Never before have the Olympic Games been experienced through social media like this — but is Twitter more than just a platform for scandal and disgrace?

Twitter was still in nappies as a two-year-old at the 2008 Beijing Games. It only had 6 million subscribers then, tweeting 300,000 times a day. Now it’s got 140 million users, and more than 9.66 million tweets flooded the micro-blogging site during Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.

Many are asking what affect has Twitter had on the Olympics, but Dr Christine Satchell, a senior researcher from the University of Melbourne specialising in social media, believes it’s smart to also ask what the affect of the Olympics has been on Twitter.

“Twitter has crept up on us and until now people haven’t really understood the power of the services Twitter provides,” Satchell told Crikey. “It is a totally unpoliced, user-generated media system, and makes a stark point of contrast to the strict control of the event by the Olympic organisers.”

The London Games have been riddled with international and Australian social-media-generated controversies. The #NBCfail hashtag has been trending worldwide after journalist Guy Adams tweeted his thoughts on the NBC’s delayed coverage of the opening ceremony. The hashtag spread like wildfire once Guy Adams’ account was suspended for releasing an NBC executive’s corporate email address.

Some Americans have been annoyed at Twitter users tweeting event results before the delayed NBC broadcast is shown. Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou took to Twitter to lash out at African immigrants, and was sent packing.

After losing to South Korea, Swiss footballer Michel Morganella decided to express his frustration with “highly offensive comments” toward the South Korean football team. He was booted straight back home and his Twitter account has been deleted.

Australian swimmer Emily Seebohm appeared to blame, then unblame, social media, for her performance which resulted in a silver medal and tears. Then, on Tuesday night, an Australian tweeted abuse at Seebohm after the race, regarding her emotional response. The girl may have thought the throwaway comment would go unnoticed until Emily Seebohm replied to the tweet and her 8000 followers took an interest. Seebohm’s supporters, including her brother, hurled hundreds of tweets of abuse back at the outspoken tweeter …

The scenario was similar to an incident that made global headlines about a 17-year-old British boy who was arrested after tweeting abuse at British diver Tom Daley regarding his late father.

It’s a textbook process; a “keyboard warrior” who hides behind the anonymity of their computer screen tweets harsh comments to a public figure thinking the 140-character comment will go unheard. The public figure retweets or replies to the abuse unleashing thousands of supportive followers to speak for them. The more controversial the initial abuse, the wider the publicity.

Dr Satchell believes the Olympics show the true potential of Twitter — and it’s not all bad news.

“Twitter has amplified both good and bad aspects of the Olympics. I think mainstream media focuses on the extreme examples of tweeters behaving badly, and ignores the phenomena of users on mass contributing and commenting in real time. What they miss out on is the fact that fans and viewers now have a means of providing a meta account of the Olympics that simply would not have been possible until now,” she said.

“There are always going to be bad examples of people behaviour, and considering it’s unpoliced, as a society we are doing a pretty good job. A huge part of the Olympics is the experience of the fans. Once relegated to being armchair consumers, viewers can now actively contribute to the occasion. They are no longer just  viewers — they are participants.”

Peter Fray

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