The Twitter Games: Social media has a big role -- not always a good one

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LONDON -- It's amazing how much trouble can be stirred up in 140 characters or fewer.

But also how much intimacy, excitement, global scope and, yes, general zaniness. For better and for worse, the 2012 Olympics are being shaped, shaken and indisputably changed by a social media revolution that four years ago in Beijing was in its toddlerhood.

Four days into the Games, we've already seen:

• an athletes' Twitter campaign objecting to sponsorship restrictions that went viral under the hashtag "WeDemandChange."

• a television viewers uprising over Olympic broadcaster NBC's decision not to live stream the opening ceremony.

• two athletes kicked out for racist tweets.

• a fan arrested Tuesday after a series of threatening posts, including one in which he vowed to drown a British diver, and another in which he told the athlete he had failed his dead father by not winning.

For Olympics organizers who pride themselves on putting on a carefully choreographed 17-day show, the bursts of Twitter activity are like gamma rays escaping from a solar flare. They're impossible to stop and spellbinding to behold.

"I don't think we would seek to control it, nor could we," International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said. He said more than 15 million fans are following and participating in the Olympic experience via Twitter and other social media platforms, not to mention a good proportion of the 10,800 athletes. "Used the right way, we embrace social media. And, if you look at the guidelines, we positively encourage it."

The problem is, it isn't always used that way.

The immediacy and public nature of Twitter and its propensity to induce off-the-cuff irreverence, and sometimes breathtaking ugliness, has added a new and chaotic element.

"Though organizers have spent months touting this as the first social media Summer Games, many of them seem to have been totally unprepared for the huge impact that Twitter has had," said Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland. "I think there was some naivete about the likely role of social media from both participants and from the organizers."

Twitter is now at the fingertips of 140 million users, up from a few million when the Olympics were in Beijing in 2008. The San Francisco-based company said there have been more than 10 million tweets mentioning the Olympics in the first few days of the Games.

Which of course raises the question: When exuberant, often young athletes are going through the experience of their lives on one hand, and it's unfolding in a deeply controlled environment on the other, how do you make sure everyone gets what they need without it all turning to anarchy?

The IOC, Miah said, has tried to exert control by creating its own social media hub -- gathering athletes' tweets and posts from Facebook, the other formidable player in this landscape. But it hasn't always worked out as planned.

On Saturday, U.S. women's soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo launched a Twitter outburst against Brandi Chastain, a former American soccer player who is an analyst on NBC.

And it's not just athletes who are stirring the stew of controversy.

British lawmaker Aidan Burley earned a sharp rebuke from fellow conservatives after he tweeted that Danny Boyle's critically acclaimed opening ceremony, which told the story of Britain's history in a rousing mix of music, symbolism and showmanship, was "leftie multicultural crap."

A British journalist said his Twitter account was blocked after he criticized NBC's coverage of the opening ceremony and posted the email of a network executive. And thousands of disgruntled Olympics viewers set up hashtag "nbcfail" on Twitter to air complaints about the media company's coverage.

Then there's a teenager from Dorset who was arrested Tuesday after a series of offensive and, authorities said, menacing tweets directed at British Olympian Tom Daley. The suspect could be prosecuted under British law.

And yet Twitter has fast become an indispensable part of the Olympic scene, and it is just as important to the athletes seeking to connect with supporters.

For young fans, "take away Twitter and you take away part of the experience," said Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture and communications at Illinois-Chicago.


First Published August 1, 2012 7:30 AM


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