Twitter popularity doesn’t always make sense

The inimitable Shaquille O'Neal.

Perhaps in the wake of crazy man/actor Charlie Sheen’s meteoric rise through the Twitterverse, Yahoo! Sports compiled a list of the top 10 most popular athletes on Twitter (determined by the number of followers one has).

The rundown:

1. Shaquille O’Neal
2. Kaka
3. Serena Williams
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
5. Dwight Howard
6. Paul Pierce
7. Chad Ochocinco
8. Reggie Bush
9. LeBron James
10. Nick Swisher

At first glance, the list doesn’t make sense. Where’s Terrell Owens? Tiger Woods? Kobe Bryant?

But when you examine it further, the breakdown isn’t altogether too surprising. A couple of Twitter truisms help to explain the popularity.

1. Success is essential

Every one of these athletes is a near-perennial All-Star. Accordingly, every one of these athletes is a popular and well-known name in sports circles. So when sports fans look to follow certain athletes on Twitter, it’s not surprising that they choose people like Reggie Bush over former Terp and current Los Angeles Laker guard Steve Blake. (Sorry, Steve.)

2. It helps to be good-looking

Kaka, Serena Williams and Reggie Bush aren’t just established names in sports bars worldwide. They’re also fixtures in tabloids. Their well-groomed faces are plastered across the walls of admiring fans across the country. Their high-profile relationships are of a very significant public interest. So while Terrell Owens might be a better player than Reggie Bush, Bush’s dalliance with socialite Kim Kardashian certainly didn’t hurt his Twitter popularity.

3. Randomness rules

A disbelieving shake of the head can be a pretty normal reaction to some of the things seen on Twitter. Nonsensical trending topics take hold out of nowhere, while users take full advantage of their relative anonymity to unleash unbelievable tirades. In other words, randomness is the norm. So I guess it’s not all too surprising to see Nick Swisher, a good but far from remarkable player for the New York Yankees, on this list. Or see that Paul Pierce has more followers than perhaps basketball’s grandest icon, LeBron James. Or that two soccer players occupy some of the highest spots on Twitter, a U.S.-based company.

Fully explaining Twitter, I assure you, is beyond my level of expertise.

Mixing social media and medicine

Dr. Twitter is in the house.

Please excuse this break from your normally scheduled athlete-social media posts for a look at something completely different but equally interesting:

Doctors.

Yes, doctors. Largely lost in the Twitter takeover is the medical world’s place in all of it. As CNET pointed out, doctors could stand to gain plenty with some careful Tweets of advice here and there.

But many have forsaken the new medium, instead opting to carry on business as usual. According to one doctor quoted in the aforementioned piece, a lot of it has to do with pressure from the old guard:

“I took a lot of heat from it among doctors, old doctors, and I actually stopped doing it because I thought I’d rather blog about the health care industry rather than what I was doing in my practice,” Parkinson told CNET.

The piece also mentions that many doctors feel a solid practice will create all the publicity necessary for a successful career, and that Twitter carries with it a stigma of unnecessary self-promotion.

Still, I think the medical world is squandering a real opportunity to help out the masses here. If doctors are hesitant to take to social media under their own name, then we need more willing if anonymous contributors (like Dr. Cranquis) offering their words of wisdom.

WebMD can answer only so many questions. A world with actual doctors answering questions about warts and aches and fevers in real time is a vast improvement from the one we currently live in. People say there’s no substitute for the real thing, so why not get the real thing on board with helping people?

Social media can be a landfill of inane thoughts and absurd trends. It only makes sense to try and get some of our best and brightest on Twitter and Facebook lending a hand to the people who most need them.

“Mission Control” — the first of its kind in sports

Social media, we have liftoff.

On Wednesday, the NHL’s New Jersey Devils launched “Mission Control,” a “digital command center” designed to bring fan and team even closer together. The initiative is the first of its kind in team sports, and it’s certainly a costly one.

Fifteen individual monitors, three high-definition TVs and a handful of specialized iPads — not to mention an army of 25 “Devils Generals” — help make the center go. This video makes the place seem as cool as it sounds, but it skimps on describing exactly what the so-called Generals will do.

Fortunately, Joe Favorito of the Huffington Post has some ideas:

“Thoughts from fans can be pushed out instantaneously, problems in the arena can be fixed right away, promotions can be created and activated with sponsors at a moment’s notice, media can chime in with what is going on, information on injuries and other topics can be relayed very quickly to all those in the space who are engaged, all from one central hub.”

While the Devils may have gone a little over the top with this one — really, more than two dozen generals? — I think this is certainly a step in the right direction for sports and entertainment.

