Follow you, follow me: Twitter and a scaleable attention span

A few days ago, I learned something new about the social network I’ve been using almost every day since the spring of 2008. As I belatedly followed somebody on Twitter whose input I’d been enjoying for years in retweeted form, it struck me how rarely I’d had reason to regret following people on the service.

Twitter follow buttonMost of my unfollows have involved read-only accounts that I found a poor substitute for RSS. As for actual people–and organizational accounts that interact as if there are actual people behind the keyboards–I have to discover that you’re a far more obnoxious or uninformative tweep than I’d thought to unfollow you.

(FWIW, I don’t think I’ve blocked anybody on Twitter for anything besides spamming and don’t quite understand “ending” an argument by blocking somebody who has remained civil throughout the debate. I suppose enough pointless jackassery sent my way could drive me to that step, but it hasn’t happened yet.)

And yet when I started out, I was unrealistically afraid of having too many people’s words cascade down the screen. Each new follow involved a careful consideration of how often this person would tweet, and how relevant those tweets were to my work.

I mean, I didn’t even follow the guys I shared a group house with at a NASA Tweetup. How weirdly snobbish is that?

That was dumb. I missed out on a lot that way.

I now follow more than 400 users–still far less than many other people I know–and don’t feel close to overwhelmed even though I have far more to keep up with. In retrospect, I seriously underestimated how my attention span could scale up.

It’s true that reading Twitter on the go on a phone has gotten more pleasant since 2008, and that this service imposes no visual penalty for falling behind–no messages piling up in an inbox, no RSS items asking to be marked as read.

But the most important change is in my own head. I’ve gotten better at reading Twitter quickly: recognizing the varying signal-to-noise ratios of people and skimming their output appropriately, noticing retweets from users with particularly good taste, ignoring waves of banter about pop-culture topics I don’t care about.

Twitter has become one of those specialized tasks–typing on phone keyboards comes to mind–that I’ve done enough times to have essentially reprogrammed my brain.

That could still turn out to be a tragic waste of cerebral capacity. But it is more fun to surround myself with more interesting and creative people, even if they don’t all neatly fit into a People Relevant to Tech Journalism spreadsheet.

NASA Tweetup tips

If your inbox has an e-mail from a nasa.gov address with the subject line “STS-135 Tweetup CONFIRMATION”–congratulations! You won one of 150 invitations to see the last space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site, about 3 miles from pad 39A.

Tweetup badges

You’re in for an amazing experience, as I found when I attended NASA’s Tweetup for the final launch of Endeavour in May. But it can also be intimidating to prepare for. Here are some tips I picked up that may help you get ready for your Tweetup.

(If you didn’t get that e-mail, don’t lose heart. People do get called up off the waitlist.)

Travel: As you may have read here before, the shuttle is not the most reliable vehicle ever, making the odds of an on-time launch for Atlantis on July 8 rather poor. Paying change fees or buying a refundable fare gets expensive quickly. Instead, fly Southwest or check fares between your city and Orlando a week from now; if they’re not much cheaper than tickets a month out, wait to book until NASA sets the official launch date at the Flight Readiness Review June 28.

Check alternate airports too. Melbourne is closer than Orlando; Tampa may be on the other coast of Florida, but the generous speed limits allow you to clock that distance in about two hours if you don’t hit traffic.

Hotels can be trickier. At the STS-134 Tweetup, many of us wound up staying together in rented houses or apartments for the first launch attempt–yes, despite the fact that most of had not met each other face to face until then. On the second attempt, with fewer people around, hotels weren’t a problem.

I usually Priceline rental cars but did not in this case: I wanted to be able to return them early or extend the rental if necessary.

Tweetup, day one: This is when NASA gives you a tour around the Kennedy Space Center–the highlight being the chance to walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building and gawk at a roof more than 500 feet overhead. As it gets damn hot in Florida, bring water and wear sunscreen. We were told to bring food as well, but that proved unnecessary when they invited us to hit the employee cafeteria. (The food is nothing special, but how many other cafeterias are across the street from a building tall enough to stack a Saturn V?)

