PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Le Geek, C’est Clique?
Meanings of science in online science enthusiast forums

Hauke Riesch  

One phenomenon emerging from the increasing popularity of social networking sites is the visible growth of online 'science enthusiast' groups. Examples include the Facebook page 'I Fucking Love Science' (IFLS), which has over 20m 'likes' and regularly tops Facebook's user engagement statistics, or Reddit threads such as r/science or r/AskScience which offer thousands of users the chance to ask and answer one another's science questions. As well as being significant (and expanding) examples of science communication in a digital age, such sites provide a huge amount of data on how science is shared, interacted with, and debated online. However such datasets can be extremely voluminous and chaotic, which provides significant challenges to the researcher. My research investigates how meanings of 'science' and 'science person' are constructed and used within conversations on four case-study groups - IFLS, the reddit group r/AskScienceDiscussion, and the XKCD and Skeptics' Society forums. In this paper I will present some of the key themes appearing within these conversations (drawn from discourse analysis and computer-aided text analysis) and contextualise them with reference to both Science and Technology Studies (STS) and scholarship around online fan communities. For example, debates on these groups around what science 'is' and who is permitted to make claims about it are familiar from STS literature - such as in Thomas Gieryn's notion of boundary-work, or more recent debates over public participation in science. However, the appearance of 'science' in jokes, meme images, and identity labels is more adequately described by drawing on Henry Jenkins' 'meaning-making' and Nancy Baym's 'informational capital,' developed from studying television and science-fiction fan communities. By combining these separate perspectives and using them to frame my data, I aim to consider how 'making meanings' of science can be both a definitional and emotional act.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.