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WEEI.com’s Thing of the Year: How Twitter changed everything

12.30.10 at 1:29 pm ET
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What can be said in 140 characters?

Well, apparently enough to cause a shift in how the media, professional athletes and sports organizations go about their everyday business.

(For those counting, these last two sentences accounted for 147 characters without spaces.)

Twitter, the social media site that launched in 2006, has crept its way into the sports world and caused a massive explosion.

Beat reporters now have to keep their smart phones in the palm of their hands just in case breaking news needs to be reported to the masses. Front offices all over the country, and in every business sector for that matter, have had their ability to control the message of their respective organizations almost stripped away. Players can share what they ate for breakfast, what shoes they are wearing and what feelings they are feeling before and after games to millions of fans with a click of a button.

On a local scale, Shaquille O’Neal caused a mob to form in Harvard Square with a simple tweet. Kevin Garnett and Charlie Villanueva got into a he-said, he-said battle due to a tweet from the Villanueva camp.

Adrian Gonzalez was coming to the Red Sox. Then he wasn’t. Then he might be. Finally, after all the speculation and Twitter buzz, there he was on Yawkey Way donning a Red Sox home jersey.

And maybe the biggest Twitter story in New England history came on an accidental tweet by ESPN’s Bill Simmons about Randy Moss being traded to the Vikings. Now Randy Moss is so far off the grid that maybe even Twitter can’t find him. Well, that’s probably not true — that sentiment might only be for Titans quarterbacks.

These stories are just a minute percentage of the news that is being spread across Twitter on a daily basis. Whether it’s LeBron James or Tiger Woods tweeting about who knows what, or Colts owner Jim Irsay poking fun at Rex Ryan’s alleged foot fetish, things are happening on Twitter.

To quote the great Bob Dylan: “For the times they are a-changing.”

(That quote: 28 characters. Still plenty of room, Mr. Dylan)

THE INTRODUCTION OF THE GAME-CHANGER

Twitter was unveiled to the world in 2006. According to numbers collected by the website in September of this year, there are more than 175 million users worldwide and over 95 million tweets are sent out each day.

Do the math and that’s almost 1,100 tweets every second worldwide.

The concept and constraints of Twitter are easy to understand. You have 140 characters — including spaces — to tell friends or the world just about anything. You can follow anyone who has a Twitter feed, link to other people’s tweets and a link stories from the web to a tweet.

You now have the ability to direct message another follower — as long as you follow each other — and Twitter added a few other features along the way. But the ability to remain a simple platform that anyone can learn in a short period of time has kept Twitter as one of the most powerful social media sites on the web.

“One of the big things that Twitter got right was letting users make of it what we wanted,” said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “Twitter really followed what users were doing. They put up a platform that they thought would be used so groups of local friends would be able to coordinate, but when users started to use it in different ways of communicating with people they don’t know, Twitter watched, sort of nodded and accommodated that.

“They were very uncontrolling of their own platform. That’s really hard for most innovators to do.”

MySpace got the ball rolling with social media profiles in which users could set up and tell the world, or a select group of friends, what music they liked best or what other interests were important to them. Facebook took that a step further with an online social media site where you could set up your own online world to keep in touch with friends, family or the prom date you had from your senior year of high school.

But Twitter opened up that personalized online voice to the world.

“Twitter is a street,” said Jeff Pulver. “There’s no gated community. There is everyone.”

Pulver has been one to capitalize on the ever-growing Internet. It was his ideas that spawned the Internet phone company Vonage, and now he travels the globe and holds conferences — called 140 Character Conferences — which gather people from different walks of life to explain how the real-time web can be used to improve just about anything. In his mind, Twitter has been a true “game-changer.”

“Twitter has changed the way that people communicate,” Pulver said. “It’s provided a platform for people’s voices to be heard. The people who would never usually be heard from can have their voice amplified. That amplification never really existed before.”

TWITTER INVADES THE SPORTS WORLD

Before Twitter, athletes could set up an official website and blog about anything they wanted to. These blogs could keep fans in tune on a more personal level. But blogging can be time-consuming, and with the athletes’ on-and-off-court (or field or ice) duties, the blog might have popped up once a week or every so often.

