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.
Andrew, meanwhile, has gone out of her way to avoid the media, rarely granting interviews or seeking publicity—and when she does grant them, they are notoriously skimpy. A Q&A with Wired, for instance, was all of five questions, and she has never been profiled. What she does, instead, is speak directly to her followers, sharing details of her life and a brand of commentary and curation that feels at once familiar (snarky, combative) and entirely new (amazed, humble). It’s as though the sheer force of Andrew’s enthusiasm, coupled with her lack of pretension and ability to channel a childlike joy of discovery, were enough to bring millions of science geeks out of the closet—and maybe create a few new ones. If she isn’t already, Andrew is poised to be a new type of media superstar.
When I decided to profile Andrew, in August 2013, I didn’t realize I was embarking on a quest that would occupy close to a year. My plan was to interview her during her brief trip to New York that month to host IFLS Live!, a lecture based on her page that was held at the American Museum of Natural History.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how many others were interested in the woman behind the Facebook phenomenon. Tickets to the first IFLS Live! lecture, in Sydney, had sold out in 45 minutes. The New York event sold out in five. A press pass, a representative from the museum informed me, wasn’t going to happen. I showed up anyway, just to see who came.
The crowd was unlike the staid groups that typically turn out for the museum’s events. Like groupies at a science-fiction convention, they arrived wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the IFLS logo and geeky science jokes; some sported headbands with sparkly antennae. The line formed hours before the event and snaked around the block. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a.k.a. America’s Scientist, made a surprise appearance to air the trailer for his remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. But, as a video of the event on YouTube makes clear, the crowd was there to see Andrew, and it erupted in a walloping cheer the moment she appeared on stage.
“It was different from your typical I’m-here-to-learn-about-science kind of thing,” says Annalee Newitz, who emceed the event. Newitz, a science journalist who’s written three books and contributes to publications like Wired and The Atlantic, first encountered Andrew when her Facebook page linked to an old article on io9, the science site Newitz runs for the Gawker network. She was excited about IFLS—“ ‘fuck’ is one of my favorite words”—and messaged Andrew on Facebook. A digital friendship ensued.
‘There’s a lot of grumbling by traditional journalists,’ says Annalee Newitz. ‘But it’s only natural for there to be some jealousy when a new form of journalism emerges.’
I asked Newitz, who built her career by climbing the ranks that Andrew has largely skipped, if she thought she had been brought in to lend credibility to the event. “My sense was that I was being brought in because, well, Elise was a star,” she said.
Andrew’s fame seemed to emerge gradually, even though it happened quickly. Partly this is due to the fact that, in addition to her avoidance of the fame apparatus, in the beginning no one knew who was behind IFLS, which appeared on the internet prefaced only by an Isaac Asimov quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny. . . .’ ” Rumors spread that deGrasse Tyson was involved.
The page’s raw, often prickly posts lack the polish of a celebrity production—a casual, no-bullshit approach that made peers of her readers and energized their comments. A month after launch, Andrew responded to criticism of the profanity in the page’s name in typically blunt fashion: “No, our name will never change. Ever. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. But that’s irrelevant, because we don’t.” Her frequent rants followed suit: “Homeopathy, creationism, astrology etc etc are all bullshit,” reads one.
Then, in March 2013, Andrew posted her new personal Twitter account to the IFLS page, displaying a profile photo of a pert young woman with close-cropped red hair. The revelation that the force behind IFLS was someone so young, so pretty—so female—shocked thousands of the page’s followers, who commented under the image: “Dude, you’re a chick? Wtf.” “Wait . . .you’re a chick? And you’re hot?! lol.” The backlash created a media circus; Andrew felt compelled to appear on cbs, and gave a quote to The Independent. Typically, though, she saved her full-throated response for her Twitter account: “EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?” When The Guardian, National Geographic, and Scientific American wrote about the controversy, Andrew didn’t comment but tweeted the articles to her followers. Soon, she dropped the subject: “Bored with the whole sexism thing, for the rest of the day I will only be tweeting photos of nudibranches.”
