NASA, Ur Doin’ It Wrong

Although I’ve been neck-deep in Ares I-X launch news today, I’ve had some time to see what else has been going on in the Universe. I really hope I’ll find the time to get to this stack of blog post ideas over the weekend, one of them is a particular peach.

But before I turn in for the night, an interesting little debate has been sparked over at Keith Cowing’s NASA Watch. Keith, the ever watchful eye over all things NASA, somehow stumbled across the NASA 360 blog and pointed out that the agency might be trying too hard to be “hip.”

I think that one of the hardest things NASA has to do is to communicate their incredible science to the general public — no one said outreach was easy. Every day I am challenged with this issue on Discovery News. On the one hand I want to talk about the quantum effects of Hawking Radiation at the event horizon of a black hole, but on the other, I have to realize that most of my audience didn’t take Advanced Quantum Mechanics at school.

Realizing how to approach an audience with science is a bit like approaching a crème brûlée with a blowtorch; you have to do it slowly, with enough distance between the caramelizing sugar (audience) and the flame (science). You get too close and the mix gets burned (confused), get too far away and the mix is undercooked (bored).

This by no means is equivalent to “dumbing down,” it’s simply a method to find analogies and examples that can connect the mind-bending science with a tangible reality (like comparing the curvature of space-time with the curvature of a rubber sheet when a heavy ball is placed on top of it). If you start over-simplifying the science, you end up sounding like a tool and your audience thinks you’re lame/boring/condescending.

If analogies and examples aren’t forthcoming, try humour. One example of this is “5 Frightening (But True) Space Stories,” a guest blog post for Space Disco Robert Lamb posted today. Robert is an expert at blending science and humour. So much so, this blog post teaches some spaceflight history without you even realizing it.

So, back to NASA Watch and the comments about the NASA 360 blog post written by presenter Jonny Alonso:

I am certainly all for trying to connect to a broader audience but this NASA 360 post by Johnny Alonso (the MTVish on-air host) is just silly with its attempt at teen Twitter and SMS lingo i.e. “hai guyz” and “that would totally suck. lol”, “it was hawt :)” and “These cats Mike and Barry”. –Keith Cowing, NASA Watch

Running the risk of sounding a little long in the tooth, Keith is obviously a little riled about the standard of writing on this particular post. At first, I was mildly amused, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized NASA’s outreach style might be flawed. Using text-speak to convey his work presenting for NASA makes Alonso sound limited (which I’m sure he’s not, although I haven’t seen him in action, so I might be wrong), but worst of all it knocks the credibility of NASA outreach.

This might be one form of communication, but there must be some kind of editorial control? Are there standards? Granted, I think the content produced by NASA online is second to none, which is probably why NASA 360 is standing out like a sore thumb. Also, this blog post is the personal angle written by an enthusiastic young guy in a conversational, loose tone who probably has a lot of fans.

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned in agreeing with Keith, but “outreach” doesn’t mean NASA should be publishing blogs like this to try to appeal to a younger/trendy audience. As sad as it may be, if the younger generation isn’t interested in NASA, I doubt a presenter saying “hai” all the time is going to change that.

What do you think? Am I being picky? Is this just a symptom of what we can expect from blogs in the future?

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9 responses to “NASA, Ur Doin’ It Wrong

  1. “Trust no-one over thirty!”Rather than 'teen talk' 2 an audience, why not invite the teens to see 4 themselves & then THEY can: tweet; blog:… or otherwise disseminate the information to their peers. Teens decide for themselves what is 'hawt' and the pronouncements of anyone over 30 will never be 'hawt' or as we used to say back on the '60s: “hip”!

  2. Honestly, I get the thought behind writing that way, but I think it would turn off any kids or teens who are the sort who would ever go to any NASA-related site or post. When adults (even young adults) try to sound like a teen kids usually feel like they're being patronized, or else they just think the adult is trying too hard to be one of them again. The analogy that comes to mind is the parents of my friends who would dress in the same exact clothes that I would wear as a teen, it made me respect them less and feel sort of creeped out around them. Who wants to read a blog or post by someone who comes off as creepy?Adults can't be teens and teens really want adults to be adult, even if they happen to think those adults are pretty cool. They also like to keep teen culture for themselves as much as possible.

  3. This almost sounds like the South Park episode where the kids had to watch the anti-smoking presentation from the “Butt Out” group; “If you don't smoke, you can be just like US! WHOO!” And the kids were so horrified that they ran out and started smoking. The outreach is trying so hard to connect that they're missing the most important element of pedagogy- instruction without being condescending. The best teachers I had did not try to be one of the kids- they presented the information on a level we could understand without slang or talking down to us. We rose to meet the challenge.More Mythbusters than “Butt Out.”

  4. Well teen talk is great for teens talking with teens, it gives them their private language, but when they are being talked or written to they like to be considered as adults. Kids are bright and swift, they know when an author or speaker is trying to be one of them. Most resent this as hokey and a put down. Any intended message is pretty much discarded. I think Keith Cowing is right and NASA needs to use a different approach.

  5. The substance of Mr. Alonso's blog post is fine – he's obviously enthusiastic about what he does and has an enjoyable and interesting job. He _should_ write blog entries about it. But he should maybe take his own advice and attend a writing class, or at least have someone clean up his messy spelling and grammar (e.g. “hanger” instead of “hangar”). Well-written pieces never go out of style, but his contrived use of teen or tween-speak will read as very dated in just a few years' time. Also he (or NASA 360) may be working on a false premise that good writing and speech habits are “alienating” to teenagers. I think not, they live in an adult world and can understand what adults are trying to tell them. I HOPE that no teen would reject a message just because someone uses good spelling, grammar, or diction.Also, since Mr. Alonso is paid by NASA there is a certain expectation of professionalism in anything he produces – again because it might be referred to and archived later on. I agree with the poster who opines that teens need to come up to these “professional grade” standards if they are to succeed in life, as opposed to adults coming down to their trendy colloquialisms – which never works in any case.

  6. I'm not sure Ian, maybe WE are too old and do not understand 'other languages'. My experience from StumbleUpon is that using at least a very short and simple language gets you in touch with people who perceive me as more approachable. Based on the feed back from StumbleUpon using that silly and short language has made my audience getting in touch with the curiosity they had as kids and allow themselves to learn more about science – a topic they have learned is off their limits so to speak. If you want to perhaps reach people who feel alienated by science in the first place, using a well known 'language' might make them feel more respected. Science is for the smart people – only, is what most with little or no academic back ground think. The language used by NASA that you refer to is directed to the younger generation. They are not stupid just because they use a different 'in correct language'. They are definitely more playful. Both Keith, you and me are grown-ups (at least some of the time :-)) compared to the segment of the population NASA is trying to reach with their 'hai's. Science 2.0 represent a way of reaching segments of the population that does not normally take an interest in science – and particularly capture the younger generation of that untapped pool of people. We need all kinds as the war for money is getting tougher every day.I fear what Keith is conveying is rather a dash of vanity. Maybe. :-)I will actually talk about this at this fall's American Geophysical Union in San Fransisco. You should come and animate the discussion, Ian! :-)

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