I’m closing in on Mars! Who is going to sleep tonight? Not the team, too excited/scared/anxious seeing 5 years of work come to this last day.
– 7:45PM May 24, 2008 from @MarsPhoenix
Does anyone remember seeing that tweet from the “MarsPhoenix” Twitter account last year? Probably not, because it was one of the updates posted before landing when relatively few people were following. During the initial days of the account every post felt like shouting into the wind, hoping that people might take notice and listen.
By landing day (one year ago this weekend) 3,000 people were following the mission’s tweets through atmospheric entry and touch down. The post-landing tweet, “Tears, cheers, I’m here!” reflected the scene not on Mars but in mission control where the Phoenix team literally laughed and cried knowing they had 90 sols of hard work and discoveries ahead of them. One discovery had just been made: a new way to communicate news of the mission using Twitter.
When I say, “communicate, ” I don’t mean simply pushing pithy updates to the public via the relatively new (at the time) Twitter. To be honest, that was my original intent – to post updates on the landing — but it quickly took on a different life. You see, while you were reading the updates posted by MarsPhoenix, I was busy reading the @replies. And the @replies changed everything.
@MarsPhoenix About what time will we receive the first pictures here on Earth? — May 25, 2008 from ElbridgeGerry
@ElbridgeGerry Earliest I can send home pictures is 6:43pm PDT. Will take pics of myself (solar panels, legs) so engineers know I’m OK. – May 25, 2008 from MarsPhoenix in reply to ElbridgeGerry
Marsphoenix has started replying to people asking questions of it. Does it [get] better (or cuter) than this? I think not. — May 25, 2008 from @Arturus
For people familiar with Twitter this is the magic it creates: an exceptionally easy way to maintain a conversation that can be accessed by any number of followers. Many of the questions (or “@replies” in twitter lingo) were from people who had never followed a space mission before. I know this because that’s what they told me — over Twitter. And sure enough, the questions and comments directed to MarsPhoenix showed an insatiable thirst for understanding the mission and why we were going to Mars. So when followers questioned the logic of using a retro-rocket landing system versus the proven airbag system, a tweet could explain that choice. Similarly, when people saw the first images and griped that NASA had sent a black and white camera to Mars, MarsPhoenix was there to explain color filters and how they worked.
The airbag landing method works well for smaller vehicles. I’m more than twice the size and weight of a Mars rover. – May 25, 2008 from MarsPhoenix in reply to foomandoonian
Why black and white? These are engineering images. But don’t worry, I have 12 filters and can do full color pics, too. Be patient! — May 25, 2008 from MarsPhoenix
And when things went well, we all celebrated together.
Couple of hours ago, the Phoenix Mars bot (via my Twitter feed) told me it was snowing on Mars. The magnitude of that message made me happy to be a human. – Sept 29, 2008 from howardabrams
Once the conversation started, people started joining. The number of followers doubled and then doubled again in less than a week. For the rest of the extended 152-day mission, the MarsPhoenix account turned into a discussion of how and why we explore Mars. For me, it was an eye opener into the type of information the public was craving. As a former journalist I’d always prided myself in knowing what information the media wanted. Now I was getting a lesson in the type of information the public wanted. Questions like these were asked and answered almost daily:
@MarsPhoenix: how can you tell the difference between water ice and carbon dioxide ice, other than a spectrograph? — June 19, 2008 from AtomicThumbs
@MarsPhoenix: What language are your programs written in? – May 28th, 2008 from Zorkfox
@MarsPhoenix: how does the TEGA create such intense heat when you generate only 230 watts per day? Where does the power come from? — June 6, 2008, from brittmce
How did the interaction on Twitter impact the way we do things? For one, news releases and mission status reports were often tweaked to incorporate answers to questions coming in over Twitter. More Twitter accounts were opened for other missions and we sought out new ways to plug in directly with the public. Using Ustream.tv, now we’re doing live interviews with scientists and engineers using questions submitted in real time through the ustream chat box. We held a tweetup in January for 150 Twitter followers who “tweeted” their experience at JPL to their 50,000 followers. We hope to do another tweetup at JPL this summer. And we continue to look for other new social media venues that provide an opportunity for meaningful interaction.
Almost 39,000 people were following MarsPhoenix when the final tweet on behalf of the lander was sent on November 10. That number may seem low, but the “second-order” followers (followers of the followers) gave the account a potential reach in the millions when major milestones were tweeted and “retweeted.” At the time the mission ended, MarsPhoenix ranked as the 7th most followed account on Twitter. To put that in context with the phenomenal growth of Twitter in the past twelve months, the 7th most followed account today has over 1.1 million followers – a number we can and should aspire to as we go forward in social media. Mike Massimino is well on his way to getting a NASA account there with over 345,000 followers on Astro_Mike.
And what about those “twitter quitters?” A recent study (April 2009) from Nielsen Online found that more than 60 percent of Twitter users stopped using the site one month after joining. Even worse, it claimed the retention rate “for most of the past 12 months, pre-Oprah, has languished below 30 percent.” Many people criticized the study as flawed since it did not capture Twitter users on third-party applications. I was curious whether people who followed MarsPhoenix from the start reflected the Nielsen findings so I went back to look at the first followers – a group of 65 people who started following MarsPhoenix on May 9, 2008. Of the 65, only 5 had not updated their Twitter account in the past week. Most had updated in the past 48 hours. So while it seems certain that a large number of people drop the service, perhaps the lesson is that people will stay if they find a worthwhile conversation. And we have many great conversations to share.
The fact that MarsPhoenix responded to my question really made my evening, in a dorky science nerd kinda way. Thanks! – Aug 26, 2008 from Toph
@MarsPhoenix Thanks for the tweets (past and future). I admit I would not have paid nearly so much attention to you without them. — Nov 10, 2008 from johnbaxter
Watching Discovery-Mars: A Quest for Life. @MarsPhoenix has slowly been getting me fascinated with space exploration again. — Nov 1, 2008 from citygentleman