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DT Debates: Are social media sites enhancing the Olympics, or ruining it?

olympic twitter debate olympics 2012 social mediaTwitter, Facebook and Instagram have changed the way we read the news, get jobs, and even solve crimes, so it should come as no surprise that the way we spectate has also evolved. The first “social media” Olympics in London have ignited an inferno of online commentary brighter than the Olympic torch, and as it turns out, sometimes it burns the very people holding it aloft. Twitter, for instance, makes a great way to share tender moments with fans back home, or to get booted from the games for racist tweets. Meanwhile, more than a few Americans stuck with time-delayed coverage have had results ruined from the rest of the world whipping by in real time. So does social media improve the Olympic games by bringing us closer than we’ve ever been, or is it possible to get too close for comfort? We posed the question to Digital Trends writers Amir Iliafar and Molly McHugh to illuminate both sides of the issue.

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When it comes to social media and the Olympics, I’m a little conflicted. On one hand I think it’s really cool to get up-to-date and “inside” access to the athletes via Twitter and Instagram. On the other I feel like it’s all a bit overkill, and tarnishing the entire experience. Not just for the viewers, who have to deal with unwanted spoilers, but for the athletes too.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the growing spotlight placed on the competitors; it’s clearly something they aren’t adept at dealing with. These people already have the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders and it’s only intensified when we take to social sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to criticize or scrutinize everything they say. We’ve already witnessed two athletes being sent home early or — in the case of the Greek triple jumper — before the games even started, for incendiary (read: stupid) remarks on their personal Twitter accounts. And I doubt it will be the last social media snafu we see from the summer games.

If anything, I would love to see media outlets like NBC make watching the games on television and the Internet a lot easier than they have.




The problem that we’re seeing surface is with execution; NBC is still an old media company and it’s rubbing elbows with crowd-sourced, real-time coverage from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Naturally there’s some tension. But the argument is whether or not social media helps or hinders the Olympics, and I’m going to have to say that on the whole, it helps. Here’s why: we’re getting in-depth, behind-the-scenes, unmanufactured content that we’ve never had access to before.

Moments like these used to be far more rare. Maybe a cable network would get a brief glimpse into some incredibly human, totally PR-less response from an athlete, but the pageantry of the Olympics has also been overwhelming. Much of what viewers have seen has been hand-fed to us by the many, many barriers separating us from the athletes we love watching.

With this closer contact comes plenty of … “overly” human moments. The racist tweets that have led to suspended athletes are naturally part of the fallout of what can happen when something like social media comes along and encourages people to publicly interact — and as we all know, the Internet is no place for secrets. But if you’d argue it was better before we saw things like this from the athletes we follow, then you’re just arguing that ignorance is bliss. As someone who loves sporting events to extreme measures, I want all the information available to me. Do I want it to be refined? Absolutely. The spoilers and failed efforts on NBC’s part to take advantage of social networking is frustrating, absolutely, but would I give up following Kevin Love on Instagram and miss moments like this? Not on your life.




I totally agree, NBC has dropped the ball when it comes to its coverage of the Olympics, and I’m not about to sit here and defend its practices. But irrespective of its ineptitude, and getting back on point, I still don’t believe social media enhances the viewing experience.

Personally, I don’t want to know every detail about every athlete; I could care less. Athletes are athletes. If you make it to the Olympics, I’m not at all concerned about how many kittens you’ve rescued or whether my religious or ideological views coincide. I’m concerned with one thing and one thing only: How kick-ass you are at a specific sport or event. The Olympics are not the occasion to make political statements, whether by nation or individual athletes. They should be about the sport and nothing else.

As a huge European football fan (and someone who records all the games I can) I’m constantly battling Twitter and Facebook over spoilers. It’s extremely lame to know the outcome of a game you’ve recorded – except for dressage — feel free to ruin that for me all day long. The Olympics are the same thing. Not every summer or winter games can be broadcast live or held in your respective country. Sometimes the time difference can be a real pain, which supplies its own challenges, but sites like Twitter and Facebook only make it worse.

The world has been watching the Olympic games on TV ever since Berlin in 1936 (CBS first televised them here in the U.S. in 1960). I think it’s safe to say we have been enjoying them just fine without the help of social media outlets. Crazy, I know.




So basically, you’re content to stick with the status quo of network television. Because things have been done a certain way, we shouldn’t have disruptive services that complement or evolve them because of the fallout. Of course primetime and network television don’t get along with the Internet — it’s not like the Olympics is the first time this issue has reared its ugly head.

