For over six months, Veronica McGregor has been Twittering from Mars.
Of course, she’s not living among the wind storms and dirt of the red planet herself, but she is the voice of MarsPhoenix, the strangely compelling, first-person, lonely robot Twitter feed that somehow became the official mouthpiece of NASA’s Phoenix mission and has catalyzed an entirely new kind of public involvement in science.
MarsPhoenix is followed by over 37,000 people online, and provides daily updates on Martian weather conditions, scientific discoveries, as well as pithy observations about our role in the Universe. It’s a rare feat of conviviality for an agency more known for its bureaucracy than its cunning P.R. moves, but such is the power of new media. Today, as the Mars Phoenix mission winds down, NASA’s experiment in social networking is not going unrecognized: with recent accolades from Wired and Gizmodo, and a handful of “Twitty” awards under its, err, metal belt, MarsPhoenix is setting the standard for how government agencies like NASA can engage the public.
In conjunction with my most recent article for GOOD Magazine on the subject, I spoke to Veronica McGregor, the “real” MarsPhoenix, about the Internet, WALL-E, and the cinema of micro-blogging.
Universe: How long have you been writing Twitters for JPL missions, and how did they come about?
McGregor: We started the Twitter account in early May, about three weeks before we [the Mars Phoenix mission] landed. My office [the JPL News Office] was trying to do more and more with new media. We’ve been on iTunes for a while, and we have a channel on YouTube, and we’re always trying to push out our material to all these venues. We started doing mission blogs on our own website, and they took up a lot of time — for those writing it, and then there were the editors, and the web posters. It took three or four people to post one entry on a blog. Not very efficient. But it was very well received, and we got a lot of comments back on our blog.
So, when we got ready for the Phoenix landing, we started thinking about what venues we should use, and someone mentioned Twitter. That was one of my newer employees on staff, actually. She had started her own account, and she wasn’t quite sure how to use it, but she mentioned it, and we looked into it. The thing that appealed to us the most about Twitter was that people could actually receive the updates on their mobile devices, and our landing on Mars was going to take place over the three-day holiday weekend, over Memorial Day. I knew from being a former journalist that during a three-day weekend, readership and viewership of news just plummets. People are on vacation, they’re not paying attention. So one of the appeals of Twitter was the fact that we could actually post updates for the landing and people could get those anywhere they were, even if they were at a picnic.
We didn’t advertise it anywhere other than a few space blogs and space forums. I really didn’t think anybody else would care too much. Then, very interestingly, it started popping up on blogs everywhere, and people started mentioning it and saying, oh, “how cool is this?” Then Biz Stone, one of the founders of Twitter, mentioned on his feed that he was going to follow it, because he wanted to see how the landing would go, and then Wired picked up on it, and so by the time we landed, we had about 3,000 people following it. It was more than I expected.
On landing day I was so busy, and things were so crazy, I just started hitting the “reply” button and posting replies to people’s questions, and I think that was another thing that really appealed to people, to see that not only we were listening but we were happy to give them an answer back to their question about what was going on. So landing day I Twittered all through the landing — or, “tweeted,” I should say — and in my mind I was thinking that was it.
The next day I logged in, and our number had gone from 3,000 to 6,000. And the day after that our number was at 9,000. I looked at that number and I thought, “there goes my summer!”
Universe: One thing I find really interesting about the MarsPhoenix Twitter is that it’s written in first person. Who made that decision? It’s not obvious, and I think it has a lot to do with why people are so emotionally involved in it. Do you think that’s true?
McGregor: It is. It’s just really interesting the way people took to that, and I must say it was sort of an experiment. I set up the account, and one of the things you have to fill out is the bio, on Twitter; I was setting this up on a Saturday at home and I kind of jokingly went, “I dig Mars.” I put it in the first person, but I hadn’t really convinced myself I would do the postings in first person, because I thought people would think it was silly.
