The Ontario Science Center’s Kevin von Appen talked to me about the Center’s two year old experiment with web video, and its commitment to the YouTube community in particular, when we met at Museums and the Web Conference last spring. Kevin is the Director of Daily Experience Operations at OSC.
Even then he was excited about the big event that’s taking place this Friday, August 8th, at OSC, the 8.8.8. Toronto Meet Up.
RW: How long ago did you start putting videos on the web?
KVA: We started in October 2006 with video experiments on YouTube and other sites. We were watching the emergence of YouTube as a channel for dialogue and communication through the summer of 2006. Smart people were saying this is an area for experimentation. Lots of people didn’t have the skills to shoot and edit video but we did, fortunately. You don’t need to be an expert – you can do in-camera edits. If you have an interesting event, just set up the camera, that’s enough.
RW: Like you did with the astronaut describing how a toilet works in the absence of gravity in space. That was both scientifically accurate and hilarious. It’s been viewed on YouTube over 1,000,000 times!
KVA: That’s a good example of what I’m talking about – he was a good storyteller and we just clipped the best two minutes of his presentation. It wasn’t a technological masterpiece, but it was a communications success.
RW: How does the look of these videos affect the impression people have of the Science Center?
KVA: The question of how it makes you look is a big one. For OSC the informal look of the videos works. We’ve talked a lot about what’s the voice of the Science Center. I define it as a humorous friend who knows just a bit more than you do and is really excited to tell you. Friends tell the truth, they don’t talk down to other friends, they’re respectful; they have a sense of humor.
RW: Do you mean that sometimes it’s easier for people to hear difficult things if they’re touched with humor?
KVA: You know, when people talk about serious things that are exciting to them, that matter to them, they always find opportunities to crack a joke – out of a sense of joy; it comes out of the love of what they’re doing. They don’t need to be pompous. We’re always looking for that informal voice. On the floor we have human faces – the Hosts – and online videos in social spaces are like that – offering a chance to provide a personal face.
RW: Could you elaborate on this?
KVA: The exchanges VideoChick770 has with other YouTubers are what are meaningful. She captures content in various ways and puts it up there. It covers the interesting people who come to talk, the exhibitions, our demonstrations.
RW: When I perused the videos I came away with the impression that the Ontario Science Center is a place where all kinds of people with all kinds of interests can have a good time.
KVA: For me the exchange is key. These are places for conversation, not for broadcast. That’s why we’re looking forward to the Meet Up. Word spreads through connections VideoChick770 has made. I’m most interested in the conversations, where we, the institution, are listening respectfully – to comments about the videos and in videos that are posted in response to ours. True interactions are driven by visitors on the web and on the floor. We don’t tell people what to think.
RW: How would you characterize these exchanges? What are you looking for in these conversations?
KVA: How would I characterize them? Take the astronaut video. There were well over 1, 000,000 downloads and thousands of responses. If you scroll through them you’ll see lots of stuff – “lol” messages as if they were instant messages, or bathroom humor but also there are thoughtful pieces of exchange. For example someone wrote in “I didn”t know Canada had a space program.” That opens the door to talk about international space programs besides NASA. But you should look for yourself and make your own judgement.
Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer had his own law: “ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is garbage.”
RW: I know what you mean!
KVA: You can”t control this stuff. We’re watching everything unfold, and we’re as much affected by what happens as we are influencing what happens. For one thing, in the web space to download and watch a video is more of a commitment than clicking on a banner ad. At a fundamental level, online video is a medium for getting people to engage with science. Participation, co-creation and dialogue – these are the things we encourage at the Science Center and things can happen using social media regardless of geography. YouTube social media is a natural way to engage visitors in new ways.
RW: Do you see different types of responses at the different video sites?
KVA: That’s a very good question. We have our videos on 19 different places: YouTube, Yahoo, Break.com, spike.tv, blip.tv, etc. Our content is the same on all of them. The responses on break.com are a bit more “frat boy” but the vast majority of our traffic comes from Yahoo and YouTube. Yahoo likes us – they often feature our stuff because it’s slightly quirky, family friendly in a good way, interesting, easily accessible, not intimidating. Also – the provenance of the content is important; they feel safe assuming the content must be solid when they see the OSC logo at the end, meaning it came from a trusted source.
RW: I think the fact that you put the logo at the end is very significant. This way you’re not prejudicing the audience – scaring them away by announcing that they’re about to watch science content. This way they’ve already kind of bought into the content and where it comes from isn’t really important to them.
KVA: With YouTube if you just make the videos and put them up there it’s a little like throwing a cup of water in a river. What makes a difference is dialoguing with other people, supporting them by commenting on their videos, tagging them. VideoChick770 has spent a lot of time interacting with the YouTube community. She’s identified the opinion leaders within the community. How do you get yourself noticed? You have to participate.
