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Messages from space: a Q&A with NASA’s social team

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NASA

Last week, The Onion published a story titled "NASA Social Media Manager Considers Himself Part Of The Team," ostensibly making fun of the wide divide between the responsibilities of a NASA engineer and someone who tweets all day. Though I love The Onion and totally get the joke (I enjoy goofs, I swear!), this particular gag stuck with me, and I’ve been trying to scratch it off ever since. That’s because I rely on NASA’s social media platforms to stay up-to-date with the space agency’s breakthroughs and announcements. I am the nerd who knows the social media manager really is part of the team.

The agency has 510 accounts spread across 14 platforms

It’s not just one person running everything either. The social media team is helmed by three people at headquarters in Washington, who oversee the agency’s 510 accounts spread across 14 platforms. Underneath them are 10 separate teams — one at each of NASA’s centers — that run social media full time. Those teams all work with scientists, engineers, researchers, and other employees to help communicate what NASA and its various centers are doing every day.

We recently spoke with Jason Townsend and John Yembrick, two of the three social media leads at NASA headquarters, about their jobs and what it’s like to tweet for America's space agency.

Loren Grush: How long have you guys been doing this? Have you seen a transition of interest based on the information you put on social media?

John Yembrick: I feel like we’re in a golden age right now. People can get easy access to things that we’re doing just by following us on Twitter or following us on Facebook. Earlier if something big happened — like we had a major mission or something went horribly wrong — it might get picked up in the mainstream media. But in general people weren’t following day-to-day what happened.

"People can be embedded along with the mission."

Now, we have over 500 accounts. So if you want to follow the latest news happening on the Hubble space telescope, you can follow @NASA_Hubble on Twitter, for example. If you want a rundown of every major thing happening at the agency, you can follow the main NASA accounts. Even the robot on the International Space Station has its own Twitter account. We have this voice now that we never had before.

Jason Townsend: People can be embedded along with the mission. Using the tools and all the features that we have, we’re able to take everybody along for the ride, which is very different than having something go out as a press release. [That puts you] kind of at a distance and kind of detached from the experience of what’s going on. Social media has really personalized what’s been going on and allows folks to get embedded in with it.

John: Instead of observing what NASA is doing, you can participate with NASA. There’s a few ways you can do that. You can follow us and ask us questions, and we try to answer as best we can. We work with Reddit all the time. We have astronauts on the International Space Station that answer people’s questions on Twitter. We’ve done Google Plus hangouts from the space station where you can be anywhere on the planet, and as long as you have internet connection you can ask a real-time question to an astronaut in space. These sort of things weren’t possible 10 years ago, and this accessibility these days is a new thing brought on by technology that was not there before. We’re proud of that.

"We invite our social media followers to go behind the scenes and actually go inside NASA."

Another thing we do is since 2009, we’ve had this NASA Social program where we invite our social media followers to go behind the scenes and actually go inside NASA, meet astronauts, meet the NASA administrators, see a launch, go inside labs and clean rooms, and see the things we’re working on. Then they communicate what they’re seeing and feeling and experiencing to their friends and followers, and it’s really kind of a new a new way of communicating as an organization — especially a government organization — that we have never done before.

Like you said, you have so many different types of Twitter accounts, even including a robot that tweets. Does this make you feel like you can be more creative and playful with scientific information you share?

John: I think it depends on what the context is. Look at the Mars Curiosity Rover, which will sometimes make cute pop culture references on some of its discoveries. We also have a lot of hard news too, so there’s a real balance we have to play at NASA between talking about science or research that’s happening, but also in a way that connects with people. If you just take leisurely headlines and put those as a tweet for example, it’s not gonna find an audience and they’re not going to connect. So one of the things that is important to us is voice. You want to get people to stop, look at your stuff, read it, and engage with it, and the way that you tell your story is certainly critical to people understanding it and learning about NASA.

Recently you joined Snapchat and you just did your first Facebook Live from space this past month. What’s it like experimenting with new mediums and figuring out how to tell NASA stories for them?

Jason: In the original founding charter of NASA, we’re [supposed] to provide for the widest practical dissemination of NASA’s activities and the results thereof. Social media’s just the latest chapter in that. So we’re constantly evaluating and trying out new tools, and trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, how can we use this to better tell NASA’s story. Is there an audience it brings to the table?

