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.