Twitter: Sports Media's Useful, Entertaining and Unhealthy Obsession


Twitter has penetrated sports media coverage like the Borg in Star Trek, with smartphones and open laptops substituting for cybernetic hardware. What was a forum for breaking and sharing news has evolved into the location where much of the news (or material posing as news) takes place. A collective obsession, for many media members, has become a personal one. Twitter has made the “24/7 news cycle” more than just a talking point.

We surveyed 54 sports media twitter users anonymously about their thoughts and consumption. The survey included representatives from an array of different formats and accounted for both race and gender. The responses reveal that, while useful and enjoyable, Twitter has raised a number of issues, both for sports journalism and the individuals practicing it.

What is Wrong With Twitter?

Surveyed media members, not surprisingly, offered a myriad of complaints. We narrowed them down to a few broad points.

We spend far too much time on it. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents reported checking Twitter at least every 5-10 minutes while working. Eighty percent said they have Twitter “always open.” For some, the Twitter workday never seems to end and drifts into media members’ personal lives. Free time becomes scarcer. Dates, dinners, movies and time with children get interrupted. “It negatively impacts my quality of life for sure,” D.C. Sports Bog’s Dan Steinberg told the Big Lead. “I find it impossible to stop paying attention to it.”

This behavior has a work justification, to an extent. Twitter timeliness can be critical, especially for blogs. “If you take two hours off, you miss something you may never see again.” Steinberg said. “You can’t recreate it if you’re not there.”

It also resembles outright addiction. Extensive Internet use creates a positive feedback loop in the brain. We seek stimuli. We obtain gratification. We receive a small hit of dopamine, which causes our brains to pursue more stimuli and more gratification. We become Pavlovian in response to triggers. Internet companies know this. It is no coincidence every application tries to send notifications to your phone, including Twitter.

This has been documented with e-mail and Facebook, but those media are coffee compared to Twitter’s cocaine. Twitter provides a constant stream of rapid-fire stimuli. Gratification from feedback is instantaneous. Abbreviated to 140 characters or less, the gratification is never quite enough. Frequent use can drift into compulsion (Ding. Just got another notification, better check it.).

Whatever the pathology, this usage pattern does not feel healthy. Twitter being “the first thing that I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before bed” has become a cliché. The number of times I have drifted off to check Twitter while writing this piece is countless and alarming. Not surprisingly, 44 percent of survey respondents have tried to curb their Twitter use within the past year.

Twitter can be profoundly negative. The entirety of mankind’s knowledge is a few keyboard clicks away. Individuals across the globe can communicate and connect in real time. We are all less likely to be killed, to be maimed or to die of communicable disease than at any point in human history. Twitter is unimpressed.

A Pew Research study looking at the 2012 elections found the enduring Twitter bias that stood out was “overall negativity.” That can include interpretations of events, general airing of minor grievances (guilty), interpersonal conflict and truly foul behavior. Many survey respondents complained of “the amount of negativity,” “trolls” or “rampant assholes.”

Respondents mentioned “verbal abuse, especially toward women and people of color.” From one: “It is truly terrifying to read a lot of what is posted on Twitter. It makes me think ‘holy shit, a real human being out there wrote this and probably believes the hatred he just spewed.”

ESPN’s Jemele Hill wrote the following for an SI media panel in March.

"Every day, I’m told to either go back to the kitchen or back to Africa. In fact, I checked my Twitter mentions 10 minutes after writing this, and a tweeter called me a monkey. It’s unacceptable, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that this was part of the job. I hate that I compartmentalize it that way because I’m giving a pass to those who verbally abuse people on social media. I can’t afford to be impacted by it because if I am, then I can’t do my job. I’d cry myself to sleep every night if I let what some idiots say on social media change how I did my job or what I thought of myself."

The Boston Herald’s Jen Royle has been harassed in multiple cities. In Baltimore, someone created a Twitter account claiming she was dying of AIDS because she criticized the Orioles. In Boston, she had to get the police department involved.

“I had 5-6 accounts that ripped me daily,” Royle told The Big Lead. “Two impersonated my dog and wrote stuff like, ‘Hey Erin Andrews. Will you adopt me. I got stuck with some hack whore by accident.’ There were over 700 tweets from all the accounts combined. They knew where I lived and tweeted about my apartment daily.”

Negativity on Twitter extends beyond the outright trolls. Even normally level-headed media members can get caught up in it. One respondent said his or her least favorite aspect of Twitter was “rude, ruthless and petty commenters. And that’s just the other members of the sports media.” Another, commenting on Twitter feuds, suggested his or her colleagues “take the bitching to the DM box.”

