Mangalyaan, the social media native

BY Agatha Jayan E| IN Digital Media | 24/10/2014
Unlike space missions of the past, ISRO concentrated on the 'social image' of Mangalyaan: the personified Twitter account and the first-person updates preceded the launch.
This has humanized the concept of interplanetary missions, says ANAGHA JAYAN E
Unlike space missions of the past, ISRO seems to have concentrated on the ‘social image’ of Mangalyaan: the personified twitter account and the first person updates preceded the launch. NASA had successfully implemented popularity-increasing techniques like sending the selfie globe to the moon but the direct dialogue between two orbiters did make a difference. It has humanized  the concept of interplanetary missions, or maybe this is the core of the theory of robotics: machines speaking their hearts out and communicating for themselves rather informally.
Yes, Mangalyaan is a social media native. On the evening of September 23, what made news more than the successful launch of Mangalyaan was the Twitter conversation between NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover and ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). “Namaste, @MarsOrbiter! Congratulations to @ISRO and India’s first interplanetary mission upon achieving Mars orbit,” Curiosity Rover tweeted, like a native welcoming a newcomer to the locality. Mangalyaan reached its destination making India the first nation to be successful in its first try at an interplanetary mission. “Howdy @MarsCuriosity?” ISRO’s Mars Orbiter replied in the informal tone of the global youth, “Keep in touch. I’ll be around.” 
Soon after came a controversial cartoon in The New York Times: India, depicted as a farmer, pulling along his cow, is shown to be knocking the door of Elite Space Club. The Indian media—especially social media—didn’t take it too kindly, and the NYT finally had to apologize. “The intent of the cartoonist Heng Kim Song was to explain how the space exploration is no longer the domain of rich western countries,” NYT’s apology post on Facebook read. 
Hashtags carrying the keywords “Mangalyaan”, “Mars Mission”, “ISRO” etc. went viral on Facebook and Twitter, and many discussions on them were staged in the social media. MNCs, celebrities, politicians and the laymen expressed pride, opinion and regards. In a nutshell, MOM’s journey and success was largely a social media event. 
Converging boundaries
“Come to India and look after our cow. We are all busy with the Mars mission,” wrote a Keralite over the farmer’s head in the NYT cartoon.  A blogger called Swamy portrayed Elite Space Club as a slender street dog and Mangalyaan as India’s fat cow. With the NYT posting public apology post on Facebook, victory posts and tweets from India filled social media. Rashtra Deepika, a Malayalam evening newspaper, carried the whole sequence with pictures as an elaborated ‘patriotic’ story on its website:  “Following The New York Times’ apology after all swearing they received from the Malayalees, what hits Facebook now is the second part of their cartoon,” the story said.
Diverse media tools tend to converge while covering popular issues. A print vehicle having an online counterpart writes a story about the social media response to another newspaper’s apology post in the same social media.
Apart from being a huge leap from the concrete boundaries we have maintained between the different forms of media, this swift sequence puts forward a broader opportunity which evolved from the public trust and belief: yes, the social media has evolved to be a larger news source. A form of media so far considered to be a rather informal one, has now come up as the hub of public responses and a wide venue for building consensus. Most of the other media forms target the social media audience—vivid, diverse group of people, belonging to distinct social sects and classes, age-groups, ideologies, geographies, mindsets—brought together by technology. 
“India has shown its technical skills through Mangalyaan, it has embraced science and technology. Needs to adopt internet even more,” commented Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, right before his much-discussed statement, “Internet is everybody’s right.” Tweeting this out, “The Hindustan Times” hashtagged Mangalyaan. Evidently, all these media firms have been taking up information, interpretation and sarcasm to sell the brand among consumers of virtual media. The column for the ‘best tweets’ of the previous day in newspapers, the opinion polls conducted by TV channels through Facebook, the prediction contests the FM radios run through their websites, etc. are the clichéd examples of media convergence. But in MOM’s case, all of these happened, making it a truly multimedia event.
