FOR TWITTER AND SPORT, it has been quite a trying summer.
First, in July, the social media network gave New York Giants wide receiver, Victor Cruz, a platform to vent, and then hastily recant, his anger following the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict given to George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Next, in a public divorce, Toronto Blue Jays catcher, J.P. Arencibia, blamed Twitter for amplifying the challenges he was receiving from his media and fan critics. Finally, following a late-month blog post in which TSN 690 radio host, Ted Bird, denied the effectiveness of organizing a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to challenge Russia’s draconian treatment of its LGBTQ community, the Twitterverse hosted a nasty battle between several media professionals during which Bird was accused of being cavalier about the equality rights of sexual minorities in Russia.
Twitter, I know some of your advocates have included you among those other Young (networked) Turks said to be helping regular folks usher in democratic revolution in far away places, but when it comes to sports, athletes, and members of the media what gives?
Most analysis that has been offered in the mainstream press in response to these events doesn’t go very deep. For example, scholars aren’t really needed to explain that Twitter allows athletes and media personalities to share more of their lives with their fans. And, it’s also not especially insightful that social media consultants recommend that public figures think before they tweet. I mean, who hasn’t shook their head a couple times, wondering how their friends will feel if they send a tweet they composed about a hated actor or politician off into their timeline?
Other than the elementary warning that prominent people must be careful about marketing their brand, what more do public dustups and awkward disclosures by athletes and sports media personalities suggest about Twitter’s effects on (digital) life?
Twitter has changed the world of sports. It challenges franchises, leagues, and governing bodies to shape the flow and content of their discourse. As with an athlete’s desire to be the maker of his/her image, the International Olympic Committee, for example, collaborates with its mass media network sponsors to monopolize the dissemination of reporting on the Games, and to ensure that Olympic news is presented positively and with the best possible timing. Twitter use by fans, media members, and athletes themselves poses a threat to the official spin, and, resulting from a perceived need to police information, mega sport-spectacle events like the Olympics and the World Cup are now sites of competition between those working define their meanings and significance.
Sports fans and journalists have also had their relationships with sports (re)shaped by Twitter.
For sports fans, direct interaction with their favourite athletes promises relationships previously not thought possible. And, live tweeting of games, as has been suggested about fan cultures and TV viewing, deepens communal ties through creative banter and debate during and after the action.
For sports journalists, by contrast, the speed with which information flows on Twitter increases pressure to break stories, sometimes before they’ve secured the facts to support it. And, not withstanding the ‘access’ it has opened, the Twitter age has also coincided with teams making their athletes less available to the press and more strictly trained regarding the limits of what they’re permitted to say. While digital-based platforms like Deadspin have surprised by getting scoops and by breaking legitimate stories, the temptation for sports journalists to track trends on Twitter rather than doing investigative reporting and the heightened information control exerted by sports institutions have led media scholars like Brett Hutchins to wonder in his article, “The Acceleration of Media Sport Culture Twitter, Telepresence and Online Messaging,” whether the digital media climate actually communicates less quality news about sports and athletes than in the days of traditional media.
The evolution of sport via the arrival of Twitter are wide-ranging and often surprising. Cases of contentious or embarrassing Twitter expression by athletes and media personalities, like the ones from this past July, are emerging and talked about every week. As part of the changing environment in sport, their complexity requires some insight beyond lists of rules for establishing personal brands in new media.
Twitter tension is not the exclusive property of famous people, and studies done on average users suggest that the potential for disagreements and conflicts is not only fueled by the content one tweets, but also by the composition and dynamics of one’s base of followers. In their article, “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience”, media scholars Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd show that Twitter users are typically followed by their friends, family members, work colleagues, and by strangers. Since most followers have divergent interests, the only way users could avoid ever bothering any of them would be by delivering only the most neutral content. But, rather than being boring, and based on awareness that different followers have different tastes for content, Marwick and boyd have shown that users employ techniques like altering topics, self-censorship, and appearing to be authentic to appeal widely, or to present themselves well, to their Twitter audience. With these relations built into Twitter’s structure, it’s easy to see how even regular users who fail to recognize and respect the concerns of followers who either subscribe to their feed or who occasionally check their public account can alienate at best, or can draw challenges and conflicts at worst.