Now, Twitter allows athletes to reach fans, and anyone following, with what essentially turns out to be a 140-character text message. Chad Ochocinco was probably one of the first athletes to use Twitter on a frequent basis. Now he has not one but two reality TV shows.

It came as no surprise, especially with the popularity of sports in the New England area and throughout the country, that athletes became the most followed people on Twitter.

Shaq, who has become as beloved of a figure in just a few short months as any sports icon in this town, has 3.4 million followers. That is 3 million more than former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

“The athletes and other celebrities after many years of being told what to say and having words put in their mouth are actually becoming real people,” said Pulver, who invites athletes and other sports figures to his conferences. “If you are a team, you can no longer control the voices of your team.

“I think it’s empowering that for some people that feel the need to speak the truth, and they now have the freedom and have a platform.”

LOSING CONTROL OF THE MESSAGE

That brings up the question: If athletes can say what they want on Twitter, have public relation departments and front offices lost the control of their players who tweet?

Pulver believes so.

“It’s very scary if you are in the PR business and you were used to being the mediator between the athlete and the reporters,” he said. “Nowadays people can tweet out what they are feeling. They want to control the message, but I think the cat is out of the bag.”

Ochocinco sent a tweet from the X-ray table — how many people think that would fly in a Bill Belichick locker room?

Vince Wilfork and his wife Bianca used Twitter to voice displeasure about a messy contract situation over the summer before a resolution could be made. Players have gone from giving their opponents newspaper clippings and headlines to motivational tweets. In one recent example, Roddy White of the Falcons called the Saints the “Aints” in a tweet. Final score on Monday night: Saints 17, Falcons 14.

There’s kind of been a line drawn in the sand between infringing on people’s rights to free speech, or tweets in this case, while also trying to keep everyone consistent with the core values of an organization.

“While we don’t censor our players or limit their freedom of expression, we do try to emphasize that even though Twitter may be a less formal communications medium, it’s perhaps more public than any other media they do. … So they need to exercise good judgment when tweeting,” Celtics president Rich Gotham wrote in an e-mail. “Both our basketball and business management have talked to our players about what we think is acceptable or unacceptable tweeting as it applies to being a good teammate, professional, and a Boston Celtic.”

Some leagues have tried to curb the practice of in-game tweeting. In the NBA, players are not allowed to tweet 45 minutes before tip-off, during a game and 45 minutes after until all media obligations have been completed. The Celtics don’t have tweeting regulations in place on non-game days, according to Gotham, but he said he encourages players not to send tweets when the team is practicing.

The NFL restricts Twitter use 90 minutes before game-time all the way through media obligations after the game.

Major League Baseball doesn’t have official rules on the use of Twitter, but some reports have surfaced that MLB.com has cracked down on reporters and other non-uniformed employees to only tweet only about baseball matters. Officials from the Patriots and Red Sox could not be reached for this report.

NO TWEETING B’S

The Bruins don’t have to worry about their players tweeting during games or tweeting bulletin board material, because there are no players on the roster who use Twitter — at least as far as management knows.

“As far I have heard, our guys don’t have interest,” team spokesman Matt Chmura said. “I haven’t heard anybody asking me specifically or within the organization to get a player on Twitter or anything like that.”

The only things the Bruins have to worry about on Twitter are fake accounts, such as ones that use the names of Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder and Tuukka Rask. 

These accounts deliver comment on plays in a game and sometimes other players in the league, but each feed lets followers know that this is not the real player speaking and that it’s a fake Twitter account bearing the player’s name. Chmura and his staff have only had to confirm that the Twitter accounts were not really the Bruins players.

It does, however, set up an interesting precedent for the dangers of Twitter for professional athletes.

“I think it’s a concern for anybody,” Chmura said. “Somebody could pose as anybody who is in the public eye. I don’t think it’s limited to just athletes. Anybody that is in the public eye, I think it would be a concern that anybody could pose as somebody else.”

Chmura said the Bruins organization would be open to having a “real” player on Twitter, and that his staff would educate the player who wanted to open an account.

But he said the interest simply isn’t there, so the “fake” Bruins will keep tweeting away.

