Twitter may only be five years old but it has already made enough headlines to last a lifetime. It has quickly become the go to place for breaking news and to gauge the subjects on the nation’s fingertips.
The social networking site has many uses in the sporting world; athletes use it as a tool to converse directly with fans, clubs use it as another way to inform and update their loyal supporters, journalists use it as a medium to rapidly break news and event organisers use it as an extra means of publicity. It isn’t always a tool for good though, an errant tweet can land the user in plenty of hot water – as the saying goes, ‘act in haste, repent in leisure’.
The site’s growth in the past few years has been mirrored within the sporting world. As more and more people sign-up it is inevitable that some will fall foul of the tool’s immediacy and lack of recourse. Once a message has been tweeted it is there for the world to see, you may try to delete it but you won’t catch it in time and if it is newsworthy then someone will retweet it and the situation will snowball. Kevin Pietersen is a prime example of this, in 2010 he inadvertently revealed the England selectors’ decision to drop him hours before it was set to be officially announced. He didn’t stop there though, he further angered the selectors by launching into a four letter tirade about them and the merit of their decision. Pietersen insists that the tweet was intended as a direct message to a specific user and therefore not to be seen by the rest of his followers. This may be the case but it is somewhat irrelevant after the event, it was a stark lesson to sports stars the world over that life on the internet can never be truly private.
This wasn’t the first time a team selection had been let out of the bag early on twitter though. The first time I can recall it happening was before the second test of the 2009 Ashes series. Out of form opening bastman Phillip Hughes revealed on his twitter account that he had been dropped, two hours before the official announcement was made prior to the toss. Reports suggested that his manager took responsibility for the slip-up, he was still in Australia and claimed to have mis-calculated the time difference and tweeted the message too early. That is little consolation to Cricket Australia though who were seen to have lost an element of control over their playing staff, this was before the true power and independent nature of twitter had been discovered though it must be said.
Nothing can truly claim to be a part of British sport until it has infiltrated the world of football, and nothing can truly be a part of football until there has been a scandal about it. So as the headlines over the last year can testify, twitter has definitely arrived. Darren Bent, Carlton Cole, Danny Gabbidon, Ryan Babel, and Wayne Rooney have all made the news as a result of ill-advised tweets. Offences ranged from retweeting a lighthearted photoshopped image (Babel), to a rage-fuelled sign-off from the site (Gabbidon), to offering a follower out for a fight (yep you guessed it, Rooney). One of twitter’s greatest selling points has proven time and again to be many of its users downfalls. The medium is so immediate, so direct, and the lack of censorship acts as a perfect illustration of why agents and managers started giving athletes media training in the first place.
I shouldn’t just focus on the pitfalls of twitter though. Sportsmen and women have used it as a force for good and this should be noted. Yes there are many sportspeople who have got into trouble because of their tweets but there are far more who use it as a tool to reconnect with their fans and become human again. Not just in this country but around the world as well, we revere our sports stars and put them on a pedestal that is impossible for us to ever reach. Managers and agents then build a wall around that pedestal to further distance us from our heroes, only allowing us to hear from them in sanctioned press conferences and interviews where they give calculated answers to keep their sponsors happy and their noses clean. If twitter can humanise our sports stars then its use should be encouraged.
A recent example of this is Judd Trump, the 21 year old snooker player who made a name for himself by tweeting in the mid-session intervals during his run to the final of this years world championships. Mid-game tweets are not always desirable though, the NBA have banned its players from using twitter and other social media sites from 45 minutes before the game until after all official post-match press obligations have been completed. This is likely to be due to the loss of impact that its own coverage will attain if news and opinions have already been broken by players on their personal twitter feeds.
The majority of the England cricket team are regular tweeters and used it as a tool to keep in touch with supporters on their recent tour of Australia and the Asian sub-continent. The camaraderie between the group is clear to see as they regularly engaged in gentle ribbing and mocking of one another in their spare time, a tactic which ingratiated themselves to their fans as it shows they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Twitter can be a fantastic way to connect with fans and display your personality away from the sporting environment in which athletes are normally seen. Graeme Swann is a prime example of this, a sample tweet from his timeline will see that he is just a normal person like you and I, with a good sense of humour: “I saw on the news that today is supposed to be judgement day? Do I have time for a cheese n pickle sandwich before the machines rise?”. There are others as well, many believe that Mark Cavendish, the bolshy yet prodigiously talented cyclist, is made for twitter. His sponsors may disagree as he has hardly cultivated a squeaky clean reputation in his short professional career so far, but twitter gives him an uncensored voice to air his views and convince some people that there is more to him than the arrogant, surly character people perceive. A recent tweet of his shows his dedication to his team and his gratitude for the efforts they make for his ultimate glory: “Haters will hate. But a group of people who support me like my incredible teammates did today will always mean more. So proud of you guys.”
Of course for twitter to work you need to have the personality to show off in the first place. Andy Murray is persistently labelled as boring and monotonous, I personally don’t think this should matter too much but it has to be said that he doesn’t help himself. His description of himself on twitter simply reads “I play tennis”. However dig a little deeper and you will see a sense of humour in there that many people miss. This was tweeted on 1st April: “Ross hutchins (doubles player and training partner) will be my new coach alongside dani starting in barcelona! Can’t wait to get startedd, full statement on personal website”, followed by “Felt like I needed another yes man”. All of which was a thinly veiled jab at the critics questioning his decision to surround himself with a team of friends rather than a single coach who would question the Scots views.
All of this pales into insignificance when viewed against the impact twitter can really make on a global scale though. As a tool for breaking news it is now unsurpassed, the first I heard about Wouter Weylandt’s recent death in the Giro d’Italia was via twitter. Of course some tweets must be read with caution, due to the speed with which news is now disseminated there are bound to be some errors, but on the whole you get enough of the story to go on before you can read a full report.
Not only can twitter break news, but it can also break governments as well, as the recent uprising in Tunisia demonstrated.
So twitter really is a powerful tool, one that the world is only just discovering the full potential of. Sports stars were some of the first to realise its strengths, and some of the first to experience its pitfalls. With the world-changing around us at such a pace it is impossible to say with much certainty whether twitter is here to stay, but you can rest assured that it hasn’t finished writing its headlines yet (just ask Ryan Giggs!). Be those headlines good or bad is up to the user, just remember one thing for the future – tweet if you want to, but tweet with caution.