Four Kitchens

The Future of Content episode 38: Connecting with your audience through authentic storytelling with Yale Wu Tsai Institute’s Vanessa Vidacs

37 Min. ReadDigital strategy

The Future of Content episode 38: Yale Wu Tsai Institute's Vanessa Vidacs

Key ideas

  • Find ways to be more thoughtful and intentional about the message you’re sending.
  • Human beings are wired to learn and connect through storytelling. This is something content creators should keep in mind as they speak with and create content for their clients and prospects.
  • DC Comics has a more convoluted universe than Marvel, if that’s possible.

Our guest

Vanessa Vidacs has been instrumental in building a robust communications infrastructure within the Wu Tsai Institute. With her expertise in neuroscience and data science, she brings together cutting-edge research and ensures its effective dissemination to both scientific and general audiences. By developing a strong foundation for science communication, Vanessa enables researchers to share their work in a compelling and accessible way

According to Vanessa, authenticity is the key to engaging today’s audience. Increasingly, she sees people drawn to humanistic and less pretentious moments that feel genuine and relatable. By embracing authenticity, Vanessa taps into a fundamental craving within us all. Through her work, she strives to bring the human element to the forefront, which allows audiences to connect with researchers’ stories and experiences on a deeper level

Vanessa believes that telling hard or complex stories through the lens of human experiences is immensely powerful. By showcasing the people behind the research, she makes it more tangible and relatable to the audience. It is through these human connections that the impact of scientific advancements becomes apparent and resonates on a personal level. Vanessa’s approach demonstrates that authenticity and humanity can bridge the gap between scientific concepts and the wider public.

It’s worth the effort to maintain the integrity of our content in engaging with AI technologies.

In a world filled with manufactured content and artificial storytelling, Vanessa takes a different path. She believes in the strength of off-the-cuff moments and genuine narratives. By avoiding pretentious communication, she connects with her audience on a deeper and more meaningful level. Vanessa’s commitment to authenticity helps her cut through the noise and deliver messages that feel real and honest, which catches the attention and trust of her listeners.

Episode transcript

Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!

Todd Nienkerk: Welcome to The Future of Content. On this episode, I talk with Vanessa Vidacs, the communications manager at the Wu Tsai Institute at Yale University. The Wu Tsai Institute is a neuroscience and data science startup nonprofit. Their mission is to research the intersection between neurology, and computer science, and developmental psychology, and a whole bunch of things. It’s a multidisciplinary institute. We spend a lot of time talking about how you create highly technical or academic content for a number of audiences, many of which aren’t particularly academic or technical. And then at the very end, where we really start to geek out, we talk about comics and comic journalism and the DC universe and the image universe. So if you’re into the intersection of neuroscience, data science, and comic books, I think you’ll like this one

Vanessa Vidacs: I am accustomed to meandering conversations, especially when you’re talking shop. I’m actually very excited to talk shop, because I am surrounded by research scientists and I don’t always get to talk about communications things. So this is fun

Todd Nienkerk: Right. You get to talk about what they want to talk about. That’s right

Vanessa Vidacs: Yeah

Todd Nienkerk: Never what you want to talk about

Vanessa Vidacs: No. And it’s two different jargon universes. So I start throwing out jargon, and they’re like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘Dang.’

Todd Nienkerk: Okay, what’s an example of that?

Vanessa Vidacs: An example of that? Gosh, in editing, often, we’re building an infrastructure at the institute, so it’s new. And so trying to — Who are our key authors, and what’s our editing process, and how do we really produce meaningful content and make sure the right people see it. So the messaging is not only on brand, but authentic and accurate because we’re dealing in a lot of facts, right? And so I have this whole way of thinking at the front end, there’s structural, and then you get into copy editing and line editing, and then just sort of mechanical and proofing. I’m like, we’re just at the mechanical phase, and we need to take it back up here. And they’re like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay.’

Todd Nienkerk: Interesting. I started my career as a writer and editor, and the things that I found myself having to explain to people, especially those who had very little background in any of that, was just the editing process itself. Like, how that works. That people either — at least in my experience, and this is a long… this is almost 20 years ago — in my experience, they would either show up with an expectation that they would have to do almost all of the work, and I was just sort of there to proofread or the opposite, where they expected me to do it all, right? So do you run into that a lot?

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, actually. That spectrum is fascinating, and it really depends. It depends on your space and who you’re writing for, of course. Like, what leadership. ‘Leadership,’ I say loosely. This can mean a lot of things in a lot of spaces. If you’re in a nonprofit space, if you’re in higher ed, if you’re in a corporation. And so it kind of depends on those — well, it definitely depends on those contexts. And then it’s always individual, too. And my role now, and most recently, has been as pure communications director. And there’s a lot of sort of public relations elements, and you get into these things that can really affect the image of the brand or organization you’re working for. And so you do tend to have very close contact with people. You must if you really want to understand how you’re supposed to properly convey messaging. So, again, I think it’s really contextual, but yes, it can be on both ends. And so I feel like there’s always a little bit of bringing people into the middle, but also finding out how much. Because sometimes it really does have to be a high-touch situation. And that’s okay. They do have to have their fingers right in it, or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s less

Todd Nienkerk: You mentioned that there’s an aspect of PR to this. And I think that what you said was that that aspect is having to maintain a network of people that you can then go to and ask questions. To get background? Or what did you mean by that?

