2014: When Social Media Changed Sports Culture

Much of 2014’s sporting news happened off the court or outside the stadium. As described by Dave Zirin in The Nation’s “Why 2014 Will Be Remembered as the Year the Sports World Turned Upside Down,” incidents involving sports figures’ off-the-field conduct created a new era of public accountability and showed social media’s ability to effect change. The article quotes Dr. Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sports sociologist:

I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.

As, say, fans saw NFL player Ray Rice punching his partner (now wife) in an elevator and heard NBA owner Donald Sterling hurling racist epithets at his girlfriend, the news spread like wildfire online. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice after security footage went viral, despite the fact the NFL leadership, including Goodell, had turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in its ranks many times before. Similarly, Sterling, a billionaire with a long history of racist comments in his 30 years of basketball ownership, was this time disgraced, forced into selling his team as pressure mounted via social media mobilization.

As Edwards told Zirin, “[W]e’re moving into utterly uncharted waters and again, I’m not sure that these nineteenth-century institutions can function within a twenty-first-century cultural and technological context, without utterly changing their structure, management and, in some instances, even their goals.” Sport may look quite different in the coming years—and sports sociologists will have definitely have to keep their eyes on the ball.

Twitter Tension?

Twitter coverAlthough some research emphasizes the negative impacts of social media on well-being, a recent Smithsonian article highlights a specific benefit: social media platforms allow individuals to connect across thousands of miles. Further, despite anecdotal evidence, social media usage does not actually result in higher stress for users.

Dhiraj Murthy, sociologist and author of the book Twitter, told the Smithsonian Magazine about how social media lets people keep up with friends and family members, whether it’s communication about big events such as births or weddings, or every day things like food or funny cat videos. By fostering a sense of connectedness, Murthy says, this communication can reduce stress and increase happiness.

Still, Murthy warns, “Increased social awareness can of course be double edged.” Connectedness can mean feelings of stress, sadness, or anger when the interactions relate to death, job loss and other heavy topics. This means it’s the content viewed on social media, not social media itself that affects stress levels.

While the relationship between social media and stress is complex, many such studies focused on heavy users, Murthy says. In general, the common perception of most social media users as gadget-addicted stress cases doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Busy schedules coupled with near constant access to technology contribute to people becoming more social via social media. While sharing a cup of coffee takes coordination and time, a quick scroll through an album or a post about a promotion allows users to participate in communal behaviors that benefit mental health. If the trick is focusing on the good content without ignoring the bad, it seems our online interactions are an awful lot like the in-person ones.

The Internet Knows When You’re Pregnant

Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com
Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com

In this era of social media, increasingly, our lives are being lived on the internet. Advertisers are taking note and mining our status updates and internet searches for information about our personal lives, targeting online advertising to our interests and identities.

Janet Vertesi, an assistant sociology professor at Princeton, has attempted the impossible: she tried to hide her pregnancy from the internet. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Jezebel.com details her attempt to keep information out of the hands of advertisers while also explaining how this phenomenon is affecting women.

The tiniest bits of information, an Amazon order or an internet search, contribute to the web of data that companies are buying to target individuals. Data about pregnant women is fifteen times more valuable to companies than information about the average person, as parenting has increasingly become a consumer market. (See previous Citings about the economic investments of parenting and the luxury market for baby goods.)

In order to keep her pregnancy a secret, Vertesi and her husband paid for everything in cash or gift cards, asked their friends and family to keep all news off social media, and even searched for baby products using private browsing. The steps they took to avoid discovery could be seen as ‘suspicious.’ They even ended up paying cash for gift cards to spend online, a strategy that can trigger alarms when the prices get higher.

Jezebel.com discusses her experience saying, “In short, if you want to hide your pregnancy from big data, you’ve got to operate like a drug dealer.”

One concerning factor is what this means for pregnant women. Pregnancy status can be very personal and women can choose not to divulge their pregnancy for a wide range of reasons. If pregnancy is no longer private, what is?

Bystander Journalism?

The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via nypost.com.

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.