Social Media’s Reaction to Martians

On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong exclaimed, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Obviously, this was the day that man first stepped foot on our planet’s moon. It was one of the biggest events of that decade and an unbelievably significant scientific feat. Countless Americans sat around their television that day and watched the events unfolding live from Moon Landing 1969their own living rooms. It was one of the most (if not the most) discussed event of that decade and people began to believe that humankind’s potential was limitless. The first landing eventually led to five more manned US missions to the moon.

That initial landing on the moon marked the beginning of the explosion in space exploration. Over the years though, that desire to focus on space exploration—especially in the public’s eye—has slowly lessened. In 2014, Capitol Hill actually passed a bill to cut NASA’s budget to levels they had not reached since 2007. However, on Monday NASA scientists announced that Mars has signs of flowing water on its surface. In the scientific community this discovery could be considered as groundbreaking as the first landing of man on the moon, as ultimately water could mean the potential for life on Mars.

In July 1969 there were no social media sites in which the public could react to the momentous events unfolding, yet today things are different. In a time where individuals and the government were losing interest in space science, this wonderful discovery of water on Mars came to light. Immediately upon hearing about the news, I had to wonder how this discovery would circulate on social media. Besides the obvious news articles that appear as trending on Facebook or Tweets CNN sends out, I wanted to know if social media users would actually pay attention to this event (if at all) and what that ultimately means for social media and scientific discoveries of the future.Mars Water Cali

The results were mixed when it came to the #MarsAnnouncement. As expected the first Tweets sent were from news sources such as CNN. But quickly it became clear that the internet was paying attention to this big announcement, as the handle #MarsAnnouncement began trending in the top 5 Twitter trends all over the world. Though there were the individuals that took serious scientific interest in this subject, most of the world decided it was their time to make a joke about MarMars Water Nestletians or about how Mars now has more water than the state of California. Normal social media users and celebrities alike capitalized on the #MarsAnnouncement to get their retweets, upvotes, and likes.

However, besides the jokes being made about the discovery on Mars all across social media platforms, there was something else that I ran into on Reddit that caught my attention. The very day of the Mars announcement, Reddit hosted an AmA (Ask me Anything) thread with some of the actual NASA Mars scientists that worked on the research team. This thread gave users the opportunity to voice their opinions and ask any questions they might have about the discovery, while receiving real-time answers from NASA scientists (an example response is shown below). What was most unbelievable about this AmA was that it was conducted the very same day that the announcement was made. This allowed social media users to get beyond making jokes on the internet, and instead actually show genuine interest in the announcement. The post generated over 7500 comments alone, not including the number of page views overall. Mars Water AMA

So what did I learn about how social media reacted to the Mars Announcement and what does that tell me about social media’s role in future scientific/medical discoveries? To me there are two things:

  • Any publicity is good publicity. Even though many people used the #MarsAnnouncement to make jokes and poke fun, ultimately it got the whole topic trending across multiple social media networks. Whether or not people had a genuine interest in the scientific impact of the discovery, it got people talking about the topic. It truly did get people excited in one way or another, even if it was just to make a joke.
  • Social media is becoming an amazing channel for real-time information. Instead of having to wait to read an article written at a later date, people who are interested in the topic have the ability to get their questions answered right away the day of big announcements. Again, this keeps people talking about it whether it is between users or between users and the actual scientists.

What was your experience with the #MarsAnnouncement? Did you find the discovery exciting, were you annoyed that your social media feeds were overwhelmed, or did you find the experience simply entertaining?

Thanks for reading!

-Tyler

8 comments

  1. Myself, as a science fiction buff and living through the first landing of a vehicle on Mars (Viking circa mid 70’s and I had friends whose parents worked on that project), I was very excited to hear the news that there was something on Mars besides rock and sand. Of course, it seems an odd coincidence that this week also sees the opening of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” movie (yes, I already have tickets for Friday night!). I think seeing this blogged out on social media, and how media releases today are so different than similar announcements in years past shows how instant information can be. There is no more delay, no need to find a TV and gather around and watch things unfold with anyone else. You can do all this on your computer or mobile device. Although instant information is nice, I miss sharing the experiences personally with those around the TV with me. We now share our feelings virtually through texts, Facebook, etc. and as a result, we have lost that in-person human interaction and shared experiences. I remember where I was and who I was with when the OJ Simpson verdict was read, on the tragic day of 9/11, etc. We’ve now lost that part of the events in our lives. Now it’s all about how fast someone heard about such and such, and talking about it with people you may or may not even know. That, to me, is a bit sad.