In my increasingly determined sleuthing, I had identified Andrew months earlier, from a small box on IFLS listing her as the page’s creator. She’d even granted an interview, via email, to one Richard Hudson, who publishes The Chemical Blog, which he’d launched to publicize his chemical-manufacturing business. After noticing that IFLS was snowballing, Hudson sent Andrew a Facebook message, noting that he, too, attended the University of Sheffield, and asking for an interview. Since Hudson published his Q&A in September of 2012, he’s fielded numerous inquiries from bloggers and journalists asking how he managed to get to Andrew. “I wasn’t even expecting a response, but she got back to me and was like ‘All right, brilliant,’ ” he told me. “I think she was surprised that someone even wanted to interview her.”
My efforts met with less success. I sent Andrew Facebook messages, tweets, and several emails, including a long missive on CJR’s history of science writing. In the meantime, I learned all I could about my target. According to one of her more significant interviews, in Andrew’s hometown newspaper, the Suffolk Free Press, she grew up with her mother, stepfather, and brother in Long Melford, a middle-class village about two hours northeast of London. After graduating from Sheffield University, she got a job curating social media for a science publishing group in Midland, Canada, north of Toronto. With her husband, an aspiring music writer named Jake Rivett, she spent her days attending shows and publicizing his Facebook page, “I Fucking Love Heavy Metal.”
My quest became a joke among my friends, who sent me text-message updates of her whereabouts. As Andrew grew more prominent, all I could do is sit back and watch. From afar I followed her on a trip to Australia, where she posed for a series of photos with Slate science blogger Phil Plaitt, and on her occasional visits to the UK. I waited for a definite no, or even a maybe. Instead, I got silence.
If Andrew is reluctant to give interviews, she has no problem sharing personal stuff with her readers. When she married her fiancé, she posted photos of her dress and their solar system-themed wedding cake to Twitter. Last winter, she revealed her favorite Christmas gift, an anatomically correct heart locket, on Facebook. When she attends events, she’ll often post her location on Twitter, responding personally to the hundreds of responses she receives and even on occasion inviting fans to join her at a nearby bar. She’s responsive to readers who aren’t fans, too. When one called her a “liberal, freckle-faced slut,” she commandeered the phrase for her Twitter bio. On Facebook and Twitter she maintains a “crazyoftheday” feature, where she posts nasty comments in their entirety.
Though her upstart tone has helped build camaraderie among followers, Andrew’s lack of professional associations has left her vulnerable to criticism. Reddit threads exist entirely to dissect her stories, which critics say exaggerate scientific findings, focusing on the wonder of the results rather than potential flaws in methodology. A Facebook page called “I Fucking Hate I Fucking Love Science” tears into Andrew’s upbeat posts. IFLS definitely emphasizes the wonder of science over debates about methodology, etc., but not in a way that is irresponsible. And in fairness, Andrew does selectively weigh in on those debates via her personal Twitter account. To some extent, she is guilty of what plagues science-writing generally: the need to simplify and ignore the endless caveats that would otherwise make the stuff impenetrable to all the but the most specialized reader.
In a blog post for Scientific American last April, nature photographer Alex Wild charged Andrew with the more serious transgression of using his photographs without crediting him. After Wild’s post, others came forward with similar complaints. Uncharacteristically, Andrew was silent on social media. Her lack of response suggested less media savvy than I’d begun to give her credit for; it smacked of a hobbyist, someone who doesn’t hold herself accountable. Or perhaps it was a move well-played; the accusations died down and Andrew began prominently crediting all the posts used on her page and website.
Still, her huge and passionate audience can fundamentally alter the popularity of anything that Andrew endorses. In July 2012, Katie McKissick, a former high-school teacher who publishes science comics on a personal blog and Facebook page called Beatrice the Biologist, sheepishly sent Andrew a comic called “Amoeba Hugs.” Andrew posted the comic to IFLS, and McKissick’s followers jumped from around 400 to nearly 3,000 in just a few hours. “My heart just stopped,” she recalls. Over the next year, Andrew shared several more of McKissick’s comics, helping build her audience to more than 170,000 followers. “Every time she shares something, I get 10,000 new people,” McKissick says.
Both the clashes with critics and with journalistic etiquette, as well as the ability to essentially make someone’s career, indicate just how powerful—and polarizing—Andrew has become. “She’s stumbled a lot, but she’s managed to address it,” says Newitz. “There’s a lot of grumbling by traditional journalists saying, ‘Well, I had to learn to report,’ or ‘I didn’t have Facebook,’ or ‘I didn’t just get to say fuck all the time,’ but it’s only natural for there to be jealousy when a new form of journalism emerges.”