I’LL ORDER SOME NEWS, AND I’LL HAVE IT NOW

The Internet introduced a 24/7 news cycle that all reporters had to constantly keep up with. But Twitter took that news cycle and turned it in to an exhausting, up-to-the-second forum.
Take the MLB GM meetings, for example. Here you have an event with all of the movers and shakers in the game of baseball, and you have just about every beat reporter from around the country.

Before the Internet, it was a game of who could get the most newsworthy information in to the morning paper. Then it turned to who could blog about the news fastest with the best sources. Twitter has turned a major event like this into a competition of who can get the best information in the quickest way possible, and then tweet that to the audience before any other reporter.

“It’s put an enormous amount of pressure on sports journalists,” said Mark Leccese, a professor of journalism at Emerson College and 30-year veteran as a Massachusetts State House reporter. “The Internet did first, but Twitter is even worse. You don’t even need to be at the computer. You just need a phone in your hand. Someone tells you something and poof, there it goes.”

Rumors, hearsay and information from sources can be heard at one minute by a reporter and tweeted to the rest of the world in an instant. But it’s big events, like the GM meetings or a meaningful game, where the Twitter world will explode with tweets from just about every beat reporter working in the industry.

“The trade deadline has become a nightmare because of Twitter,” said Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “Before, it was who gets the column up there first with the note of who was traded or who was signed. Now, there are desperation attempts to be first within five or six seconds. Not just the first one with the column up, but the first one to get that little piece of information out, because everyone on Twitter can see what time it goes up there.”

That isn’t to say that Twitter doesn’t have benefits. Getting information out to readers is a good way to keep readers and Twitter followers up to date with what is going on in the sports world.

Twitter also allows beat reporters to maybe learn a little bit more about a professional athlete because of the tweets, and every time an athlete like a LeBron James or Tiger Woods — who started tweeting well after his transgressions came to light — tweets something, it tends to make national headlines on ESPN and all of the other major networks in the country.

“A lot of times a player will say on Twitter something that he might not be inclined to say in front of reporters,” Mannix said. “You are always looking for somebody saying something interesting. I’ve quoted, and other people have quoted, more players on Twitter then anyone thought they ever would. A lot of the most interesting stuff comes from Twitter.”

CAN WE TRUST TWITTER?

Is Twitter credible? Is a device that can send information — generally unchecked by editors — in seconds be trusted to get us the truth with every tweet?

Those are some of the questions that have puzzled those who work in the media and those who study the industry.

“There’s a lot of spinning that goes on in sports journalism,” said Leccese, who likened it to the way politicians try to work the media. “[Theo Epstein] can get together with a few reporters and they are going to immediately repeat what he said. There won’t be any time to think critically about what he said or ask some other people about what he said. ‘Is this true? Is this a good course of action? Is there another viewpoint here?’ ”

Many of the tweets that come across the feed end up being false once more information comes to light, and it’s as if the building blocks of a story can’t just be for the reporter anymore, but they have to be for the public.

Going back to the Adrian Gonzalez trade back a few weeks ago, a lot of the tweets that were spreading across the web ended up not being true. Many of the best beat reporters tweeted that the deal was falling through, that the deal was off and that the contract would hold up the trade.

Those initial tidbits and opinions were made public to everyone, and for Mannix — who said he had to be nudged into Twitter — too many mistakes with tweets could make readers become wary of the reporter that is tweeting things that don’t end coming to fruition.

“Whether it’s in a column or if it’s on Twitter, you have to be especially careful and treat every one the same,” Mannix said. “You can’t just tweet something and maybe be a little more lackadaisical about it because it’s not in a de facto column. You have to tweet everything you tweet like it’s something that’s being printed in the magazine or newspaper.”

NOW WHAT?

Is Twitter here to stay? Does it remain strong like Facebook, or does it fizzle away like MySpace.

The simplicity of the platform, and the ability for the creators to see a trend on Twitter and adapt to that should keep the sports world and the rest of the world buzzing 140 characters at a time.

“Twitter is not going away anytime soon,” Leccese said. “Not until technology, both the hardware and the software, change to the point where something replaces Twitter or does what Twitter does better that it can do it.

“That’s not going to be soon.”

Read More: Adrian gonzalez, Chad Ochocinco, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal