Identity Creation Through Character Limitation

Posted Thursday November 6, 2008 by John Gunders in |

Further to my post on the Mars Phoenix lander and the personification of technology:

The spacecraft is nearly at the end of its useful life: the coming winter has meant reduced power getting to its solar cells and as a consequence NASA are starting to shut down particular elements, such as some of the sensors and the remote digging arm. It is still communicating atmospheric data to the orbiter, but by the end of November there won’t be enough power left to run the heaters that stop the electronics from freezing. It is not expected that the microprocessors will survive the low temperatures until the Martian spring (sometime in 2010). Read about it here.

But for the purposes of this posting, I am more interested in the cultural effects of the mission, and in particular the public interaction through Twitter. Last time I checked, Phoenix had 37,931 followers, which kind of puts my 52 to shame! Wired ran a competition to write Phoenix’s epitaph, and received nearly 1,000 entries, some of which are genuinely moving. This type of populatisation and communication is likely to catch on: you can already follow the Cassini Saturn mission via twitter updates, and the Mars Science Laboratory, which is due to blast-off in September 2009 already has a twitter place marker (and over 2,000 followers, despite no updates).

I maintain, in keeping with my original post in the topic, that it is the first-person narration that is most striking about the updates. I asserted than that Mars Phoenix coded as male, a point I don’t necessarily retract. However, I was fascinated to learn that the “voice” of Phoenix is JPL employee Veronica McGregor:

She says that her tweeting in the first person wasn’t planned, but was driven by the necessity of keeping her posts under Twitter’s limit of 140 characters (about 20 words).

“The driving force on the first person thing was the 140 characters,” she told “I would write one day ‘the space craft has traveled’ and it took up half my space, so then I started to cut out words. Finally I cut out the spacecraft and said, ‘I’.”

One can imagine a future academic writing the clause, “identity creation through character limitation,” but the personal touch, even if borne of necessity, caught on with the Twitter community.

Read the full interview on

Funny old world, isn’t it?

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  1. Matthew Smith writes:

    Posted: 6 11 2008 - 02:18 | Permanent link to this comment

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