In retrospect, I could easily have ignored the picture that appeared on my Facebook feed on a lazy Sunday two years ago, labeled simply “Sand under a 250x magnification.” Cheesy, I thought, glancing at the post, not noticing until my nose grazed the monitor that I’d leaned in closer to look. The grains looked like tiny manmade sculptures, ceramic bulbs of fuchsia, orange, and beige. The gee-whiz appeal of the image was sort of embarrassing, but the result was unquestionably beautiful—and the 5,000-plus people who debated its authenticity in the comments section, calling it, variously, “bullshit,” “impossible,” and “stunning, just stunning,” seemed to agree. In total, 102,832 people “liked” the image, which had been shared by a six-month-old Facebook page with an unforgettable name: “I Fucking Love Science,” or IFLS.
In its early days, the page focused on science-themed memes and jokes culled from around the Web: A photo of the sliced-apart central and peripheral nervous systems, a tangle of stringy sinew accompanied by a goofy joke—“So, it turns out that deep down we’re all just flying spaghetti monsters”; an image of the sun as an imperceptible dot in a galaxy, labeled “Just one of billions.”
Soon, it began including newsier finds, like the recurring listicle “This Week In Science,” which recounts fantastic scientific achievements—the discovery of an enzyme that could produce hangover-free beer, for instance, or a study showing that 14 adults had been “functionally cured of HIV.” The page has never suffered creationists, climate-change deniers, or their ilk. In early August, after a wave of scare stories about the resurgence of the Ebola virus, IFLS linked to a breakdown of how the virus works and an estimation of the slim likelihood of its spread through the United States with a curt note: “Seriously guys, enough with the fear mongering.”
Though the page already had over a million followers when that grain of sand caught my eye, I hadn’t heard of it and knew nothing of its creator. What I did know is that writing effectively about science is tough, requiring reporters to turn complicated papers into cautious prose that’s often dry. Science writing for a mass audience seemed almost impossible. That fall, I had started a graduate science-writing program that began with a two-week “boot camp” in physics. While my classmates grew excited as we worked our way through quantum mechanics, my boredom with the dense formulas made me feel like a fraud. I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. Then, as if on cue, IFLS began occupying my Facebook feed. The posts were captivating. IFLS declared, with no hint of irony, that science was amazing—and in desperate need of a digital-age evangelist to spread the word.
‘[T]hey can’t stand the idea of IFLS being run by a person,’ one fan tweeted when controversy erupted over Andrew’s identity. ‘You’re an idea, like Batman. Or Batgirl.’
Elise Andrew was hardly who I expected that evangelist to be: a 22-year-old college student from suburban England, armed with a nearly completed degree in biology and no experience in journalism, who began a Facebook page to share her passion for science. From that simple premise—one that must be repeated dozens of times each day on Facebook—has come a phenomenon unlike anything the media world has seen.
Since it launched in March 2012, IFLS has attracted more than 17.9 million Facebook followers—more than Popular Science (2.7 million), Discover (2.7 million), Scientific American (1.9 million), and The New York Times (8 million) combined. Its following is larger than those of the world’s two most prominent science communicators: Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson (1.8 million) and Bill Nye The Science Guy (3.2 million), both of whom are fans of Andrew’s page. Her empire has since expanded to include a website, IFLscience.com, which has a staff and publishes news stories, and a television show slated to start on the Science Channel this fall.
Unlike other visionaries who have been celebrated as journalism’s self-made digital-era brands—I’m looking at you, Ezra Klein and Nate Silver—Andrew has built her brand entirely without the assistance of mainstream media. Klein and Silver are described as a new kind of journalist—entrepreneurs of new media—but both relied on traditional outlets to broaden their appeal and bolster their credibility, Klein at The Washington Post, Silver at The New York Times.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "One-woman brand."