In March 2006, a rudimentary micro-blogging website was launched in a quiet corner of cyberspace. We didn’t know it at the time, but Twitter, an immersive experience that allowed instant access to a wealth of information, would alter sports like little else in the previous century.

Even more than Facebook, it’s juggernaut predecessor, Twitter would knock down barriers but erect new ones. It would change the tone and texture of sporting debate by making everybody an expert, yet ultimately leave sport a more hostile and less tolerant place to be.

Twitter required a few years to get off the ground, but eventually mushroomed into the omnipresent force we know today. In 2007, some 400,000 tweets were sent per quarter. That figure rose to a staggering 100 million just twelve months later and, by 2011, over 140 million tweets were logged per day. In the subsequent four years, that number has almost quadrupled, to the point where over 500 million tweets are composed each day in 2015. Such statistics reveal the exponential growth of Twitter, which has transformed from a neat adjunct to our lives into an intrinsic part of them.

The Twitter phenomenon has undoubtedly enriched certain aspects of the human experience. The constant access to news and information at ones fingertips is a wonder to behold, a privilege our ancestors could hardly have dreamed of. Similarly, we’re now able to see in real time a full spectrum of opinions about any topic, which creates a global cauldron of discussion and aids our understanding of different world-views.

“The key benefit is that it’s instant,” says Jared Carrabis, a writer for Barstool Sports who relies heavily on Twitter to increase exposure to his work. “With Twitter, the people who follow you will see anything you post instantly if they’re online. Twitter is also great because you get to showcase your personality, which, if you’re interesting, funny or entertaining, will increase the odds of somebody clicking on your links.”

It didn’t take long for professional sports teams, leagues and news networks to take advantage of this dream marketing stream. Major League Baseball joined Twitter in December 2008, with the NBA and NFL following suit in early 2009. FOX Sports began funnelling content through the site in October 2008, while here in Britain, Sky Sports became socially active in 2010. The Dallas Cowboys were one of the early adopters in 2008, with Real Madrid coming aboard at a similar time, and the New York Yankees joining Twitter in the summer of 2009. 

By 2012, sport had been altered dramatically by social media. The growth in globally renowned teams using Twitter increased the site’s popularity, as it became a neat platform for sharing content, selling products and managing a brand. For instance, where teams previously drew a relatively small pool of customers to the stadium or online store, Twitter granted instant access to millions of fans, who became the target of more aggressive and sustained marketing. With one tweet linking to a new range of merchandise, a professional sports team could now make immediate and extensive profit around the world. The business of sport was thus propelled into an uncharted stratosphere. 

Similarly, the advent of social media changed the journalistic landscape more than anything since the Internet’s invention. The overwhelming focus of a newspaper or magazine shifted towards online content, which could be accessed by infinitely more people in a broader geographical sweep. Even for traditional organs such as the New York Times, web content became king, and social media, especially Twitter, transformed into a crucial part of the traffic-generating infrastructure.

This shift in direction led to a culture change within the sporting press, as outlets diluted their staid approach and focused more on stories that would interest mainstream consumers, who had shorter attention spans and more competition for their diminishing time than ever before. Intentionally or not, a whole click-bait culture was spawned within the sporting space, and even the most esteemed outlets saw their approach change, whether by design or mere osmosis. 

As Twitter morphed into a lifeline upon which millions of people relied for a myriad of different reasons, it’s expansion soared. The 2012 Olympics garnered 150 million tweets, while the 2014 World Cup yielded 672 million. The semi-final of that tournament, between Germany and Brazil, inspired 35.6 million tweets, the most for any one-day sports event in history.

The world was fast becoming hooked on Twitter.

I first signed up in 2012, at the age of 17. I yearned for a career in sports journalism, and Twitter offered an ideal platform from which to gain exposure for my writing and analysis. Indeed, it has been an indispensable tool in that regard, helping me make relationships that have led to some fantastic opportunities. 

Moreover, as a fan of North American sports, Twitter has removed some of the conventional barriers that existed in previous decades. For instance, I can now keep up with, and contribute to, the baseball news cycle in real time here in Britain, rather than waiting for web pages to load each morning. Going back even further, it must have been almost impossible to follow Major League Baseball from London in the 1970s or 80s, when cyberspace was rudimentary and domestic newspapers didn’t care to cover America’s National Pastime. Now, the time-difference still poses a challenge, but everybody has access to a relentless stream of information, an unquenchable arena of knowledge. And that’s a gift I’m truly grateful for.

