Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist who is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at theAmerican Museum of Natural History. On the side, he is the author of several astrophysics books as well as the host of a scientific radio show called Star Talk Radio.
I first came to know the astrophysicist because he was on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show as he boldly critiqued the host for having an inaccurate orbit of the globe at the opening of the show.
Since then, I’ve been intrigued to find out more about Tyson and why a scientist, who is usually far removed from mainstream culture, appeared on primetime TV show with one of late night’s most popular host.
With this interest, I pursued the analysis of his Twitter account that has an impressive 1.5 Million followers with influencers like David Pogue, the well-known Tech Writer for the NYTimes, to Ricky Gervais, a British comedian. As you can see the range of his followership spans from those who one would expect to follow a scientist to those who are unexpected removed from the interest of science, like Gervais. Thus it got me thinking as to why there was such a range of the type of followers and what intrigues these different types to follow him, especially from the forefront, he was an astrophysicist, which is not the most interesting jobs that appeal to popular culture.
Recently, the movie Gravity released in theaters and I heard his name in the news as he was found again debunking scientific inaccuracies of the Hollywood film and as I found out, this wasn’t his first time to boldly claim these inaccuracies as in the past he did the same with Titanic 3D. He used the hashtag “#Gravity” to ensure that his reach and impressions of his tweets were joining the larger conversation by participating in this hashtag game that Zizi Papacharissi mentions in her article, “Without You, I’m Nothing Performances of the Self On Twitter“.
As I have already perceived from the previous encounters with Tyson, his person brand that Rebekah Willet mentions in his article, “‘As Soon as You Get on Bebo You Just Go Mad’: Young Consumers and the Discursive Construction of Teenagers Online” that he markets to his followers and to the world. His brand is the astrophysicist who is trying to make science “cool” again, by infusing scientific notions with mainstream/popular culture or with everyday activities that an average person would be familiar with.
The “#Gravity” tweets are not just the only incidences, but also with these examples of Tyson incorporating science with Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance as portrayed below:
Tyson effectively creates his “self” or identities that Erving Goffman discusses in his book, “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” through these kinds of tweets, successfully reaching mass audiences who are probably “Millenials,” the hot buzz word in marketing at the moment and currently the target audiences that all major brands and influencers want to reach, that eventually contribute back to his personal brand that is commoditizing on pop culture phenomenons or instances by attach such “unsexy” topics of astrophysics to increase his clout as a scientist who knows how to make astrophysics relevant. Goffman mentions that the idea of “self” is something that is constructed and it is reconstructed every time you present yourself to the public. As with Tyson he carefully chooses which pop culture references to contribute to that ultimately reinvents his brand in the minds of younger audiences who are consuming his content because he is taking part of the larger conversation at hand (i.e. VMA’s, Miley Cyrus, Gravity, etc).
Lastly, it is interesting to note that he utilizes tweets and popular culture references as a comic relief for his rather serious, factual scientific tid bits, that would usually come off as bland otherwise. As Limor Shifman mentions in her article “Memes in Digital Culture,” Memes provide a pathway to comment on a political system through popular culture. The references to popular culture someones gives comedic relief or polysemy to allow the meme to have multiple meanings. For Neil deGrasse Tyson, I believe that his Twitter account is a means for such occurrences to happen as he tweets humorous and laughable tweets infused with science but at times, he peppers in politically controversial topics that one would not expect, like those featured below. Though tweets are quite different from memes, where memes are usually graphic and uses less characters than 140, Twitter accounts themselves can have attributes of memes that are just prolonged and complicates for a longer period of time. I believe that Tyson’s twitter account’s unique voice that conveys matters of science and pop culture which can be taken lightly at most times, allow leeway for Tyson to tweet about serious issues such as the Government Shutdown, Capital Punishment, and use of drones in warfare. From his previous actions of disseminating visceral tweets, he is able to build trust in his audience that allows him to tweet about controversial topics that will not retaliate in angry followers.
Afterall I think all Twitter accounts whether they are own by political figures or your best friend’s account we must take with a grain of salt as intelligently put in 140 characters by the man himself: