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Social Media: What it is and Why it Matters to Women’s Sports

09/21/2009

by Tucker Center Staff

It’s hard to avoid hearing about social media these days. From Twitter to YouTube, Facebook to Flickr, not to mention blogs, MySpace, and wikis, the list is growing while the impact, especially on traditional media, remains largely unexamined. Numerous scholars—including Tucker Center Director Mary Jo Kane—have documented the countless ways in which mainstream media ignore and marginalize female athletes.

Social Media Pic_iStock_000009648196XSmallBut the rapid and unprecedented growth of social media has meant that scholarly inquiry of this new phenomenon has lagged behind. Key questions for sport media scholars include: Will this technological development undermine or simply reproduce stereotypic representations of athletic females, and will these alternative ways of communicating alter how we think about and view women’s sports? The Tucker Center is tackling such questions from multiple perspectives, including dedicating our Fall Distinguished Lecture Series to this important topic. As part of the lecture we will explore what social media is and why it matters, especially to women’s sports.

According to Wikipedia, social media are highly accessible publishing techniques that use Internet- and Web-based technologies. Social media can take many forms, including shared bookmarking, social blogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures, video, instant messaging and Twitter. The dizzying pace surrounding the growth of social media has silenced critics who once dismissed it as a fad. Consider the scope and reach of two of the most popular social media platforms: Last June alone, Twitter had 23 million individual users and Facebook had more than 250 million active users. Given these mind-boggling statistics, the potential upside for sport teams, athletes, and sport marketers is endless. Interestingly, market research indicates that women are at the forefront in adopting and using social media.

Because of this, many advocates believe the advantages of social media are potentially greater for women’s sports. Ann Gaffigan, Co-Founder of the Women Talk Sports Network (WTS), argues that social media enables athletes to go directly to the fans: “Social media puts the power in the athletes’ hands so that they can better control the message they want to send and the image they want to project. It also allows them to connect personally with fans and be available as a role model, which is what the fans miss out on when mainstream media fails to cover women’s sports.” In sum, as WTS Co-Founder Jane Schonberger points out: “Social networks allow female athletes to play the ‘media game’ on their own terms.”

Unfortunately, with every upside is the potential for misuse or even exploitation. For example, women’s professional sport leagues such as the WNBA have encouraged athletes to use Twitter during an actual game in order to give fans immediate “up close and personal” access. Though well-intentioned, such an approach downgrades the seriousness of the competition itself, not to mention women’s sports overall. Imagine a similar scenario where the Vikings ask Brett Favre to “tweet” during a game. Not happening! It is also possible that some female athletes may not be sensitized to how sportswomen have been marginalized and sexualized in traditional media—or even agree that they are—and thus reproduce stereotypic images and messages found throughout mainstream sport media.

Finally, this brave new world of social media may open a Pandora’s Box of controversy well beyond any particular media image. Perhaps you’ve heard of some recent examples that arose out of the use of social media in sport. Athletes have been suspended or charged with crimes from photos they have posted on Facebook or MySpace portraying underage drinking or hazing. Coaches have violated NCAA rules through tweeting about potential recruits. And the University of Colorado’s athletic department was horrified when a football player they asked to guest blog on behalf of the team wrote about his sexual conquests. Though we are unaware of a similar incident in the world of women’s sports, the pitfalls and dangers of using social media are ever present.

Needless to say, we have only scratched the surface of the opportunities, dangers, and complexities that surround social media. We have purposefully raised more questions than we have answered. As social media continues to grow and change the landscape of traditional sport media—and scholarly inquiry catches up—some questions will be laid to rest but many others will remain. In the meantime, those who care about women’s sports should think about how social media can be used to create real social change, change which leads to positive and realistic portrayals of female athletes, as well as a deep and abiding respect for women’s sports.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 09/24/2009 3:50 pm

    Angela Ruggiero sent me a comment inspired by our blog which was posted on the USCHO.com fan forum. The author, dave1381, writes some very thoughtful ideas. To read his comments click here and scroll down, http://board.uscho.com/showthread.php?t=85330

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