Hashmarks and Hashtags

The latest social media phenomenon can keep sports fans in the know from all over the world, and all in 140 characters (this was only 138)

On October 22nd 2010, the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez stepped in to the batter’s box against the Texas Rangers’ Neftali Feliz in the 9th inning of the sixth inning of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees were losing and Rodriguez was the Yankees’ last hope. The New York Yankees needed to win this game to force a 7th game the next night. The Texas crowd rose to their feet, feverishly anticipating their first trip to the World Series in franchise history. Across the country, fans of both teams watched on the edge of their seats.

Hannah Ehrlich, a Yankees fan currently in Santa Clara, California, watched the game on her computer. She paced up and down her room, talking to herself about mistakes the Yankees have made.

Ana Apostoleris, a 19-year-old student at Swarthmore College, watched on the TV in the lounge of her dormitory. Her homework sat forgotten next to her, as she nervously eyed the screen.

Michael Fierman, a music programmer and DJ in Birmingham, Alabama, watched on his TV, with the help of his Xbox 360 game console, as he ate his dinner. He started eating more when he watches ever since he quit smoking.

Beyond just being Yankees fans, each of these three follows their favorite team from outside the New York City area. Just a few years ago, this would make their fan experience a lonely one, but a social media web site has emerged to allow fans all over the world to cheer and boo together, all from the comfort of their homes. This site has also completely flipped the way in which information is released to the general public, both for sports and general news.

Twitter, a social media site where members post updates that can not contain more than 140 characters including spaces and punctuation, exploded in to popularity in the past few years, following the standard set by Facebook, Youtube and Google before it. Members of the podcasting company Odeo, Inc. wanted to create a program to allow users to update their friends on their activities in SMS format, commonly used in text messages. SMS messages have a limit of 160 characters, so the Twitter developers allowed 20 characters for the user name and the 140 character limit was born.

Ehrlich, Apostoleris and Fierman are just a few of the people who use Twitter to follow their favorite sports. “Twitter changed my life mainly because even though I do have some friends who are Yankees fan, really none of them are as obsessed with them as I,” says Fierman.

Jane Heller, a writer from Santa Barbara, California, follows her favorite baseball team from 3,000 miles away. “I now have a whole new universe of people to ‘watch’ Yankees games with. Living in California, I’m isolated from other fans so it’s a pleasure to have company,” says Heller. Twitter allows Heller to regain some of the social aspects of fandom that is lost when you are in a different state, or even a different country.

Chris Morris is a translator that spends half the year in Paris, France and the other half in Greece. Neither are havens of baseball knowledge. He can’t even watch Yankee games – he listens to the radio broadcast online. Morris uses Twitter to regain some of that social element of fandom.

For residents of Alabama like Fierman, California like Ehrlich or Heller or even Europe in Morris’ case, only Twitter allows them to stay connected with their fellow sports fans and the reporters who break the news as it happens.“As I don’t get any New York local papers, following [the Yankees’ beat writers] on Twitter gives me super-fast access to the stripped-down information,” says Ehrlich. Like her, fans all over the country use Twitter to collect the news they want in a simple manner.

Twitter has not only changed how fans follow sports, it has completely revolutionized the sports reporting industry. Marc Carig is a staff writer for the Newark-Star Ledger and is assigned as the beat writer for the New York Yankees, and uses Twitter extensively from his spot in the press box during games. “[Twitter] is a really easy way to keep track of what is going on around the league. It is invaluable in that regard,” says Carig.

