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'The Social Media Games': How hashtags and likes are shaping London 2012

By Tom McGowan, CNN
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
The importance of social media was stressed before the Games had even begun through the inventive use of the London Eye. Lighting placed around the giant wheel was connected to Twitter, with the lights changing color to reflect the mood of tweets relating to the Olympics. The importance of social media was stressed before the Games had even begun through the inventive use of the London Eye. Lighting placed around the giant wheel was connected to Twitter, with the lights changing color to reflect the mood of tweets relating to the Olympics.
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Twitter Eye
Cyber slip-up, real-world punishment
A world wide welcome
Personal attacks
An adverse addiction
'Rule 40'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Opening ceremony of London 2012 saw more tweets than entire Beijing Games
  • British diver Tom Daley abused via Twitter after fourth-place finish in synchro diving
  • Social-networking website Facebook has 900 million registered users
  • Swimmer Emily Seebohm blames social media preoccupation for failing to win gold

(CNN) -- Cast your mind back to 2008 and to the Beijing Olympics, a time when few had experienced the joy of hashtags and the "Like" button was still a twinkle in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's eye.

Then the "Twittersphere" had just three million "tweeps", while social-networking monolith Facebook had a "modest" 100 million users.

A lot can change in four years...

Last week's London 2012's opening ceremony provoked more tweets than the entire 2008 Games, while Facebook's 900 million users -- more than the total population of Europe -- shared photos and comments about the event.

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No wonder then that 64 years after London staged the post-World War II "Austerity Games", this time around the Olympics has been dubbed the first "Social Media Games."

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Somehow it seemed highly appropriate that the inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee was tweeting live while participating in the Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony.

Gone are the days of straining to listen to a crackly radio or huddling round a single television set. London 2012 enthusiasts are heading straight to their desktops and mobile phones for the latest Olympic news.

Not that the reaction on social media has been all sweetness and light...

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After finishing fourth in the 10 meter synchronized final, British diver Tom Daley was subjected to insults via Twitter, some of which related to his late father.

"Four years ago, Twitter was only two years old, and it had around 3 million users," explained Kate Bussman, author of A Twitter Year: 365 days in 140 characters.

"There are now over 140m, and it's far more mainstream. Social media generally has become far more popular in that time period, especially when it comes to posting while watching sports events.

"Watching with a 'second screen' (i.e. a laptop, tablet or smart phone) has become much more popular."

Twitter's expansion can also be explained by the proliferation of many of the world's top athletes equipping themselves with official Facebook pages and "verified" Twitter accounts as a way of interacting with their fans..

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"Social media connects the world in real time and fosters a constant conversation about sports, which is exactly what sports fans crave," said Lowell Taub, head of sports endorsements at CAA Sports, which represents stars like David Beckham and Dwayne Wade.

"For the reporting of results and sharing of experiences by those who are on-hand at the Olympics, these Games will be unlike any other."

According to Bussmann, the links between sports and social media will continue to grow, because followers and likes will ultimately translate into dollars.

"They can talk to their fans directly, they can talk to each other, they can promote the image of themselves they most want to project, whether that's by mentioning their charity work, family etc," she outlined.

"Remember that the more fans a sports star has, the more money they can negotiate when it comes to sponsorship deals. Your Facebook and Twitter stats are a great way to prove how popular you are."

Taub confirmed an athlete's "social media footprint" can become a factor during negotiations with potential sponsors, explaining that the more passionate a sports star's supporters, the more appealing they appear to a brand.

But Taub also stressed millions of followers on Twitter or thousands of "likes" on Facebook is useless without sporting success.

"Partners look for ambassadors who have a large and loyal audience," he said. "Social media has become a measurable way for brands to connect with an ambassador's extremely loyal fan base.

"While having a robust social media presence is not necessarily the deciding factor, a brand that intends to go heavy with a social strategy is absolutely considering the athlete's social footprint.

"Nonetheless, all the traditional variables still apply -- the profile of the athlete's sport; the athlete's past performance and results. Good brand ambassadors who have unique Olympic journeys."

Yana Dementieva, foreground, Anastasiia Kozhenkova, Nataliya Dovgodko, and Kateryna Tarasenko of Ukraine celebrate their win after the women's rowing quadruple sculls final in Windsor, England, on Wednesday, August 1. Check out Day 4 of competition from Tuesday. The Games ran through August 12. Yana Dementieva, foreground, Anastasiia Kozhenkova, Nataliya Dovgodko, and Kateryna Tarasenko of Ukraine celebrate their win after the women's rowing quadruple sculls final in Windsor, England, on Wednesday, August 1. Check out Day 4 of competition from Tuesday. The Games ran through August 12.
Day 5: The best photos of the Olympics
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Day 5: The best photos of the Olympics Day 5: The best photos of the Olympics
Michael Phelps shows off his gold medal from the 200-meter Individual medley at the London Olympics on Thursday, August 2. It was his 20th career medal. Michael Phelps shows off his gold medal from the 200-meter Individual medley at the London Olympics on Thursday, August 2. It was his 20th career medal.
History's most decorated Olympian
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Phelps: All-time Olympic recordbreaker Phelps: All-time Olympic recordbreaker

While posting a picture on Twitter is a quick and easy way of promoting sponsors, do athletes risk losing their fan base if social media is used purely for gratuitous advertising?

"Our clients like to communicate with their fans and believe in their partners' messages, brand, and activations," replied Taub, "so sharing that information with their fans seems to come very naturally."

Bussmann warned against using Twitter as a purely sponsor-driven outlet, saying: "I imagine it will continue, but it's hard to say how people will react. Like anything, if it's done gratuitously or obnoxiously, that may get people's backs up."

Some Olympians have also struggled to remember that a hasty tweet and too much social media exposure can prove costly.

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was kicked out of her country's Olympic squad before the Games began for a tweet which was judged to have mocked African immigrants into the European nation.

Australian swimmer Emily Seebohm has also allowed Twitter to ruin her Olympic dream.

The 20-year-old was the favorite heading into the women's 100 meter backstroke final, having flirted with the world record during the earlier rounds.

But Seebohm was beaten into the silver medal position by American teen sensation Missy Franklin and she blamed her infatuation with social media for her below-par performance.

"I don't know, I just felt like I didn't really get off social media and get into my own head," Seebohm was reported to have said after Monday's final by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

"Maybe I just started believing that and just thought I'd already won by the time I had swum and I hadn't even swum yet.

"When people tell you a thousand times 'you'll get the gold', somewhere in your mind you are going to say 'you've done it'."

Seebohm's alarming revelation illustrates the impact social media is having not only on the consumption of sport, but also on the athletes themselves.

So, with plenty of gold medals still to be won, maybe Olympians would be best advised to take a social media sabbatical if they want to clinch glory at London 2012.

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