Tweets heard ’round the world

Social media changes character of Olympic coverage, commentary

Greece’s Voula Papachristou, an Olympic triple jump competitor, has been dropped from Greece’s 2012 Olympic team over comments she made on Twitter poking fun of African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party. Enlarge photo

Matt Dunham/Associated Press file photo

Greece’s Voula Papachristou, an Olympic triple jump competitor, has been dropped from Greece’s 2012 Olympic team over comments she made on Twitter poking fun of African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party.

LONDON – It’s amazing how much trouble can be stirred up in 140 characters.

But also how much intimacy, excitement, global scope and, yes, general zaniness. For better and for worse, the 2012 Olympics are being shaped, shaken and indisputably changed by a social media revolution that four years ago in Beijing was in its toddlerhood.

Four days into the games, we’ve already seen (and this is but a partial list):

An athletes’ Twitter campaign objecting to sponsorship restrictions that went viral under the hashtag “WeDemandChange.”

A TV viewers uprising about Olympic broadcaster NBC’s decision not to live stream the opening ceremony.

Two athletes kicked out for racist tweets.

A fan arrested Tuesday after a series of threatening posts, including one in which he vowed to drown a British diver, and another in which he told the athlete he had failed his dead father by not winning.

For Olympics organizers who pride themselves on putting on a carefully choreographed – obsessively controlled, some would say – 17-day show, the bursts of Twitter activity are like gamma rays escaping from a solar flare. They’re impossible to stop and spellbinding to behold.

“I don’t think we would seek to control it, nor could we,” said International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams. He said more than 15 million fans are following and participating in the Olympic experience via Twitter and other social media platforms, not to mention a good proportion of the 10,800 athletes. “Used the right way, we embrace social media,” he said. “And, if you look at the guidelines, we positively encourage it.”

The problem is, it isn’t always used that way.

The immediacy and public nature of Twitter and its propensity to induce off-the-cuff irreverence, and sometimes breathtaking ugliness, has added a new and chaotic element to an event where everything from urine samples to sponsors’ logos to London traffic is arranged with overcaffeinated attention to detail worthy of a royal wedding.

“Though organizers have spent months touting this as the first social media Summer Games, many of them seem to have been totally unprepared for the huge impact that Twitter has had,” said Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland. “I think there was some naivete about the likely role of social media from both participants and from the organizers. Many of them appear to have been wrongfooted.”

Twitter has been used in many ways during its brief life – some very organized and tactical, some more spontaneous and disorderly.

It has been a tool of protest and organization for the Occupy Wall Street movement and Arab Spring activists. Yet it has also led to the downfall of click-happy politicians, and the sometimes embarrassing late-night revelations of A-list celebrities.

The social network is now at the fingertips of 140 million users, up from a few million when the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The San Francisco-based company says there have been more than 10 million tweets mentioning the Olympics during the first few days of the games.

The exponential jump from four years ago has been driven by the rise of smartphones, now carried by spectators and athletes alike, each watching each other.

Which of course raises the question: When exuberant, often young athletes are going through the experience of their lives on one hand, and it’s unfolding in a deeply controlled environment on the other, how do you make sure everyone gets what they need without it all turning to anarchy?

The IOC, Miah says, has tried to exert control by creating its own social media hub – gathering athletes’ tweets and posts from Facebook, the other formidable player in this landscape. But it hasn’t always worked out as planned.

On Saturday, U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo launched a Twitter outburst against Brandi Chastain, the former American soccer player who is now an analyst on NBC. “Its 2 bad we can’t have commentators who better represents the team&knows more about the game,” Solo wrote.

Dozens of athletes, including some British soccer players, have taken to Twitter to promote their sponsors’ products, a violation of Olympic rules that could theoretically lead to their expulsions. Some Olympians, undoubtedly delighting agents and marketers back home, have started an online campaign to get the rules changed.

And it’s not just athletes who are stirring the stew of controversy.

British lawmaker Aidan Burley earned a sharp rebuke from fellow conservatives after he tweeted that Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed opening ceremony, which told the story of Britain’s history in a rousing mix of music, symbolism and showmanship, was “leftie multicultural crap.”

Japan’s Miyuki Maeda looks at her iPhone as she watches badminton matches during the 2012 Summer Olympics on Tuesday in London. The immediacy and public nature of Twitter and its propensity to induce off-the-cuff irreverence and, sometimes, breathtaking ugliness has added a new and chaotic element to the Olympics. Enlarge photo

Saurabh Das/Associated Press

Japan’s Miyuki Maeda looks at her iPhone as she watches badminton matches during the 2012 Summer Olympics on Tuesday in London. The immediacy and public nature of Twitter and its propensity to induce off-the-cuff irreverence and, sometimes, breathtaking ugliness has added a new and chaotic element to the Olympics.