Timezone Sociology

This morning, whilst updating the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APoD) account on Twitter, I learnt a valuable lesson about the sociological side of timezones. Having worked with people in California and Europe I should be used to the issue. I think I may have just re-learnt that lesson but with a twist.

First some history. Back in 2007, just as Twitter was finding its feet, I decided that APoD should be on it. It was already being mirrored in a few ways and I thought it would be great if it could appear in my Twitter stream. I contacted Robert Nemiroff - one of APoD's curators - to check if it was OK and then set up an automatic script to update the feed each day with the title and a link. At some point the @apod account was lucky enough to be "featured" by Twitter during the sign-up process and so gained a whole bunch of followers that wouldn't necessarily know to seek it out. As it stands today, the account has 184,570 followers.

Last year Twitter changed their API (the way computer software can talk to Twitter) to require extra security and I ran into problems. The new way was much more complicated and my server won't let me install the extra software necessary. However, I discovered that Twitter's Android software was still allowed to use the old method so I just had my software pretend to be Twitter for Anroid. That worked until the end of March this year when Twitter finally closed that loophole. Since then I've had to manually update the account every day. It has been pretty annoying to make sure I always have an internet connection in the morning but the side-effect is that I never miss an APoD!

This morning I awoke particularly early and noticed that the main APoD page had been updated early too. I updated @apod a couple of hours earlier than usual at 05:25 am BST. Two hours makes a massive difference! Within 20 minutes around 60 people had commented on the picture. I don't remember such an immediate and large response to an update. Although it was a stunning image of aurora, there have been equally as beautiful images before that haven't had such an immediate response.

Most of the people commenting were people I've not seen mention @apod before (I keep track of all mentions on Twitter as it can remind me if I've forgotten to update it). What was different this time? The thing that most of them had in common was that they are from the Americas, both south and north. By updating early I suspect I caught them before they went to sleep. Normally they'd be off Twitter for another 8 hours or so by which time the @apod update would have moved down their stream and they would probably miss it.

The lesson for me is that the precise timing of a tweet can really affect which parts of the planet may ever really see it. At this time Europe and Africa are just about to wake up, Asia has been awake for a while, and south & north America haven't quite gone to bed. It may be that a little after 5am BST is the best time for planet Earth to get an update.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 17th May 2011 (06:40 BST) | Permalink
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