Twitter allows us to discuss sports with like-minded people no matter where they’re located. In the space of a few moments, I could debate the FIFA scandal with friends here in England; the World Series with followers in America; and the genius of Carey Price with acquaintances in Canada. That such a wonderful tool exists is a wonder to behold.

However, when the gift of Twitter is misused, for the purposes of abuse and general negativity, the novelty can soon wear off. The general tenor of debate on social media ranges from sceptical to flat-out hostile. There is little recourse for positivity, typically speaking. By nature, Twitter is cynical and bitter, with many users thinking they’re omniscient. Now, people seemingly strive to make a negative comment about any event, diminishing great achievements with misplaced satire and assassinating the character of pretty much anybody who ventures into the public eye.

Thus, our world is now awash with people who exhaust themselves trying to provide sarcastic commentary on life rather than just enjoying it. The first instinct of these people isn’t compassion or empathy, but mockery and ridicule. This extends to sports, where as a collective fandom, we now devote more time to demolishing superstars to massage our own egos than just savouring the rarity and brilliance of their skill.

I would argue that, on the whole, people don’t actually think about the actual sport anymore. Rather, they think about the Twitter view of the sport; the way in which people will react online if a certain thing happens. When a trade is made, for instance, many fans don’t stop to think of the human consequences. Instead, they think only in video game terms, like these people are just avatars or online profiles easily swapped. People don’t form original opinions and arrive at authentic conclusions from watching anymore; they’re influenced by what other people say online, which is frequently lacking in factual evidence and often filled with bias. Twitter essentially thinks for too many people, stifling the sports-watching experience. 

Indeed, many people cannot watch a game without being glued to their phones these days. Now, people are watching two different events simultaneously: the actual game, and how Twitter reacts to the actual game. Accordingly, fans are missing the minutiae, which has given rise to a “dumbing down” of analysis. Nowadays, people aren’t listening to Vin Scully or John Motson with undivided attention like they used to. As a result, they’re not thinking about how a pitcher is attacking a certain hitter, or how Manchester United have made a subtle change in formation. Rather, they’re living an almost totally vicarious sporting existence; a fragmented, technological play-by-play through the opinions of other people. Thus, much of the tradition and soul of sport has been eroded.

Accordingly, I believe social media has expedited sport’s devolution from a genteel pastime to a capitalist jamboree; from an innocent outlet of enjoyment to a commercialised venture geared towards financial profit. Across the spectrum, professional teams now use social media as their main gateway to the bank accounts of loyal fans. In this regard, I wouldn’t be surprised if teams now sign players and make certain decisions just to appease their online fanbases, just to compose that grandiose tweet that will be catapulted across the globe, drawing new eyeballs, winning new customers. 

In July 2014, Sportscenter composed a tweet informing people that LeBron James had re-signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That one nugget of information was subsequently retweeted 86,400 times, as the online universe shook to its core. An Adobe study later found that, following James’ return, the Cavaliers’ Twitter mentions increased 37%, while those of the Miami Heat, his previous team, decreased 13% in the same span. This speaks to the capricious nature of modern sports fans, and also to the commercial impact of signing a highly marketable superstar. The Cavaliers’ revenue jumped 45% in LeBron’s first season back, a rise attributable to soaring merchandise and ticket sales, which are increasingly driven by social media outreach.

So, just where does a strong social media footprint rank in the priorities of modern sports teams? I spoke with Mark Ridgway, the club journalist at Blackpool Football Club, to find out. 

“At Blackpool, we cover Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as other self-promoting websites such as YouTube and AudioBoom,” explains Mark, who is responsible for the upkeep of these accounts. “We make a conscious effort to ensure each of our social media channels are updated on a daily basis, which is naturally easier in the build-up and aftermath of a match.

“In modern society, which is more reliant on technology each day, social media is a massive advantage to sports teams,” Ridgway continues. “It further promotes our output to a worldwide audience and gives us more scope to be creative and relay what is happening at the football club.”

Blackpool have over 67,000 followers on Twitter, which is undoubtedly an asset, in terms of marketing and communication, but which also presents unique challenges.

“A poor run can leave you hamstrung on Twitter,” says Ridgway. “Your content and output isn’t welcomed with open arms in the same way it would be when the team is winning. Results dictate everything for a media team.”

