Almost everyone using the internet these days will have heard about twitter. Many might not know what it is all about but it has become so ubiquitous that it’s existence is hard to ignore.
As for what it is: Basically another social networking site but this time you are limited to a fairly sparse profile and more significantly making bitesize comments of a maximum length of 140 characters which are sent to all their ‘followers’ (anyone who adds them). These comments are mainly used by people to provide updates on what they are doing or to point people towards something they found interesting.
That’s it. A fairly straightforward concept and it’s taken off in a big way. Movie stars, bands, politicians, journalists and even certain academics can all be followed on twitter as can any number of random punters (including myself though so far I’ve updated twice!). There is also a rather unexpected twitter-er, which is the point of this post and I’ll get to in a bit.
As you no doubt can imagine twitter lends itself perfectly to the inane, with celebrities talking about the meetings they just had, where they are of travelling to and what they had for dinner making up a large percentage of said inanity. The prevalence of inanity has also lead recently to various media horror pieces with certain academics lamenting that the youth of today are having their intelligence and attention span eroded 140 characters at a time. Such fear mongering seems to be fueled primarily by hyperbole with a dash of conservative values added just for good measure.
And it fails to take account of the various genuinely stimulating ways in which twitter can be used. A good illustration of this is Ben Goldacre who twitters up a whole host of interesting articles and sites everyday or Jack-of-Kent who provided updates about Simon Singh’s case on his twitter account.
Both of these illustrate that twitter need not be a service dedicated to telling you what your favourite celebrity had for breakfast but perhaps an even more persuasive example and one that certainly floored me is Astro Mike aka Mike Massimo. If his name didn’t give it away, Mike is an astronaut and he has been twittering from space!
Now, it’s true that this is undoubtedly a PR stunt from NASA and it’s also true that his twitter updates or ‘tweets’ were actually being sent twice daily via e-mail to NASA who were then updating the twitter account on his behalf but nonetheless it’s still pretty damn cool to get a semi-live update on what an astronaut is experiencing. There were the silly and entertaining updates like:
From orbit: Eating chocolates in space, floating then in front of me then floating and eating them like I am a fish
From orbit: Getting ready for bed, sleeping in space is cool, tie down your sleeping bag and float inside of it, very relaxing
But there was also some truly inspiring updates that not only made me remember just how truly amazing an astronauts brief sojourn in space must be but also what an incredible species we are that we have come up with the technology to transport, our relatively fragile ape frames up into space, where we can look back down at the earth and marvel (and apparently listen to Sting):
From orbit: The Earth is so beautiful, it is like looking into paradise
From orbit: Viewing the Earth is a study of contrasts, beautiful colors of the planet, thin blue line of atmosphere, pure blackness of space.
From orbit: The stars at night in space do not twinkle, they look like perfect points of light and I can clearly see the milky way galaxy.
From orbit: Flying over the Pacific Ocean at night there were some thunder storms, it is so cool to see lightning go off below the clouds.
From orbit: It is so beautiful up here, I wish everyone could see it.
I’m sure you get the same sort of accounts during interviews with astronauts but there is something special about reading something that was typed by an astronaut immediately after an event occurred or even while they were still experiencing it.
I’m a bit late with this story as Mike Massimo has now landed but his twitter account has all the updates he sent from space and is certainly worth a look if you have a spare minute or two.