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I’ve seen the future – and it squeeks and Tweets!

tombstonemouse

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but over tha past year or so there’s been a media revolution – at least when it comes to the reporting and coverage of space missions and activities. “Mouse Media” is here, and here to stay.

For decades the print and broadcast media have essentially had “space” to themselves, and have covered shuttle launches, spaceprobe encounters and the scientific results of space missions lightly and often seemingly grudgingly, too. We’ve all watched as coverage of shuttle launches shrank steadily; back in the Challenger days we often got to see the full countdown, even launch preparations. Now we literally just see the moment the shuttle lifts off the pad and that’s it, and even that glorious moment is talked over by the newsreader. The Mars rovers have been Artoo’ing and Threepio’ing around Mars for five years now – five years! – but you wouldn’t know that from the TV news programmes, in fact there wasn’t a single mention of the 5th anniversary of the MER landings on any UK news program I watched. Not one. Cassini is still flying around Saturn… other probes are either orbiting or closing in on the Moon and Mercury… and what do we see on TV? Nothing.

Unless something goes wrong with a mission, giving the TV news people a chance to laugh at the misfortune of the ‘boffins’ involved, the amazingly successful ongoing reconaissance of our solar system is a non-story. Even the previously reliable and science-friendly cable station CNN has given up on reporting space properly, as they showed by sacking their internationally respected correspondent Miles O’Brien, a journalist who “gets” space probably more than any other and who has covered space missions for many years in an enthusiastic but knowledgeable way that has helped probably millions of other people to “get it” too. So of COURSE CNN got rid of him! Seems like CNN thinks there’s no need for a Miles O’Brien in this celebrity-obsessed, shallow world… except there is, people Out There still want to know what’s going on Up There. Idiots.

No. Any space enthusiast relying on the TV for their information is going to be sorely disappointed.

Things are a little better in the world of print. The “big” monthly astronomy magazines are still on the shelves, and are always packed with colourful pictures and fascinating articles, but they suffer from the same problem they have always done – the time delay between an astronomical or space-related event and the actual publication of the magazine and its coverage. There’s still, essentially, a two or three month gap between an image being taken by a spaceprobe and it appearing in SKY & TELESCOPE or ASTRONOMY or ASTRONOMY NOW or THE SKY AT NIGHT MAGAZINE or any of the other monthly publications. And for the vast majority of space enthusiasts and armchair astronomers, that’s just waaaaay too long…

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Newspapers then? Naah, not so much. It’s the same old cliche – if something goes wrong with a space probe, a shuttle or an astronaut, then bang, it’s on the page… but if everything is going smoothly with a shuttle flight, or a space probe encounters a comet without mishap, then the best a paper’s readers can usually hope for is a paragraph, maybe two, and a single grainy picture if they’re lucky. But if Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan gets into a limo and “accidentally” flashes the world a glimpse of their underwear… or worse… hey, stop the press! We’ve a new front page!

Which is a bit pathetic really.

Today most people with an interest in space don’t get their information from the TV or the pages of newspapers or magazines, they read it off their computer monitor, having found it on one of the countless gazillions of space-related websites available for browsing on the internet.

This only happened after a previous revolution, of course. In the Old Days… the days when there was no internet, and people were still impressed by the graphics of “Pong” and “Space Invaders” (remember the awed “ooh!”s and “aah!”s we let out when “Galaxians” appeared? Ah, happy, innocent, naive days…!)… we had no choice but to rely on the TV and magazines for our space news. When the Vikings landed on Mars and the Voyagers screamed past Jupiter and Saturn, because we had no alternative, we accepted that we’d have to wait 3 months for a National Geographic special issue showing us the pictures they took. We scanned the shelves for it every day, desperate for it to appear, and when they finally appeared we grabbed a copy off those shelves so fast there was almost a sonic boom! I fell in love with Mars whilst reading a “Viking on Mars” special, and it’s over there on my groaning bookshelves right now, as I type this, battered and a little raggedy-looking now after all these years of being read and re-read and sighed longingly over…

But then Pathfinder landed on Mars, at just about the time the newborn Internet was breaking out of its shell and taking its first gasping breaths, and Everything Changed. People with net access could go online and see pictures taken on Mars by the original “plucky little rover” just a day or so after they were taken on the Red Planet itself. It was a sensation, the first global “net” event, and although I wasn’t online myself yet I was a part of it thanks to some generous friends who printed off pictures for me and stuck them through my letterbox for me to drool over. And I did.

