Viewpoint: London 2012, a social media Olympics to remember

A flavour of the way social networks have influenced the BBC's Olympic coverage

As the Olympic Games enter their final weekend, the news throughout the fortnight has been dominated by what was taking place in one main venue - not the Olympic Park or the Aquatics Centre, but the Twittersphere.

Whether it was the latest gold medal for Sir Chris Hoy, or the abuse Tom Daley faced after his competition, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have been a central part of many breaking stories during these Games and this alone may define the 2012's claim to being the first truly social media Olympics.

Peaks and troughs

Screenshot of Olympic moments

See a visualisation of how UK-based fans tweeted the Games

While Olympic advocates foresaw this tidal wave of social media content, they could not have expected that the main social media story of the Games was how it functioned as a news source for broadcasters and the printed press - where regularly direct quotes were used from Twitter to explain what was happening around the Games.

The first story broke just before the Games, when Greek athlete Voula Papachristou was excluded from the Olympic team for what was deemed to be a racist tweet.

At the same time, Lord Coe expressed his concern that he could see a negative correlation between social media activity and athletic success.

A few nights before the opening ceremony - perhaps, for the first time in Twitter's history - a hashtag was trending about nothing, as artistic director Danny Boyle encouraged the lucky few within the rehearsals to use #savethesurprise and tell people nothing until after the final event.

Start Quote

When I first saw Samuel L Jackson's tweets, I laughed and then decided it could not be him. But it is! ”

End Quote

On the night of the opening ceremony, the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, even had a role, tweeting live from the Olympic Stadium.

The following day, Tory minister Aiden Burley created a storm after he tweeted that the ceremony was "leftie multicultural crap". Prime Minister David Cameron later said - but not via Twitter - it was an "idiotic" thing to say.

Most talked about Olympians

Usain Bolt

The world's biggest social network would not share exact figures, but it told the BBC that Andy Murray, Britain's Gold medallist in tennis, was the athlete most discussed by UK Facebook users.

  1. Usain Bolt (Jam, Athletics)
  2. Andy Murray (GB, Tennis)
  3. Jessica Ennis (GB, Heptathlon)
  4. Sir Chris Hoy (GB, Cycling)
  5. Mo Farah (GB, Athletics)
  6. Bradley Wiggins (GB, Cycling)
  7. Tom Daley (GB, Diving)
  8. Michael Phelps (US, Swimming)

Source: Facebook

The ceremony also gave birth to the hashtag #NBCfail as criticisms of the USA's broadcast coverage began to emerge. The British journalist Guy Adams also fell victim to this debacle, after tweeting the email address of NBC Olympics president, Gary Zenkel, and encouraging people to email him their complaints. Twitter temporarily suspended Guy's account as a result, reinstating it a day later with an apology.

Just one day into the Games, the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) head of communications, Mark Adams, asked tweeters to limit their output, as he said a failure in broadcasting during the cycling road race was due to a throttled GPS signal on the streets of London, which negatively affected the radio-frequency identification chips within the bikes.

Last but not least, after Tom Daley's disappointing performance at the synchronised diving, a Twitter troll criticised him saying how his performance had let down his deceased father. The reaction by other Twitter users was immense, and showed it does no good to abuse others in social media.

Where does this leave the Olympics? It was only two years ago that the IOC seemed on track to embrace social media, but London 2012 has offered so many damaging examples, that even a die-hard Twitter user would have to advise athletes to avoid paying too much attention to what was happening online, at least until after their competition.

From a fan perspective, it may be the most interesting social media Games yet. London 2012 is certainly the most mobile Games ever, with 60% of access to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games's digital assets being accessed by mobile devices - according to its media guru, Alex Balfour, who - of course - tweeted this data.

There have also been creative projects to help visualise what was happening on Twitter, such as Emoto, which displayed emotional reactions on Twitter to London 2012 content, or EDF's Energy of the Nation, which did something similar, projecting the results onto the London Eye.

Minute-by-minute

Sir Chris Hoy wins Gold

Certain magic moments had Facebook users flocking to their profiles to support their favourite athletes. The most popular minutes of the Games, according to UK-based users on Facebook, were:

  • 5 August, 16:15 BST, as Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in straight sets to take Olympic Gold in the tennis.
  • 7 August, 18:05 BST, when Sir Chris Hoy became Great Britain's most successful ever Olympian by winning the men's keirin.
  • 4 August, 21:00 BST, as users celebrated Jessica Ennis romping home in the 800m to win gold in the heptathlon.

Source: Facebook

So what has London learned so far about this so-called Socialympics? Perhaps most surprising is that the headlines aren't about how many people are using social media. At least, these aren't the most interesting stories.

Instead, social media usage at London 2012 has re-defined the public sphere and become a place where serious issues are played. This may not technically be the first social media Olympics, but it is the first where what took place online has genuinely become part of the news cycle in politically important ways.

Unfortunately, the more prominent examples of London 2012 may breed greater conservatism from Olympic officialdom, as many people have been caught out saying things they are likely to regret, or being on the receiving end of harassing messages.

However, given the age range of many Olympic athletes, it is inconceivable that social media will not play an ever greater part in their own journey through the Games.

So, a stronger step forward would be to promote social media education for people within the Olympic movement, to prepare them for the challenges it can throw up and to promote a stronger connection with their fan base, but it has to start from the top.

One of the most prominent Olympic tweeters is Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief executive of Sochi 2014, site of the next Olympic Games. With Sochi integrating its URL into the logo, theirs may be the most advanced social-media Games yet.

Professor Andy Miah is director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland. He is also co-author of The Olympics: The Basics.

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