Tag: Twitter

570 million kilometres in 140 characters or less

This article was originally written for the ScienceRewired blog in the lead up to their launch event, “Connect, Collaborate and Communicate for Change” at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on October 11, 2012. It is reprinted here with their permission, in part as a late tribute to Ada Lovelace Day – the team behind the Curiosity twitter account are certainly all women I consider heroines of science!

The Curiosity mission is one of the great successes of current science. Oh, sure, it’s impressive they landed a nuclear-powered science-lab-in-a-robot safely on the surface of Mars – but I’m talking about their success at capturing – and more importantly, keeping – an audience.

Millions of people around the world stopped to watch, listen or read about the Curiosity landing as it happened (or rather, about 14 minutes after it happened; Mars is a long way away). But many – myself included – knew about Curiosity’s safe set down thanks not to television, radio or even world wide web – but straight from the rover herself, via Twitter:

Now, of course Curiosity isn’t composing and sending tweets across those 570 million kilometres (though it’s a tiny data packet, so I suppose she could if she wanted to), but the official Twitter account was a stroke of genius: @MarsCuriosity picked up over half a million extra followers on the day of the landing, and continues to grow in popularity. She’s made it into the top 1,000 most followed Twitter accounts, with nearly 1.2 million followers.

As if that weren’t enough, Curiosity’s twitter account also succeeded in that other important Twitterati metric: spoof accounts. Spoof accounts subsist on the popularity of their target; sometimes they are loving, sometimes scathing, but the Curiosity spoof accounts all served to boost the signal of their parent – and none more so than the still very successful @SarcasticRover. With almost 100,000 followers, it’s doing its bit to connect real science to everyday people – with jokes.

…okay, most of its tweets aren’t about actual science. But the jokes do often reflect the images sent back from (and tweeted by) the real deal, and it adds extra emotional context to the mission.

And that’s what makes these fake Twitter accounts of a real robot on another planet succeed: emotion. Personality. After all, it’s the characters that really make a story connect with us: no matter how well told the tale, it’s when we care about the people in it that we truly care about the story. You see it in the continuing cult of personality surrounding the few true celebrity scientists; in the fond memories people share of The Curiosity Show; in “NASA Mohawk Guy” (aka Bobak Ferdowsi) stealing the show during the live video stream of the Curiosity landing. And you definitely see it in the way people love an anthropomorphised Mars exploration robot, mediated by Courtney O’Connor, Stephanie L. Smith, and Veronica McGregor. Facts are important, and science should aim to be objective, but science engagement succeeds best with a personal, emotional tone – something at which social media, and Twitter in particular, excels.

The Tweet Heard Round the World

As excitement was building the other day over the imminent announcement from CERN regarding the Higgs boson, the incomparable Simon Pampena wrote a topical tweet rewriting of a Bette Midler song: “God is watching us from a Planck distance.” I was inspired to write my own tweet:

I’ve been on Twitter for three years, I’ve gathered a modest army of followers, and I’ve had a few good gags in that time. But for some reason, this tweet really took off – it’s been tweeted over 100 times according to the Twitter site, though it’s proving quite hard to discover exactly how many people have seen fit to pass it on. I just wanted to mention it here for posterity, since Twitter is fleeting, rather than eternal – and to give Simon his due as my inspiration. He’s a funny guy. You should follow him.

Comedy Festival news

It’s been an action-packed first week of the Comedy Festival, not least because it culminated in my 30th orbit round the sun. As we head off on another elliptical, gravity-powered journey, I think back on the last thirty years in wonder. Who knows where we’ll be in 2039?

Let’s focus on a smaller interval of time, though. First, I must report that the first night (Thursday April 16) of the Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour has sold out! A couple of the other nights look set to go the same way, so be sure and book (via comedyfestival.com.au) to avoid missing out. Watch out for myself and the other tour guides popping up in various media over the next week or so, as well!

I’m also appearing in the Anarchist Guild Social Committee show, A Fine Selection, on April 12 and 19. This may well be the last hurrah for these sketches, so come see them while you can!

If like me you’re not just a science geek but geeky in general, you may enjoy my column for Comedy Festival paper The Pun. It’s titled Ben McKenzie’s Geek Comedy and it’s about…well, geek comedy! The first article explains everything so don’t be afraid.

Finally, for those who don’t know, your favourite lab coat wearing man about town can now be found talking nonsense on Twitter. No, not Rob Morrison: me! Find me under the fairly obvious user name labcoatman, where you can read what I’m seeing at the festival and watch me exchange nonsense with my friends and celebrities I don’t know – par for the course, really.