After Pathfinder, and the brief, mayfly life of Sojourner on Mars, things would never be the same again.

By the time the rovers Spirit and Opportunmity landed on Mars, anyone with net access could browse a huge number of websites and get all the information they could possibly need from them. Every space mission – well, every space mission worth its fuel – now had its own homepage; every space agency and major aerospace company had a web presence; engineers and scientists involved in the missions started writing articles for those websites, sharing their knowledge and experience with anyone interested enough to click on their link. There were soon countless galleries of space images online too, each with hundreds and then thousands of pictures. Anything you wanted to see, or read, was on a website somewhere.

Then web users stopped being browsers and started demanding a more personal experience and a closer relationship with the space missions they followed and the people involved in them. The Message boards of the early internet age – with their eyesight-ruining “trees” of posts – had been replaced by “web forums” – online communities where people who shared an interest in / passion for / obsession with space exploration and astronomy could hang out together ‘virtually’ and swap stories and experiences and just enjoy following planetary encounters and space missions with people like themselves. Soon forums like “unmannedspaceflight.com” were boasting memberships of thousands, and every new picture and scientific result was being dicussed globally.

By 2008 the “Blog” was everywhere, and the net could almost be heard groaning beneath the weight of hundreds of thousands of the “web logs” or online journals where people – not just amateur astronomers or armchair astronauts, but writers, scientists and “insiders” too – posted their thoughts, pictures, poems or whatever else they wanted to share with the rest of the world. Soon the “official” websites of space missions featured blogs written by the mission’s scientists too, giving readers amazing insights into what was going on “behind the scenes” before, during and after important events. Of course, this encouraged people to write on their blogs about the things they read and saw on the ‘official’ blogs… and suddenly the line between “official” and “enthusiast” started to get very blurry. 

But then, last year, something happened. Something new. A little blue bird fluttered down from the cyber-sky and started singing “join me, join me!” …

Twitter is a “social media” site – another kind of online community where people with similar interests and passions can come together and hang out, swapping messages, photos and news. But unlike MySpace and Facebook, where people can write page after page of self-indulgent ramblings, Twitter messages can only be 140 characters long, so the messages have to be “short and sweet”. Soundbites, really. Of course, a lot of “Twittering” is personal and banal… news about pets, what people have had or are having for lunch, how school went that day, etc etc… but that’s okay, it helps people stay in touch. But Twitter has now been embraced by the astronomy and space enthusiast community – and, more importantly, by NASA too – and is in danger of making the conventional media reporting of space redundant and irrelevent, because now, using Twitter, not only are the people involved in the space missions ignored by the TV news and the newspapers are sending information directly to the computers of the people who really want it (and there are thousands of them) but the spacecraft themselves are using Twitter!

They’re not actually using Twitter, of course, spacecraft can’t type, silly, but people working on the missions are now writing Twitter posts – or “tweets” – as if they actually were from the spacecraft, bringing them to life and giving them character. Now, almost every NASA space probe, space shuttle and space mission has its own Twitter page, followed by thousands of eager fans.

(The key word there is “Followed” – you have to sign up to “Follow” a mission – or any Twitterer – by clicking ‘Follow’ on their page; after that you’re sent their messages automatically every time one is posted. It couldn’t be simpler.)

