17 March 2023

Harnessing the power of TikTok for science communication

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Screenshot of a Terra Explore video discussing a (then recent) earthquake showing a Ground Motion Visualization (GMV) produced by EarthScope Consortium (formerly IRIS).

By Emily Zawacki

TikTok catapulted in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and has now come to dominate the social media landscape. With over 1 billion monthly active users, science communicators have the potential to capitalize on TikTok’s success and share their science with a broad, engaged audience.

On TikTok, users consume and create short-form (~15 s to 3 min) videos on their mobile phones. In addition to a Following feed, TikTok has an algorithmic For You feed to watch videos, which uses an AI recommendation system to deliver videos they think the user will like, while interspersing diverse content.

Science communication specialists at EarthScope Consortium (formerly IRIS and UNAVCO) and OpenTopography first created a TikTok account “Terra Explore” in October 2021 to evaluate the potential of TikTok for geoscience communication. We primarily made ‘lecture-style’ videos, where a front-facing host speaks directly to the viewer while explaining a geoscience topic using background visuals. Using TikTok’s account analytics, we analyzed each video’s metrics to determine the qualities of a successful video.

Within the first four months, our account gained over 12,000 followers and our videos (48 at the time) amassed over 2.1 million views. 95% of these views came from videos that were shown on users For You pages, demonstrating the highly algorithmic nature of TikTok. While the exact nature of TikTok’s algorithm is unknown, our findings suggest that a video likely needs both high engagement (likes, comments, shares) and a high average view duration to receive high reach and be promoted within algorithmic feeds.

Screenshot of a typical Terra Explore video using TikTok’s “green screen” effect to add background visuals.

Our videos that had the highest reach focused on a recent newsworthy event, like an earthquake, or discussed specific location-based geology. Videos on earthquakes provided real-time information often with novel visualizations, with comments expressing that the users enjoyed the information overview and how it was conveyed. We hypothesize that location-based information was used to deliver videos talking about the geology of a specific location to many users For You pages. For example, videos talking about fault creep in Hayward and Hollister, California were shown to many people who lived in those cities, based on user comments.

Our experience demonstrates that TikTok provides significant potential for the reach and growth of science communication content. TikTok has also spawned a new wave of short-form video content on social media, with Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts working to replicate TikTok’s success. Science communicators can harness this new form of media to present science in an approachable, relatable way, using algorithmic feeds to reach new audiences.

Dr. Emily Zawacki is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Arizona State University