We’re genuinely curious about the responses. We’re trying to listen – don’t open the door if there’s nothing on the other side. Commitment to active participation is crucial. That’s why the “persona” of the Museum is so important.
RW: What do you mean by “persona”?
KWA: Organizations right now see the web as the responsibility of web teams, if they have them. You don’t need a web team to build things these days, you just need to tell your story and find the best people to tell it. The new priority setting is to know who/how to tell the story. Some conversations I’ve had with people tell me that this point is not so obvious.
We’re not just a place, we’re a presence. There’s a physical place and a virtual place. There’s what people are saying about us in social media, and what we’re putting out there in social media – these things make us a presence. It’s not about how we get more people to come to the website, it’s more how do we become a presence on the web.
RW: How do you decide which programs or activities will be part of your web presence?
KVA: We see this whole thing as an experiment. In considering what experiments we’ve done we ask:
How does this line up with our mission?
What are we already doing that is like this?
We ask what’s a good fit for us?
Podcasts are a good example. We’ve been answering questions for decades, and podcasts are expanded answers and they allow for a conversation. In the Westin Family Innovation Centre people can create their own stop motion videos on the floor, so it’s a natural expansion to upload them to share. With Facebook, it’s what would make it an opportunity for true community different from our corporate website? We’re still figuring it out.
RW: How to have an impact that is different from but complements the main museum web site.
KVA: It’s also question of resources – what you’re going to do to have impact. We have a pretty small web team so we put our energies into things that support what we’re already doing, or are organic extensions of those things. There are lots of things I’d like to explore – mashups, flickr, I think Brooklyn Museum of Art is an exemplar in this area.
The penny dropped for me when my daughter who was 9 at the time, was asking if she could watch YouTube more than TV. You’re a 9 year old girl interested in funny cats. You can wait nine months for Discovery Channel or you can go on YouTube right away.
There’s a zeitgeist around these activities. It doesn’t take long for interesting videos to zip around and be shared by friends.
RW: You’ve had a few viral videos.
KVA: The majority of our downloads are driven by a few videos that capture interest and go viral. If we do a Hot Spot presentation on a really busy day at OSC there may be 200 people on the floor and some of them are walking in and out of the presentation. When we put a video of that event on our YouTube channel, over time you are exponentially increasing your audience. 200 people may watch on the floor, but 1,000 people will download the video. Is the interaction the same? Of course not, but I would argue that the commitment is greater – as long as the video is brief.
RW: Yes, most of your videos are under 3:00, many are under 2:00….So what’s surprised you the most?
KVA: I’ve been surprised about everything. When we went on all we knew was that it was an interesting medium to explore. We’ve been surprised by how fast things have been picked up, by the quality of comments, by the videos people have made in response – even the parodies, because people have to listen closely to make a good parody.
RW: What’s the idea behind the 888 Toronto Meet Up* that’s happening at OSC on Friday August 8th?
KVA: What I was really interested in as a science museum communicator, was how does this loop back to the experience in the Museum? The idea that you develop relationships with people and invite them to come to the Museum, and they really are coming from all over the world. People who love videos and science will come together to make videos about science that we would never think of making. That’s where the mission of the organization and the potential of the social web really come together. I’m interested in that.
RW: So, you’re not worried being able to control for appropriateness, correctness, respect for the subjects?
KVA: You’ve got to be willing to give up control, to embrace the messiness, embrace the crash when it doesn’t work. By and large OSC is committed to these modes of visitor interaction. I feel supported by the organization. The questions that come up are real and should be grappled with, because otherwise vivid imaginations will come up with all sorts of potential horror stories and we won’t even be able to try things out. It’s handy to call things “experiments” because we can see what happens. For the most part our audiences don’t let us down. It doesn’t mean we give up on expertise but it does mean we give up our notion and position of broadcaster at a podium – “here’s my message now listen.”
The Meet up is a way to track transference from web space to physical space. It will be a very clear response to the question of how do you know this investment of resources will lead to business?
RW: What’s interesting is how the role of the science center in web space differs from its traditional role in physical space, how the role of the science center is changing because of the internet.
KVA: Let’s face it, these days science centers are not about transmitting facts, so what’s our value? Giving people the tools and inspiration to navigate it themselves, and maybe create it. We need to be communicators first – we can’t be all about facts. Facts are cheap but the ability to “cope” – evaluate, have primary experiences – that’s our goal.
* As the OSC website says, “Following the success of YouTube’s 777 meetup (July 7, 2007) in New York City, the Science Centre is hosting the “888torontomeetup,” Canada’s first large-scale YouTube community gathering.” Of course people are invited to bring their cameras, and bite.tv will be televising the proceedings. So far more than 700 YouTubers have rsvp’d!
The event has been organized by Kathy Nicholiachuk , known to YouTubers as videochick770. She is the face of the Center on YouTube, the engine behind the community that has developed on the OSC channel.