«#Fight4UNCWSwimandDive: A Case Study of How College Athletes Used Twitter to Help Save Their Teams Kevin Hull University of Florida, USA This study ...»
International Journal of Sport Communication, 2014, 7, 533 -552
© 2014 Human Kinetics, Inc. CASE STUDY
A Case Study of How College Athletes
Used Twitter to Help Save Their Teams
University of Florida, USA
This study explored how student-athletes at UNC-Wilmington (UNCW) used
Twitter to help save their swimming and diving teams from being eliminated. Both a series of interviews and a content analysis of 1,775 tweets by 25 athletes were conducted. The results suggest that athletes and advocates can use Twitter to raise awareness about their cause. The UNCW athletes’ goal to demonstrate community support by alerting as many people as possible through social media was achieved through tweeting consistently, becoming opinion leaders in the two-step flow of information, and using weak ties to get followers of other accounts to rally behind their cause. Limitations and directions for future research are also discussed.
Keywords: advocacy, two-step flow, weak ties, sport On May 15, 2013, the Intercollegiate Athletics Review Committee at UNC- Wilmington (UNCW) recommended that five sports be eliminated to save money in its struggling athletic department (Bonner, 2013). Both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were put on the chopping block, but those athletes took to social media in an effort to save their programs. The “Aqua-Hawks” started an online campaign through Twitter and directed followers to an online petition at change.org to help gather support and stave off elimination. Just over 2 weeks and 14,000 online signatures later, a larger number than the enrollment of the entire university, UNCW’s Chancellor Gary Miller announced that the teams were saved from extinction and would continue into the 2013–14 season and beyond (Mull & Spears, 2013).
The UNCW swimming and diving teams’ use of Twitter is an example of social media’s impact on society. Previous research has demonstrated how the sports world has become enamored with social media (Browning & Sanderson, 2012; Clavio & Kian, 2010; Frederick, Lim, Clavio, & Walsh, 2012; Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson & Kassing, 2011) and how networks such as Twitter have proven successful when used for advocacy purposes (Hamdy, 2010). The purpose of this study was to analyze how members of the UNCW swimming and diving teams The author is with the College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Address correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org 533 534 Hull used social media to save their teams from being eliminated. The swimming and diving teams, with no members having more than a few hundred followers, used Twitter to get thousands of online signatures by drawing attention to the possible fate of their program and engaging famous swimmers to tweet about their cause.
How the athletes used Twitter was explored through both content-analytic methods and interviews. The athletes’ methods were ultimately deemed effective, and recommendations are given on how future advocates can use the social network in an effort to gain more attention for their cause.
While studies have previously been conducted on Twitter and advocacy (Kassim, 2012; Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013) and Twitter and athlete use (Hambrick, Simmons, Greenhalgh, & Greenwell, 2010; Pegoraro, 2010), little attention has been paid specifically to how athletes are using Twitter for advocacy purposes. With college athletes considering plans to unionize and beginning to advocate on their own behalf for benefits (Strauss & Eder, 2014), Twitter could prove to be a valuable tool in their quest to sway the opinions of both influential leaders and the general public. This research aims to fill the gap in the literature regarding athletes and Twitter advocacy by examining how the UNCW swimming and diving teams used the social network through the theoretical lens of weak ties and the two-step flow of information to recruit followers in an effort to save their program from extinction.
Literature Review Athletes and Twitter Twitter is a social-networking platform that allows users to send 140-character messages, or tweets, from either a computer or a mobile device (Palser, 2009). While the network continues to grow (Goel, 2014), it is in the world of sports where the brief messages are perhaps at their most popular (Clavio & Kian, 2010; Gregory, 2009; Sanderson, 2011; Sanderson & Kassing, 2011). Among all Twitter users, athletes have some of the largest numbers of followers (Gaines, 2012), making it the social network of choice among sports fans (Frederick et al., 2012), athletes (Hambrick et al., 2010; Pegoraro, 2010), and the sports media (Schultz & Sheffer, 2010; Sheffer & Schultz, 2010).
Twitter has created an opportunity for fans and athletes to communicate directly with each other. Previously, most relationships between fans and athletes were essentially one-sided. Fans had little opportunity to interact with their favorite players, with any likely meeting being at a brief public appearance such as an autograph signing or charitable event (Pegoraro, 2010). These types of meetings fall into the category of parasocial interactions, a “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer” (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p.215). In this type of relationship, the fan believes he or she is friends with the athlete, while the athlete does not reciprocate those feelings back to the fan (Frederick et al., 2012; Kassing & Sanderson, 2010; Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985; Rubin & McHugh, 1987).
On Twitter, fans are able to write directly to athletes, sending messages of both encouragement (Sanderson, 2011) and criticism (Browning & Sanderson, 2012).
Through these messages, Twitter has created an opportunity where the athletes not only are casually responding to the fans but also are actively seeking dialogue with their supporters (Kassing & Sanderson, 2009, 2010).
535 UNCW Swim and Dive Previous research has demonstrated that, while on Twitter, athletes are spending almost 50% of their time interacting with fans (Pegoraro, 2010), and golfer Tiger Woods is quoted as saying one of Twitter’s main appeals for him is that direct connection he is able to make with his supporters (Mihoces, 2011). In the past, athletes rarely had an opportunity to interact directly with fans without a team official or the media present, making it difficult for athletes to have their true opinions heard.