Vanessa Vidacs: Well, I just mean, in the level of involvement. So as a content creator, yes, sometimes I’ve been like, ‘Here, you just proof this.’ And I’m like, ‘But wait, we have a brand. We have all of these things, and I have this expertise of SEO or design or something that I should probably put on this thing.’ And so maybe they don’t know that. And so the PR aspect in that case would be, ‘We can make this look better, and I can help you do that. We can polish this. Let me help you.’ And then there’s the other far end of the spectrum, the other way, where you do truly need them to be maybe deeply in the details. Because from a public relations standpoint, say, I can speak to it. If we had some sort of research that was very specific and even a wrong term could change the meaning or the integrity in that case, that’s another PR. So then that all affects the editing process. And so that’s what I mean

Todd Nienkerk: So let’s talk about your current role. Help me understand what you currently do, and how you wound up in this space in particular

Vanessa Vidacs: Okay, that’s fun. So, I’ll start with the first question: what I currently do. So, I am the communications manager for a research institute at Yale University. It’s brand new. Well, a couple of years in now. But essentially, it’s a startup nonprofit, and it’s bringing together many, many departments across the university to do groundbreaking research in neuroscience and data science. And it’s sort of bridging these two things. And so I was brought on as their first communications manager. And really, right now, I’m building a communications infrastructure, which is very interesting, because in my background, I’ve often come into spaces where in marketing or managing databases or websites is an established, long-established space. And so you kind of jump into it. And you already know, you’re already in it, and you have an infrastructure sort of pull from. And so how I got here. Actually, I was in Florida for many years, most of my career, and relocated up here to New Haven. And I was actually writing for the law school, and this opportunity came up, and it was so exciting for that very reason. Because it was a startup, because it was an infrastructure, and because it was new, and because it was sort of aspirational — well, it is aspirational

Todd Nienkerk: And you would get to build all of it

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes. Because having worked in many communications and content creation spaces, it’s great to often have an established brand. But come on, all of us who create things, it’s really exciting to be on the front end of something and think about what the design of that looks like. And so that’s how I got here, because I was very excited about it. It’s been a paradigm shift to be on the front end versus being immersed in the middle. And I’m sure many, many creators can relate to the startup environment. But I think this one is specifically interesting because it’s a startup environment and a long-established brand. It’s within Yale, and people know Yale, and they have visual affiliations, and so it exists and it’s something else. And so even that presents a really — I think — unique niche kind of way to create things. So that’s how I ended up here. And so, yes, we’re building the infrastructure, in short, and we’ve just built the website. Well, maybe the second phase of the website, which will continue to grow

Todd Nienkerk: And so because you’re working at a startup, nonprofit, groundbreaking research institute within Yale, you’ve got this thing that is very new and very young, that is dealing with very new technologies. I mean, data science and artificial intelligence, and all of the things that — how that overlaps with thinking and neurology and all that. But then you’re also dealing with one of the oldest universities in the country that has a very well-established brand and reputation and all of that. How do you do both of those things at the same time? In terms of communication

Vanessa Vidacs: There’s a lot of balancing and trade off and I think it helps to approach these kinds of creative endeavors with a lot of deference for what’s there, but also for the aspirational aspect of what the research institute is trying to do. Okay, so I guess that’s actually a hard question. It’s tradeoffs

Todd Nienkerk: I imagine there’s like a level of deference

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, there’s a lot of deference. And you come at it with that, and then it becomes rewarding. And I am lucky to work with some remarkable minds that want to hear ideas. And so in this space, ideas are welcome. And so then you sort of get this — there’s a lot of openness to creativity, which is incredibly exciting. And so I would say it’s just a balancing act. And because it is, because we are so new, we are lucky enough that we can kind of keep reevaluating and editing, and we have a little bit of time to establish our brand and messaging and all of those sorts of things to make it sort of fit

Todd Nienkerk: Do you think that working with people who experiment for a living makes it easier to let you experiment with what you’re doing?

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes. Unequivocally, yes. You actually just extracted whatever I was just rambling about. That was concise. That was good

Todd Nienkerk: That’s the editor in me

Vanessa Vidacs: It is. It’s true. It was one of the first things I noticed, because I’m actually new to the higher education space, and so often in nonprofits or the corporate space, the profit model drives it, and so there are different trade-offs and different priorities, and yes. So working with people who experiment all day, research, and imagine the possibilities, or try to create new possibilities, yes, that’s the way they think. And therefore you are allowed to try new things. You’re allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes aren’t necessarily mistakes, other than, ‘Well, maybe that didn’t work. So in the next iteration, we’ll try this.’

