The social Olympics

I was asked yesterday to take part in a television interview for associated press on the impact that social media was having on the Olympics and its participants. I wasn’t able to get the logistics sorted out to be able to do the interview but thought I’d jot some reactions down here instead.

There have been a number of instances where athletes have been put under pressure by taking part in online conversations, a particularly nasty piece of aggression towards a British diver from unpleasant teenager, and NBC making a right mess of scheduling its output and winding up a lot of people on the web. Lots of grey areas, and few absolute rights and wrongs in all of this.

It is fascinating to watch individual athletes bumping up against online accountability (as in the reaction to the racist tweet by the Greek triple jumper and the consequences of not knowing when to stop using social media) in a very basic and almost naïve way. We all have the potential these days to end up in the public eye and need to be able to make better decisions, about what we say and think, and to stand by them.

This post from fleet street fox makes an interesting comparison between our reaction to Paul Chambers, the accountant convicted for his tweet about Robin Hood Airport, and our very different reaction to “Reece Sonny James”, the foul mouthed teenager from Dorset hassling Tom Daley. Thankfully common sense prevailed in the Paul Chambers case but sadly we appear to have forgotten it very quickly. As I said in my book we all have a volume control on mob rule and we need to exercise this responsibility wisely.

Mix in Twitter’s over-reaction to British journalist criticism of NBC and the Olympic committee asking us to tweet less about events so that it doesn’t screw up the TV coverage and you have a fascinating mix of naivety, human fallibility, and institutional over-reaction in various forms. Lots of steep learning curves here and I am sure there will be lots of material for academic studies of the events and their consequences.

Even after thirty years we are still in the early stages of learning what to do with this powerful communication tool we have been given. I would be very wary of making too many rigid decisions about what is the right or wrong way to deal with any of the situations we have seen and certainly very wary of enshrining our reactions in law. For me the most reassuring aspect of all of these incidents is that the Internet isn’t the problem - our behaviours and existing culture are the problem. What the Internet does is make us more aware of our weaknesses and mistakes and gives us a greater opportunity to do something about them. In the long run I reckon this will be seen as a good thing.