Richard Deitsch, veteran of a few Twitter wars, described such overly combative debate as unhealthy. “There are times I don’t like myself on Twitter because I can come off harsher in print than I am in real life,” he told the Big Lead. “Some people only know me on Twitter only from battling Darren Rovell and that honestly is bothersome for me.”

Twitter can be susceptible to groupthink and mobs. Many media members believe in “group think” or “mobs,” judging from our survey. Of “what is the worst part of Twitter” responses, 31 percent mentioned some form of either phenomenon. Half reported they had censored their own opinions in the face of the Twitter mob.

Those two terms, however, were all-encompassing, embodying multiple complaints. It’s important to narrow down what “groupthink” and “mob mentality” mean and why they are a problem. A large number of people disagreeing with you may be annoying, but that’s not a “mob.”

What many consider “groupthink” is confirmation bias. We love to believe in a marketplace of ideas. It’s a founding tenant of journalism and liberal democracy. But, in practice, we seek out ideas, opinions and sources that confirm rather than challenge our ingrained opinions. It’s rare we read or seek out material that changes how we feel about an issue, especially if it’s an emotional one.

Twitter offers access to a cornucopia of viewpoints. But, we cultivate our own narrow feeds. Confirmation bias influences who we follow and how we interpret the information we receive from them. Twitter entrenches opinions far more often than it contests them. This can be found with issues such as NCAA amateurism. It is particularly evident with social issues and politics.

Media members tend to be more liberal than the general population. The same holds true for Twitter, where users are more likely to be young, to live in urban environments and to classify themselves as racial minorities. There are a lot of liberal media members on Twitter. They are likely to follow other liberal media members, share information that confirms their viewpoint and, yes, get angry about similar things. That may be irksome to some, but it’s not quite “groupthink” or “a mob.”

Along those lines, multiple media members complained of a “clique” or “a popular group” that is self-righteous, shares many of the same opinions and spends much of its time doling out reach-arounds and bullying unpopular opinions. From one respondent:

"The cliques and sometimes singular focus of thought. In some ways Twitter feels like this vast array of ideas and voices, but then if you run counter to what a popular group of people happens to think, it becomes an annoyance. Twitter, in my opinion, used to be a place for decent — albeit short — debate. Now it just feels like everyone agreeing with everyone and saying “Good job. Nice work. You have to hire this guy.” Somewhere along the line, the marketplace of ideas got streamlined, self-righteous and navel-gazing. That’s unfortunate. Maybe that’s just who I follow."

This claim may have some merit. But it’s not a product of Twitter. The exact same critique was leveled at the sports blogosphere before Twitter. Variations of it exist in every high school, every large workplace and every agglomeration of individuals in close proximity, online or offline.

“With or without Twitter, liberal hipsters will be somewhere with their favorite black friend pretending Donald Sterling’s pillow talk is the end of the world,” ESPN’s Jason Whitlock told The Big Lead.

Twitter can foster groupthink. But, in sports, it’s often subtle and relatively innocuous. For example, much of the U.S. Soccer media watches USMNT matches on Twitter. Scattershot opinions congeal into a relatively homologous narrative. By the final whistle, there is, consciously or not, a strong consensus opinion. Rightly or wrongly, this filters into the subsequent media reaction. This sort of groupthink can be far more injurious in the realm of ideas.

On occasion that groupthink progresses into an irrational “mob mentality.” Twitter is an exponential game of telephone. Combine that with the absence of nuance and the emotional response to something visceral and it can take on a life of its own.

A prominent example was Kevin Ware’s broken leg in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Twitter, almost immediately, concluded that re-airing the video was exploitative and tasteless. News outlets were intimidated from publishing what was, essentially, news. And not especially gruesome news. This controversy left those not on Twitter baffled.

Often, this happens with race. Twitter, with 140 characters, is black and white. There’s no room for nuance. Discussing racism often requires ample nuance. Twitter can make someone who commits an unintentional gaffe or says something that inadvertently reveals bias as villainous as Donald Sterling.

In 2012, a night editor for an ESPN mobile site ran the headline “Chink in the Armor” on an article about Jeremy Lin. It was a blunder, but one that was inadvertent. This quickly escalated into a Twitter tsunami, a firing and Max Bretos being suspended for a month for no apparent reason.

What is perceived as “groupthink” or a “mob mentality” is often just many, like-minded people being loud. Twitter does not often go nuclear, but when it does the anonymous Justine Sacco can write something really dumb, hop on a plane and be a public figure and international pariah before it lands and before anyone stops to have a good think about what that meant.

Twitter has killed accuracy. The immediacy of Twitter has led to an erosion of standards for accuracy in breaking news. It creates (or at least exacerbates) a climate where being first can matter more than being right. And, often, being right doesn’t even matter. “The race to be first on Twitter has led to a lot of inaccurate news,” Deitsch told The Big Lead. “If you’re selling credibility as a brand, it can be a killer.”