Todd Nienkerk: Opportunities

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, truly. It’s beautiful for creativity in that way

Todd Nienkerk: Ah. So now you’re working in academic research, neurology, data science, neuroscience —

Vanessa Vidacs: It’s neuroscience and data science that are the sort of over — yes, but there’s a lot more. There’s probably 30 different subjects

Todd Nienkerk: I remember there being elements of human development, and cognition, and all of that stuff. So you work in neuroscience and data science now. You worked in communications with a law school prior. I believe you also had experience at — was it an architecture firm?

Vanessa Vidacs: No. Actually, I was the communications manager for AI Florida. So that’s the American Institute of Architects. The Florida chapter. Yes. And so that was a true trade association, sort of nonprofit communications role. You’ve got your sort of straightforward events and continuing education. We did lobbying. And so there was some digestion of complex ideas there. And then the association actually publishes a quarterly architectural magazine. And so I was the managing editor for that, working with all the various parties to talk about design and building in Florida. In that way, I’ve actually gleaned a lot from the technicality of having to write about buildings and bringing it over into a research space — that translated quite nicely. Think about technical and academic, because there’s just so much more context that you have to consider

Todd Nienkerk: Let’s get into the weeds there. So, writing highly academic or highly technical content for a pretty broad audience. So, if I could extrapolate for a moment working, with the architects trade union in Florida, you mentioned lobbying. Trade unions, of course, are dealing with, probably, certification and licensing issues and laws around that. Building regulations and codes — the litigation and law around that. And then also just the technical details of, ‘What’s the new material science? What are the new mathematical models?’ Or what? I’m sort of making this up. And in this space now, with neuroscience and data science, you’re dealing with, well, I mean, computing and modeling and stuff like that. And these audiences, I’m sure, thinking back to your experience at the trade union, you’re probably writing to architects, lawmakers, civil engineers, right? Now, it’s probably, obviously, the researchers themselves who are very academic and technical. But there’s an element of the general public as well, right ? Because a big part of higher ed is that you want to make your work accessible and known to the world and not keep it in the ivory tower. Am I moving in the right direction here?

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes. That is all 100% correct

Todd Nienkerk: Okay, great. Tell me about all these audiences. And, like, how do you write and create content to all of them?

Vanessa Vidacs: To all of them

Todd Nienkerk: Or how do you pick who? Maybe that’s the first question. How do you pick —

Vanessa Vidacs: — Who you write to? That’s a great question. In the case of — let’s talk about the architects association. A trade association is made up of architects, and so you’re talking to yourself. There’s a little bit of an echo chamber. The trade association is representing their interests and talking about their work, and so there is the training and all that. So the specifics of that, that’s always easy. You’re talking to your own people. The same translates over here at the research institute, because our members are researchers. And so we’re talking to each other, to ourselves, to talk about what’s coming, what’s next. So that’s easy. I think all of us writers, we kind of know, like, when we’re in our space, that’s kind of the low-hanging fruit, right? That’s the inner circle. The circle is just that ring, as it goes. And then you’ve got the people who are engaging or have activities with. And so it does become a different voice, a lighter voice. You’ve got to take it out of the weeds. You’ve got to elevate it a little bit to say, ‘A) Why would you want to engage with this community?’ Because this is community engagement. This is a community of architects who wants to rally people, support the industry. Over here, this is a community of researchers with a very specific mission. And so these are interest groups, essentially. Both of their sort of structure — very well defined. And so I think in that case, when you want to bring people in, then it becomes an invitation and also your go-to marketing tips when you’re trying to recruit or engage another audience, but it’s an adjacent audience. And so then you’re still a little in the weeds, but you can come up a little bit more. And then you’ve got the external parties, or we’re not quite at the public yet. I think you’ve got the people who engage with the industry on the architect side. It’s like your builders, people selling materials and textiles or software, like when you go to a convention, right?

Todd Nienkerk: Yes. The trade show floor

Vanessa Vidacs: The trade show floor. It’s them! And they are probably pretty savvy to terms and various jargon, but they’re still mostly kind of general public. So you want to take it up even another level there. And then you have a public, who is, I think, say, on the trade association side, maybe a legislative or a niche kind of reader or audience. Over here you’ve got the science-interested public. So even then, it’s still not all the way general. And so I think you have to layer it and consider all of those sort of steps. Making it accessible across those is always a challenge. But I think there’s trade-offs, depending on who or what you’re talking to, and when

Todd Nienkerk: And when this mention of the trade show — let’s see if there’s a metaphor here. So it sounds like you’ve identified four layers. Maybe there are three, but I think maybe I picked up on four. So if we think about writing content, creating content for a professional community — let’s think about a professional conference. So you have the people speaking. That’s the innermost circle. You can’t get any tighter and closer than that. Then maybe there are — I don’t know, maybe there’s the audience. So maybe they’re not thought leaders or speakers themselves, but they deeply engage with the content. I’m not sure if that’s the layer you were going for, but then you get the vendors and sort of the ancillary people who hang out around the edges of the business. They’re providing the software, and the hardware and the services, and all of that. And then there’s like the interested public. That sort of that’s a fun thing to do. ‘I’m interested in this maybe as a career.’ Whatever the reason, they buy a ticket and they kind of wander around and they soak it all in, right ? Yes, that’s interesting. Of course, the conference itself can be content. But do you feel like that model is a useful way to conceptualize the layers of working with an expert audience? Or expert content, I should say?

