the Universe: IC 1101."

    The important thing to note here is that it would never have occurred to me to make these videos if I hadn't listened to my audience, and doing so paid off big time. One point Oana made in her talk is that you want to present your message where your audience actually is, not where you want them to be.

    My audience is on YouTube, and they are notorious for letting you know what they think, and they demand you listen. YouTube is a terrifying place.  Still though, the number one video on my channel was created by responding to the comment:

    "Hey Tony, make a video about IC 1101!"

    Other comments that inspired videos:

    What's it like inside a black hole?

    Tony: I heard the universe is flat. How do we know that? What does that even mean?

    What caused the Big Bang?

    Do a video on Kepler 22b that just came out!

    A really useful social feature YouTube offers viewers is the ability to "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" a comment. I can easily gauge viewers' interest in a subject by seeing how many thumbs up a comment has. If a comment gets a lot of thumbs up, I add it to my list of future video projects.

    Drilling down on the number one video, you can see how long they are watching the video. For those not familiar with this graphic, this is a measure of how long people watch the video, rewind to watch certain parts or where they skip the video. Average retention is a comparison with other videos of similar length. In this graph, you can see an above average attention rate that drops to average about half way through.

    This is actually a very good graph; most videos do not have this level of attention. The drop-off happened, I believe, because I drifted off into topics the audience didn't care about. Still, it's doing very well as indicated by the views:

    These are the views of the IC 1101 video over the last 30 days. That jump in viewership is due to YouTube suggesting the video more aggressively, and they do that when a video has lots of positive feedback, like a high number of likes compared to dislikes and overall attention rate. The better a video does, the more it appears in the suggested video pane on the right side of the homepage.

    All of this is to say that I've learned to listen to my audience. I also interact with them heavily, because as Oana pointed out, our audience expects to be able to do MUCH more than just sit and watch (or read) our content. They want a say; they want to co-create.

    Another vital component to reaching your audience is to build a community around your message. I've made a start by creating "Space Fan News" and calling my audience "Space Fans," but that's another post for another time.


  • March 18, 2013

    Guinness World Record Attempt for Largest Astronomy Lesson

    I have to admit, I had no idea there was such a thing as a world record for largest astronomy lesson. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised though. There's a record for "Furthest Eye Popper," "Stretchiest Skin" and "Heaviest Car Balanced on Head," so why not have a record for the largest astronomy lesson?

    The rules were pretty simple: the lesson needed to be 30 minutes long, and if anyone left the cordoned-off area, they would be subtracted from the final count. The lesson would be one designed by the STScI STEM team and would be given by Dr. Frank Summers and Dan McCallister. The lesson itself was a simple light and color lab designed to introduce people to the importance of filters in astronomy, along with how astronomers use various colors of light from distant objects to learn more about what they are.

    People were very excited when going in. We had a long line of people waiting to get in and as we waited for it to get dark (another requirement for an astronomy lesson). As that was happening, I got the bright idea to try to capture it with a live stream via a Google Hangout On Air. I was really pushing it because the wi-fi signal strength dropped dramatically as soon as I left the NASA Experience Tent, but it was barely strong enough to keep going. The stream dropped out once and I had to restart, but I was able to capture it even though the quality wasn't that great.

    Going forward, I learned a lot about how to improve the quality of streaming outside events like this. First off, I'll use a 4G LTE connection since that worked very well at the virtual star party held immediately after this event, and I have better cameras now.

    Still, the experience was awesome. I had about 25 live viewers with whom I could interact with while it was going on and we captured the event for posterity, even though the quality wasn't so great.

    Oh yeah, and we broke the record! 526 people sat in the dark and learned about light and color. Here's the video:

  • March 10, 2013

    Jake the Space Fan Visits JWST @ SXSW

    So many great experiences here at South by Southwest and the NASA Experience Tent, but my favorite by far is getting a chance to meet the Space Fans who are watching my videos.

    I am amazed at how great Space Fans are, and Jake is a rock star.  His enthusiasm is contagious, and he reminds me a lot of myself at that age.

    Here's the video of our visit:


    There is still time to stop by. I'm here until midnight. There's a lot still to come: an attempt to break the Guinness world record for the largest astronomy lesson and a star party featuring local amateur astronomers that will be broadcast as a Virtual Star Party.