Whether IFLS is a new form of journalism—or even journalism at all—is debatable. But the operation began to resemble more traditional outlets with the launch of a website in November 2013. Unlike its creator, two of the site’s four writers have worked in journalism. But Lisa Winter, one of Andrew’s first hires, came from Andrew’s fan base. In spring 2012, Winter, then a senior at Arizona State majoring in cell biology, volunteered to curate content for a companion Facebook page Andrew was starting called “Evolution.” After completing her degree, Winter, who was tied to Arizona by her three kids and her husband’s military career, was struggling to find a lab job when a message popped onto her Facebook page. It was Andrew offering Winter a full-time job generating content for a to-be-launched science website.
While science news tends to focus on what’s “important” or “newsworthy” in a discovery, IFLS finds “what’s cool about it and tries to convey why it’s cool and how we know it’s true,” Winter explains. She and the other writers select topics to write about from a list that Andrew sends out daily.
Although she has worked for IFLS for more than a year, Winter has only met Andrew once, during a whirlwind weekend that seems almost like an accident. Just before she began working for IFLS, Winter posted to Facebook about her desire to attend a series of events at Arizona State that featured a roster of science luminaries, including theoretical physicist Brian Greene and Bill Nye. Andrew offered to fly to Arizona to join Winter at the event. Winter was excited, but had no idea what being Andrew’s date meant. “I picked her up at the airport,” Winter says, “and she was like, ‘We’ve been invited to a cocktail party, and we need to be there in 45 minutes.’ ”
After a quick outfit change, Winter found herself in an ASU auditorium, amid circling canapés, standing next to Andrew as she chatted with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “All of a sudden, Elise wandered away to get food and just left me with Richard Dawkins,” Winter says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this isn’t happening.’ ” Celebrities were drawn to Andrew the entire conference. The next night, when Winter dropped Andrew off at her hotel, they ran into Dawkins, who invited them to dinner at the hotel restaurant, where they were joined by several others, including Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the actress Cameron Diaz. Most everyone at the table except Diaz knew who Andrew was. She seemed on the precipice of fame, and yet, Winter says, they both felt out of place: “We were just total fan girls the whole time.”
Digital natives argue that the expression of self through Facebook or Twitter is more authentic than what emerges from the glossing of a gung-ho publicist and reportorial filters. Removing the media middlemen from the equation, the thinking goes, shifts the power from the gatekeepers to the readers, who get a less adulterated end product. Andrew has advocated as much: “I’d like to see traditional media being bypassed,” she wrote on Facebook last March, “I’d like to see scientists engaging directly with the public.”
But whatever Andrew’s ambition when she launched IFLS—it seems unlikely she could have foreseen what it, and she, have become—these days Andrew is firmly in control of her story. The breezy details that emerge from her Twitter account help create the image that so many millions find irresistible. “I don’t really understand why people are so interested in me,” Andrew told a Mashable reporter who caught her in the wings of the Museum of Natural History event. “I’m just a curator. I’m just telling people things I think are cool.” Assuming that Andrew really would like it to be all about the science, at some point in the authenticity-obsessed caverns of social media it becomes impossible to neatly separate the message from the messenger. Part of why people find Andrew’s observations on science interesting is because they find her interesting. If popularity is the measure of digital-media success, what Andrew has managed—a sustained virality that has transformed her from humble student to powerful media brand—is something different from the typical viral moments that flare up and out quickly. But the veneer of relatability, which drew fans to her in the first place, could evaporate the instant she joins the mass-media machine. After all, Andrew is not like us. But listening to her disembodied voice on the internet, it’s almost impossible to tell.
In July I watched (via Facebook, of course) as Andrew celebrated her 25th birthday with escapades in Vegas followed by a helicopter ride with close friends over the Grand Canyon. I had all but given up on hearing from her when, a few weeks later, a response to my year of emailing appeared in my inbox: “Thanks, but no thanks. I really don’t enjoy publicity and try to only do one or two interviews a year,” she wrote, pointing to the scant Wired interview from the July issue, followed by a smiley-face emoticon. After some pestering, and the admission that I was writing the profile with or without her, she agreed to answer some questions via email. I was reminded of a tweet that one of her followers had sent, and that Andrew had re-tweeted, in response to the agitated reaction when her identity was revealed: “[T]hey can’t stand the idea of IFLS being run by a person. You’re an idea, like Batman. Or Batgirl.” I am still waiting for her answers.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "One-woman brand."