Social media – and in particular Twitter – has enriched the way fans interact with sport, sportspeople and each other. That increased accessibility is, by and large, very much a good thing. But not always.
We love social media here at VeloVoices. Of course, we have this blog. But there’s also our Facebook page, where provide more informal content with quick race results, photos, and whatever else happens to tickle our fancies. And then there’s our Twitter, which is the place to come for live race coverage and real-time chat, as well as being a vital source of information and entertainment which Kitty captures in her Tweets of the Week. If the blog is our equivalent of a Michelin-starred restaurant, then Facebook is our Pizza Express, while Twitter is our local coffee shop, where we catch up on the latest gossip.
Social media opens up doors to – literally – a whole world of cycling fans. For instance, 50% of this blog’s traffic comes from outside our UK base, including readers from Canada, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Botswana. These are people we would never meet in the physical world, and our experience is better for it.
However, like any form of communication, social media has its less desirable side too. In a week where a young man was arrested by police after making ill-advised posts on Twitter which abused Fabrice Muamba, the footballer who suffered cardiac arrest on the pitch during a match last weekend, it serves as a reminder that (to paraphrase Spider-Man) with great access comes great responsibility.
The good side of social media
In my capacity at VeloVoices, I use Twitter as my main source of always-on information and two-way communication. Whether that is following or commentating on races via live-tweets, passing on interesting news items or riders’ tweets, or engaging in conversation with fellow fans, it is my gateway to the wider cycling community.
Without Twitter and social media I would know less about cycling and it would take me far longer to find out things which are now just a swipe of my iPhone away. Without Twitter I would not be privy to the thoughts of Mark Cavendish, the unique linguistic stylings of Fabian Cancellara, or the crazy world of Jens Voigt (and his goldfish). As a result, I feel much closer to many of the riders.
I would also not be exposed to the full diversity of viewpoints that you get by being able to talk to other fans. Blogs and forums lack the immediacy that Twitter allows to chat with others about the unfolding tactics of a race in real time, for instance.
Thanks to Twitter I regularly converse with a wide variety of fans, some of whom share similar opinions to me, while others hold vastly different points of view. That’s part of the fun of social media, though. You can read, ignore or reply to other people’s thoughts, and they can do the same in return. Freedom of speech, and all that.
No one’s forcing anyone to engage in conversation. No one’s forcing anyone to conform to their world-view. As a means of opening up communications, Twitter and social media is unparalleled. This is a good thing.
The bad side of social media
Every now and then, however, I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of a Stealers Wheel song [yes, we see what you did there – Ed] :
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
Social media encourages brevity, particularly Twitter. Its 140-character limit means comments are prone to exaggeration or misinterpretation, and can encourage sensationalism in an attempt to grab readers’ attention. And its spontaneous nature makes it all too easy to tweet in haste and repent at leisure.
It is all too easy to say something stupid or with potential legal implications. I have seen plenty of instances where people have presented as fact a view which is based on little more than strongly held opinion, or at best circumstantial evidence – which strays dangerously close to libel territory.
For instance, a lot of people have strongly held views about the legality of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins, based on their interpretation of what they have seen, read and heard. I certainly do. There’s nothing wrong with airing your opinion – debate makes the world a more interesting place. But a line is crossed when a statement of opinion becomes a representation as fact. That’s no longer debate – it’s defamation, and it’s not a good side of the line to be caught or, worse still, prosecuted on. [Here ends Jurisprudence 101 – Ed.]
Equally, as Mark Cavendish was struggling on Milan-San Remo’s climbs last Saturday I saw the label ‘Crapendish’ drift through my timeline on a couple of occasions. Really? The reigning world champion and Tour de France green jersey? I don’t know whether that label was used tongue-in-cheek, out of a dislike for Cavendish or a genuine comment on his well-known poor climbing skills – but that’s the problem sometimes, as 140 characters leaves you with little room to convey context. Whichever way it was intended, it didn’t make those tweeters any more amusing or credible in my eyes.
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly where the line is, or who might take offence at an apparently innocent or humorous comment. Anyone remember Paul Chambers, who in his frustration at the closure of Doncaster’s Robin Hood airport, tweeted a joke in which he threatened to blow the airport up? He was convicted, fined and lost his job. Even jokes, it seems, are no laughing matter.
Even here at VeloVoices we’re occasionally guilty of it. Individually we’re happy to express our opinions from our personal accounts and we’re always happy to show our support for our personal favourites, but when we’re tweeting as VeloVoices we try to keep neutral about riders we don’t like. When we tweeted the following on the final stage of Paris-Nice, it stirred up quite the mini-controversy:
#parisnice Oh bugger. Wiggins takes the stage and the race. Right, onto Tirreno.
— VeloVoices (@VeloVoices) March 11, 2012
That throwaway comment sparked off quite a bit of debate among our followers, but all of it was good, reasonable opinion-based discussion and never descended into abuse or the other darker areas which Twitter can easily lead the unwary down. At the end of the day all of us – whether it is fans or riders – are just people and deserve to be publicly treated in a human way, no matter what we think of them. Sometimes it’s too easy for us to forget that, and social media becomes anti-social media. And nobody wants that, do they?
How do you use social media? How has it changed the way you appreciate and interact with cycling? Let us know in the comments.