Blogger Boris Tsatsulin on Science Writing, Kamchatka and Memes
Four years ago, Boris Tsatsulin launched a channel on fitness and sports supplements; gradually, he expanded its scope to different fields of healthcare, nutrition, and sport: calories, macro- and microelements, the dangers of sugar and salt consumption and health care myth-busting. As of today, more than 120,000 people have joined his community on VK, and more than 275,000 watch his channel on YouTube. The author continues on with his project - recently, he's been to Kamchatka to gather more content for his blog, which he plans to develop while studying at ITMO's Science Communication Master's program. We've talked to Boris about the most successful formats and topics, clickbait headlines, criticism and other aspects of his work.
You started your blog in 2013; how did it all begin?
Back in school, I paid much attention to chemistry and biology; I wanted to enrol at the Department of Biology of St. Petersburg State University. I got in, but didn't like it much, so I decided to try medical sciences. It didn't go well, too, so I understood that it's not my thing. So, I entered an economic university, where I had enough time to develop my blog.
How did I pick up blogging? I had problems with my spine (I actually still do, I have scoliosis), so I read a lot about it, special literature and different information on back therapy training. I had a problem - pain in the back, my limbs getting numb, and the doctors weren’t much help, so I just had to do something. As I already knew the fundamentals, it was easier to search for true data amongst the abundance of false methods and ineffective programs. I liked that, so I started to write a blog, share what I’ve learned.
Bloggers often change their format at a certain point. Did you experiment with that?
Initially, my format was similar to lectures - presentation plus my voice; other formats were too complex for me at that time. Surely, I tried introducing some artistic techniques, for instance, I tried to make an allusion on dystopian novels in my video about artificial sweeteners. Yet, the audience's response was quite weak, and it also hindered the informative element of the content. So my format never changed since - I focus on providing information.
Many science writers believe that video is the most efficient medium of content distribution. What do you think?
It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you need to attract attention to some topic, you can just bombard the reader with memes. If you want my personal opinion – which I formed while working with my audience – memes - in the format they exist in on social media - have no educational merit. They just raise awareness, like news headlines. Yet, if the goal of the project is to raise the literacy in what has to do with the subject, memes and short posts in social networks can only remind people about the problem, nothing more. In cases when you have to give people the information they continuously use in their real lives - yes, the video format is the best of what modern media can offer. Yet, you have to take account of your audience as well - some skip long videos, and some even prefer text. Still, the video format is amongst the most efficient, I agree with that.
What information sources do you use?
In general, everyone likes references to the Cochrane Collaboration, as most believe that they have the best meta-analyses and the most relevant information. Yet, relying on the Cochrane Collaboration has its drawbacks: they have a particular number of articles planned for each year, so sometimes they release the strangest information so as to comply with it, only to disprove it next year.
Thus, one has to use many other sources, as well. Google Scholar, PubMed, cited magazines in relevant fields - that would be the standard choice. Surely, it's not as easy as it sounds, but there are certain selection criteria one can use.
I always try to read through the whole material, and that takes quite a lot of time. Usually, it takes me a week or more to write ten pages.
A couple of months back, you did a review on a Meduza (a Russian-Latvian online newspaper -- Ed.) article about the benefits of drinking non-alcohol beer after exercise. As a result, the article was removed from the website, and the editor made apologies for publishing it. Why did you decide to pay attention to this matter?
Many people wrote me on this subject and asked if that was true. I myself heard about it several times, so I decided to learn where did all this come from. Well, from the beer manufacturers who are highly interested in such a piece - though it is about alcohol-free beer, it promotes the brand as a whole. I was amongst the people who gave their opinion on this subject and pointed out the problem. It all ended well - the article was removed, and the money for its publication was returned to the sponsor.
That was a success, wasn't it? Participation in such hard-hitting topics must always be good for bloggers.
The topic and the content were specialized, so they weren't interesting to a larger audience. This was not about AIDS/HIV denialism, vaping or stimulators - the topics I focus on now; this was just a response to my viewers' requests, as I got many messages about it.
Per your experience, what are the topics that interest your audience most?
Myth-busting. Curiously enough, the topics related to veganism and rawism made a hit, as well. I was asked to puzzle it out, though I never expected the reaction I got. Reviews on sports nutrition were also a success; though it's a tight market, most of those who go to fit clubs are interested in it. There was a good response to reviews on steroids, myths about slow metabolism and the like. In general, it is always about myth-busting.
Bloggers are always criticized for something. What is it in your case?
I get lots of criticism from vegans. The subject itself is quite new, and I can't say anyone has 100% reliable data that allows us to say something for sure. Yet, there's the evolutionary history of hominids' diet, the food culture of consuming products of animal origin. Domestication of animals and dairy product consumption had its effect on human genetics; in certain regions, the natural selection favored lactase persistence - the mutation that allows digesting milk in adulthood. All of that is very complex; yet, many adherents of veganism don't mind that. They mostly have two arguments: "I took up a particular diet and I'm feeling all right" and "scientists lie". Any other arguments don't work for them.
Anything more meaningful?
Rarely, but sometimes people write to me about imprecisions in what has to do with numbers. Actually, I like criticism. Once I was told of a mistake I made when writing about glycemic index - I only started writing then, and I didn't have enough experience, so the level of the content was not very high. Now I'm doing a new piece on this topic, which will be a lot better.
This year, you entered the Science Communication Master's program at ITMO University. What do you expect from it?
Like-minded people, interesting projects. Naturally, I'm interested in meeting specialists in different fields. Surely, I already have many different contacts, but networking is always good.
Flora of Kamchatka
You've recently returned from Kamchatka. What did you do there?
Well, I didn't set myself a task to film as much for my project as possible. This was a scientific expedition - we collected herbarium specimens of the local plants, and defined the habitats of plants from the endangered species list.
Personally, Kamchatka was a most interesting experience: we saw bears, slept in tents, walked for, like, 12 hours a day and hiked nearly 150 kilometers on foot. We've been to places where there are almost no people: only bears' tracks and animal remains. We saw the carcass of a beached whale with vertebrae twice as big as my head. There, I experienced and saw things urban dwellers can never encounter; those who've been on long treks know what I'm talking about. I didn't use my cellphone for eight days, and when I did, it felt really strange. Do you remember the last time you left home without one? New experiences, complete immersion into an absolutely unfamiliar lifestyle gives great insights. After such trips, you get to understand both the immense power of human progress and the helplessness of a human in the face of nature without it. It is a very valuable experience.
Will you use anything of this material in your blog?
As of now, I'm finalizing the video about suntan. During the expedition, many of those who didn't use sunscreen got sunburned, though most time, it was cloudy and rainy, cold wind blew from the sea. In such conditions, a regular person would think: "It's cold, there's no sun - how can I get burned?". Yet, that is a great misconception. Humans can't feel UV radiation, yet it doesn't go anywhere because of that, so one has to protect themselves even if the sun doesn't exactly shine.
I don't have a personal blog, and I don't want to turn my channel into one. Yet, I still want to use what I filmed in Kamchatka, maybe make a piece on trekking food. Still, that would not be about my personal impressions, rather using them for the blog's main subject. I think they will work better in this format.