London morphed into the Twitter Games, 140 characters at a time

These Olympics delivered memorable headlines, whether about a 16-year-old from China (Ye Shiwen), a 25-year-old from Jamaica (Usain Bolt), or an 86-year-old from England (Queen Elizabeth II).

But the most unique story of the London Games was a 6-year-old from San Francisco.


Most people think of the social media site as a tool used to follow and discuss events – in this case the story of what happened in London – but Twitter turned into a story itself on several occasions. A 17-year-old Olympics fan in the U.K. was arrested on "suspicion of malicious communication" after tweeting his desire to drown British synchronized diver Tom Daley after a poor performance. That followed an uproar when journalist Guy Adams had his Twitter account suspended by the company itself after he wrote a stream of tweets criticizing NBC's coverage of the Games. That came after the decision by two separate nations to send their own athletes home for racist tweets. And that doesn't even include an odd situation in which Olympic officials encouraged fans to stop tweeting about cycling when an abundance of tweets and text messages overloaded the networks that commentators needed to track and broadcast the race.

There were other Twitter-centric stories as well, including U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo ripping commentator Brandi Chastain, and Jordyn Wieber's mother sending her daughter a virtual hug via Twitter after her disappointing performance in all-around qualifications. Oh, and lest we forget celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Samuel L. Jackson and Michelle Obama tweeting their support to Olympic winners.

But the most alarming, unsettling, and confusing development of the London Games featured Twitter in a position of extreme and unintended power. Tweets can get you arrested. Twitter can end your Olympic dreams. Twitter can make you an international cause célèbre.

The Olympics were a third rail for those who followed the Games on Twitter because the world watches together, and the site allows – make that encourages – immediate reaction. Blending sports, personal struggle and national identity, the Games made it hard not to overreact to every triumph and mistake, and Twitter provided the outlet. Fans at home or in the stadium could yell and scream and their thoughts vanished into the air. But fans online logged their knee-jerk opinions for strangers to see and see and see.

Facebook has generated a false sense of security for social media users. They're used to messages going out to just friends and acquaintances. But Twitter is different. There, tweets are sent out to the world for anyone with an Internet connection to see, meaning every harsh word leaves a literal mark. Or, as some have said, Facebook is where you lie to your friends; Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers.

The emotions of the moment, instead of dissipating with time when words are spoken, actually ratchet up when users continue to read reactions.

Add the fact that Olympic athletes are young and mostly untrained in Twitter etiquette and you had a recipe for virtual brush fires. Oh, and did we mention journalists constantly scouring Twitter for stories?

"It turns everyone into a sort of movie star," said Derek Burrill, associate professor of media and cultural studies at U.C. Riverside. "It's not only the Olympic athletes, but … the general user feels like a movie star, too. It's almost like you have fans and you're the star."

Twitter provides a place for people to unite in their dispute, and that poses a threat to the entrenched power. It wasn't a big deal in 1980 when the Miracle on Ice was aired on tape delay. But now NBC's primetime coverage was a cause for deep anger – as if the network deprived America of its right to know. Well, we can know now, thanks to Twitter and other Internet sites, and that gave us reason to want to escape the tyranny of television. We know better, Twitter users seemed to want to scream at NBC, so don't act like we don't. Hence the Twitter account @NBCDelayed, which amassed 31,000 followers as it ripped the network's way of reporting results.

Twitter is a corporation designed to make money, just like NBC, and the two were corporate partners during these Games. But because of the ease of use and the benign birdie logo, users seemed to use Twitter as the people's network – the brave Chinese dissident standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square.

"When you have the Olympics which is truly a global event, everyone can be in the conversation," said Burrill. "Twitter almost makes it seem like everyone has equal value and equal weight."

That's what makes Twitter and the Olympics a great match. Most pro sports heroes are multimillionaires with teams of PR people. But in the Olympics, the majority of athletes are amateurs who need jobs or the government to support their dreams. (One of the strongest Twitter movements was about an IOC rule prohibiting athletes from using their likenesses to advertise during the Games.) It's folly to think the Olympics are not for profit, but the illusion is an event of the common man – by the people, for the people. Twitter provides the same illusion, though that was cracked by the site alerting NBC of Adams' activity and then pulling the plug on him.

Twitter later reinstated Adams' account and admitted fault. (Even Twitter is new at Twitter.) But that moment had a fight-the-power feel, as Twitter blew up with anger over the slight, using Twitter to decry Twitter.

Far more important issues have been brought to light on social media in the past, such as in the case of the Arab Spring, but the daily self-empowerment that went on during these Games felt like the type of shift that won't be undone even now that the Olympics are over. Call it Twitter Summer.

Athletes and fans weren't the only ones reacting swiftly. Both a Greek and a Swiss athlete were expelled by their Olympic committees for racist tweets. IOC social media guidelines encouraged the use of Twitter but called for all social media postings to be "dignified and in good taste." But how many athletes read those rules?

"We're dealing with old media [in NBC] and an old organization [in the IOC]," said Samra Bufkins, senior journalism lecturer at the University of North Texas. "Look at the ages of the people on the Olympic committees. I wonder how many know what Twitter is. That's the reaction: 'OK we'll kick the kid off the team,' when a couple of heartfelt apologies would have gone a long way to defusing that situation."

But while some of those in power see Twitter as a threat, others view it as an opportunity. USA Swimming held a summit last year in San Diego to tell its athletes how to use Twitter to their advantage without getting into trouble. The swimmers were reminded that journalists use the service heavily, and USA Swimming invited reporters (including this writer) to explain how they employ the service.

"We all have seen athletes make mistakes on Twitter that have cost them sponsors," said Jamie Olsen, director of marketing and development for USA Swimming. "We wanted the swimmers to be mindful that social media could be as part of their image as their photos."

That wasn't to scare them off; it was more to help them take advantage. Branding helps the sport.

"The genie is out of the bottle," said Bill Ward, social media professor at Syracuse. "The only thing you can do is learn how to use it well."

Organizing committees that realize this will thrive in this new Olympics environment, as the era of controlling athletes', journalists' and fans' messages is going the way of Pravda.

The funny thing is, Twitter might also be going the way of Pravda. "I don't think Twitter is going to last forever," said Burrill. "I think it will have a shelf life of about five years. Some other service that is more immediate will push Twitter out of the way."

But that only underscores the point: Fans and athletes will feel even more entitled to an audience in 2014 and 2016. There will be many more messages and followers in Sochi and Rio. Reaction will be even stronger – to everything. And consider the exploding number of eyeballs on Twitter, which currently has little advertising. What does that say for the future of broadcast rights? Not only is the model for how we watch changing, but the model for how the Olympics works hangs in the balance. "I think [Twitter is] kind of confounding the engines of capitalism that have operated over the last 100 years," Burrill said.

Every Olympics makes history, but this Olympics, in part because of Twitter, may have changed it.

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