Twitter and Kiwi athletes: Making a hashtag of it

By Kris Shannon

By definition, a 'twitter' is a series of short, high-pitched calls or sounds. In the past five years, those brief bursts of noise have steadily increased in volume to significantly alter what was already a loud sporting landscape. Today, Kris Shannon and Steven Holloway investigate how Twitter has changed the daily experiences of Kiwi athletes - for better and worse.

Piri Weepu has heard variations of insults since signing up to Twitter in 2009. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Piri Weepu has heard variations of insults since signing up to Twitter in 2009. Photo / Michael Cunningham

On the evening of Anzac Day, Jesse Ryder settled in to watch his beloved Melbourne Storm beat the Warriors when his phone buzzed to life.

"no wonder u got a hiding you c***. go the warriors you f'n trader."

Despite the egregious grammar and malapropisms, the message was clear. And it was a message delivered by a medium changing the face of sport for players, fans and the media.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Twitter.

It used to be an aggrieved punter with a personal vendetta needed front row seats, a large set of lungs and some luck to lambaste a favourite athlete. Now all it takes is a Twitter account and a bit of creativity to craft a colourful insult within a 140-character limit.

The keyboard warriors lurking in the darkest corners of cyberspace can confront any sportsman who signs up to the social media site in search of greater connection with the people.

Being called a "c***" and a "f'n trader" is probably some way from the connection sportsmen had in mind. But Ryder is far from alone in being the target of the type of abuse which would make Gordon Ramsay blush.

Piri Weepu has heard a variation of the same insult since signing up to Twitter in 2009, one of the first prominent New Zealand athletes to do so.

It's the old gag involving his weight and how his performances could apparently be improved by shedding a few kilograms. Despite lacking in wit and originality, Weepu's Twitter critics continue to trot out the line, and it was especially frequent during the Blues' disastrous 2012 campaign.

It's akin to what the average talkback caller comes up with but, using Twitter to personally contact an athlete, the knockers now have a far greater chance of getting under their target's skin.

"You always get it," Weepu says. "You see people making comments about other athletes, but it's not like they've actually sat down and given their own personal time to try do things that professional athletes do.

"It comes with the territory - you're always going to have people that are out to try to put you down as a person but, at the end of the day, their comments don't really matter. Maybe they're not happy with themselves as an individual."

Weepu did take the bait on one occasion, responding to a suggestion about hitting the gym to help reverse the Blues' slump last season by telling a follower to "get a life" and writing back, "Sorry, I didn't know one person makes a huge difference. I'm doing me, mate. Making sure I'm good for them. Worry about you, mate."

Civil enough, but Weepu now takes a different approach.

"It's actually quite funny sometimes - now I just laugh it off and just write back, 'I've heard that joke for the last however many years, how about you come up with something new?'.

"At the end of the day, you just don't worry about it. All they can do is try to run you down."

With its unparalleled ability to ensure athletes are reminded of their faults, perceived or otherwise, why do they persist with Twitter? Why not simply delete the account and reconstruct the walls which used to separate those who chase around a ball for a living from their "admiring" fans?

Those walls, however, not only block the bad apple but also the friends, the well-wishers and the people to whom a brief reply would mean the world. Those walls leave the likes of Weepu again relying on the dreaded fourth estate to reveal a glimpse of their personalities.

"Stories can come out different through papers because sometimes media tend to twist the story a little bit," Weepu says. "At least this way, it's [fans] getting an up-front conversation with you as an individual and not having to go through other avenues, like media, to find out what a person's really like.

"It's almost like texting a mate, really. You're not going to respond to every single person but you try your best to get involved and help out and answer questions as much as possible.

"You don't have to dedicate a whole lot of time, but getting back to people just to say hello and ask how things are going makes them feel good."

Some of Weepu's colleagues go even further. As New Zealand's most-followed athlete not named Sonny Bill, Dan Carter has embraced the platform in the brief time since he signed up last year.

In a little more than 2000 tweets, Carter has amassed almost 200,000 followers, and that number will only grow if he continues his current level of connection. Giveaways, arbitrary offers to follow a fan and the #DCPC (Dan Carter press conference) concept have offered Kiwis a unique level of interaction with someone whom most will never meet.

