This paper aims to demonstrate the engagement between users on the micro-blogging platform Twitter leads to the integration of online communities. It will be focusing primarily on the communities surrounding NBA (National Basketball Association) fans and how by facilitating conversation within online communities, it can also create a toxicity between fans, teams and athletes.
Web 2.0 has revolutionized the way users’ access and utilize the internet, with advancements in technology making it more collaborative, and grounds for interaction amongst users. This has seen a shift in user behavior from the read only versions of web 1.0 to a more interactive and writable phase of web 2.0, facilitated by microblogging platforms like Twitter which encourages interaction, through follows, likes, retweets and quoted tweets. The concept of communities in an online sphere can be defined as a sparsely knit, and widely, often geographically dispersed social network where users/members alike connect over a shared interest (Wellman, Boase, & Chen, 2002), As well as being considered as a third place in the online context allowing for interactions between fans and players.
Twitter’s role in the development of communities on web 2.0 platforms is apparent, with the platform facilitating conversation and community groups for almost any topic. An example of this is the ways in which sports fans are able to create and facilitate conversation in an online context and discuss events, news, and results with like-minded people in real time. More specifically, how NBA fans are able to congregate in online spaces and drive discussion over a shared interest with other users based on team or player performances, breaking news and scores. While this has been beneficial for users worldwide to interact with fellow fans in an online space regardless of location, it also raises questions on the toxicity of the online fan culture between fans, athletes and reporters and how it can negatively affect the community and the game.
Twitter as a Platform and the NBA’s Presence:
Twitter as a micro-blogging platform has altered the way users interact in an online space. The platform is asymmetric in nature, where connections aren’t always reciprocated (Gruzd, Wellman, & Takhteyev, 2011), yet it provides the means for uses to interact and engage with others regardless of their connections. This is the basis of online communities, and twitter helps facilitate this, especially in a context where the interaction between fans and players is naturally asymmetrical due to the nature of the situation, where athletes are considered to be celebrities and have accustomed a large following.
The NBA has a very active social media presence across majority of platforms, including their twitter account. The official NBA twitter account (@NBA) boasts 30.4 million followers (National Basketball Association, n.d.), and is often the place where fans will first congregate and interact with, through following, liking or retweeting, before establishing connections with other fans. These connections are extended using hashtags used by NBA official accounts like #NBATwitter and #NBATogetherLive which are grounds for conversation and interaction between fans and other users.
Like the NBA official accounts, all 30 teams of the league have their own official team accounts that publish news, updates and scores specific to the players of that team. It also enables a space where fans are able to engage and establish connections with each other based on the shared interest of supporting the same teams. From this supporter groups arise, creating online communities. These supporter groups although at times can be geographically based in the same area due to the geographic affiliation of each team with a city, are still very much dispersed globally, with users from across the globe being able to participate in conversations surrounding the team regarding scores, updates and news.
Each of the 30 NBA team accounts also utilise hashtags within their tweets relevant to their team. This is common across all sporting codes and teams, as the hashtags used in tweets will filter content specific to the topic of the team or event taking place. For example, current NBA champions the Toronto Raptors on twitter (@Raptors) use the hashtag #WeTheNorth as a team specific hyperlink to discuss relevant team topics. Fans are then able to click on the hyperlinked hashtag and see conversation surrounding their team, as well as participate in discussion by using the hashtag themselves in tweets or replies. Hashtags are an integral part of twitters user experience, and the way that they are utilised by the NBA and teams helps create conversation amongst users centred around a common theme or interest, setting the basis for communities to be integrated in an online space.
The Importance of Real-Time Content:
Twitter, like many platforms, exists in a time where information is readily made available and constantly refreshed. From an online community perspective, like that of NBA fans, this access to information in real time presents the opportunity for active discussion, whether it be over the game results or say breaking news, like the announcement of the suspension of the 2019-2020 season last month (Aschburner, 2020). The information is readily available for users to discuss, which is important because as content becomes saturated online, the events of a few days ago, even a few hours ago will become outdated for many users. This discussion that comes from real time updates on twitter are presented as a series of individual, noisy but concise tweets from multiple users that are then converged on the timeline into what is known as a stream. These streams represent sub events, defined as moments within events, like a clutch performance in the dying seconds of a sporting game, that has generated discussion from various sources (Shen, Liu, Weng, & Li).
