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A Shark Week 2013 retrospective…with memes!

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As Shark Week 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to take a look back at which part of my outreach strategy worked (and didn’t work), as well as what I liked and disliked about Shark Week as a whole. Ever since my “15 important shark conservation and management terms explained with memes” post, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to incorporate more internet humor into a blog post, so here goes…

While this Shark Week allowed scientists  like myself to reach the public on a large scale, most of the content was...troubling.

While this Shark Week allowed scientists like myself to reach the public on a large scale, most of the content was…troubling.

1) Does the enhanced social media conversation associated with Shark Week provide opportunities for scientists and conservationists to get important messages to a wider audience? Unquestionably yes!

I participated in Upwell‘s Sharkinar, and they reported that Shark Week is the largest increase in baseline social media discussion of any marine science or conservation topic of the entire year. It was referred to as “the Super Bowl of online marine science communication.” The process of live-tweeting Shark Week  (which included answering people’s questions, providing context to what was seen on TV, correcting inaccuracies, and often outright mockery of ridiculous nonsense) resulted in a more than 20% increase in my twitter followers. My Facebook fan page metrics showed a similar pattern.

Ron Burgundy is as surprised as I was by the increased attention my Facebook fan page saw during Shark Week

Ron Burgundy is as surprised as I was by the increased attention my Facebook fan page saw during Shark Week

2) Does increased public attention on sharks during Shark Week result in increased media coverage of shark topics, providing experts additional opportunities to get real facts to the public? Unquestionably yes! 

During Shark Week, I was interviewed by (in addition to many smaller publications) Wired, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic News, NSFWcorp, Yahoo News, and CNN. Time and PBS quoted me (though I was not directly  interviewed by them). I also had the opportunity to write for Zocalo Public Square explaining my thoughts on Shark Week overall, and to review this year’s specials for Wired (if you haven’t yet commented on these, I’d appreciate feedback). Finally, my reddit “Ask Me Anything” made the front page of reddit and generated over 1,200 comments. You can read the “best of” my AMA on Geekosystem if you don’t want to read 1,200 comments. For the record, yes, I still got more than 40 hours of work done on my dissertation last week.

There was a similar uptick in shark topics among the rest of the science and science communication world. The National Marine Fisheries Service showcased important science and management with ” #NOAAsharkweek .” Ed Yong posted the highlights of his past coverage of shark science and conservation issues, as did Deep Sea News. Deep Sea News also published a variety of awesome new content, including “5 cool things about sharks you won’t see on TV this week,” a powerful post by Alex Warneke about why it matters what content Discovery includes in their specials, a fascinating post by Holly Bik on the microbiome of sharks, a post on the physics of a SharkNado by my favorite physical oceanographer Kim Martini, and a list of shark-themed drinks from Craig. The Scientific American Blog Network had a lot of great shark science stories as well, with posts by Jason at Thoughtful Animal, John at Extinction Countdown, Darren at Tetrapod Zoology, and even Bora himself. PLoS blogs covered it. Even technology sites like Mashable got in on the shark action.

Of course, with so much shark coverage in the news, my inability to follow internet rule #1 (don’t read the comments) becomes a much greater problem…

It can be extremely difficult to avoid being condescending when dealing with self-proclaimed shark "experts"

It can be extremely difficult to avoid being condescending when dealing with self-proclaimed shark “experts”

3) Was the content of Shark Week 2013 particularly bad? Overall, I believe it was.

While a lot of negative attention has rightfully focused on “Megalodon: the monster lives,” much of the rest of Shark Week 2013 was also troubling (see my full breakdown in Wired). One particularly nonsensical documentary was “Sharkpocalypse,” a title so bad that the hosts mocked it during the show. The content wasn’t much better. This documentary claimed that shark “attacks” are increasing because we killed too many sharks so now there are too many seals so there are too many sharks. Huh?

Need a shark "expert" to come up with a theory? Why not Zoidberg?

Need a shark “expert” to come up with a theory? Why not Zoidberg?

Another highlight (or, I suppose, lowlight) was “Top 10 SharkDown”, which counted down the 10 “deadliest” species of sharks.

Shark Week executives planning "SharkDown", I assume.

Shark Week executives planning “SharkDown”, I assume.

 

4) Was the Megalodon special particularly bad? Oy vey, YES! 

Christie thoroughly covered why the megalodon special was so awful, and I won’t go into it much here, but seriously, yikes.

I was particularly troubled by a few points, including:

A) The extremely brief and vague disclaimer, significantly worse than the equivalent on “Mermaids

To quote John Oliver's Daily Show coverage, "you faked a 2 hour SharkGasm and your disclaimer was 3 seconds at the end?"

To quote John Oliver’s Daily Show coverage, “you faked a 2 hour SharkGasm and your disclaimer was 3 seconds at the end?”

B) The obviously faked photos and videos that were not acknowledged as fake in said disclaimer:

I used Dr. Evil's sarcastic air quotes a lot when talking to journalists. Pity they couldn't see it over the phone.

I used Dr. Evil’s sarcastic air quotes a lot when talking to journalists. Pity they couldn’t see it over the phone.

C) Most troubling of all was the impact this documentary had on their viewers, which Shark Week actually bragged about.

I couldn't have said it better myself, Professor Farnsworth.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Professor.

5) Did any good documentaries air during Shark Week 2013? Yes! 

“Return of Jaws” and “Spawn of Jaws,” despite their titles, focused on important scientific research with implications for conservation. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly “Alien Sharks,” a special focusing on deep sea sharks. Though I’m sure I’m not the only one to have done so, I did suggest this exact thing to Discovery Channel executive Paul Gasek in a 2009 interview.

Like Craig, I would be pretty happy with more specials like Alien Sharks

Like Craig, I would be pretty happy with more specials like Alien Sharks

6) Will the record levels of criticism change the content for future Shark Weeks? Probably not. 

Megalodon represented what may be a low point in public opinion for Shark Week. Even the Daily Show got in on the mockery. However, Megalodon also led to record ratings for the Discovery Channel….

Sudden Clarity Clarence is likely correct, though I remain cautiously optimistic.

Sudden Clarity Clarence is likely correct, though I remain optimistic.

 Conclusions

I’d like to thank the folks at Upwell for helping me to develop my Shark Week social media strategy, my adviser Dr. Neil Hammerschlag for being so supportive of my online outreach, my girlfriend Stacey for putting up with me watching 3 hours of TV every night last week (not an atypical evening for us, but this time it was TV only I was interested in), and my twitter followers and Facebook friends for putting up with a flood of shark news. Until next year, live EVERY week like it’s Shark Week!