I had a chance to look at social media from a different vantage point today at the Unleashing Social Media On the Sports World panel hosted by The New York Times. Indeed, it's one of the discussions I attended this week that seemed to want to talk about the social human element of social media, and not just the hard analytics of ROI, reach, click counts, sharing rates, and so on. While these are useful and certainly important measures to understand within this medium, it also has the effect of distancing the technology from the user. Hard analytics helps organize the medium. While it recognizes that individual's ability to choose, it also makes the user far more passive—someone to be manipulated and shaped in a particular way with specific strategies. Like the CSR panel yesterday, Unleashing Social Media On the Sports World emphasized the user more strongly as an agent in shaping social media and the resulting relationships. Today's panel was less about getting the individual to respond to content in a formulaic way, and more about how the individual can seize this medium and really help shape the digital landscape while building a digital persona.
Led by Gary Vaynerchuk, partner and co-founder of Vayner Media, the discussion featured Matt Cerrone, founder of Metsblog.com, Tyler Kepner, national baseball writer at The New York Times, Jim Bankoff, chairman and CEO of SB Nation, and Michael DiLorenzo, director of social media and communications at the NHL. One of the key points made today concerned expectations. According to Vaynerchuk, social media has changed the expectations surrounding fan dialogues. In the sports world, it's no longer possible or even acceptable to ignore social media dialogues if you're a player. Because the medium is so pervasive, fans expect a response. DiLorenzo pointed out that fans, whether of baseball, hockey, football, cricket, rugby, etc., have an emotional craving to be directly connected. This fits well with some of my very early ethnographic work where I investigated nationalism and sports. Using the work of CLR James concerning cricket and Trinidadians, I traced the way a national past time comes to represent a national identity. And the importance that players come to hold as representatives of the people. Here's an excerpt from the paper I wrote on this:
Trinidadians fiercely identified with their cricketers, and although racialism attempted to thwart their emotional and psychological investment in these players, it only caused the spectators and supporters of the sport to unify in anger. The cricketer as a national hero should be examined in the life of Wilton St. Hill who played for Shannon [a cricket club], himself, and more importantly, the people (James 1963: 94) ... As C.L.R. James walked through the countryside one afternoon, he passed a shoemaker’s shop where some men had gathered and discovered that while none of these men had ever laid eyes on St. Hill, they worshipped him (James 1963: 97). One of the men turned to James and said, “You know what I waitin’ for? When he go to Lord’s and the Oval and make his Century there! That’s what I want to see” (James 1963: 97). The desires of this man out in the countryside typified what St. Hill meant to thousands of Trinidadians: in this player there was a sense that here was one of them, performing “in excelsis in a sphere where competition was open" (James 1963: 99).
People align themselves with teams that they feel represent them in some way. It could be geographic, it could be a family following, it could be the team colors. For whatever reason, people choose a team, and consequently the players, to represent them. Consider the immense amount of pride a city displays at winning a championship: parades are planned, children miss school and workers call out sick to participate in the celebration, the players are lauded—figuratively carried on the shoulders of the people to City Hall. Why? Because they have represented their fans "in excelsis." Social media provides a pipeline to the players for the fans. They can voice their concerns, they can make suggestions, they can questions decisions—after all, it is their reputation on the line as well if their team is sub par. And they expect a response.
As both Cerrone and Vaynerchuk noted, a new generation of players is coming up through the ranks, and they've always had Facebook and Twitter. They're used to accessing this medium to connect with others, and for them, this form of contact with fans will be natural. However, social media also provides them with the opportunity to manage their own professional identity. They no longer need to work through reporters to answer their fans. They're in control of the message they want to share via social media. So if they want to discuss a botched play or a good one, they don't need to be filtered. They can claim accountability; and since sports is such an emotionally charged experience, taking responsibility can go a long way toward maintaining a fan base. People value authenticity, and social media encourages authentic interactions because it magnifies transparency. If something isn't right, it's no longer easy to avoid the issue, as Bankoff noted: if you aren't who you claim to be, it will be readily apparent in the fan response—to quote Bankoff, "transparency will out you." Kepner's point that you have to stand by your statements fits well here. Simply put, social media can encourage a more accurate representation of a player because the player has the ability to speak on his or her own behalf.
The use of social media both by the fans and the players has the potential to revolutionize the experience of the game. An increase in the interaction between these two groups will see an increase in the degree of trust and connectivity on the part of the fans. And on the part of the players as well. Through consistent use of social media, by which authenticity will be validated, both parties will become more invested in each other. This may shift the focus away from the team and more toward the player as a champion, and this will certainly have an impact on ROI and the sale of team jerseys, but it may also satisfy the needs of both players and fans—the latter needing DiLorenzo's emotional connection and the former needing greater control over their public image, which translates into currency for contract negotiations and the like.
I'm wrestling with these questions and ideas, Readers, so I'll put this one to you: What does it mean to be digitally authentic?
1963 Beyond a Boundary. New York: Pantheon Books.