Vanessa Vidacs: I do. I think it helps. Because then you can look at — because I think oftentimes — I’m going to answer this sort of backwards. Oftentimes when you’re in an expert content space, the content is bespoke, and so is the way that they do things. It’s sometimes difficult to innovate the way they communicate, or push their boundaries, or even get them to just move into a more functional communication space. And so I think that’s the sort of thinking of the audiences — because it’s always about your audience — what are we doing? If you don’t have an audience? Who are you creating content for? That’s the point. So you always consider your audience. That’s a hard and fast rule. At least I’m approaching it that way. And so then, that way, you can look around in all kinds of spaces and say, ‘Here’s this, these are two different things.’ But if you look at how they shared their content to this audience, in this audience and sort of roll it, you get all kinds of inspiration all around you. Because what I’ve learned in working in many different niche spaces, I mean, just had to be a very good generalist. But there are these parallels, and there are these sort of just really simple — that simple parallel, I guess. Looking at the audiences in that way, I find a lot more ideas for how to convey difficult content because sometimes the tried-and-true methods don’t always work. And so you really do have to be creative with it, I think

Todd Nienkerk: Let’s get into that. What does that mean to you — ‘getting creative’ with this kind of content? Do you mean like different formats, or different media, or different voice, or —

Vanessa Vidacs: — Or the narrative or the way you tell the story. Yes. If we’re talking about — even both architects and research scientists in both spaces — they are very visual for all kinds of reasons — various reasons. Who doesn’t love a good graphic or video? Obviously. But I think there’s a way, when you’re talking about something incredibly complex, to use the visual to tell a story with your words. And you can also really guide the narrative. But the way to do that, I don’t think is always obvious. And then we’re always dancing with trading off with functionality and true accessibility and making sure that it works. When you’re in a digital medium like a website. Considering manpower and things like that. I think having a lot of examples, the more examples, the more ways that you can extract what’s the cliche, right, like all great artists feel to some degree, or you’ve got to collect your inspiration from around. You’ve got to sort of take it in. And so through that filter, I think it makes it a lot easier as a creator to take things in and then push it back out in a way that might apply in these niche situations

Todd Nienkerk: Is there an example that you can think of offhand of a particularly difficult concept that you’ve had to convey and how you were able to do that?

Vanessa Vidacs: Let’s see. Well, we’re currently in — so we’ve just built this website. And at the research institute, we’ve just built this website, and we’ve got a pretty sound, basic infrastructure of content that gives a good snapshot of the organization. But because it’s new and because it’s a research institute, it’s going to grow — it’s going to have facilities and tools and all of these sorts of things. There will be more of a story to tell. So we have much more content coming in. And so I think the other element of this that goes to this example is they’re research centers. They’re very specific. They’re so bespoke. There’s really nothing else named this. There’s nothing else doing it quite this way. They aren’t quite doing it yet. They’re just building it. And so with no pictures — no actual photography of the very specific kind of research and how they’re collaborating to display — to tell a story about that, or even give a layperson, just like, ‘Oh, okay, that kind of makes sense.’ The way that I’ve tackled that with little information and little actual real-life examples is the way you structure the content. And so it matches when you make these things parallel. So they’ve got the three research centers. And so they’re structured in this one way. And then the tools will fall under that. And you go there and you read it, you’re like, okay. But intuitively, you start to realize that these things are connected, like as a user, as a consumer of the content. And so I think the very sort of abstract of that is the way that you structure it so that you can start creating correlations, even when you don’t have a hard story to tell or a picture to show. And that’s where branding comes in really well, and I think colors can come in really well. And when you think of web design, just making things the same, so that as the person moves through it, these cues start to come to be — and the more times they visit, and so on and so forth. So I use that sort of technique when I’m dealing with things that are just incredibly difficult to even talk about yet

Todd Nienkerk: And it sounds like the concept of ‘constraints actually breed creativity’ apply in this context as well. When you have branding guidelines that you have to follow and patterns that you use to convey concepts, if you have a totally blank canvas, where do you start? Right? But if you have something that actually says, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that, and maybe do this instead,’ then you can actually a better product emerges. Always

Vanessa Vidacs: Always. Yes, I think that’s true. Yeah

Todd Nienkerk: I’m curious if — and this is like a very in-the-weeds question — but when you’re working with highly academic neuroscience and data science-related research, I imagine that the visuals that you have to use are conceptual and metaphorical. And not, I mean — how many photos of, like, a processor can you put in an article? So how do you navigate creating these visuals to keep content interesting? Everybody loves a good visual

Vanessa Vidacs: Yeah

Todd Nienkerk: How do you avoid cheesy stock art of people pointing at a screen? Right? How do you do it?

