@MarsCuriosity and beyond: meet NASA’s head of social [SXSW]

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John Yembrick has possibly the coolest job in the world — social media manager for NASA. He works with the team responsible for the wildly popular Mars Curiosity Twitter and Facebook accounts. At SXSW 2013, he spoke about the challenge to make NASA cool and relevant for a whole new generation.

“Basically the critics said NASA sucked at telling its own story,” said Yembrick, “I didn’t understand this because we were doing so many things on blogs, the web and through podcasts. We had so much content, but it was just sitting out there in a vacuum. Social media enabled us to reach a lot more people with the content we were already producing.”

Using social media platforms and the public interest in the Mars Rover launch, the social media team at NASA managed to reposition the organisation as an exciting and interesting place of exploration and innovation. Yembrick explains that they did this by identifying what their story was going to be. “Our story is about resonating with the public, getting people to want to study maths and science.”

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There are now over 480 twitter accounts at NASA. “Before Twitter, nobody knew all these specialist projects existed,” says Yembrick. Even the astronauts are on Twitter, with two of the most popular accounts being @astro_mike and @asto_ron.

NASA also invites its social media fans to behind-the-scenes visits at NASA centres. Over 4200 followers have been invited to NASA and online influencers are considered to be as important as traditional media. “We’re not going to debate it — social media is media,” says Yembrick. “We offer social media accreditation the same as media accreditation.”

The NASA app (available on iPhone and Android) is also massively successful and provides images, videos, news and feature stories on operations at the space agency.

On 22 February this year, the NASA social media team organised the first Google+ Hangout from space, where people from around the world could hangout with the astronauts on International Space Station.

And then there’s NASA’s involvement in Angry Birds Space. A little-known fact about the game is that it started with a casual conversation on Twitter between NASA and Rovio.

NASA noticed tweets mentioning NASA and Angry Birds, suggesting that smartphones today pack more punch than the NASA computers of old. So they tweeted, “Hey, RovioMobile, our computers are a bit better than they were in ’69. We might be able to help you launch birds if you can find a pig in space.”

From there, the two organisations began collaborating on the development of the game, with NASA giving input into how the birds would “fly” in zero gravity.

This is all part of NASA’s digital mission (pun intended) to get the next generation excited about maths, science and exploration. With the landing of the Mars Rover, Yembrick believes we are entering a new golden age of discovery – shared via social media – and we have not even realised it yet. “When you’re living in history, you don’t know you’re living in history.”

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