Team officials may only want certain topics to be discussed, while media members can use framing to only report on certain aspects of a story (Entman, 1993;
Sanderson, 2011). Twitter allows athletes to avoid these gatekeeping tactics and get their message directly to the public. In addition, by having these conversations on Twitter, an athlete’s message to others can generally be viewable by anyone on the Internet (Marwick & boyd, 2011). While these conversations can range from trivial to meaningful (Hambrick et al., 2010), athletes, with both their influence and their large number of followers, have an opportunity to reach a substantial number of people through Twitter and draw attention to a cause that is important to them.
Twitter and Activism As the number of social networks has increased and access to their information has reached more people throughout the world, a new method of informing the public about important issues has emerged. Activism that uses digital-media technologies as the fundamental tool for social and/or political change is known as digital activism (Fuentes, 2007). Those looking to start a campaign to reach a large audience are using social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook because these sites can reach a large audience quickly, are user-controlled, and enable people with similar interests to connect easily (Langman, 2005; Wall, 2007). While sports fans use hashtags to find others with similar rooting interests (Blaszka, Burch, Frederick, Clavio, & Walsh, 2012), advocates use them to create large conversations among those with similar political or social interests (Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013). Conversations on Twitter through hashtags create a situation where people who may not have been previously connected can search for others who value a specific cause (Bruns & Burgess, 2012).
Social networks can be used to draw attention to an online petition (such as the one employed by the UNCW athletes) or to organize a rally for political and social change (Postmes & Brunsting, 2002). In the 2011 Egyptian uprisings, the protestors’ use of Twitter to organize was seen as one of the major reasons that President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from his post (Kassim, 2012;
Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013). Twitter was later cited as the primary reason for the rapid pace of the revolution because messages were able to reach a large audience quickly (Gustin, 2011). The results of the conflict in Egypt have demonstrated that the methods of activism have evolved due to new technologies (Moore, 2011;
Nguyen, 2011). Digital activism is now spreading throughout the world (Brough & Li, 2013; Graziano, 2012; Jansen, 2010; Marmura, 2008) and has led to increased attention from researchers regarding the power of this new form of information dissemination (Lim, 2012; Saleh, 2012; Wilson & Dunn, 2011).
In the world of sports, digital activism is still in the early stages. Few athletes appear willing to address controversial topics online, so most messages are not of a political tone (Pegoraro, 2010). In 2012, U.S. Olympians proved to be a rare 536 Hull exception when they took to Twitter to protest a ruling by the International Olympic Committee that prohibited athletes from advertising non-Olympic sponsors during the London Summer Olympics (Belson, 2012). In addition, basketball player Royce White has used his Twitter feed in an attempt to draw attention to mental illness (Favale, 2012). However, beyond those two, there are few examples of how athletes have used social media for advocacy purposes. With this lack of digital activism from professional athletes, a lack of research regarding the topic naturally follows.
Most research has instead focused on the digital activism in the realm of national and international politics.
Two-Step Flow of Information The two-step flow of communication states that the mass media make contact with opinion leaders who, in turn, pass the information on to other people (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). In this model, an opinion leader is someone who has a tremendous influence on the feelings of others around him or her, while opinion followers are the people who receive information from the opinion leaders (Baran & Davis, 2012).
The concept of the two-step flow was first developed by Paul Lazarsfeld during his study of the 1940 presidential campaign (Baran & Davis, 2012). Subsequent research determined that opinion leaders and opinion followers usually belong to the same groups of family, friends, or coworkers (Katz, 1957). However, that early research was developed before the era of social media, whereas now people can easily pass on information to others throughout the world. With users’ ability to send information over any distance, the two-step flow might be more relevant than ever, as opinion leaders now have access to more than just those in their immediate physical area.
In the context of Twitter, people have the opportunity to fill whatever role they desire in the two-step flow of communication. Katz (1957) determined that who a person knew in their social circle was one of the factors (along with who that person was and what they knew) that created an influential opinion leader.
With Twitter’s ability to connect users from all over the world, an opinion leader’s social circle can grow tremendously. While some users may still feel a stronger connection to their local geographic community (Mersey, 2009), Twitter has created a worldwide community wherein a user’s location is not an important part of the dialogue. In this case, it would seem logical that the Twitter users with the most followers would, in turn, have the most influence. However, some have questioned the idea that having more followers creates more influence, labeling it “the million-follower fallacy.” That research demonstrated that celebrities and public figures were some of the most influential people on Twitter, but that influence comes mostly from mentions and not retweets. Ultimately, it is the content of the tweet, not the sender of that message, that leads to more retweets (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010).
The traditional media were originally the main agenda setter in the two-step flow, but the Internet has enabled a wider range of people to have their voices heard.
The media previously functioned as gatekeepers with the power to decide what information reached the public (Lewin, 1947). With social media, information can reach millions throughout the world through one Twitter account, so any user can act as an opinion leader. This also demonstrates how the two-step flow theoretical 537 UNCW Swim and Dive approach put forth by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) has evolved in the age of social media. Instead of the media acting as opinion leaders, an influential source can now be anyone with a large social-media following. For the UNCW swimming and diving teams, engaging these modern-day opinion leaders helped them gain additional exposure they might not have been previously able to achieve.