I can totally sympathize with having games spoiled by Twitter and Facebook, but shouldn’t we be looking at our television networks to stop pretending that the world doesn’t move infinitely faster than it did 10, 15, or 20 years ago? Sporting and live events remain one of the last holdouts keeping consumers tied to network contracts. Bloated, wasteful, terrible contracts that aren’t long for this world.

It’s time to reimagine how we can bring live events — including sports — into the future. We also need to reevaluate how we’re digesting the rest of our content, instead of chaining it up and giving corporations all the power over when and how we consume these events. I do understand that right now we’re experiencing some growing pains, and the Summer Olympics is a really terrible time to have to endure this, but to say that real-time social networks simply can’t be applied to such events is, frankly, clinging to times past. They are being applied to live sports, and they will continue to be applied to live sports. This stuff isn’t going anywhere. While I think the overall result is positive not only because it’s a new level of interaction with these events and athletes, I also think it’s good because it’s signaling change to come for how we’re able to watch and participate in sports. It means that networks will have to start paying attention to user behaviors and wants. If you don’t think NBC has a mile-long list of things to fix, you’re dead wrong.




Actually no, I’m not content with sticking with the status quo at all, which is why I have taken to the all-powerful Internet and have been streaming sports events for quite some time now, whether it’s through the ESPN app on my Xbox or my iPad. Believe it or not, I too have adapted to the times. But the argument here isn’t about using different avenues in which to watch television; the argument here is about whether or not social media has enhanced the Olympics, and I just don’t believe that is has.

Of course social sites offer an unprecedented level of access never experience before, but how does that truly enhance my viewing experience? Do I really need to know what Joe Blow in Little Rock thinks about athlete X, Y, and Z or how much [insert country] sucks? Or maybe it’s the real human, totally PR-less moments you’re salivating over, which is fine; I can understand that. But c’mon, how much closer do you need to get to the action? It appears you need unfettered access to your favorite athletes, and I don’t. Is it cool? Sure it is, but it comes at a cost: spoilers, ignorant tweets, and now athletes blaming social media for losing medals. Personally, I don’t need to know every detail going on behind the scenes. And if you think networks are going to relinquish control of sporting events like the Olympics anytime soon, you’re delusional.

Finally, I’d like to point out that there is difference between social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the Internet, of which obviously those sites are a part of. We don’t need to debate whether or not the Internet has improved watching sports and live events, because it has. No argument there. But when we’re talking about whether social sites have made watching the actual Olympics better, well, they haven’t.




Whenever some new technology clashes with an old medium, there’s a gap space. That gap space is full of problems, and we’re seeing this with sports. Real-time social networks obviously can’t gel with primetime network television time delays, and so the end user — that would be us — loses. But you can’t blame that on social media; it’s enhancing how we connect with sports. Most fans want to know more personal things from the athletes they follow, and you can’t tell me that when a team you love is making draft days decisions you don’t want up to the minute information on what’s happening and how the members of that team are reacting to it. Maybe you don’t, Amir, but for the record, that’s weird. Why do you think athletes and teams are some of the most followed Twitter users out there? Clearly, people want this type of connection to sports.

More information is always good information. I don’t subscribe to any “ignorance is bliss” policy. The incredibly popular trend towards integrating social media into sports will also compel network television to get its act together and start adapting to what consumers want: We want to watch sports when they are happening. Of course it’s not always possible for everyone to be appeased here (a girl’s gotta sleep sometime), but the beauty of DVR and browser plugins mean we don’t have to be victim to the social-media sports spoiler. There are so many tools at our disposal to prevent something like this — and of course, there’s always the option of not checking your damn Facebook or Twitter feed until after the game.

I agree that at the moment, there are some less-than-ideal consequences that social networks are causing for sports addicts, clearly highlighted by the Olympics. But I’d argue that those problems are overwhelmingly money-grubbing NBC’s fault. The network is responsible for spoiling plenty of its own coverage. It didn’t need help from Twitter. And athletes barred from events because of comments they made? While some of it seems reactionary, I want to know if an athlete I follow is racist… or fights dogs or is a drug addict or steals; these are things that used to seep out into the public years down the line, after they had stolen our fandom for years, and it would be heartbreaking.

On the flip side, seeing the human side of these people is refreshing, inspiring, and interesting. It gives everyone the chance to interact with a community that’s been entirely out of reach before. That’s the beauty of social media. While there is most certainly an ugly side, it is bringing people together and giving everyone more information, and I just can’t see that as a bad thing. If you want to keep idol worshipping and pretend the Internet and real time coverage aren’t here… well, I think you’d better buy a time machine.

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