So, now you don’t need to turn on the TV and hope the BBC or ITV or CNN mention what’s happening with your favourite space mission. What’s the point, when the space mission itself will send you an update every time something interesting happens!

Twitter has definitely changed the way I follow space missions and keep up with what’s happening in the world of space exploration. “Getting up to date” used to mean checking my favourite dozen or so “space” websites for updates and news, which wasn’t exactly a quick process. But now, ah, now I just have to go to my Twitter page and  if anything exciting has happened to or with NASA’s major missions, there’s a message for me giving me the bare bones of the story and providing me with a link to full coverage of the news itself. If one of the rovers finds something new, it sends me a Tweet to let me know (I literally had a Tweet five minutes ago from one of the rover drivers letting me know that Spirit has FINALLY had some of that frakking dust blown off its solar panels! See below); if the HiRISE camera onboard MRO spots something incredible on Mars, it tells me itself; if… well, you get the idea. And if you don’t, then here are some examples of  spacey “Tweets”…

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What brought about this revolution?

Well, it’s not a “what”, more of a “who” actually.

If anyone is responsible for the conquest of the space exploration world by that little blue Twittering, tweeting bird, it’s JPL’s Veronica McGregor, who came up with the idea of using Twitter to keep people updated on developments during the lander’s studies of the martian north pole last year.

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I was one of the thousands and thousands of people following the Phoenix probe’s stay on Mars via Twitter, and I sensed at the time that something interesting and special was happening. Somehow a collection of metal struts, cameras and solar panels had come to life on Mars and was… well… talking to Earth, sending heartfelt messages home, for its extended family to enjoy. Messages like this…

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What made it all the more fascinating, and poignant, was that Mars Phoenix knew it was going to die on Mars – it was only designed to have a limited lifespan – so there would inevitably come a time when the probe would have to say “Goodbye” to all its followers. How would it do that? What would its “famous last words” be? In the end, as the ice chilled the probe towards death, it sent back a farewell message – written in binary – that has rightly gone down in the history of the internet as one of the all time great Tweets.

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If you don’t read binary, that’s a single word: TRIUMPH!

And with that one word, with that heartfelt, heartbreaking au revoir from the Red Planet, Twitter became The Way to spread the word to space enthusiasts, and the public, on the Internet. Fitting then, that at an awards ceremony in New York earlier this week, Veronica accepted – on the Phoenix lander’s behalf – a “Shorty Award” for Best Scientific Twitter of 2008. 

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I asked Veronica McGregor about the significance of her Twittering.

 Why did you decide to Twitter Phoenix?

I started the Twitter feed because I thought it would be a great way for people to follow the landing.  We were landing on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. and a lot of people are out on vacation at that time.  Twitter updates can go directly to people’s cell phones, so here was a new way to keep people informed.  And, it was free!  I really didn’t think past the landing — the goal was simply to let followers know if Phoenix had landed safely.

And what was it like as you watched the number of Followers climb, and you realised that Phoenix had really taken on a “character” for many thousands of people?

The day after landing I realized I had a lot more work to do!  Our followers had doubled, from 3000 to 6000. The next day we had 9000.  The greatest reward was reading the tweets that came in to MarsPhoenix.

Everyone was incredibly supportive of our use of Twitter to keep them updated on the mission.  I was inundated with questions those first few days and I remember being up till 1am trying to answer them all. At one point I asked if I should “direct message” or DM the answers because I didn’t want to over tweet (and inundate people’s text messages on their cell phones).