John: Where people are getting their information, we want to be there. If you get [a story] on the front page of the New York Times every day, there’s still a huge population that’s never gonna see your news. We look at something like Snapchat -- people are learning about what we’re doing that never would have seen our stuff before. They wouldn’t be following us on Twitter, and they would not be following us on Facebook. We have a repository of sounds, and we transport those sounds over Soundcloud, because that’s a different audience that can now engage with our content that wasn’t there before. Where people are, where people are consuming information, NASA should be there.

What is your communication like within NASA? Are you constantly talking with researchers and engineers to get people’s technical questions answered?

John: Yeah, absolutely. We try to answer questions on our flagship accounts and sometimes they do delve into technical things. We ourselves don’t often go directly to scientists and engineers, because we do have these folks at the 10 field centers. But if it gets really technical, they consult typically with scientists or engineers to try to answer them. But to be quite honest, most of the stuff that we post isn’t technical in nature, because our audience isn’t technical. We’re not speaking to a scientific community; that’s not as important to us as trying to break things down so they’re understandable to the general public. We don’t try to speak in acronyms, which is hard to do at NASA because we talk internally in acronyms, and we try not to use jargon.

Jason: [We also have] a feedback mechanism from our followers. When we use something that is a little technical, we’re going to get a ton of questions about it. A great example of that is when we were first getting on to social media, we kept talking about EVAs, that we were going on an EVA, which stands for extravehicular activity. The entire rest of the world knew that as a spacewalk. So we learned very quickly that we needed to adjust the language we were using in our social media posts so that our followers, who were members of the general public, can understand what we’re talking about.

Many of your astronauts like Scott Kelly have become social media superstars. How much do you help astronauts with their personal accounts, and are there guidelines for what they should post?

Jason: What astronauts do during orbit and during their training is entirely up to them. It’s an optional activity; there’s no requirement for them. That way when we see people and astronauts tweeting or posting to Facebook, that is what they want to share. It’s a much more personal journey for them to tell the story of what they’re working on, since it’s all opt-in.

Once someone opts in, we usually have a chance to sit down and go through different things. We have representatives that work with them down at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and those folks will go through and talk about, "Here are some of the things that have worked well for other astronauts. Here are best practices." It’s a brief training for the most part, and then they are able to go and start to practice while they’re on the ground or in training.

"Everything you see posted on an astronaut account is word for word their stuff."

When they get up in orbit, because of things like internet speed and the conflicts they have with their other activities, they usually end up either posting things themselves after their normal working hours, or if it’s something they want to go during the daytime, while they’re tasked with working on something else in the space station, they’ll just email down what they want the picture and the tweet to say exactly and someone on the ground will help them post that. We want to make sure we efficiently use their time while they’re up in orbit. Everything you see posted on an astronaut account is word for word their stuff.

Of course, social media isn’t always such a glamorous place. How do you guys handle negative feedback and do you take time to respond to trolls?

Jason: Our overarching philosophy is that if there’s a factual error, we will attempt to correct the factual error that’s being made. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, so they can tell us that we’re a complete waste of taxpayer money, and that’s completely their opinion. So we try not to take a look at doing anything there. But if there is a factual error being made, or they’re wondering how much we spend on this and is it a waste, we can point them to our budget documents and say, "Hey, take a look for yourself."

"We will attempt to correct the factual error that’s being made. But everyone is entitled to their opinion."

John: We take very seriously the brand. When people see NASA, it has a very powerful meaning to it, and we take very seriously the responsibility we have. We certainly don’t want to get in silly internet debates with people under the flagship NASA. We really want to protect and keep the integrity of the agency on social media. We try to do things factually but we don’t try to counter conspiracy theories, that kind of thing.

Jason: One thing I’ll throw out as an example is back in 2012, when there were lots of folks contacting us saying that we were withholding facts that the world was going to end. We were like, "Okay let’s do something about this." So we got our experts on record talking about how the world is not going to end in 2012. We made a whole FAQ page about it: what we know, how the planets orbit, trying to debunk as many of the rumors that were out there on the internet and on social media as possible by replying to folks and so on. The reason that we really decided to engage in that sort of thing is that we noticed there were a lot of people that were getting very distraught about that. We wanted to allay their fears and make sure they know it’s really not going to end in 2012. You can still see all of that online, it’s at www.nasa.gov/2012. There’s a whole repository of information from when we worked on that. When we see a lot of information coming in where people doubt this or that and we try to establish, "Here are the plain facts for it."