In an historic move, NASA today released the first surface image of Pluto, showing the colour, shape and shades of tectonic activity etched across the surface of the dwarf planet. But the announcement was historic in more ways than one - in releasing the image, NASA opted to share it to one media outlet ahead of all others. That outlet - Instagram.
Gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach, which was at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday - about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Images from closest approach are expected to be released on Wednesday, July 15. Image Credit: NASA #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons#solarsystem #nasabeyond #science
A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on Jul 14, 2015 at 4:00am PDT
NASA made a deal with the Facebook-owned image network, giving them exclusive access to the image an hour before it's official release - a major coup not only for the exclusivity of such an important and re-shareable image (which would be embedded all over the web with Instagram's branding), but also in providing the network with a perfect opportunity to showcase is recently updated search and discovery features (one of the new curated collections available via search covers space, showcasing images from accounts, including NASA).
The decision to release the image exclusively on Instagram once again highlights the growing relevance of social media as a news platform, as the news platform for many. NASA, in this case, has recognized the social network's popularity amongst it's own community, which is in line with NASA's approach to social overall.
At our recent Social Media Today "Social Shake-Up" Event, NASA's Social Media Manager John Yembrick gave a presentation on how the agency utilizes social platforms to communicate with their many and varied audiences. Yembrick detailed how they manage more than 490 social media accounts, and how social has transformed the way people now access news and information (a finding reinforced today by a Pew Research study showing the majority of Americans now access news via social networks).
"In the old days," Yembrick noted, "the newscasters would tell you what was news. Today, we can participate in the news."
This new-school approach has clearly guided NASA's strategic approach in releasing this new image via Instagram, and with more than 3.7 million followers on the platform, there's clearly an audience demand for NASA news there. But such a shift may also send another shiver down the spines of traditional news outlets. If major agencies like NASA are giving out exclusives to social networks, what does that mean for the future of their business?
By extension, the deal between NASA and Instagram (and by extension, Facebook), underlines the new approach to news, and the continued push by social networks to take over distribution and dissemination of news content. Really, the audience is there, people are looking at social media sources more and more for news and information-type content - it makes sense for those sources to house that material. Of course, that also means ceding more control to Facebook, something many publishers are reluctant to do, particularly considering Facebook's propensity to alter the deal and swing the benefits in their favour once reliance has been established. But unfortunately for some, they may soon have no choice. If Facebook is able to actively build exclusivity deals like this one, if social media more generally is able to establish itself as the source for all breaking news content, then traditional news outlets may need to come in board in order to stay in touch with audiences, whose attention is clearly shifting.
While only small scale, the NASA image deal with Instagram is indicative of the rising shift. One deal is nothing, one picture doesn't mean much - but on balance, it does. Content exclusivity is important, and the more brands recognize that they can speak directly to their target audience in this way, the less reliance they have on traditional media distribution.
One Small Step
In his presentation at the Social Shake-Up, Yembrick outlined NASA's mission for social media, the approach they take to social platforms and interactions. "Our main goal is to make people care," noting that they want to use their social presence to get people "inspired about space exploration and science." It's a small deal, in the overall scheme, one release in a sea of information and data, but the NASA exclusivity deal with Instagram does have an additional significance. NASA is using its own audience, it's own social media presence to communicate with their followers and make them care about space exploration in an engaging and interactive way. That's powerful, that's likely a more powerful way to reach their audiences than a traditional release. The image, at the time of writing, has received more than 273,000 likes.
Sharing their content, exclusively, with their established audience may prove a significant step in the wider distribution trends of all media outlets. One small step for man...