Thus, running the official profiles for a team comes with tremendous responsibility. “You have to be ultra-careful with what you put out there,” says Ridgway, “because the second you click ‘tweet,’ it’s out there for a global audience. We are often found discussing the wording of tweets to ensure they aren’t perceived in a different way to what is intended.

“The football environment can be negative when things aren’t going to plan, but I dare say that has always been the case. But Twitter provides a platform for the negativity to spread, and naturally, when a football club is losing matches, the option is on a plate for fans to reply negatively. 

“For a media team, it is part of the job to keep accounts updated regardless of the circumstances. You can’t ignore what is happening both on and off the field. All we can do is put a positive spin on things. And if the people who write the tweets on behalf of the club take abusive replies personally, they’re in the wrong job.”

Twitter has certainly become a forum for vitriol in recent years. The chronic abuse suffered by innocent people, often entirely unprovoked, is sickening and unjust. Trolls spend their whole day online, waiting for famous sportsmen, women and teams to post, so they can then reply with something vile or nonsensical. This has almost become a competition between warped people who derive a sense of satisfaction from being the first abusive respondent to often serious tweets. It’s almost as if Twitter has spawned, or at least amplified, a new subculture, which finds glory in complete stupidity.

Former England footballer and current broadcaster Stan Collymore is regularly the subject of nauseating racist abuse online. In 2014, he even took a case to the Police after receiving death threats through social media. Collymore has spoken out publicly against Twitter, which often acts as an impediment to authorities by refusing to handover user information. As Collymore has explained in various forums, this creates a “vacuum” for all manner of mistreatment and discrimination.

In a similar case, Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle took part in a question and answer session via social media last year, only to be bombarded with abuse from trolls, who posted horrific comments about her appearance, gender and career. Likewise, athletics hero Jessica Ennis-Hill received threats of sexual violence after criticising Sheffield United, her hometown club, for trying to sign convicted rapist Ched Evans. In a BBC interview, Ennis-Hill spoke of her disgust, saying “it was definitely a shock. It wasn’t very nice to read, but unfortunately, that’s the world we live in now.”

This is a statement of unending sadness. It’s tragic that, nowadays, online abuse has almost melted into our society. It’s just a normal, almost expected, part of our existence. Today, as a human race, we lack perspective. We have very little historical consciousness, and we react, full-blooded, to the most recent events and trends. When professional teams win a championship, we don’t typically use Twitter to celebrate or congratulate, but rather to laugh and desecrate those that lost. We now have greater access to sportsmen and women than ever before, which has led to a loss of awe and a vanquishing of respect. Our living rooms have become arenas of uniformed judgement, our phones tools through which to beam misguided opinion.

Of course, in the right hands, social media still has utility. The ability to communicate with athletes can be a fantastic gift, as can the receipt of key information in manageable chunks. Yet, famous sportsmen and women, and the clubs they represent, often create scandals and storms with what they post online, a problem that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago. 

Now, it’s almost as if we live in two distinct universes: the real, human world, and the contrived, online version. The internet is one giant ether, complex and confounding, intriguing and amazing. You can do truly wonderful things within that ether, such as speaking with friends located thousands of miles away. But it is also an oppressive force, demanding more and more of our time, encroaching further and further into our normal lives.

Accordingly, we’ve now arrived at a difficult and worrying juncture, where elements of our two worlds are overlapping like never before, obscuring experiences, dulling feelings, and generally confusing us about life and the future of it. Now, we’re attached to electronic devices for practically every waking hour. We constantly have to update people in the ether about things that happened outside of it. Thus, we don’t actually enjoy experiences in real life; they just happen. We do things now almost solely to appease the ether, to keep up appearances online.

This extends to sports, where a lot of people no longer have actual-body reactions to great moments, but rather have a sudden and inexorable urge to tweet, espouse their views, and be seen to be reacting in accordance with their manufactured online persona. 

Ultimately, social media was created to enhance our daily lives, to be a helpful extension of our usual routines. But as time moves on, it is becoming our lives. It is becoming the dominant force over subservient users, not the other way round as initially intended.

We’re now living our real life in a virtual space, as time ticks by. One day, when Twitter and Facebook are long consigned to history, will we all look back and regret wasting so much time? I believe so, and that’s a frightening proposition. Seemingly everything we now do or think must have an imprint in the virtual world, otherwise it is somehow diminished. That’s incredibly egotistical and insufferably narcissistic. As a human race, are we comfortable with those traits blending into the natural order of existence?