Though the scale and emotion of interaction are not equal, public figures face challenges and risks of building intimacy with their Twitter followers in ways that are not entirely dissimilar from the average person’s experience.
In another study, “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter,” Marwick and boyd argue that popular public figures no longer rely strictly on performing or producing their craft to achieve their fame. Similar to any regular person on Twitter, whose follower count will rise and fall according to the way they deploy tweets to their followers, Marwick and boyd state that celebrity status now depends upon a public figure’s ongoing management of their engagement with their fans in digital media. The scholars have shown how retweeting followers’ requests for shout-outs, acknowledging the ordinary people who tweeted useful information to them, and how sending tweets that recognize the everyday experiences that are common to celebrities and their followers are some of the techniques that musicians, athletes, and members of the media use to maintain and grow emotional ties with their Twitter fan base.
Yes, whether out of sincerity or self-interest, Twitter has nudged some athletes and media personalities to invest a bit of their time in forging direct interactions with their fans and other famous people. But, recent events also show that (mis)calculating the digital relationship can easily translate a celebrity’s slip-ups, provocations, or challenging tweets into uncomfortable conflagrations.
For both Victor Cruz and J.P. Arencibia, involvement with their Twitter audiences went off the rails in July. For Cruz, an honest reaction to what many viewed as a brutal miscarriage of justice, one not so different from that which many experienced, embarrassed the New York Giants and the NFL to such an extent that pressure was applied to remove the tweet in question and to apologize. Arencibia, meanwhile, grew tired of having his tweets turned into amplified criticism of both his play and his efforts to address his concerns with Blue Jays management. Arencibia’s daily reception of negativity soured his previously lauded commitment to Twitter to such a degree that he decided to close his account.
For Cruz and Arencibia, direct interactions and communications with their fans on Twitter that were meant to share a behind the scenes intimacy failed to have the desired effect. Instead of bolstering athlete-fan-sports community connection through the presentation of desirable and respected qualities, their Twitter disclosures and interactions defied the interests and concerns of relevant constituents among the populations that make up their direct and indirect followers. Follower pushback, either from fans or sports institutions with some form of investment in the players’ public reputations, was powerful enough to force both of them to back down from their respective expressions. Arguably, each sustained a certain amount of temporary damage to their celebrity status.
In the Twitter-hosted battle between Ted Bird and a handful of journalists over the radio announcer’s original blog post on the Sochi Olympics, a different set of dynamics came into play.
The conflict started shortly after Bird sent out a tweet promoting his blog post. In response, freelance journalist, Justin Ling, retweeted the piece with the interpretation that, because he views it as a moral issue, Bird doesn’t view the protection of gay rights as being important. What happened next was a protracted series of direct and hostile Twitter interactions over the social and political ramifications of the blog post that pitted Bird against a group of journalists, and that later led to Bird being taken to task by Yale human rights research fellow and MacLean’s magazine contributor, Adam Goldenberg, for alleged homophobia and indifference towards the plight of the LGBTQ community in Russia. As of the time of writing, Bird had offered his reflections on what happened on Twitter during the initial day of digital conflict, Twitter exchanges between Bird and his critics have tapered off, and Goldenberg used Twitter to encourage listeners to call on the sponsors of Bird’s Morning Show to pull advertizing from TSN 690 to get the announcer fired.
In his provocative study, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Tweeting: Cultural Citizenship, Collective Discussion, and the New Media Consumption/Production of Hockey Day in Canada,” researcher and blogger, Mark Norman, concluded that Twitter can offer citizens opportunities to make constructive and critical contributions to public discourse on contemporary social issues that intersect with sports. And, with local and national media personalities and journalists from many different news and sports-based agencies and platforms networked via Twitter, one could say that the potential did exist for diverse sets of interested professionals in Bird’s and Ling’s immediate and extended audiences to contribute to a discussion of the various positions that had been proffered and defended. Based, however, on the views of the two original participants in July’s “Montreal Twitter War”, it’s hard to see this digitally mediated coming together of voices whose professional positions would otherwise keep them separated as resulting in any significant teachable or learnable moments.
