By Tim Parsons
Controversy can define an Olympics Games as acutely as any kind of athletic achievement. As the dust settles on an eventful two weeks in Sochi, it is worth taking a look at the online spread of #SochiProblems.
It is often said that Social Media has revolutionised the way we experience live events, but what does this actually mean? At the most basic level, Social sharing keeps us more informed than was ever imaginable. Hashtags provide unifying hubs for discussion, meaning everything from the sublime to the ridiculous is subject to instant and wide ranging appraisal. Filter this through layers of subversive online culture and Social Media is at it’s very best.
Memes are the antithesis of copyright culture; ideas evolving at a lightning pace and with no allusions as to ownership. They simply exist for the collective joy of their creation, which is a beautiful thing in its own way.
I’d love to just curate my favourite Putin memes for the duration this article, but I shall refrain for now. That sense of collaborative social commentary is what I really want to explore a little. When industry analysts talk about Olympic coverage, they tend to focus on the sheer volume of conversation, often visualised with elaborate infographics. As impressive as these figures can be, it is the qualitative data that reveals the true cultural shift. It isn’t simply volumes of trackable conversation, but the meme-like spread of ideas that is the real game changer.
So if Social really does catalyse a true shift in experience, what examples of this can we pull out the Sochi Olympics? An obvious ranking format suggests itself…
Bronze - #sochiproblems
(395,330 tweets in last 30 days - Source: Topsy)
Reports of unfinished venues were largely exaggerated, however the Russians had clearly prioritised their efforts, leaving some of the off-camera structures somewhat lacking….
Well I say off-camera… in 2014, there is effectively no such thing. Pre-Twitter, these horror stories may have existed only as amusing anecdotes for journalists. As it was, they became a major talking point before a single Olympian had taken to the mountain.
To anyone in Sochi: I am now in possession of three light bulbs. Will trade for a door handle. This offer is real: pic.twitter.com/7AeesqDi8Y
— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) February 4, 2014
Not exactly the showcase that the Russians had in mind, as their already overworked PR team took another body blow.
Ten years ago this probably wouldn’t have even made the mainstream news, but now with a near constant stream of real-time Twitter updates, it was unignorable. And hilarious.
My hotel has no water. If restored, the front desk says, "do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous." #Sochi2014
— Stacy St. Clair (@StacyStClair) February 4, 2014
— Stacy St. Clair (@StacyStClair) February 4, 2014
Silver - the athletes
Silver has to go to the athletes themselves. Social media has transformed their entire public image. Gone are the days of the sacrosanct, herculean figures striding atop Olympus, accompanied only by their chosen sliding apparatus. They all have personalities now, and not just the snowboarders.
— Shaun White (@shaun_white) January 15, 2014
They make jokes, express anger, sadness, disappointment, elation… and their fans talk back to them.
— Jenny Jones (@jennyjonessnow) February 9, 2014
— Patrick Chan (@Pchiddy) February 17, 2014
— Marissa Castelli (@MarissaCastelli) February 10, 2014
Yep my heart is hurting and moments like these I just praise and worship God. This song on repeat pic.twitter.com/eOIMGU0mBy
— Lolo Jones (@lolojones) February 18, 2014
Whilst it’s difficult to get an overall picture, we can pull out some impressive indicators. Gold medal winning snowboarder, Sage Kotsenburg gained 43,000 followers in the 48 hours after his final run, whilst little known US bobsledder, Johnny Quinn’s tweet depicting a #SochiProblems based breakout, was retweeted over 29,000 times.
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
Supporting your favourite athletes is now a fully interactive experience, with supporters getting to know athletes more intimately than could ever have been imagined.
Of course with this being Twitter, the shift isn’t isn’t entirely positive. Brittany Schussler got herself over into hot water with her followers over a Putin #selfie, not to mention Irina Rodrina’s controversial online behaviour.
@bschussler We paid for you to represent Canada in sports not fawn over a ruthless dictator in your "brush with greatness."
— Elinor Mahoney (@EG_Mahoney) February 15, 2014
Sadly, we also saw British skater Elise Christie delete her Twitter account after receiving some, “pretty unpleasant” messages, relating to the 500m final, in which she crashed out.
So I suppose the jury’s still out on whether the positives outweigh the negatives. What we can say is that the socialisation of athletes has had a strangely humanising effect, and one which sometimes conflicts with the Olympian standards of behaviour that society has previously held them to. This has enormous consequences that everyone involved is struggling to understand, and ultimately get under control.
Again, those PR teams are taking a battering in the meantime.
Gold - Gay Mountain
Unarguably, Russia’s gay “propaganda” laws have dominated discussion around the Games.
Several social campaigns, including efforts from Coke and McDonald's, have been forced into shut down after being hijacked by gays rights issues on an unprecedented scale. Early reports indicate that over three quarters of traffic around these brand hashtags were attacks on anti-gay laws. A few major brands have hopped off the fence however, such has been the weight of consumer pressure.
Stephen Fry was one of the first to draw comparisons to the 1936 games held in Hitler’s Germany, even advocating a boycott, which never happened. What did happen however, is a show of international solidarity that united governments, brands and ordinary people from across the world like never before.
A meme-like spread of ideas with a political edge can be a powerful force. People are able to voice their opinions like they never could back in 1936, or even 96, and this being the social internet, the resulting flow of supporting content has been next to unstoppable, and brilliant.
This is culturally pretty incredible. Consider that these kind of national, civil rights issues are generally fought on grounds of international pressure. That pressure has never been so acute, simply because so many people are making their voices heard. Governments tend to pay attention to that. Sporting events have always drawn the international spotlight, but now it shines brighter than ever before, leaving no shadows to hide in.
Whether all this will change anything compared to say a boycott, is debatable. Traditionally, Russia is not one easily swayed by the weight of international opinion. What is for certain is that the social spread of ideas has ignited the debate like never before, facilitating not just collective social commentary but collective condemnation, which is almost impossible to ignore. Let’s hold the next one in North Korea.