For the consumer of news, the line between “fact” and “rumor” gets blurred. So does the line between “reporter” and “person who opines.” A “report” gets tweeted. Blogs, newspapers, media sites, radio shows and TV networks pick it up and disseminate it within minutes. True or not, that information becomes the story. If not, well, the rest of us didn’t do the original reporting, the Twitter cycle has already churned onward and no one will remember in 24 hours anyway.

Besides being a profound disservice to readers, listeners or viewers, this rumor churning machine has been a nightmare for reporters and beat writers. One survey respondent lamented…

"How quickly a BS report (not the podcast) can go viral and send those of us who know what we’re doing checking up on rumors that are a waste of time. Some idiot radio guy hears something, tweets it and ruins a lot of people’s day with his lack of due diligence on a rumor."

What is Right With Twitter?

It’s worth noting that, despite the complaints, sports media members still view Twitter as a good thing. From our survey, 70 percent of respondents viewed Twitter as a positive development for sports media coverage. Only 13 percent viewed it as a negative one. We found two overarching reasons why.

Twitter is an exceptional news gathering tool. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents reported using Twitter foremost as a primary news source. In theory, users can distill the Internet down just to what is relevant to them. It is outsourced to third parties and updated in real time. Twitter is more targeted than an RSS reader, more efficient than bookmarking and checking the front pages of multiple sites by hand and more immediate than television or a newspaper.

Twitter collects all relevant information and opinion in one place, whether that is a broad range of topics or a specific beat. Often, Twitter helps media members find things they did not know they wanted to find. From one survey respondent:

"I just read so much more now and am exposed to so many more people across the country, inside and outside the beat I cover than ever before. If something is good, I will find it or it will find me on Twitter. I remember back in the day you’d have to go to or keep a huge bookmark list of Web sites to visit every day, and even then if there was a great story in the Salt Lake Tribune or something, I probably wouldn’t see it."

The ease with which you can find and sift through content on Twitter also makes it an ideal place to share content. For the established, Twitter provides instant dissemination and real time analysis. For those establishing themselves, Twitter offers a somewhat level playing field. It’s not a true meritocracy. There’s a fair amount of colleague and ally log-rolling. But it’s an environment where good content and original reporting can find an audience, regardless of the source’s megaphone size. In a media climate evolving in every way but devoting substantial resources to hiring talented people under-30, Twitter can be the way to get noticed.

Twitter provides social interaction. Perhaps it is trite to point out social interaction is a benefit of social media. But many sports media members found that aspect noteworthy. Twitter has taken what can be, in some ways, a disparate and lonely profession and made it far more communal. Twitter has eroded barriers between media members and their audience, their fellow colleagues and, in some cases, potential sources.

Media members cited the jokes, the snark and the devastating one-liners during live events as their favorite aspect of Twitter. I follow 120 college football media members who follow SB Nation’s Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub), which suggests many are there for the levity. However, the presence of “Would Be Comedians” in both the best and the worst things about Twitter list responses suggest that may be a matter of taste.

Twitter creates a genuine community online. “I have some friends who I’m friends with almost exclusively on Twitter,” Steinberg told The Big Lead.

“Social” interaction on Twitter has even facilitated human interaction off line. One respondent noted he or she “made some actual friends off of Twitter, both within media and outside of it.” Fox Sports’ Peter Schrager has connected over Twitter with colleagues in the press box.

"Making new friends from Twitter is an odd, but rewarding experience. I don’t know if that’s unique to me, but I’ll walk into a press box, and have a face I’ve never seen before say, “Hey, I follow you on Twitter…” and that person becomes a new friend. That stuff is cool."

Full disclosure: I met friend and colleague Kyle Koster exchanging witty banter with each other on Twitter. It was very 2010.

Twitter Is What You Make of It

We blame “Twitter” for doing things. But the truth is that’s just a very broad sub-tweet. Twitter’s culture is created by individuals. Media members may not be bland pop icons or Kardashian offspring, but many have a substantial influence over the flow of information and how that culture develops.

Why did that stupid, innocuous item become the lead sports news story? Because one media member retweeted it to 100,000-plus followers. Many of those were colleagues who retweeted it to their followers, adding escalating modifiers. Fans saw multiple respected figures weighing in, presumed it is important and started offering opinions. Bloggers, media sites, and television producers responded to the reaction, rather than the newsworthiness.

This is not an autonomous process. It is a series of individual decisions. We are all still capable of thinking before interacting. Resistance is not futile. Twitter is a powerful tool. As a collective media and as individuals, we can use it better.