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Tweet by tweet, change comes to the Olympic Games

August 07, 2012


William Ward

The Olympic Games have entered a new era. Social media are transforming the experience for fans, who are no longer merely watching the Olympics but becoming active participants. Using social networks like Twitter and Facebook, while watching the coverage on TV, fans can now interact with athletes and engage with other fans from around the world in real time. But this added dimension has also caused tension and blowback, which have threatened to overtake the positive impact social media are having on the games.

Use of social media has increased dramatically since the Beijing 2008 Olympics; there's been a significant culture shift in how people connect and share with one another today.

Reflecting this change, the London 2012 Olympics are the first games where athletes and volunteers have been officially allowed to use social media. This opportunity has provided fans unprecedented access to engage with their heroes and contribute their own thoughts about the events. It's also the first year that NBC is providing real-time coverage throughout the day both on TV and online, rather than providing only delayed coverage in the evening.

The social media buzz surrounding the Olympics is generating its share of success -- and controversy. The increased access and real-time engagement has the 2012 games on a record-setting pace for activity on social networking. Just five days in, Twitter announced that there had already been more than 10 million Olympic tweets. The tweet volume is 100 times greater than what was seen during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Twitter was just two years old during the Beijing games, and had 6 million users tweeting 300,000 times per day in 2008. Four years later, Twitter has grown to more than 500 million users who account for more than 400 million tweets per day.

The official Olympic and U.S. Olympic Facebook pages have over 5.7 millions "likes" and more than 1.8 million people talking about the London 2012 Olympics. In 2008, Facebook passed 100 million users and today has grown to more than 900 million users. Other social networking services, which didn't even exist in 2008 -- like Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare and Google+ -- are also contributing to the Olympic social buzz, generating millions more fan interactions.

But beyond these big numbers, there's also been a lot of attention given to the negative use of social media with the Olympics. Two athletes -- Greek women's triple jumper Voula Papachristou and Swiss men's soccer player Michel Morganella -- were kicked out of the games for racist tweets in separate incidents. U.S. women's soccer goalie Hope Solo tweeted criticism of former soccer player Brandi Chastain, now a TV commentator. A fan was cited for harassment for tweets that threatened diver Tom Daley of Great Britain. U.S. athletes have protested an Olympic rule that forbids them from using their social media accounts during the Olympics to promote non-Olympic sponsors.

And countless frustrated fans have ranted on Twitter about delayed television coverage and the annoyance of finding out results before events are aired. Much of the news coverage of social media at the Olympics has focused on this negativity. So it's worth asking if social media may be spoiling the fan experience, and even tarnishing the image of the games.

A closer look reveals what the fans are really saying about the Olympics. A real-time Twitter sentiment analysis using the hashtag #Olympics found 9 percent of Olympic-related mentions are positive, 90 percent are neutral, and only 1 percent are negative. If you exclude the neutral mentions (along the lines of "I'm watching the #Olympics") you still have an 11-to-1 sentiment ratio of generally positive mentions compared to those that are generally negative.

Most athletes and fans are using social media well. Athletes are using it to congratulate teammates, thank fans and share their personal Olympic experiences. U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas used Twitter to thank her fans after winning the gold medal in the women's all-around: "WOW such an AMAZING experience! Thank you all for your support, love and prayers love you all!!! #oncloud9 <3." More than 10,000 fans retweeted the messages to their followers, and more than 4,600 fans marked the tweet as a favorite.

Michael Phelps tweeted, "Congrats to @gabrielledoug last night!!! We watched from the pool!!! #USA," and 1,362 of his fans shared the tweet with their followers by retweeting it; 1,051 fans marked it a favorite. Douglas replied to Phelps, "Thank you soo much! Congrats to u on being the most decorated Olympian EVER! :)." It's an endearing behind-the-scenes view that fans haven't gotten before.

But a single 140-character tweet also can damage the personal image of an athlete. Consider the charges of post-Aurora, Colo., insensitivity lodged at U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones over her tweet about the U.S. men's loss to Italy in the archery competition: "That's ok, we are Americans . . . When's da Gun shooting competition?" There will always be mistakes and abuses with social media, but training athletes, journalists and fans on digital etiquette and social media best practices will reduce many of these. The social media motto for the Olympics should be "Think before you tweet." Social media are at their best when they're focused on being positive, helpful and encouraging. Disparaging others only reflects negatively on the person using social media to rant.

There are more than 10,000 Olympic athletes in London. Not all are using social media, but the vast majority of those who are have been using it in a positive way to interact with fans and share this experience -- for which they have trained and prepared for years -- with friends and family. The International Olympic Committee is still learning how to do social media well, and also balance this with the complexity of sponsorship interests and financial viability.

But give the IOC -- and NBC -- more credit for their efforts in trying to harness real-time social media and digital coverage to improve the fan experience. There are many lessons that will be learned, and improvements made for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the 2016 Olympics in Rio -- and beyond. The many positive stories and experience of social media use by athletes and fans surrounding the Olympics deserve just as much as or more coverage than the negative stories.

William Ward is a social media professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University.

This piece appeared in Newsday on August 6.

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