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Welcome to the Twitter Olympics

John D. Sutter, CNN
  • The London Games are being billed as the "Twitter Olympics"
  • But much of the online conversation has devolved into criticism of the Games
  • Twitter is far more popular now than it was at the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics
  • Writer says it has become "oxygen" of the games, fueling both positive and negative

(CNN) -- It all started out quite innocently, with jokes about the Queen's perma-frown and GIF collections of weird, what-the-Dickens moments from the opening ceremony.

From there, however, the Twitter conversation about the London Olympics has taken a rapid turn toward the troll-ish. Athletes have been flaming sports announcers and lobbing racist comments at people from other countries. Pretty much everyone on the Internet has contributed to the #NBCFail hashtag.

A spectator told a British diver that his fourth-place finish "let your dad down." (A dad, by the way, who died of cancer last year.) And Twitter itself has come under fire for briefly deleting the account of one of the Games' and NBC's biggest critics, purportedly for breaking the site's terms or use.

Wasn't this supposed to be the "Twitter Olympics," where everyone rejoiced in the digital-era magic of hearing directly from the world's best athletes and scrolling through a global, real-time conversation about what must be the planet's most "Kumbaya"-like sporting event?

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It was. The International Olympic Committee even promoted it as such. But maybe that was the wrong expectation for a communications platform that has become much more than a feel-good public relations tool. As Brian Mossop wrote on Monday for Wired, Twitter has also helped fuel dictator-toppling protest movements.

"It's almost as if the IOC is completely unaware of the role Twitter and Facebook played in the Arab Spring," he wrote, "or the frequency with which people use it to communicate in real time."

In terms of numbers, the London Games certainly have been the Twitter Olympics, far outpacing both the Beijing and Vancouver Games, when Twitter wasn't quite the global communications phenom it has become in 2012. "There were more tweets in a single day last week than during the entire 2008 Beijing Games," Twitter wrote in a blog post on its UK site, adding that more than 60% of British athletes are on Twitter.

"We've already seen 10 million mentions of the term Olympics during the Games as fans use Twitter to get to the heart of the action," the company said. (Enough of that traffic came from London, by the way, that the Olympic committee reportedly asked spectators to refrain from tweeting and texting unless it's "urgent," in an effort to lessen the network's load.)

Over the years, Twitter, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has become the Olympics' "cocktail hour," where both athletes and couch dwellers chatter about the games, said Jason Damata, spokesman for Trendrr, a social media tracker.

In 2010, he said, more than 307,000 tweets contained the term "Olympics" on the first weekend of the Winter Games in Vancouver. This year, that number jumped tenfold, to more than 3.5 million tweets on the opening weekend of the Games in London.

"Two or four years ago it wasn't as common. Four years ago, especially, it was really just people in their houses saying 'Oh my gosh did you see that dive.' It was people talking to their social circles," he said. "As Twitter as a platform has evolved and behavior has evolved, it is happening on both ends. Now there are way more athletes who are on. And there are way more people who are sharing their viewing habits, on Twitter especially."

12 great Olympics-related Twitter accounts

What those athletes say, however, can be another matter.

A Swiss athlete was expelled from the Games after he called South Korean athletes "mongoloids," according to The Daily Mail; and a Greek triple-jumper was banned for writing on Twitter that "With so many Africans in Greece, the mosquitoes from the West Nile will at least be eating some homemade food."

More benign, but still unexpected, was Hope Solo, an American soccer star, who used her Twitter feed to blast player-turned-analyst Brandi Chastain, telling NBC to employ a soccer commentator who "knows more about the game." And several prominent Olympians have taken to Twitter in protest of International Olympic Committee Rule 40. That rule bans the athletes from using their social media accounts to promote companies other than the official Olympic sponsors.

"I am honored to be an Olympian, but #WeDemandChange2012 #Rule40 @NBCOlympics" several of the athletes posted.

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That kind of political dissent is new, said Mark McClusky, a senior projects editor at Wired who is covering the Games.

"Athletes are taking to Twitter to voice frustrations with the way that the sports system is currently constructed and oriented," he said by phone from London. "That's something we really haven't seen before -- or not in such a coordinated way, having a couple dozen really prominent Olympians starting to really talk about those issues. Beyond that I think it's just so much more part of how these athletes interact with the world than ever before, certainly. We saw some people tweeting at Beijing and a few more at Vancouver -- and now it's just part of the oxygen."

The London Games, however, have been testing the limits of how far Twitter, NBC and law enforcement will let the spitfire of real-time conversation go.

British police reportedly arrested a 17-year-old "on suspicion of malicious communications" after he sent a Twitter message to UK diver Tom Daley telling the diver he had disappointed his recently deceased father by placing fourth in Monday's synchronized diving competition on the 10-meter platform.

The Twittersphere erupted Monday and Tuesday after Twitter temporarily suspended the account of Guy Adams, a journalist who had been one of the harshest critics of NBC's decision to televise the Olympics on a delay in the United States.

NBC complained to Twitter after Adams posted the e-mail address of one of its executives, asking people to air grievances with him. Twitter then suspended the account, saying that posting another person's private info is a violation of its terms.

Meet the man who started #NBCFail

But some media analysts cried foul, saying Adams effectively was censored because of his views.

"What makes this a serious issue is that Twitter has partnered with NBC during the Olympics," Dan Gillmor wrote for The Guardian. "And it was NBC's complaint about Adams that led to the suspension. That alone raises reasonable suspicions about Twitter's motives."

Adams' account was reinstated on Tuesday.

Not all the Twitter Olympic chatter is negative, of course. As Twitter notes on its UK blog, the phrase "good luck" has been used more than 1.2 million times on the network since the Olympics began. And, according to Trendrr, the #NBCFail hashtag, which is the digital warehouse for complaints about the network's coverage in the United States, got less traffic over the weekend than Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson did during his three minutes onstage during Friday's opening ceremony.

Even the man credited with creating the #NBCFail meme said he thinks things have gotten a little out of hand.

"In some ways it's showing some of the worst sides of what this instant media can do," said Steven Marx, a 48-year-old who had only 17 Twitter followers before the hashtag spread. "It's sort of that mob mentality that Twitter encourages. I think in this sense it's showing the bad. But in the Occupy (Wall Street) movement, it showed the good that Twitter can do for organizing. Even though it's made me slightly famous, I'm not necessarily thrilled with what's happened. I'm not terribly impressed with NBC, but that's not new this year."

Others are merely finding fun in the sport of being grouchy.

"I'm glad for Twitter so I can get real time results," one Twitter user wrote in response to a CNN question about the topic. "A lot of the complaining is really funny, so I've been enjoying it."

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