Vanessa Vidacs: A very good photographer and a very good designer is how you do that. So that’s interesting. I am in the middle of this project now — going through and creating visuals for the organization across the board. Our own sort of in-house stock, as it were. But that thinks about all of these elements of our brand that we want to put into it — the lighting, and it’s got to be sort of authentic, and all the things that we sort of have the groundwork for. And it’s funny you say that because on a photo shoot, actually, we were in one of the labs, and working with a photographer. He’s very talented. And he’s like, ‘Well, how many pictures of a microscope do you want me to take?’ And like, I was like, ‘Well, you know, maybe we could just, like, get up close, right.’ Like, because they shoot there — the institute, their whole thing is the circles, you know. All these circles. And I was like, ‘There’s so many circles in here, let’s start making well-lit photos of abstract circles.’ And he’s looking at me and he’s like, ‘All right, I can work on that.’ So you do — you have to really think, and then you sort of get these photos, and they’re interesting only insofar as how you’re going to use them and how you’re going to frame them and how you can fit it into the brand. So that becomes a bit like a puzzle, honestly, playing with the abstract nature — and especially when you really want because we wanted our visuals to be photographies, but, like, real, you know, and/or scientific images, which we don’t we don’t quite have yet. We’re still building, you know, and we’re building up to it. Yeah. So you do a lot of silly things. And I think being open to being playful — it’s hard

Todd Nienkerk: We work with a lot of universities and schools, and the vast majority of the photography that we receive, it’s buildings and classrooms. And, in a world where there’s so much remote learning, when does the building stop appealing to you? Right?

Vanessa Vidacs: Right. I know. Well, this actually makes me think of — because I’ve worked in other marketing spaces for trade associations, legal and financial — there’s only so many ways that you can make a virtual panel discussion about, I don’t know, bankruptcy law compelling or find a graphic for it. And I think in those cases, truly, brevity is important. Get to the point, and give them the thing that they need because the user or the audience have come there for a reason. So in those cases, when you just can’t, then don’t

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, because otherwise it’s going to look cheesy. Right. Otherwise it’s like — because we can all clock stock photography from a mile away. It’s obvious

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, deeply obvious

Todd Nienkerk: Deeply

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Todd Nienkerk: I was speaking with somebody who does a lot of admissions and high-level communications for universities. So, the university-wide-level communications. Like, this is our school, right? The whole school. And, they were talking about how a lot of schools are still stuck in the mindset of emphasizing the history or the impressiveness of the campus, and the tradition, and the main building. And it’s a lot of that. And I couldn’t help but think — I went to the University of Texas — and so the iconic building, there’s, the tower in the center of campus. There’s this video that they produced, I don’t know, probably 15 years ago at this point, but it was a helicopter flyover from I-35, which is the interstate that cuts Austin down the middle. And it’s, you know, you hear this gravelly voiced narrator, and it’s actually the voice of the telephone enrollment system, which is long gone now. But it was something I had to deal with when I was there. You’d call and hit numbers to register for classes. So there’s this guy — TEX — the Telephone Enrollment Exchange. He’s doing the voiceover with the helicopter. He’s like, ‘Sometimes you just got —’ That kind of deal. And it’s, like, kind of sped up, and then, of course, it makes this bank, and then suddenly, the campus is revealed, and then the tower lights up orange, and it’s just sort of dramatic. And honestly, you kind of get, like, a little bit of the, ‘Yeah, I’m part of that thing. That’s a big tradition. It’s a big school, and it has its flaws, but — ‘ But it says nothing about the people or the programs or the academics. It’s sort of at the same level of football. Like, big building. Football. It’s just such a blunt kind of tool

Vanessa Vidacs: Listen, I went to Florida State. I know all about that

Todd Nienkerk: Oh, you know all about this stuff. Yeah. Especially state schools, they’re all really into this kind of thing. But this this person I was I was talking to, was explaining how universities have to stop doing that stuff. Because, especially students now, you know, 20 years after I was a student, they they just like — none of that is appealing. It’s just seen as like, ‘So what ? That isn’t me. I don’t see myself in this sort of like, I’m a part of a tradition, you know? Who cares?’

Vanessa Vidacs: That’s right. Yeah. I think of something important, actually. I’ve got to jump in here. So I think now, more than ever — so my kid is 23, and they tease me all the time. Some of my photos, they’re like, ‘Mom, what filter did you put ? No.’ There’s this — like they’re horrified. I look nice. No, anyway, so there is this craving for authenticity in a way, and what that looks like. And I think that it comes in the form of what is human. They respond to a much more humanistic, less pretentious, off-the-cuff moments or more candid moments. And that’s actually one of the notes I had, when thinking about telling hard stories or complex stories, or getting an idea or, like an aspiration across. It’s hugely powerful when there is a human doing it in the visual. And now people just respond to that in a way. I don’t know if it was some of the deprivation of the pandemic, but I think we’re all very hungry for seeing something just happening. But like truly happening

Todd Nienkerk: Something that doesn’t feel manufactured. Yeah, and thank you. That’s exactly where I was going with that, was the notion of authenticity above all, and how students now particularly crave that. And how a shaky, vertical handheld video of somebody walking across campus, filming themselves talking about the experience is immensely more powerful than a — who knows how much it cost to hire a helicopter to do a night shoot and light up the tower. I mean, come on. But that’s the kind of thing that people seem to identify with

Vanessa Vidacs: And I think the audiences — all audiences in general, because media is kind of a water hose — have gotten savvy about when there’s other interests at play. And so they’re kind of parsing out who paid for this ? Or who’s going to get paid for this?