  2. Really interesting article! I am very interested in all of the SYFY movies and tv shows that portray the universe. Unfortunately, as we don’t have too much real information they are the best source that most accurately depicts the universe in a quick fashion (Many times a year). Social media has been closely following real NASA explorations like you point out and has made their buzz huge. This is great for me, as i can easily follow these type of missions without having to monitor places like NASA sites. The only thing that i perhaps find not as exciting about this is that it gets me motivated and then just dwindles down for the next couple of years. The reason for this is the slow process that these missions have and they usually end up finding nothing. For that reason i am kind of perturbed as well as motivated at the same time, when SM takes such news to the center stage of our lives.

  3. Tyler, I really enjoyed your post about the #MarsAnnouncement. I found the discovery quite exciting but also very intriguing that the discovery seemed to nearly coincide with the release of the blockbuster film,”The Martian,” starring Matt Damon. Some comments regarding the discovery, especially on Twitter, were extremely entertaining. I wish, however, I had known earlier more about the actual facts and questions that were being discussed by the NASA scientists – that probably would have been a more productive use of my time! I also found it very interesting that Edward Snowden just joined Twitter this week and even he was posting jokingly about Mars with his tweet (see link below if you haven’t seen it).

  4. I first heard the news through Facebook. I think one of my friends shared a link to the news. It was really entertaining to see how brands were leveraging the news to promote their own products. One of my favorites was Disney Pixar who had an image of Buzz Lightyear talking to his mission log about the discovery. I think besides just being an important discovery, it was an opportunity for brands to be humorous in social media.

  5. Interesting read. I too first found out about the announcement on Twitter. I think that it is awesome that NASA scientist were willing to answer questions related to the discovery. I wonder what people would have asked if Reddit’s AMA was available during the moon landing that took place over 40 years ago. I can’t wait to read the funny tweets that will be posted if life is discovered (or not discovered!).

  6. Can you imagine social media had the kind of prevalence it does today back when we first landed on the moon? There’s a lot of rumors that the U.S never actually landed on the moon, and if that is truly the case, there is no way that the government could have muffled the voices of defectors on social media. There was an image that they wanted portrayed- the one of glory, success, and triumph- that ultimately did get portrayed to the vast majority of international audiences. But in today’s world, no matter what scientific discovery has been made or what image a certain producer wants of their content, social media can take anything at all and turn it into anything they want. We saw this with online bullying in our last class; taking a tweet and turning into an international phenomenon literally ruining someone’s life. But we’re starting to see that with events of much more massive scale as well. If the internet wants to turn the discovery of water on Mars into a joke, undermine its significance, or classify it as a hoax, NASA will have no choice but to accept, because it is a serious uphill battle against a census of a large enough collection of people on social media.

  7. I was actually sitting on my couch when my roommate went “Woah, they found water on mars.” He wasn’t surfing NASA’s website or any scientific website for that matter; he was just on Facebook. It is incredible to see how we can find out information in real time, and the wide array of information we are exposed to. There are so many things trending, from celebrity gossip all the way to scientific breakthroughs. You can see what people care about; you mentioned this Mars announcement was top 5 trending on twitter. It would have been incredible to see something like this when we landed on the moon. I also enjoyed the fact that NASA responded to people’s questions through reddit. That is a real privlege given to us by social media. I’m sure there will be many bigger scientific breakthroughs to come decades from now; we’ll see how social media plays a role.

  8. To answer your question at the end, I found the discovery really exciting! I’m very interested to learn more as the investigation continues. And, as an avid reader of a variety of genres– science fiction being one of them, I love how this can spark people’s imagination. The mystery of space has had allure for humans for thousands of years. Getting closer, even in small steps, to unraveling some of that mystery is phenomenal.

    Though the hype around space has declined since the landing on the moon, just looking at book titles and movies featuring space travel and aliens solidify the fact that space and our place in the universe is still one of our greatest questions and fascinations. Having social media amplify discoveries makes that more accessible and at the forefront of our human conscience.

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