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Astronaut Chris Hadfield on The Value of Social Media

By Norman Chan

"It allowed not only me to honestly share the human experience with anybody in the world who wanted to come on board."

Colonel Chris Hadfield wasn't the first astronaut to tweet from space, but his engagement with fans and the people who followed him on social media was unprecedented. One attendee at his conversation with Adam last week at NASA Ames asked how he felt about the reception of his social media presence, and whether that kind of interaction was planned from the start. His response is transcribed below.

"Social media is a really interesting new invention. It's not just what it seems to be. It is kind of a changer of behavior and human communication. I'm really impressed with it. And the word that is important is 'social.' The big difference for me is this. A lot of media is a broadcast. 'This is our product, this is what we've done, and we are now sending it to you.' Like all of the news you watch on television, all of the advertisements. All of the media that exists is a prepared message that is broadcast at you.

The wonder of social media, when it's used properly, is that it is an invitation to come aboard into my world. If you want. And that's a real difference. And at first I had no interest in social media. Even Twitter--I thought 'what a stupid name.' Twitter sounds like two eleven year olds talking to each other--why would I have anything to do with that? But the first time I used it was when I was living at the bottom of the ocean. And they said, 'we want you to tweet.' And as commander of that mission, I explained to everybody [at the Aquarious underwater laboratory] what it was supposed to be.

I watched--and the beauty of it was--the guys who would never ever tell you a cool thing they had seen, or a transient emotion they had, or some insight that had occurred to them, suddenly had an outlet with which to share those things. Not only with the whole world, but with the members of the crew. And as the commander, I would go through and read what the guys had tweeted during the day and be delighted! It was like they had invited me into their emotions, thoughts, and observations that they would never have, otherwise. So then I thought 'ah, I understand this. This is really interesting." This is a whole different way to share something personal and honest at an almost effortless and instantaneous level. I was converted, then.

So I recognized, once I got to orbit, that this was going to be a terrific way--so long as we had connectivity--to be able to share the experience. I wanted to do it on my first and second spaceflights, but we just didn't have the technology yet. And I still didn't know this last time. So I went to my son Evan who had just finished his MBA and I made a deal with him. I said 'I'm going to send you an email and a picture, and can you please tweet it for me because I don't know what the connectivity will be.' But it turned out we did have good connectivity most of the time, enough bandwidth so I could log in from the space station.

"It allowed not only me, but other crew members, to honestly share the human experience with anybody in the world who wanted to come on board."

It allowed not only me, but other crew members, to honestly share the human experience with anybody in the world who wanted to come on board and see what was happening. And that is what really works with social media. A lot of people treat social media as another extension of a bullhorn. 'Hey, look at me now. Hey, buy my soap.' And that's not how it is successful. Social media is a way to honestly show what is interesting and intriguing to you and let people look at it if they want to. And it spoke for itself.

I was delighted and amazed by the number of people who came on board with us, who wanted to see it. Evan sent me a note, a couple months into it, and said 'Hey dad, ask people what they want a picture of.' And hundreds of thousands of people from around the world said 'I want a picture of my home town.' Because, number one, I love it. It's where I'm from. But more importantly these people wanted to see how how their home towns fits into the context of the rest of the world. And I was in the position to show them that. And for me, that was hugely unifying. These people were connected, on board, so I could take pictures of every home town that I could manage while I was up there. I took about 45 thousand pictures in the time I was up there. So people could get a better global perspective of how they fit in. Social media allowed that."

Of course, you can find Colonel Chris Hadfield on social media at @cmdr_hadfield and Facebook.