Todd Nienkerk: That’s so true. It’s so true. I wonder if that generationally is getting magnified more and more, because I get the feeling that my parents — there wasn’t a lot of the ‘Yeah, but who’s paying for this?’ feeling. There was some of it, but not a lot. And I know I feel like I definitely think about things like, ‘What are they trying to get me to do? Like what’s what’s the agenda here?’ Right. So people who are, you know, 10, 20, 30 years younger, it must be just that much worse. They must approach everything from some — it’s not cynicism — it’s just kind of like, ‘I just want to understand where this is coming from.’ Do you see that when your kids aren’t telling you what filters not to use or use, do you pick up on anything like that from them?

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes. Well, there is an abundance of cynicism, actually. But maybe a craving for something that would give them a different narrative, or a different perspective, or something that isn’t completely — I think it keeps coming back to the canned. Just like when you’re making the donuts, as it were, as a content creator. When we write something, oftentimes for efficiency, we just take all of these bites of the thing that we wrote and we package it up and we just blast it out on all the different channels with its hashtags, and its keywords, and all the things. I think just a cynicism at that. Again, it’s just like a more manufactured — there’s not a true person. They don’t feel like there’s a person on the other side of it. Because it probably wasn’t. It was probably scheduled

Todd Nienkerk: Yes. Well, actually, that leads me to another topic I wanted to pick your brain about a little bit. Let’s talk about AI

Vanessa Vidacs: Okay

Todd Nienkerk: So the idea of there being people behind it — what if there are literally no people behind it? So I’m just curious, how do you see AI technologies like Chat GPT impacting your work and impacting academic content? Research content?

Vanessa Vidacs: It’s fascinating. And I am actually optimistic, and I say fascinating in the sense that because it can change so rapidly. I mean, because it’s literally sort of, you know, depending on whatever the algorithm is, you know, it’s soaking up new information at, you know, just insane, you know, rate. And so it’s fascinating because it’s going to change — I mean, literally right now, in 20 minutes, it could, you know, I could be completely out of date in what I’ve said, in my perception of it. But me, I think I think I’m optimistic. I think it could be a really powerful tool for thinking about brainstorming and just ideas and concepts quickly. Come on. There is a huge squeeze on content creators to make it fast and make it good and make it correct and make it stylish

Todd Nienkerk: Yes. And unique. Because you can’t just copy-paste

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, you can’t. You actually can’t

Todd Nienkerk: No, you can’t

Vanessa Vidacs: It’s no good

Todd Nienkerk: They’ll know. They will know

Vanessa Vidacs: They will know. Yeah. So, I think something like this could truly help. But I think that the primary concern is the integrity of it. Where did they get this information? And how do we maintain the integrity of our content and engaging with it? I think those are the trade-offs. So I think it could be an amazing tool, but how are we going to balance the other side, the integrity side of it? But I do think a lot of people get very afraid that some sort of AI is going to just replace all these content creation roles. I don’t think that’s true. Again, the humanity in things is obvious. And even I’ve tried them. They’re fun. They’re a lot of fun. But when you really dig in and you read it, you can tell. You can tell there’s something off or something. And maybe it will learn. That’s just the whole point. It will learn. Maybe. There’s a lot of things that have to happen, to coalesce, for it to truly do what our brains do. So, again, I remain optimistic that it can be an awesome tool to create new ideas, or to solidify ideas, or even just to come up with a quick concept so that you can move through your creation process more efficiently. I think the integrity of it is important, especially for the visual artists. I was a little shook up by the software that was basically stealing art and making pictures with it. I love art in all of its forms, but I’m a huge comic book nerd, and I just followed tons and tons of comic artists, and it really sort of hit them immediately. It left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, so I am concerned about that to some degree. Yeah

Todd Nienkerk: Interesting. I don’t know if this is going to be true or not, but I’m also not worried about this. I think that there’s an increasing demand for content, and I think part of that is just that we use that word a lot differently than we did even a couple of years ago

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, we do

Todd Nienkerk: Right? Yeah. Okay. Content is anything that you consume, which is kind of the whole point of this podcast. So I’m not complaining, but I don’t think that AI is going to somehow make writers obsolete. I think that it will cause a bit of a shift into the editing skill set. Right?

Vanessa Vidacs: Yes, that’s right

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah. Because it’s a little bit more about curation, it’s a little bit more about editing. But it does, like — what a jump start. I’m no historian, or technologist, or anything, but I can’t help but think about the post office and how it used to work with the Pony Express. Well, we didn’t stop having mail deliverers when the combustion engine was created or the steam engine was created. They just delivered on a different vehicle. They just had a different job. It just changed. And well, if the coal mines shut down, where do the coal miners go? Well, there’s such a high demand for installing solar panels and all the other types of energy capture. There’s still a business in energy. It’s just the jobs have changed. They’ve moved to a different technology. It doesn’t always necessarily mean that there are fewer jobs or fewer roles for people. Part of that might be a little naive, and I’m probably overlooking many examples to the contrary, so I don’t mean to do that. But yeah, I agree. I agree with your perspective. And you mentioned comic books, and I really want to get into that for a moment, if you don’t mind

Vanessa Vidacs: Okay. Yes. Anytime

Todd Nienkerk: So, great. Wonderful. Do you think that AI will be able to draw feet at least as well as Rob Lightfield?

