New Frontier for Topics in Science: Social Media

The largest and most sophisticated rover landed safely on Mars and the world’s most famous Moon visitor died, but the space event that most captured the public’s imagination in 2012 involved a journey to Earth.
On Oct. 14, YouTube counted 52 million streams of the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic, record-breaking jump from a balloon 24 miles above the New Mexico desert. YouTube called it “one of the most-viewed live events ever,” and it landed at No. 10 on the video-sharing site’s year-end trending list — the first time a science-related subject made the list, a YouTube spokeswoman said. (Google listed the leap as No. 7 in its Zeitgeist 2012 of trending events.)
And it was far from the only science story to go viral. To put it in 140 characters or less, social media and science found each other in 2012. In surprising numbers, people posted, viewed and searched for science-related topics last year — sharing news from space and undersea, commenting on new discoveries and uploading photos and video in a full-out embrace of the ability to communicate with thousands of others about global subjects in real time.
The first Twitter message on Aug. 5 from @MarsCuriosity, NASA’s official rover handle — “Gale Crater I Am in You!!!” — was retweeted more than 72,000 times. Photos of the space shuttle Endeavour flying over the West Coast, on its way to its final resting place, ricocheted across the planet. And the director James Cameron’s claim to have sent the “deepest tweet” — from the Mariana Trench, about seven miles below the surface of the Pacific — was rated one of Twitter’s “moments of serendipity and just plain awesomeness” (though it was actually sent by a friend above water). Four science-related events made that list, with the Mars landing at No. 1.In an age of despair over math and science acuity, it appears that what was once considered uninteresting or unfathomable has become cool and exciting.
People now feel that “if they’re not paying attention, they’re missing out on something,” said Kevin Allocca, the trends manager for YouTube.
The rover in particular has picked up followers and likes at amazing speed and volume, though it is the fourth landing of an American space exploration vehicle on the planet.
“We went from 120,000 on Aug. 4 to over 800,000 followers on landing night,” Veronica McGregor, the media relations and social media manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said of its Twitter account. “And then we hit a million really quickly.”
Two months after the landing, the mission was averaging about 30,000 Twitter mentions a month. The Facebook page for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is heading toward a half-million likes, and the hashtag #Curiosity was the fifth most used on Google Plus in 2012.
The trend is, in some ways, self-fulfilling. Social media platforms are growing in popularity. There is also more online content, which is becoming more accessible, entertaining and engaging, Mr. Allocca said. Science subjects are also universal, more likely to attract global audiences. And people who are interested in science and technology tend to be especially comfortable with seeking and sharing information in digital ways.
Still, an epidemic of science geekiness seems to have broken out.
On Facebook, Mr. Baumgartner’s jump ranked higher than Mitt Romney’s announcement of Representative Paul D. Ryanof Wisconsin as his running mate, according to the Talk Meter, a tool that compares chatter on the social site with baseline conversation.
On the Google Zeitgeist 2012 list, “Stratosphere jump” follows “Presidential debate” (No. 6) but surpasses “Penn State scandal” (No. 8) and “Trayvon Martin shooting” (No. 9). “Hurricane Sandy” is No. 1.
NASA (which now has about 1.6 million likes on Facebook) has also become more sophisticated and assertive about doling out information piece by piece to sustain interest. The strategy plays into the strengths of social platforms, which allow users to dip in and out of streams of news and information at their convenience.
NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video on YouTube, about the difficulties of landing the rover, attracted two million views. And a satirical video made independently of NASA, “We’re NASA and We Know It” — to the tune of “I’m Sexy and I Know It” (chorus: “Crane lower that rover”) — has gotten close to 2.7 million views.
There are also more ways for followers to engage in events: helping to name the rover, or picking up a Curiosity Explorer badge on Foursquare for checking in at a NASA visitor center, science museum or planetarium. Ms. McGregor said that NASA, in turn, was paying attention to what its fans want. It was learning that with so many followers just starting to connect with the whole space thing, the agency needs to provide more basic information.
Earthlings have long had a fascination with the unknown. But social media experts say people can now feel as if they are part of the adventure. They can watch events live, then incorporate the developments in their “timelines.” They can follow science — and not have to worry about taking the final exam.
A recent LiveScience article, “Why We’re Mad for Mars,” tries to explain the renewed popularity of Mars. The answer is simple, noted a commenter, Jerry. “People are explorers,” he wrote. “That is all the article needed to say.”

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