Mars rover Curiosity checks in from the red planet on Foursquare

The Sacramento BeeOctober 9, 2012 

The first use of social media from another planet owes its origin not to a human, but to NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity rover.

Last Wednesday the rover, in the midst of its second month of a two-year exploratory mission on Mars, listed its location for the first time on the social media platform Foursquare.

The so-called check-in is an example of a co-evolution between social media and space exploration.

Right now the rover is parked inside the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, where it will spend its entire mission looking for evidence that the Red Planet could have supported life.

On social media, the rover mission is playing out like a small screen-sized exploration story. It's a story where images and information originate on Mars, take 16.2 minutes to reach Earth, and will likely be seen by many via smartphone.

Once on Earth, the information is curated by a social media team at NASA and sent to a myriad of social media sites such as Foursquare for formatting.

With Foursquare, Curiosity's check-ins can reach 25 million users worldwide. The free application, introduced in 2009, is a platform used on mobile devices with which users check in their locations and are awarded user points and in some cases "badges."

The Rover has checked in twice already with Foursquare, which according to Foursquare protocol gives the rover the bragging rights of calling itself the mayor of Mars.

"Being on Foursquare is all about going to where people are," said Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA. "It opens the door to providing people with extra information."

Doling out information as check-ins on Foursquare satisfies one of NASA's goals: developing a female audience.

Foursquare boasts almost as many female as male users. As such, it allows NASA to bridge the gender gap that exists in its online audience, which skews heavily male on some platforms.

One of the social media fans tracking the Curiosity rover on Foursquare is Sacramentan Julie Gallaher, a social media consultant and avowed NASA fan.

"The aspect of NASA posting photos on Foursquare for the Rover mission … it feels like NASA is communicating directly with me as a person. It makes the mission part of my life," said Gallaher. "It's on my phone and goes with me wherever I go."

Gallaher has been interested in NASA since July 1969, when she went for a swim at River Park's Glen Hall Park pool. Her swim was interrupted by the Apollo 11 moon landing.

"They closed the pool for the moon landing and we all watched it on the TV in the first-aid room, because the lifeguards wanted to watch it," she said.

These days such interest is likely to be created over a smartphone, she said.

"Now there is a huge element of creating interest in the space mission with young people by doing something that is part of the pop culture," Gallaher said.

The Curiosity's check-in on Foursquare is not the first time that the space agency has dabbled into the Foursquare realm – that first happened in 2010 when astronaut Douglas Wheelock checked in from the International Space Station.

However, Curiosity's check-in is the first from another planet, and from a non-sentient being. It suggests that NASA sees its rovers much as it does humans – at least in the social media realm.

"The rover persona? It's very tech-savvy and very Internet-savvy, and like any other Internet-savvy person, if she's going to go on a trip she would want to share the journey with her followers online," said Stephanie Smith, social media specialist at NASA. "In character, it makes sense for Curiosity to be on the platform."

To date, the Curiosity's mission is the most popular rover mission online. Video of Curiosity's landing on Mars earned NASA its most views on YouTube – 3.7 million.

The day before the rover landed, NASA's Curiosity Facebook page had 30,000 likes. It now has nearly 400,000. On Twitter it had 120,000 followers before landing, and it now boasts 1.2 million followers, said McGregor.

"This mission has gained a wide social appeal, and we credit that to social media and the 'share' button," McGregor said.

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