Olympics awash in Twitter, for better or worse
FILE- Greece's Voula Papachristou lands in the sand after her jump at the Women's Triple Jump final at the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in this file photo dated Friday, June 29, 2012. The Hellenic Olympic Committee has removed triple jumper Voula Papachristou from the team taking part in the upcoming London Olympic Games over comments she made on twitter making fun of African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party. “The track and field athlete Paraskevi (Voula) Papachristou is placed outside the Olympic Team for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement,” a statement by the Hellenic Olympic Committee says. Papachristou is in Athens, and was to travel to London “shortly before the track events start,” the announcement says.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, file)
LONDON (AP) — It's amazing how much trouble can be stirred up in 140 characters or less.
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 television viewers uprising over 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 watch each other.