NASA is no stranger to social media. The space agency has been actively working to reach out to the public over the Internet for quite some time now. But NASA seems to have reached its high point so far in social media when it comes to the Mars Curiosity rover. The rover’sTwitter feed currently has over 930,000 followers, and its Facebook page has over 250,000 fans.
One of the things that makes these pages so engaging and popular is that they’re written in the first person.Curiosity, it turns out, has quite the brassy personality. She litters her twitter feed with pop culture references, tweetspeak, and a bold attitude.
Behind that brassy personality are three women working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Veronica McGregor, Social Media Manager; Stephanie L. Smith and Courtney O’Connor, both Social Media Specialists. I had a chance to talk with the entire team on the phone today about their challenges and successes in being the voice of the largest spacecraft ever to touch the surface of another world.
One key thing, of course, is to understand that Curiosity isn’t the first Mars mission to have a Twitter feed. Most of NASA’s missions do, and the rovers, in particular, have personality. McGregor took on the task of tweeting on behalf of the Mars Phoenix lander in 2008 until it was confirmed that it had stopped broadcasting in 2010, and she explained why the rovers have personality.
“Back when Twitter was new, we tried tweeting both ways – in the first and third person. We always got more feedback when we were in first person. It’s also an advantage given the 140 character limit – ‘I am’ is a lot shorter than ‘The spacecraft is.’”
“It’s easier to anthropomorphize rovers,” added Smith. “The cameras make it look like she has eyes. So it’s tempting to think of the rover as a bodacious chick on the surface of another planet with a rock vaporizing laser on her head.”
“People love the personality,” said O’Connor. “She’s the biggest spacecraft ever sent to the surface of another planet. So of course she has confidence instead of a meek, timid personality. If you see the rover herself, you can tell she has a powerful voice.”
Well, that explains the voice, I thought. But what about the movie quotes and pop culture references?
“The pop culture references and song lyrics come from the fact that we have fun together!” O’Connor told me. “We like to bring that into the voice of the rover.”
“I basically only communicate in old movie quotes,” said Smith.
One thing that I personally can’t help noticing about Curiosity‘s feed is its willingness to use the ‘tweetspeak’ of hardcore Twitter users – which is unusual for a Twitter feed with that many followers. For example, here’s what Curiosity tweeted upon landing on Mars:
I asked the team what kind of feedback they’ve received from that.
“By and large, it’s been extremely positive,” Smith told me. “Our audience has given us permission to be more human, casual and approachable. Although I admit that when NPR’s Science Friday called [Curiosity chief scientist] John Grotzinger Curiosity‘s ‘bff’ I did ask myself, ‘what have we wrought?’”
“We’re not trying to make science sound like fun,” explains McGregor. “Because science IS fun! The feed reflects how the team talks to each other, as well as the hopes and dreams of people here at JPL. We want people to realize that science is fun.”
“We’re keeping it real,” added Smith.
Even though they’ve been maintaining a fun tone, the team did admit to me that the popularity of Curiosity and its social media presence has been somewhat of a surprise.
“We definitely exceeded expectations,” said McGregor. “But then, we were surprised at the popularity of Phoenix. Maybe that excitement was always out there, and it’s only now that they’ve been able to share that love of space.”
Despite the team’s confidence, reflected in the brassy personality of Curiosity‘s twitter feed, they were definitely nervous and planning what to do about Monday if the rover’s complicated landing system hadn’t worked.
“With anything this complicated, were were all nervous and eating our lucky peanuts during the landing,” said McGregor. “Because the feed is written in the first person, if she hadn’t been communicating, we would have been silent. So you would have seen tweets id’ing themselves as [mission control] giving the status. We always have a plan for how to handle this type of situation. But luckily, we didn’t have to. It worked perfectly.”
And the team intends on sending the data and pictures from Curiosity as long as the rover is operational. Indeed, there’s one picture in particular that Stephanie Smith is excited about.
“This isn’t happening for a while,” she said. “But when the arm is deployed, there is a suite of instruments, including the MAHLI camera, which can take pictures of its surroundings. That camera can also turn around and take a picture of Curiosity. And you know what that means? Profile pic!”