Vanessa Vidacs: And that’s how you know a human didn’t do it. If you know any artist, hands and feet are like the thing. Yeah. No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so, because there’s so many things. Think about this. There’s so many things that go into drawing. There’s vision. There’s taking in the room. There’s light. There’s the tactile experience. Those are many, many functions, and I don’t think the AI is quite there to replicate those things in that way. I don’t actually know, but I don’t think that that’s true. We are able to just capture something and take in so many more inputs, and spit it back out in an immeasurable number of ways. So that’s my long answer to no. I think hands and feet are hard, too hard, and there’s maybe too many components here to figure it out. But when they do yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be a while

Todd Nienkerk: So I bring this up because I looked at your LinkedIn profile and it said that you are ‘an experienced comics journalist who particularly enjoys the DC Universe.’ So this isn’t just a nonsequitur for anybody, you know, who’s listening. I’m not just randomly bringing out a comic book. Comics journalism, and we’ll get to the DC Universe in a moment. But tell me, like, how long were you — are you still doing comics journalism and how long have you been doing it?

Vanessa Vidacs: Okay, so I started. I’m not currently very much. I was freelancing for a little while, but it’s definitely tapered off in the past couple of years. However, I started in 2009. I launched a blog with one of my friends, and we just, we would go to lunch every week and get our comics on Wednesday and we would sit around and talk about it. And then we launched a blog. And we definitely had a feminist bent to it. And we talked a lot about Wonder Woman, among many other things. And it was sort of a total fangirl experience. But both me and my friend are actually decent writers. And so, as niche communities tend to be, there’s a network that starts to build. And someone reached out to us and they were like, ‘You want to write and write for real? Like for a website?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I do.’ So, yeah, actually for gosh, what was it? When did I start ? 2010. For seven years, I wrote for Newsarama. They had a review column, and so the issues would come out. You write a review. And it was a great time. I absolutely loved doing it. And yes, I was partially — very partial — to the DC Universe. My Marvel knowledge is much better now, actually. And Image Comics

Todd Nienkerk: Okay, I definitely want to talk about Image Comics. But I have — DC Comics. They did that thing back in, oh, was it the ’90s, where they wound up fracturing a lot of the the titles and they became, like, kind of difficult to follow? And, like, that’s when I — I couldn’t track it at that point

Vanessa Vidacs: DC, quite honestly, is the most convoluted universe of all the comic books. I mean, even if possible, even more than Marvel. But it’s kind of what makes it amazing. And it’s a lot campier. And you think about their heroes — a lot of it is sort of bled over into each other. And some of them are analogs to each other in the other universes. So there are many parallels. But DC just has this — like, brighter colors, more absurd characters, honestly, but great. The stories are sometimes harder to tell, I think, because they’re really out there. And so it hasn’t always held up very well over time. There was a previous world, I would say the ’80s is when we had as just like, consumers, a lot more tolerance for campiness and sort of playfulness and things like that. And now we’re so much more serious

Todd Nienkerk: I’m thinking of the character, the alien character from the Superman titles, with the unpronounceable name

Vanessa Vidacs: John Jones, Martian Manhunter?

Todd Nienkerk: No, it started with an X, and it looked like somebody just hit a keyboard. And the whole joke was like something along the lines of, like, ‘You can’t say my name!’ I’ll look it up later

Vanessa Vidacs: Yeah, look it up

Todd Nienkerk: In terms of, like, that campiness and the playfulness

Vanessa Vidacs: Yeah, well, yes, those sorts of things. No. So one of the only Batmans that I like at all — because I just think Batman is an absurd character — but Grant Morrison, his Batman, who’s probably the most absurd version of Batman. He’s like a genius, and he’s got this, like, great detective mind, and that sort of defines the character. And so in Grant Morrison’s Batman, Batman was most worried about someone compromising his mind and using him as a weapon. And so he created a failsafe in his head. So it was like a trigger that would turn him into this sort of absurdist — it’s called the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. It’s very strange. And he wears, like, purple, and he doesn’t really speak in, like, full sentences. And it’s great! But it’s brilliant, if you think about it. You’re like, ‘Oh, man. Yeah. What if someone did get a hold of Batman?’ That’s, I mean, in the DC comics kind of way?

Todd Nienkerk: It makes sense right now. I have to look that up later

Vanessa Vidacs: That’s fascinating

Todd Nienkerk: Image Comics. I sort of left the comics world in probably the late ’90s. And I picked it up a little bit again in the mid-2000. And I was very pleased to see that Image was still doing stuff. What is your attachment to Image, and are they still around, or are they still doing things?