The Tweetup will also feature talks and demonstrations by various NASA types. My favorites were astronauts recounting their experiences going up, staying there and coming back. The day should conclude with a ride out to the pad to see the Rotating Service Structure (the large structure on the pad that covers the shuttle until a day before launch) roll back to reveal Atlantis. But it may not: weather prevented our viewing RSS retraction on the first try, and I couldn’t get back to KSC in time to see it on the second launch attempt.

Tweetup, day two: This involves long stretches of waiting, punctuated by stabs of adrenaline when the countdown comes out of a hold, you look at the shuttle on the pad or you hear somebody speak the words “shuttle,” “liftoff” or “launch.” Aside from further talks by NASA folks, the only major event we had on the schedule before the launch was the chance to wave to the astronauts on their ride to the pad in NASA’s “Astrovan”–which, on the first try, came to an untimely halt when a wiring problem emerged and the Astrovan made a U-turn away from the pad.

It will be tempting to freak out over the weather. But although NASA’s Launch Commit Criteria look absurdly strict, they only apply to conditions at launch, not four hours before.

The press site–basically, an open lawn–affords a ridiculous amount of space to roam around. The closest possible view will put you on the other side of the countdown clock, but that was the only place I could park my tripod for an unobstructed view.

Many people don’t recommend trying to photograph a shuttle launch at all–you don’t want to watch it through a viewfinder. To avoid that issue, lock the camera on a tripod, oriented vertically, so it has the shuttle no higher than the lower third of the frame. (Don’t worry too much about getting the enormous zoom lenses you’ll see recommended for more distant spots; I took my photos with maybe a 20x zoom, using automatic focus and exposure.) When you get to a few seconds before liftoff, mash the shutter button repeatedly; 5 seconds after liftoff, zoom all the way out and keep pressing the shutter.

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to live-tweet the launch. But after the shuttle has departed from view, jot down your impressions while they’re still fresh.

Don’t plan on going anywhere for at least two hours after launch–it will take a while for the roads to clear.

With STS-135 currently set to launch in the late morning, I suggest getting a pre-launch breakfast at Baker’s Bagels, on State Route 3 a few miles south of the south entrance to KSC. When I stopped there in April, I was amused to a) see a kegerator with a “free beer” sign taped to its side and b) have missed Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley checking in there 20 minutes earlier. For a late lunch or dinner, Shuttle’s Dugout Sports Bar & Grill, a bit farther south on 3, could be any other sports bar–except for the shuttle and Saturn V models out front, the NASA photos inside and the KSC employees who show up.

What if it scrubs? Don’t panic, and don’t make plans based on initial estimates of the new launch time–especially if it’s a mechanical issue at fault. Use your extra free time to tour the KSC visitors’ center (we got free admission), and make time in particular for the hokey but enjoyable Shuttle Launch Experience ride. There are also non-space attractions nearby, such as beaches or the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And take time to hang out with your fellow Tweetup attendees–having a beer with them while discussing when the launch might happen is all part of this weird bonding experience.

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NASA Tweetup, day two: The scrub

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–Today’s KSC experience here started with a jolt of adrenaline as I saw the countdown clock ticking, then ended with a sigh and a shrug as the launch was scrubbed.

The Astrovan heads back.

It happens. In this case, the fault was with malfunctioning heaters for one of Endeavour’s three Auxiliary Power Units–small turbines at the tail of the orbiter that power its hydraulics. NASA thinks it’s a wiring fault, but that’s a crowded part of the shuttle. (If you’ve ever had to pay $1,000 or so to have a compact car’s timing  belt changed, you may be familiar with the basic issue here.) So we’re looking at a minimum of a 72-hour delay, to Monday at 2:33 p.m.

We found out about this in a surprisingly direct manner. We had all gathered by the road leading to Pad 39A (speed limit 35 MPH) to cheer on the “Astrovan” taking Endeavour’s crew there when the van, trailed by a small motorcade, pulled over to the short street leading to the Launch Control Center, stopped for a few minutes as we wondered about the reasons for the detour, and then reversed course.