These discussions on twitter can be accompanied by video, pictures or links that allow for increased interaction from users further facilitating discussion amongst fans, official team accounts or journalists, affirming the presence of a twitter based online community.
Interactivity Through Gaming Streams, and How Twitter Drives This:
Over the recent years there has been an increase in the number of NBA stars who have opted to use twitter as a platform to interact with their followers and provide insight on their personal life. By having a presence online, these athletes are enabling engagement with other fellow athletes as well as with fans, facilitating the notion of an online community. With many athletes rarely directly interacting with fans, due to their large number of followers and saturation of tweets/replies for fans, twitter has facilitated grounds for conversation by including features like live streaming and polls, where fans feel they can still interact with. Up to 34% of tweets by professional athletes fell into the category of “interactivity” based on a study of 1,962 tweets (Greenhalgh, Simmons, Hambrick, & Greenwell). This data indicates that athletes are using twitter for this interactivity with fans more than any other reason, and in an organic nature meaning the players actually want to interact and start conversations with fans.
This approach has become a lot more frequented in the last few months following the suspension of the 2019-2020 NBA season due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic (Aschburner, 2020), as players, and even team accounts have turned to live streaming games, and E-Sport content on platforms like Discord and Twitch. While this is primarily done on platforms other than twitter, most of the conversation and announcements of said streams are done via twitter as convergence amongst platforms is easily accessible.
Players that have now established themselves on gaming platforms, are now playing against each other, announcing it on twitter and embedding links to their twitch streams, an example of this is Phoenix Suns player Devin Booker, and Meyers Leonard of the Miami Heat announcing via twitter that they will be streaming together (Leonard, 2020). Leonard also tweets snippets of the stream for his followers to watch and interact with if they are unable to join the stream, providing this interactivity between players and fans which is seen as the basis of forming an online community.
Toxicity of Online Communities:
With the beneficial aspects that have come out of utilising twitter as a platform for an online community amongst NBA fans, there is a growing culture of toxicity that exists with many online platforms as anonymity alters the way people behave and interact with each other. The dynamic of twitter means users can choose how they present themselves online. For many athletes, journalist and fans they will often create their profiles to personally reflect themselves, using their own picture and voicing their own ideas and opinions. Yet some users will exercise their rights to anonymity online and create accounts representing a different version of themselves, often in the forms of online trolls.
As NBA players are constantly in the spotlight, they are not immune to the discussions amongst fans on twitter. Players will have bad games, as will teams, which is understandable considering the nature of professional sports. But due to the broadcasting of the game, and constant conversation happening online, anger over a particular player/game can be directed towards them which can have negative affects mentally on the players.
The NBA’s own online presence and being the centre of such discussions has affected its own players. JJ Redick, now current player for the New Orleans Pelicans, told Tom Haberstroh of Bleacher report about his negative relationship with social media, particularly twitter when playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego” (Haberstroh, 2018).
The report goes on to state that the NBA has revitalised itself with its online presence, which is evident when looking at their integration of content across all social media platforms, as well as their ability to facilitate and drive fan interaction.
This according to Wellman, Boase and Chen fits their definition of online communities as “sparsely-knit, spatially-dispersed social networks” (Wellman, Boase, & Chen, 2002) as it has given the ability for worldwide conversation, yet the saturation of social media and the attitudes of fans at times can be toxic, taking a toll on players. When conversation between fans is presented in an overly negative tone, it too can cause others to think or feel that way especially if that’s the way content is presented. Twitter can be detrimental in this way, as fans can become apathetic and very blasé in the way their tweet, especially in a sporting context where most of the passion is driven from the competitive nature of the sport and built upon the rivalries of their teams or particular players.
The accessibility of twitter as a micro-blogging site for users has made it a great platform to facilitate the formation of online communities. This is because anyone is able to access and connect with each other, from official accounts like that of the NBA and its affiliates, to athletes, reporters, journalists and fans, regardless of location. As well as the way it supports digital integration across other platforms, yet it can also take a toll mentally, as the opinions expressed by some users can prove to be unrestrained and harsh. The notion that communities revolve around face to face interaction is diminishing as the internet and advancements of web 2.0 have enabled platforms like twitter to facilitate community groups more sparsely, and geographically dispersed (Wellman, Boase, & Chen, 2002), with interactions online congregating users based of shared interest and therefore driving conversations on those topics.