When the Pheonix Mars Lander made its momentous discovery of ice on the Red Planet last Thursday, both NASA and the University of Arizona scientists leading the project quickly convened a press conference.
Agencies, newspapers, broadcasters and their websites filed their stories but the news was first published by the Mars Lander itself – using Twitter, the online micro-blogging and social networking site that has been described as a personal newswire.
At 11.13am GMT on 31 July the MarsPhoenix Twitterfeed announced it had collected an ice sample and melted it to extract the first water found outside Earth’s atmosphere: ‘An ice-containing sample made it into the TEGA oven. I can now say I’m the first mission to Mars to touch and then *taste* the water!”
Later on, the scientists who update the feed said: ‘Thanks for the congrats! & yes, I’ve seen water ice before but this is big news because it’s 1st time EVER H20 has been collected/measured.”
People use Twitter to post 140 character updates to answer one question: ‘What are you doing right now?’Updates can come from Twitter.com, by text message, Gtalk and MSN chat and an ever-growing number of third-party applications for PCs, Apple Macs and the iPhone.
Many use it to keep in touch with friends and share online content using shortened URLs. But in the past year Twitter has developed into a serious news-breaking tool, with the BBC, Reuters and New York Times among those developing a range of feeds.
Downing Street has its own feed, keeping subscribers up to date with Gordon Brown’s activities and linking to its official website and YouTube channel.
Both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton also made extensive use of Twitter during their race to the Democratic nomination and beyond and many US news outlets have their own feed.
A key aspect of Twitter is conversation. When asked how it felt to be the first to find ice on Mars by Jeremy Vaught, a blogger from Arizona, the Lander’s team replied: ‘It was a bit of a surprise. Assumed I was placing a dry sample (with ice sublimated already) into oven, but it still had ice.”
Twitter, with its 2.3 million interconnected users worldwide, is increasingly the place news is reported first: the Chinese earthquake in May was reported by Chinese Twitterers as it was happening.
A Twitter post from ‘thevixy’reported an earthquake in Los Angeles, 5.4 on the Richter scale, last Tuesday nine minutes before Associated Press put out a snap.
A Twitter search revealed that within minutes of the quake thousands of people had posted their own reactions.