So I started writing out some of the posts, and every time I tried to fit in something that said, you know, “the spacecraft is traveling at such and such miles per hour,” I’d have to cut it down because it was too many characters. So then I’d have, you know, “Phoenix is…” and sometimes I couldn’t even fit “Phoenix,” so eventually I just switched it so it said “I am traveling at such and such miles per hour.” Really, it was mostly to save on the characters posted to Twitter [Twitter has a 140 character limit on posts]. I waited to see how people would react, and a part of me thought that somebody was going to write back and say, “don’t do that, that’s silly.” Instead, it just took off, and people really liked it. They liked the first-person aspect of it, even though they knew that somebody at JPL was doing it — and I would get those questions, people would ask, “are you official NASA or are you just a space buff doing this?” and I would write back and tell them that no, this is the official NASA Twitter feed.
People just found that to be such a novel way of communicating.
Universe: I call it the “WALL-E Effect…”
McGregor: A lot of people mention that. What’s funny is that it does all tie together, because the Pixar animators who drew WALL-E actually came to JPL back in 2006 to get their ideas for how to draw WALL-E. In fact, tomorrow, there’s a Disney junket for the roll-out of the WALL-E DVD, and they’re bringing all the media to JPL to see all these robots that their Pixar team saw way back before they did WALL-E. So it does all tie together.
Universe: I’ve always gotten the impression that MarsPhoenix is a terminal optimist, and something of a martyr, while the Rovers have fun, adventurous qualities. Am I projecting, or do you try to maintain a different “voice” for each Twitter?
McGregor: No, I don’t think you’re making it up. It’s funny, when I sit down to write something for Phoenix I feel like I have to get into my “Phoenix character.” I’ve been writing some other things for Phoenix, in first person, and I had to explain to somebody that it takes me a little while because I have to actually start thinking, well, “how would Phoenix look at this?”
I try to be the eternal optimist because people are getting so upset about the mission coming to an end, and I’m trying to lessen that grief. It’s really been an incredibly exciting mission, and it’s done everything that we had hoped it could do. From the engineers’ standpoint, and the scientists’, everything has just gone really well, and they go from one mission to the next, to the next — they’re used to having a mission die off. But the public has responded quite, err — they’re very emotionally attached, so I am trying to put out word that this is a good thing, this is where I wanna be.
People always ask, too, about whether it’ll come back to life, which is really tough, because it probably won’t. It is right now, actually, coming back to life every day — have you read about the Lazarus mode?
Universe: Yeah, yeah…
McGregor: It has this Lazarus mode that will bring it back to life if it dies. That wasn’t really intended for a year from now, when Martian spring comes back. It was meant for the end of the mission, what we’re going through right now. Phoenix is quite literally dying every day now, and coming back to life because of this Lazarus mode which will kick it back on. It wakes up every day now, it doesn’t know where it is, it doesn’t know what time it is…
It has a sequence that it goes through, and when it detects that its landing pad’s feet are down, it realizes it’s on Mars and it starts acting like it’s supposed to act on Mars. It’s doing this now day after day, and the mission, at this point, is just trying to get any kind of science they can out of it. They’re instructing it to take a picture, take a temperature reading, as soon as it wakes up, so we can get some information.
Anyway, back to your question about the characters, yes, I think they are slightly different characters.
We just started a Twitter feed for the next Rover to Mars, and that one’s the Mars Science Laboratory, and I don’t even think I’ve posted anything to it yet, so that character is “in development.”
Universe: This is so funny…the way you think about it is so cinematic.
McGregor: Yeah, exactly.
The thing that I like the most about using Twitter is that I’ve been able to direct people to see some of the pictures and videos that have come back from the mission. I think most of the public never even becomes aware that these products exist, that they can go and look at them. When people learn that they can go and look at, basically, the wind sock on the lander that’s just blowing around violently in the wind, when they look at that, its a whole new connection with the mission. When people learn that it’s snowing on Mars…I got a great response from that.
I get great responses from some of those things where people can just connect emotionally: one time I told people that when they looked at the moon that night, that directly above the moon, the star that looked like it was directly above the moon wasn’t a star, it was Mars. And I got a lot of responses from people saying they actually went out and looked — they got very sentimental about it because they never knew that was Mars. It’s great to think that people are learning.