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Rovers Are From Mars: How Curiosity Is Killing It On Twitter

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 23, 2012

Twitter wasn’t built to give voice to Curiosity, the rover currently exploring Mars, but it’s awfully well-suited for the purpose.

One of the risks of science experiments taking place on other planets, after all, is that people lose track of them. We forget they’re up there. We know they’re doing something, but we don’t really remember day to day all the things that the engineers and scientists are trying to do with them, and when they come home, absent some major piece of news (“Our rover has discovered 8-track tapes on Mars!”), it almost seems like nothing happened. It brings new meaning to the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.”

Enter @MarsCuriosity, the Twitter feed that is, as of this writing, followed by almost 1.1 million people. As Morning Edition discussed a couple of weeks ago, Curiosity’s feed is run by three women who work in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Stephanie Smith is one of them, and says of Curiosity in that report, “Thinking about her as the most advanced, biggest, most complex robot Earth has ever sent to the surface of another planet, and she’s got a rock-vaporizing laser on her head, I think she’s got some well-earned bravada.”

What’s so smart about the way Curiosity’s feed has been run is that it mixes lots of science and information – particularly links to photos and videos that show what the rover is up to – with expert manipulation of everything about Twitter that’s engaging and social. Curiosity started her time on Mars with this tweet: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”

It’s a small point, but the “I am in you” construction is familiar on Twitter – I know it from people like actor Wil Wheaton, who employs it whenever he travels to announce where he is – and using it made Curiosity seem instantly at home, even on Mars. She seemed to come from social media, not just to it, and when you’re promoting or publicizing anything, that’s hugely important. Everybody has seen companies on Facebook that don’t understand what people want from Facebook, or companies on Twitter that think followers want them to retweet every nice thing anyone says about them. (No. No, no, no.)

Honestly, when any large organization starts a Twitter account, it’s easy for it to seem like it’s being run from a boardroom or the marketing department, but the Curiosity feed sounds, well, human. It has a voice, which is a very different thing from just having a brand. Curiosity seems to have pals – Neil deGrasse Tyson and Mythbusters – who are just the ones you’d expect, but she also follows and just about everyone with any connection to Star Trek. She comes off as a sort of smarty-pants enthusiast herself, having tweeted about things other than the mission – the PBS Mr. Rogers remix, for instance, which is just what the science nerds Curiosity is cultivating were talking about at the time.

Curiosity is full of surprises. She posts a picture of the tracks of a turn and references the Electric Slide. And in my favorite Curiosity tweet ever, she says, “Yes, I’ve got a laser beam attached to my head. I’m not ill tempered; I zapped a rock for science.” She appends a photo, then adds the hashtag #MSL for the Mars Science Lab, and then this: “#PewPew.” Face it: that is the cutest rover making phonetic laser noises you are ever going to see. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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