Within five minutes I had 100 responses, every single one of them asking me to post the tweets publically because they all wanted to see the answers.  It was incredibly gratifying to be connected directly with the public and be able to provide answers about the mission. If I didn’t know the answer, I could email it to a team member and they were wonderful getting back to me quickly with responses.  I never anticipated that the first person tweets (i.e., the MarsPhoenix character) would take off the way it did.  I tried doing the tweets different ways, pre-landing, and I simply got more responses when they were done in first person.  I would get the occasional “who is really doing this?” question and I was quick to answer (on the public timeline) that it was being done by the JPL news office. I wanted to be sure no one was feeling misled.  That became even more important to me when I saw the numbers continue to climb.   I can’t completely describe the character of MarsPhoenix other than to say it was like a kid being let loose in a candy store, or a space fan let loose at JPL.  I used to cover JPL when I worked at CNN and every time I went to cover a story (Galileo, Pathfinder, MGS, etc) I would leave in awe of the work being done there.  Doing the Phoenix character in a way brought me back to those days with all the “wow” moments it was feeling.  Oh, and I should add that I was learning quite a bit of gamer vernacular from responses from MarsPhoenix followers.  That’s how Phoenix started to incorporate FTW (for the win) and w00t into tweets.

Finally, what do you think is the value of Twitter for NASA, JPL and other space agencies/projects/individuals, etc?

The value of using Twitter was (and still is) having direct contact with the public over a longer period of time.  The news media cover our missions during major mission events or a major discovery.  On Twitter, people were learning what goes into operating a mission on a day to day basis.   I received many tweets from people saying they had never before known about  the amount of work, the round-the-clock schedules of the team, the planning for contingencies, etc. etc., in short all the incredible work that is done by a team to make a mission a success.  One person wrote that the tweets were just the right amount of information he wanted to know about a mission on a daily basis.

Twitter also opened a way for the public to send questions directly to a mission team.  It was an eye opener for me to see the types of questions people wanted answered.  They were not necessarily the same questions we would expect from the news media. In fact, people wanted far more detail than what the media provides.  That insight alone made me rethink information we need to include in our news releases and other products.  

Lastly, the Twitter audience following our mission is a relatively small size (there are 41,000 on MarsPhoenix) and a newspaper in any  medium market probably hits the same number of people.  But the QUALITY of the interaction was so much better.

 And at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about: INTERACTION. If I look at my list of Twitter sites I follow I can send messages to The Hubble Telescope, HiRISE, Mars Rovers, MSL, Space Shuttle, LRO, and many, many others. The most prolific and accomplished space and astronomy writers are on my list too, as are organisations, companies and specialists. They Tweet me, I can Tweet them too. Interaction. Things Have Changed. From now on, simply putting out a Press Release or a Statement is not going to be enough. Now people don’t just want “updates” on an official website, they want to feel like they’re a part of the actual mission, a valued member of the team. Now people aren’t content to sit on their hands and wait for the next issue of SKY & TELESCOPE or ASTRONOMY NOW, they want to hear the news as it happens. They want to feel Involved.

So, forget the TV for space news from now on. Forget just checking in on official websites. Enjoy monthly magazines for the articles and reviews, don’t count on them for news. Get yourself signed up to Twitter, start Following the missions you’ve heard and read so much about, and really become a part of this incredible adventure.

It’s always been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. That may well be true. But in 2009, the mouse is mightier than the pen. And Twitter is its sword.

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Want to start Twittering? Here are some sites to get you going…

http://twitter.com/MarsPhoenix

http://twitter.com/MarsRovers

http://twitter.com/MarsScienceLab

http://twitter.com/CassiniSaturn

http://twitter.com/CarnivalOfSpace

http://twitter.com/NASA

http://twitter.com/LRO_NASA

http://twitter.com/astrobiology

http://twitter.com/NewHorizons2015

http://twitter.com/MESSENGER2011

http://twitter.com/mars_stu  <—– that’s my page! Drop by and say hi! 🙂

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2 Responses

  1. […] Effects of Exit Pupil from Sean Welton and David Gamey. Squeeks and Tweets in the Future at Cumbrian Sky by Stuart Atkinson. —— Dust Up Between the Stars, from Paul Gilster at Centauri-Dreams. […]

  2. Hey guys check out this new website celebmemorial.com In memory all the celebrities that died it’s got videos and stuff really nice!

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