Vanessa Vidacs: Oh, absolutely. So Image, their business model is creator-owned, and so there’s a whole different business model. But what you get out of that is a more pure, sequential art story narrative. Always. Sometimes the books take longer, but that’s okay. I’m willing to wait. The model of having these monthly books, or however long they’re doing them now, because I’m not getting weekly issues anymore, it’s not sustainable. If you really want a good, creative, sort of melding of artist and writer — I mean, so many times a DC book that I was obsessed with — you’ve got to shove in a filler artist who, okay, they’re talents. I couldn’t do that either. But also they’re not Cliff Chang. So there’s that inconsistency. And because it’s a visual art, I think it really takes you out. Image often doesn’t have that problem because they’ve got two creators coming together — a writer and an artist or a team. And then they just do it at their own pace. They decide the story. If it does well, then it continues on. But, I mean, great examples of this are Saga, which is Brian K. Vaughan, and Fiona Staples — actually, the artwork is back there on my wall. These two people, they made something beautiful and strange and occasionally controversial. You also don’t have the whole constraints of archaic holdovers from the common code and the kinds of things that pull out, which I know is not a thing anymore, but is still kind of a thing. And I think it’s in the culture of yes. And so Image doesn’t, you know, image sort of transcends that because it’s a more creator-driven process. And I just think you get better product. Another one of my favorite stories is Chew, which is John Layman and Rob Guillory. There’s just lots of cases where you just get a pairing and then it works really well, and then you’ve got a series. I mean, sorry. The Walking Dead is a great example of a creator-owned story just going on and becoming something huge. That’s a really big thing. But yeah. So Image makes books like that. And for that, Image is fantastic. And they are still around. They are still making books

Todd Nienkerk: That is fantastic. I remember when they first kicked off, and it was just so radical. And the things that they were doing were just so refreshing and different. And to see people like oh — where do you see comic books, graphic novels? Where do you see that headed now? Especially given the omnipotence of the Marvel universe and just their hold over film?

Vanessa Vidacs: Well, I wish DC would keep trying, and I wish they would try better. Not that Gal Godot isn’t the best thing that’s happened to them, maybe ever. She does make a fine Wonder Woman. I’ve been wondering that, and it’s true. Marvel just has this, essentially, a stronghold over the collective consciousness. And it’s just taken more like people can just relate to these characters now more for some reason, human beings still will always be obsessed with Batman. It’s inexplicable. But I don’t know. I think that there have been a lot of fluctuations. And comics as a medium has had many struggles as far as how best, like, the weekly issues, is that frequency even sustainable? That kind of print and how to deliver it to people and the digital model and things that have cropped up and popped down. And then you get into the whole content control. Because, I think, initially there were some digital providers, and now both DC and Marvel have their own. And you’re always going to have holdover fans like me who, yes, I subscribe to the DC one, so I can read all the DC Comics that I want whenever I feel like it. But I don’t know how you get the new person in without film. And they’ve sort of just, I mean, they’re continuing to try and compete, and maybe they just will continue to do so. And they’ve got the characters. So I think that it will continue on. I think it will continue on. And content formats are going to actually drive how we see our favorite characters. And, yes, I think Marvel does have — they’re the champs in the film space. And so maybe DC tackles another space. I mean, their animated films are fantastic. A lot of them are so fun. We regularly buy those, and I get excited to watch them. So they shine in other ways. And so I think that maybe there’s hope for at least that universe in a different format

Todd Nienkerk: It would be fascinating to see how you could integrate VR storytelling into a comic book universe

Vanessa Vidacs: Oh my God. That sounds so fun!

Todd Nienkerk: If they’re going to explore new spaces. Hey, DC, cut me in. I want in on that

Vanessa Vidacs: Cut me in a room where I could beat up Batman

Todd Nienkerk: Yes. Oh man. Well, is there anything else on your list or in your notes that you wanted to cover or make sure that we talked about?

Vanessa Vidacs: I think that we talked about a good lot of things. No, this was fantastic. This was fun. I love talking about — you pointed it out earlier about what content is. I hear myself saying it, and I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ But there’s so much under the umbrella and so many ways to skin the cat that it’s always fun to opine

Todd Nienkerk: Yes, that’s why I love doing this, and love talking with people like yourself, who, like most content creators, have a very interesting background and history with content. It’s never just the thing that they’re doing now. There it’s always been a dozen or two dozen things in their past, you know, like comics journalism. It’s content creation. It’s just a different topic. That’s it. And a good content creator works with any number of topics and any number of media. Well, thank you so much, Vanessa, for joining us. If you want people to reach out to you, how can they best do that?

Vanessa Vidacs: You can occasionally find me on Twitter because I still use Twitter. I didn’t abandon it because there’s no other format like it, and I think it will survive. You can find me on Twitter. Yeah. @Vanessa.Vidacs. That’s my handle. And I say occasionally, because I am a content creator. I’m one of those people whose profile isn’t always terribly populated because I’m doing everyone else’s, right?

Todd Nienkerk: Exactly. It’s cobbler’s children, right? Have no shoes. You’re too busy writing content for everybody else. Can’t write your own. Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. This has been great

Vanessa Vidacs: Thank you.