Though he sees an ugly underbelly to it, Ted Bird says he enjoys using Twitter to express ideas in an effort to build his following and ratings for his radio program. Though Bird readily admits that he bears some of the responsibility for the intensity of the interaction that was ignited in response to his original blog post, he also insists that he did not initiate in the negative tone that characterized a good deal of the discourse. Feeling ambushed by those who first commented on his post, Bird says he was forced to respond to attacks that targeted him as a person rather than engaged his ideas. Bird says he was particularly disturbed by the assertions made by some of his Twitter adversaries that, as a sports commentator, he was not qualified to comment knowledgably on issues other than sports.
Commenting on the altercation, and on his role in dragging it down, Bird describes features of Twitter itself that he believes created the conditions for the contentious interactions.
“This was typical of what Twitter has become,” Bird said. “Everyone’s sitting behind a computer screen or looking at a handheld device. When people disagree with you, when they don’t have to sit across from you and look you in the eye, respect and common courtesy go out the window, and it’s real easy for it to degenerate into an exchange of personal insults. [Some] people came after me in a very condescending and disrespectful way. I responded in a condescending and disrespectful way, but I didn’t fire the first shot.”
While Bird sees little to no potential for Twitter to carry constructive discussion and debate on serious issues, Justin Ling believes otherwise. Noting that he and his colleagues alternate between a sarcastic debate style and a more serious approach that relies on crafting multiple tweets to convey complex ideas, Ling says that one of his main objectives in engaging Bird was to try to get him to clarify and state his views on the range of salient questions that was being directed at him. Ling believes that both Bird and some of his detractors polluted the interaction with their use of unintelligent and personal attacks, but, as the initiator of the ideas under discussion, he believes that Bird had to remain above the fray in order to keep his credibility intact.
While he believes that some of the zeal to battle Bird had more to do with the need felt by some to protect their turf as political commentators in the Montreal media market than it did with Twitter itself, Ling also sees how some of the digital platform’s characteristics thwarted what could have been a constructive discussion.
“I don’t see the point in debating the morality of homosexuality,” Ling said. “And, though I kept trying to get across the point that I don’t support the boycott, that there’s not a monolithic view that you have to take [on the boycott], I don’t think anything positive came from that [Twitter] discussion at all. I get [Ted’s] point of view, but if you’re a public figure, you should probably engage people in a way that’s not so dismissive. I get the temptation, especially when you feel you’re being ganged up on, but when you’re on twitter you get a distorted view of how the discussion’s going. Everybody thinks they’re always winning when they’re on Twitter. [Ted] got a lot of positive comments, and that started shaping [his tweets].”
Though he was asked by Ling and broadcasters on another radio station to appear on their web/radio programs to discuss his blog post and his views in more detail, Bird declined their requests. Still in the midst of a Twitter flare up that he later said “[reeked] of unprofessionalism on all sides, mine included,” Bird didn’t believe that his interlocutors would provide a genuine space for debate.
“I have no obligation to go on anybody’s show at someone else’s whim to defend my position, and I’m not stupid enough that I would walk into that kind of hostile environment where they’re waiting for me with the guns loaded and the torches burning,” Bird said. “After everything that happened [on Twitter], it was pretty clear to me that if I had gone into either of those scenarios they would have been lying in wait for me.”
Unlike the situations involving Cruz and Arencibia, Ted Bird says that, while he always expected there would be people who would disagree with his opinions, he stands by everything he expressed in both his blog and during the various exchanges he participated in on Twitter.
Twitter makes things a little trickier for public figures to control their brand. If nothing else, Arencibia, Cruz, and the “Montreal Twitter War” showed that interactions between prominent users and their audiences failed to live up to social media’s claim to facilitate direct access to, and interaction about, those who shape what’s going on. People come to Twitter expecting ordinary and high profile users to communicate honestly about themselves and their social worlds, but, in these cases, the platform’s structure and culture either allowed talk to be shut down or helped fuel such a din that very little constructive engagement on things that really deserved careful attention was allowed to occur. When it comes to high profile people, real access, and meaningful communication, Twitter overpromises and under delivers.
Maybe it’s not Twitter which kills communication, but users. But, in a digital culture in which more of us seem to be turning to a digital presence to replace or augment all aspects of our social lives, Twitter and its users are growing to be one in the same.