Criticisms drowned out
While the overflow of extremely patriotic posts drowned criticisms to a large extent, MOM did, in fact, receive criticism from within the country.  “India is behaving as if #Mangalyaan has landed in the US and Modi in Mars,” tweeted a certain ‘The Chosen One’. Some people were also sarcastic about Mangalyaan's success—especially its economics. It was a celebrated fact that the expenditure on Mangalyaan was less than what an autorickshaw charges per kilometre. Anusha Yadav tweeted: “Compelling reason why Delhi should move to Mars. Mangalyaan costs about 11.25 per kilometre, less than the autowallahs here charge”. The news and stories about the unfair rate-fixing by auto-rickshaw drivers in the capital city have been a topic of discussion, and the tweet was in context of that. “Sending Modi to the United States was a bigger challenge than Mangalyaan to Mars. Modi took nine years; cost: 10,000 crore. Mangalyaan took only one year and just 450 crore,” read another status update.“India marketed the cost-effectiveness very much. That is why we see such reactions from the west,” opined Shivani Sahay.
MOMic views
“Two countries got independence in 1947. One reached Mars while the other is trying to enter India,” tweeted Vinod S Sisodiya, hashtagging Mars mission and Mangalyaan. This tweet has a political relevance in that the MOM event happened a week before India had border tensions with Pakistan.
Prominent groups, organizations or companies interpreted the success of Mangalyaan and used it for propaganda or logo promotion. Pepsi and Coca-Cola designed ads mixing their logo and colour code to the MOM’s images. Wipro published a special feature on the cost-efficiency and technological factors of MOM on its Facebook page. MOM turned into a selling element in marketing arena. Even pro-BJP propagandists used MOM to generate mileage for the government. Hindi news channel India TV gave a headline across their screen while discussing the success of MOM: “Modi’s Mission Mangal”. As Mr. Modi delivered his speech at Madison Square, an image of Modi playing golf in the space with Mars as the ball was shared on the social media. Here Mangalyaan clearly becomes a propagandist tool. But when a photograph of a group of space scientists, women, celebrating the success of Mangalyaan became a strong thread for an NGO working on women empowerment, MOM went beyond being simply an interplanetary mission. The photographs of Sari-wearing scientists also gave it a cultural context.

MOM and Religion
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created universe,” said Stephen Hawkings in an interview. “Religion believes in miracles. But these aren’t compatible with science.” But when the initial weather condition went wrong, the well-wishers promised and carried out an offering at Pazhavangadi Ganesha temple at Thiruvananthapuram, to remove the obstacles in its path. The picture of  ISRO chairman Dr.K.Radhakrishnan performing classical music in Chembai Sangeethotsavam at Guruvayoor Temple also heldmore religious than artistic connotations.
Prime minister Modi’s Gujarati Poem on the success of MOM became popular on the social media. Celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Kiran Bedi and Lata Mangeshkar appreciating and congratulating the ISRO and government, and the discovery of a spherical object on the surface of Mars, which seemed like a ball apparently able to decipher the mystery of life on Mars, made enough soft news to cater to the emotional appeal of the target audience. The cost-analysis and comparison that Mangalyaan was successfully manufactured, launched and placed in the orbit at an expense less than the money spent to produce the Hollywood film ‘Gravity’ was another fact that made for gossips. Mangalyaan, overall, catered to all kinds of people around the world, with distinct interests and attitudes.
With smart phones coming up with apps for clicking pictures with Mangalyaan, MOM was gradually breaking all barriers of generic discussions and debates. A full-fledged media native, often hanging out and celebrating in the premises of social media, the concept and journey of Mangalyaan reached even the lower economic strata of media users: the detailed analysis of scientific events was earlier confined to a group of scientifically-motivated group of audience, techno savvies and intellectuals. Now, one could see a group of taxi drivers at a random taxi stand, all of them clutching an android smart phone, discussing why ‘we’ were denied cryogenic technology, what they gained from it.
The huge impact and reach of social media is being explored and exploited by other media forms, MNCs, public figures and political parties alike. If not, could you have imagined a post “Read our editorial on @Mangalyaan” on The Hindu’s Facebook page?
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