Millions of people around the world just gathered on their computers, tablets and mobile devices to share an amazing event, for many of them in the wee hours of the night. That it was not a sporting event, award show or tragedy but instead the triumph of science — the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars — is heartening to those who wonder about the human condition. But it was significant also in how NASA presented it and we consumed it.
If the event represented a test of how to use the real-time web and social media, NASA passed with flying colors. Their main webstream at nasa.gov functioned well and was filled with interesting content. No babbling talking heads or ads interrupted a flow of informed, yet accessible, commentary on the project, the science involved, the goals of the mission and every step as Curiosity approached the surface of Mars. The page featured an embedded social media feed for additional context. And the @CuriosityRover Twitter feed was friendly, funny and engaging. Perhaps even a bit cheeky, judging by the tweet that marked it landing on the surface:
And yes, even though it happened at an hour many reasonable people are in bed (around 1:30 a.m. Eastern), as of this morning it had 61,046 retweets and 10,582 folks favorited it. Its use of the “I am in you” meme and the first images being sent with cute notes like “You asked for pics from my trip. Here you go!” gave it more personality than most brands even develop in social media.
Its juxtaposition against NBC’s disastrous delayed-broadcasting Olympics coverage and resistance to use adequate webstream resources was best summed up, just before the landing, when the satirical @NBCDelayed account Tweeted: PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ll be showing the
@MarsCuriosity landing on Tuesday at 8PM local. The real network had time-shifted the opening ceremony well into the night (refusing to webstream it) and faced criticism for its announcers making derogatory comments during the Parade of Nations. It doesn’t take, well, a rocket scientist to see how much better NASA’s execution was than NBC’s hamhanded, outmoded coverage.
The idea of a shared experience — such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon or our communal horror at the Challenger explosion — seems almost outdated because the content we consume and the distribution channels are more diverse than ever. Between all the cable channels, web pages and gaming systems, audiences are increasingly fragmented. And yet to check out Facebook or Twitter during this time was to see a robust community celebrating this momentous achievement through observations ranging from snarky to sublime.
With the Curiosity landing, the shared social element added so much to its appeal. My two brothers and I, three space geeks separated by the miles, all watched, interacted and reminisced about launching Estes rockets in our neighbors’ field. Whatever your adult responsibilities, it’s hard to watch this and not feel like an 8-year-old with wide-eyed wonder and a sense that anything is possible.
For all the technology involved, the sights many will remember involve humans — all the scientists hugging, cheering and exchanging high-fives. Victory is not confined to the sporting arenas by any means, and the authentic emotion washing over these people, seeing years of work come to fruition, was beyond heartwarning. If that can convince more youngsters to go into the sciences, to pursue and achieve even more ambitious dreams, that will be a true win for us all.