Tweeting: An Olympic Sport?

The London Olympics have been dubbed the “social media Olympics.” Again, social media find their way into the big story of the day, but keeping perspective is important. Only a fraction of Internet users spend much time on Twitter (8 percent), and the virtual world pales in comparison with real Olympic athletic achievement.

There is no doubt that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media connect the Olympic Village and the reporters who cover it as never before. Since the last Olympics, a social media explosion has taken place. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the world had a “mere” 6 million Twitter users. Today the number is over 500 million. In 2008, Facebook had some 100 million users; today it has more than 900 million. Add the Chinese networks Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, and you get to some 1.5 billion social media users.

Team USA even had its own list of top athlete tweeters, chief among them star swimmer Michael Phelps. Thirteen U.S. athletes are presented as having tweeted over 13,000 times, states the official Twitter list of 2012 athletes. “Following these 13 active tweeters as they navigate the 30th Olympiad will make you feel like you’re in their shoes, living the dream at the Olympic Games.” Athletes, who used to be isolated in the Olympic Village, are now able to connect with friends, family, and supporters at home, tweeting about their Olympic experiences. For many, this is a big morale boost.

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But social media also means controversy, potential distraction, late-night sessions, and the dangers of tweeting as tempers flare. Two athletes have been kicked off their countries’ teams because of tweets.

And NBC, the network that broadcasts the games in the U.S., is the center of a Twitter controversy. According to the Twitter hashtag #NBCFail, the networks coverage of the London Olympic Games has been, well, a failure because the network has delayed broadcasting certain events until the evening viewing hours. From the point of a social media point of view, the essence of which is almost split-second reaction, NBC was being lame and old-fashioned.

“BREAKING: USA wins gold medal in synchronized NBC bashing. Tune in tomorrow for coverage of the event,” went a typical tweet. However, from a television broadcasting audience point of view, this decision makes perfect sense, and in fact millions of Americans have enjoyed the show, blissfully unaware that a controversy is swirling on Twitter.

While virtual popularity is fun and certainly a factor that’s here to stay at the Olympics, perspective is important. For the U.S. government, formulating policies basis on an accurate analysis of the digital gap revealed by the NBC controversy is a major challenge. Social media are an important part of the media mix and will continue to be so in every major story—but only a part.

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