Moments later, somebody was reading word of the scrub–initially forecast at 48 hours–from a message on their BlackBerry. NASA social-media manager Stephanie Schierholz (who has been absurdly productive and cheerful all week) confirmed the delay, which was then pushed back further. It may change again after NASA’s 4 p.m. press conference on the scrub.

Flags fluttering in a strong breeze early Friday morning

I’d worried about that. Not to be rude, but the shuttle has a lousy record for on-time departures. And on this day in particular, the weather looked questionable too. Although the skies have cleared up, the wind remains strong here, and the forecast had been questionable at the shuttle’s three transatlantic-abort landing sites.

Fortunately, my flight home wasn’t scheduled until Monday afternoon, and I can always reschedule that yet again. (Have I mentioned that my schedule is pretty flexible these days?) Many of the other Tweetup attendees are staying too–although I feel terrible for the ones who can’t. So we’ll work our problem while NASA works theirs.

What else are you going to do? Get mad? If launching six people into orbit on a reusable spacecraft were easy, another country would have done it by now. And if watching a shuttle launch were easy, I would have crossed that off the bucket list already. You have to be able to deal with the possibility of a delay. As somebody once observed of a somewhat-related set of circumstances: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

Nerd spring break: NASA Tweetup

I have had this afternoon’s flight on my calendar for 30 years, in one form or another: I’m going to Florida to see a space shuttle launch.

I woke up absurdly early on an April morning in 1981 to watch the TV broadcast of Columbia’s liftoff. Witnessing that in person wasn’t something that a 10-year-old boy would necessarily imagine doing next, but it wasn’t too many years later that one of my best friends in grade school got to see a launch. The idea got set aside during my years of collegiate poverty, but then as other friends made the same trip and returned with photos and stories (I remember one housemate describing the launch as the loudest thing he had ever heard), it kept creeping up my to-do list. 

As the end of the shuttle program became obvious, this to-do became a must-do. But how? A few years of sketching out and then scrubbing plans made me realize that seeing a liftoff isn’t an easy thing. The schedules change, then change again–good luck selling your boss on repeated shifts in your vacation time. Just getting a good viewing spot can be tricky enough to require a 4,000-word explainer.

Fortunately, NASA provided an elegant solution to my problem: Two years ago, it began hosting Tweetups–meetups for people following its Twitter accounts. For the space agency, which has been craftier than most government organizations in telling its story through social media, they’re smart PR. For attendees, they represent a chance to gawk at some nifty, expensive hardware up close and talk to the people who make it work.

(Having attended the Tweetup NASA held at the Goddard Space Flight Center in March, I can attest that this kind of event also serves as a singularly effective nerd trap.)

A launch Tweetup brings something extra: a viewing spot about 3 miles from the pad, on the lawn by the countdown clock you’ve seen on TV. That’s about twice as close as the public can get. So when I met NASA’s social-media manager at CES, mentioned my interest and was encouraged to go to the next launch–hell yes, I needed no further invitation.

Barring a last-minute scrub, Endeavour is scheduled to lift off at 3:47 Friday afternoon. (I’m staying through Monday and could extend the trip further if necessary; as you may have heard, my calendar is a lot more open these days.) Between now and then, NASA has a full agenda for all 150 of us Tweetup attendees. Thursday, we’re spending the day touring KSC, from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Shuttle Landing Facility, seeing a few demos and hearing various NASA types talk about their work. There are more talks Friday morning, and then what I suspect will feel like an endless wait before Endeavour takes to space.

The 10-year-old inside of me could not be much more excited about all of that.

The social-media-observer part of me, meanwhile, is fascinated at how quickly an online community has self-organized around the Tweetup. Within weeks after the confirmation e-mails went out, my fellow Tweeps were introducing themselves and cross-posting blog items on a site set up for the occasion,  sharing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in a Google Docs spreadsheet, renting group houses together and sending checks in the mail to complete strangers, and chatting on an increasingly busy Facebook group. It’ll be interesting to meet all these people face to face.

But not nearly as interesting as seeing Endeavour fly. Not even close!