Just days before the Games were ready to begin talks online were already debating the future of the Olympics and their relationship with the online, viagra approved social media. Many have asserted then that these Winter Games will mark the history of the Olympics by being the first where Twitter, buy as a micro-blogging platform and representative of social media, will rule, shape, reflect and help record the Olympic experiences. And while I do agree that Twitter played an important role in these Games and I admit that most of my interaction with the Games this edition was via my customized Twitter feeds and some of the Olympics lists compiled by various outlets and engaged people for the occasion, I believe that this Olympic edition is about much more than micro-blogging.
In a previous post I wrote about how the blurring of boundaries between citizen journalism and traditional journalism as well as the overlap of their audiences have led right paying outlets, such as CTV and NBC, to revise their online content delivery methods. In a conference paper I presented while in Vancouver I also asserted that the internet has become an important communication tool for activist groups but that my research indicates that although these groups have well thought communication strategies and plans where the Internet plays an important role in awareness raising and attention gathering, they still heavily rely on the coverage of established, traditional media outlets in order to promote their causes and move them from being catalogues as local issues to regional, national or even international ones.
To support my statement, I bring as example the convergence protests held in Vancouver around the open ceremony of the Games. Groups like No2010 or Olympic Resistance have been well known for their anti-Olympic messages before the Games started, so much so that their websites were down for unknown reasons several times before the Olympic Torch reached Vancouver for its last journey before hitting the cauldron. According to No2010, more than 2000 people were in downtown Vancouver on February 12 (in a later press release uploaded on the group’s site on February 25 the numbers given are of 4000-5000), managing to divert twice the final route of the torch. Information and maps depicting the torch route and the protest areas in the city soon emerged online in form of twitter updates, chats and blog posts. While on Twitter, protesors were among the top 10 trending topics in the area of Vancouver (see above screen shots from Trendsmap), no such information was available on any British media outlets. Furthermore, no mentions to the protest were made by the BBC, the official UK broadcaster of the Games, who was constantly providing updates from the city. The scenario was replicated hour after hour until the beginning of the opening ceremony, with protests gaining more visibility on Twitter. However, once the ceremony had started the protests as a trending topic disappeared from the radar. Following Twitter’s evolution, it could be asserted that generally peaceful protests of Vancouver remained a local story, representing a reaction to local problems.
However, the first day of the Games when the Anti-Olympic Black Block smashed the windows of several business in downtown Vancouver, the violence turned the local story into an internationally appealing one. While it the online outlets that picked the story first, such as the Huffington Post or the New York Times Vancouver 2010 blog, the coverage from news agencies such as Reuters combined with broadcast reports, accessible in print, online, on radio and tv, gave the protestors movement the attention they needed. Discourses of approval or rejection of the protestors actions was also soon visible, CTV Olympics, the official Canadian broadcaster for the Games, quoting the Police, described the protestors “thugs from Central Canada”.
With the international media watching and online media supporting faster propagation of news, any action taken against the anti-olympic movement had, after the violent actions of the Black Block, a potential for escalation and thus an embedded crisis potential for the city and the Olympic organizers as well as for the other activist groups who chose to protest peacefully. However, the way the two groups, Olympics related and activist, negotiated their roles, interacted or affected each other’s activity was little covered and little seen.
There are several conclusions that can be reached from this rather superficial observation of the first few hours of this winter games edition:
- Perhaps this is for the first time in Olympic history when the academic claim that the visibility of the Games precipitates activist actions is proven true; the convergence protests brought in the streets of Vancouver many causes that had only a secondary link with the Games.
- These are the first Games when activist groups worked together increasing thus their chances for coverage (a social movement power is still partly reflected in the numbers of its supporters)
- Micro-blogging is a good method for propagation of information (in form of updates or links to other sources) however questions about structure of personal networks, interests of users, linguistic barriers and geographical relevance of the news need to be asked as well. While it can be asserted that Twitter had a visible role in depicting various personal Olympic experiences, a reminder here is due. Twitter, like Facebook and blogging, are very much Western phenomena are depend on Internet access and media literacy of the people. Twitter therefore is a platform of choice, its user base being smaller than the number of people that have access to broadcast reports from the Games.
- Social movements, as research has indicated on several occasions, need the media coverage. Based online or offline, activist groups still need traditional media to promote their causes further than their local areas and turn them into policy debates. The fact that the top twitter accounts, most viewed youtube channels and some of the most read blogs online are run by traditional media outlets should support this point.
- Shomaker and Reese’s depiction of traditional media as being prone to cover conflict is still valid. As the coverage shows so far, it was the Black Block’s damaging and violent actions that attracted the attention of outer-Vancouver media outlets. Questions however about the presence of protests and the reasons for covering them on social media outlets, including Twitter, should however be raised as well. Why did people tweet? Why did people re-tweet the messages they received in their stream? How much credibility did these tweets have? How much weight was given to those tweets by traditional media exploiting and exploring them in subsequent stories?
Finally, when it comes to Internet integration, the Vancouver Games are the first when the IOC has revised its media rules during the Games time. While in Beijing the IOC guidelines remained the same for the whole duration of the competitions, in Vancouver revised guidelines affecting non-accredited media and their uploading of photo and video footage from within the Olympic venues were verbally announced by IOC officials at a Yahoo!-Flickr meetup. This change could be considered a result of the discussions and debates of the IOC guidelines taking place on social media platforms, which the IOC has started using since June 2009. Similarly, this change could also mark IOC’s more active and proactive use of these environments, seen also in their communication with their Facebook fans and their Twitter followers via their contests for Olympic pins or tickets or their responses to comments.