Carter has conducted a number of "press conferences" with great success on the site, allowing his followers to quiz him on everything from in which football stadium he'd most like to play ("Nou Camp, Barcelona") to his biggest achievement outside of rugby ("Marrying @HonorCarter").

Comedian Guy Williams' question - "Who would win: All Blacks or a Dragon?" - sadly remained unanswered.

But it's not all fun and games. The only instance when athletes' tweeting really captures attention is if they disobey the golden rule of electronic communication: think before hitting "send".

It's the flipside of such instantaneous messaging. Sportsmen will rarely say something they shouldn't when a scribe is shoving a dictaphone in their face, but in the privacy of their homes, they can often feel no need to bite their tongues.

How else could Australian cricketer David Warner's Twitter tirade from last week be explained? Warner would never call Herald Sun cricket writer Robert Craddock a "jealous prick" while being interviewed by the journalist, but he had no hesitation to do just that - and a lot more - in cyberspace.

Lyall Mercer, a public relations consultant who specialises in reputation management, says athletes need to implement safeguards against rash tweeting if they cannot control their emotions and self-discipline.

"They could send their posts via someone else who can check them before they hit the public domain," he says. "It's a hassle and it removes some of the spontaneity, but what price is your reputation and career worth?

"Alternatively, they could remove the ability to use social media from their phones and just post on their computers at home or work, which may remove the possibility of posting while under the influence of alcohol or when emotionally charged."

After all, Warner's is just one of many cautionary tales of athletes' loose lips online getting them into trouble - and it certainly won't be the last. A couple of PR types involved in sport told the Herald they initially joined Twitter simply to keep an eye on those whose image they were being paid to protect. They would not be alone.

Increasingly, athletes' contracts are being updated with clauses which state just what they can and can't tweet - St George Illawarra even gave Josh Dugan an "ask first, tweet later" deal after the troubled league fullback's numerous Twitter rants - but whether the talent pays any attention is another matter.

"I've never sat down and read anything about it," Weepu says. "It's just basically do whatever I do and, if I get in trouble for it, I learn. That's the way I've approached it, really.

"I think it's a good way of showing the people your true self but I guess you do need to be careful about what you put up.''

Those who have a dig about Weepu's weight, or accuse Ryder of trading, would be wise to heed that advice. Or they might just reveal their true selves to be right muppets.

What is Twitter?

*Formed in 2006 by four young web developers, Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging site which enables users to "follow" anyone around the world and send 140-character messages, known as tweets.
*The site rapidly grew in popularity and by last year had more than 500 million users who generated more than 400 million tweets every day.
*Sporting trailblazers included Shaquille O'Neal and Lance Armstrong, with the latter - in his pre-Oprah days - using the service to invite thousands of followers to join him on bicycle rides in various parts of the globe.
*Twitter soon became hugely common among professional athletes, who used it to connect with teammates, opposition and fans, blurring the boundaries between sportsmen and the public.
*Twitter is now a platform for millions of people around the world to react to major events, keep track of breaking news and participate in one flowing, unmoderated conversation.

Top NZ athletes on Twitter

Sonny Bill Williams @sonnybwilliams - 244k followers
Dan Carter @dancarter 188k
Ross Taylor @rossltaylor 162k
Cory Jane @coryjane1080 83k
Piri Weepu @piriweepu 76k
Scott Styris @scottbstyris 67k
Scott Dixon @scottdixon9 47k
Martin Guptill @martyguptill 44k
Liam Messam @liammessam 35k
Chris Wood @officialcwood 30k
Ali Williams @aliwilliams 29k
Winston Reid @winstonreid2 25k

Read also:
Who exactly is @dancarter?
Breakers coach sets trend

Tomorrow

The Herald will set its sights inwards, discussing the media's growing use of Twitter, and also how it has revolutionised the spectator experience for fans.

Thursday

What of the future of Twitter in sport. Is it a fad or is it here to stay?

- NZ Herald

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