Carig likes that Twitter allows instantaneous reader feedback of his work. “It was something that was very lacking in traditional print media. You get your letters to the editor, you get your emails, but Twitter seems to be a great way to gauge a pulse of a fan base, instantaneously,” says Carig. Carig also believes that Twitter followers of his use Twitter for a specific reason: to get news on the Yankees. Newspaper readers are much more casual. However, Twitter has had some negative impact on the dispersal of information in sports. “The standards we have in terms of running information… Twitter has lowered that standard significantly. For example, in the Winter Meetings [for baseball free agency] last year, there was so much shit being thrown against the wall on Twitter. You couldn’t keep up with it,” says Carig. He believes that the instantaneous nature of Twitter has forced reporters to publish information without the traditional journalistic steps of verification. If a Tweet is later proved false, there is no accountability to the reporter. “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Who cares? That is the bad thing about Twitter. There is no permanence to it,” Carig says. He believes that this has placed a greater impetus on the consumers, the sports fans, to be more diligent. “There isn’t enough responsibility taken by the readers to separate what they think is believable or not. For Twitter, you can put some shit out there and people will just believe it.” Despite the potential pitfalls of Twitter, Carig will continue to use Twitter, and it will continue to grow. “Twitter has had a major impact and it’s just the beginning.”

Will Leitch, a contributing editor for New York Magazine and founder of Deadspin.com, a very well-known and followed sports blog. He wrote a story on Twitter in 2009. Leitch uses it as a news source. He said that he uses Twitter to follow people, especially since he writes for multiple sources.

Leitch enjoys Twitter for its easy combination of entertainment and information. As a writer, he uses Twitter to publicize when he writes something. “If someone follows me, then I assume he must really really hate me, or must like what I do so far. If there is something I am proud of, I like to be able to show it to people,” says Leitch, a leader of the newest model of journalism.

Many Twitter critics say that it has broken down the system in which news is filtered out through press releases and news conferences. Leitch is not shy about his response to that.

“Thank! God! The idea that the news is broken by a press release or press conference… if we’re going to do that why do we even have journalists at all? The reason Twitter has thrived is because people are tired of that. They don’t like that news is controlled and official. People actually want news without the bullshit and crap that surrounds it,” says Leitch.

Brian Deninger believes that Twitter is so popular because of the ability to connect with other users. Deninger, an adjunct professor at the SI Newhouse School and the Department of Sports Management at Syracuse University, spent close to 30 years working for ESPN. “You can plug in to and get information about all sorts of topics that you are interested in… It is the freedom to voice my opinion, and it’s nice that I can do that without making hundreds of phone calls,” says Deninger.

Deninger also sees a new way for athletes to connect directly with their fans. “Athletes love to post their opinions on Twitter, and some of them turn out to be controversial or enlightening.” Deninger says that Twitter presents a challenge to the sports organizations public relations departments. Deninger says they have a goal of controlling the flow of information. Twitter disrupts this because individual players or employees will not follow the guidelines set down by the PR department which gets people in trouble.

Part of the reason why sports are so popular in America and around the world is that sports bring people together in ways that few other things can. An older, white man from the suburbs of Joliet will not have anything in common with a teenage Hispanic girl from the South side of Chicago, except that they are both Bears fans.

Heller loves the live tweeting of games because of the community of people it brings together. “[My favorite part about Twitter is] the shared experience of watching a game with hundreds of people, most of whom I’ll never meet but whose company I enjoy nonetheless,” says Heller.

Ehrlich echoes that sentiment. “Before Twitter, I would not have been able to reach out to all these educated people who always seem smarter than I am. I would not be able to suck out all their opinions and add my thoughts and considerations.” One can see conversations go back and forth and relationships that started based on similar rooting interests often grow in to friendships that go beyond sports.

As Alex Rodriguez watched the third strike from Feliz go by him, and the season for the Yankees officially ended, Ehrlich, Fierman, Morris and Heller, along with hundreds of other fans, turned to Twitter for the community to get through their team’s elimination. More than one tear was shed, fans overreacted, and a season was put in perspective. That is why Heller, Ehrlich, Fierman and Morris all recommend Twitter for sports fans, especially ones who don’t have a lot of fellow fans around them. Apostoleris says “if you follow the right people, you’ll make friends with whom you can share a very important part of your life.”

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