On the contrary, Carrabis proffers a different view, in relation to sports. “The way I look at Twitter,” he says, “is that you’re watching the game in a room with thousands of people. All of my friends are hockey fans, so when I’m watching the Red Sox, I can’t make snarky comments or funny references because they won’t laugh or understand what I’m talking about. I tweet them because I know that people on Twitter will understand and appreciate a witty comment every now and then. It’s nice to have that instant connection to so many people who share the same passion as you if you don’t have people like that in your real life.”

“I think Twitter has had an amazing influence on Red Sox Nation,” Carrabis continues. “There’s a Red Sox Twitter community that I interact with on a nightly basis, and they’re from all over the world. I’ve been tweeting through three last-place seasons over the last four years, and I still see the same names every single night, watching every pitch of every game. It’s incredible. They literally do not miss a game.”

While this is undoubtedly a positive, and has been a true blessing for me as a diehard baseball fan living in England, I can’t help but feel that the game has lost some of its innocence in the Information Age. We now know everything about everyone within the game, so it’s difficult to elevate anybody to hero or icon status. These days, anyone can sit at home, type baseless criticism into a phone, and watch that negative view coalesce, consciously or not, into the wider mosaic of that player’s reputation. That’s why we’ll never have another hero like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, because the task of news-making, agenda-setting and legend-creating has now shifted to the mass public domain. Everybody is involved now. The public creates the narrative, rather than simply consuming and adoring it.

As a kid growing up before social media, I had heroes and role models. Manny Ramirez was almost like a God to me; Derek Jeter a paragon of comportment. However, I feel that the children of today have been robbed of the opportunity to believe in sporting legends. A 2014 Telegraph study found that, despite age limits, 59% of British children have already used a social network by the time they are 10-years old. In my opinion, that’s 59% of children unnecessarily exposed to a world of abuse and cynicism. Naturally, this leads to a loss of innocence, and a society in which children will question anything, believe in very little, and listen more to Twitter than their own parents.

Thus, I don’t really envy the children of today, because they’re exposed to a matter-of-fact culture with little room for mystery and mystique. In a sporting sense, I’m glad that David Beckham wasn’t on Twitter in 2001, when I idolised him as the captain of my national football team. I’m glad that, a few years later, I didn’t have access to a network informing me of Thierry Henry’s dinner choices or of Barry Bonds’ music tastes. When I was a kid, we didn’t care about all that real life stuff. It didn’t matter. There was a certain epistemic distance between ourselves and our heroes, which in retrospect was simply wonderful.

Of course, we all have different views on this matter, and as Carrabis illustrates, “social media has the power to expose athletes for who they really are, and gives us access into their lives that we wouldn’t normally see. Perhaps it’s better that way, so that the children of tomorrow are idolising the right athletes. Social media can expose athletes for being unworthy of adulation, but it can also give an athlete a platform, an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, to show how great of a person they are.”

This opens up an intriguing concept. Just imagine if Twitter was around when England won the World Cup in 1966. It would have been great to tell Bobby Moore how much we loved him. Similarly, Muhammad Ali would’ve been fantastic on social media in his prime. Yet even these romantic thoughts are tethered to a caveat, as is always the case online. Imagine, for instance, if Twitter was active and as popular when Steve Bartman interfered with that ball in the 2003 NLCS, or when Bill Buckner committed his infamous error in the 1986 World Series. The abuse and vitriol would’ve been unbearable.

Carrabis acknowledges this notion of social media diminishing key moments in the game’s history. If Twitter was alive when Aaron Boone hit his famous home run to snatch the pennant away from Boston in 2003, Jared says “I probably would’ve deleted my account instead of looking at my mentions,” which provides an accurate snapshot of the dangers that lurk ahead at the confluence of sports and social media.

Ultimately, Twitter has given people a platform to have their voice heard like never before. In that respect, it’s a great amplifier of free speech. For me, the site has opened avenues and created options that simply wouldn’t have existed a decade ago, which is a humbling gift. However, as with anything, there is another side to the story. Twitter can also foster cynicism, convey abuse, and create divisions within society. Moving forward, we must strive to eradicate these deficiencies and address these concerns. Only then will Twitter become a genuine force for good in an ever complicated world.

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