Go to any football, basketball or hockey game, and you’re increasingly likely to see fans staring down at their iPhones rather than the action before them. They’re texting, Tweeting, Facebooking — not watching the game.

So why not try to combine the two into a fun, collaborative effort? I can’t imagine too many people would pass up, for instance, on an opportunity to win 10 free Chipotle burritos at a game if the offer came across their Twitter/Facebook newsfeed. Developing brand loyalty can be tough in our attention-deficit, technology-addicted society, but valuing such concepts as feedback and freebies can go a long way. And when the going gets tough for teams — as it has for the Devils this season — fans need other reasons to keep coming back for more.

Is this the final frontier for social networking, fans and sports teams? Probably not, but it’s a great start.

At the speed of … Twitter?

#Superbowl tweets per second. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

Twitter had its Super (Bowl) moment last Sunday.

According to the microblogging site, a sporting-event record 4,064 Tweets per second were sent during the waning moments of the Green Bay Packers’ late victory. That mark toppled the previous record of 3,283 Tweets per second, set during the 2010 World Cup match between Denmark and Japan. (Japan, by the way, seemingly has a vise grip on the all-time record, which it set just after New Year’s Eve this year with an astounding 6,939 Tweets per second.)

The catalog of other information provided offers a glimpse into the interests of the “normal” Super Bowl viewer, among other things. The second-largest peak in Tweets didn’t coincide with a Greg Jennings catch or Ben Roethlisberger touchdown. Rather, it came during Usher’s unannounced appearance in the game’s halftime show (see above chart). The Super Bowl’s viewership obviously had its share of football-crazed legions, but that bit of Twitter information shows the game wouldn’t have reached its record highs without a number of casual, I-watch-it-for-the-commercials viewers.

The advent of Twitter and Facebook, as we know, also offers marketers and research firms a world of information on public responses to countless topics. It was no more obvious than during Super Sunday. From Twitter:

So which commercials and brands were people talking about most during the game? Doritos, whose “Pug Attack” commercial was a popular favorite, was this year’s champion. Audi and Pepsi took a close second and third, followed by Chevy, Coca-Cola and Groupon.

The hope of such companies, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is to develop long-lasting relationships with customers. Some are enlisting the help of customers in creating the ads themselves. Others are using hashtag campaigns that make participants eligible for cool product-related prizes. A small number are even creating commercials whose entire premises depend entirely on the use of Twitter and Facebook.

It has to be an exciting time for marketers, who can gauge almost instantaneously reactions to their newly minted products. Will we ever see the complete eradication of “dud” ads? I doubt it, but social-networking sites have them headed in the right direction.

To follow or not to follow … that is my question

As a journalist, there’s a certain duality to handling the people I cover. I want to be close enough to them so that they feel comfortable talking with me in any setting. But I also want to keep my distance to the point where I can comfortably consider myself an interested party, not a friend or even an acquaintance.

Obviously, reporter-source relationships are iffy enough.

But when you add in the dimension of social networking, it can get even fuzzier.

Because so much news these days happens via social-networking channels such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s not surprising that many reporters have taken to “friending” or “following” the subjects they cover. Invariably, some are charged with breaching journalistic ethics by having a subject considered a “friend.”

In most cases, I disagree. A Facebook “friend” is a meaningless, nominal title. After all, most of the names that populate my list of “friends” probably know I don’t consider them as such.

But at the collegiate level, just where can you draw the line between reporting and networking? If I were to “friend” or follow Player X, an underage player on the Maryland men’s soccer team, would he accept my request? And if he did, what tacit agreements would arise from this newly forged level of relation?

It can be a dicey question. It’s not hard to find athletes at this university who have posted Facebook photos of themselves drinking underage or participating in otherwise improper conduct. And to this point, there hasn’t been a compelling need to rat them out.

But if there ever is, I doubt it will outweigh the need not to rat them out. So much of journalism depends on the relationships you build and the sources you have. To risk both by spilling the beans on one solitary subject will ultimately do more harm than good.

Since their inception, social media have offered almost unprecedented transparency for a giant number of once-unavailable subjects. But for reporters like me, their existence also has added even more shades of gray to the relationships that we depend upon so regularly.

Unnecessary roughness on Twitter

The Orlando Sentinel's Dana Summers pokes fun at Jay Cutler's Twitter-induced injuries.

For obvious reasons, Twitter is a gold mine for sports journalists. It provides near-instantaneous updates to your followers. It offers terrific insights from those whom you follow. It affords you currency on the ever-changing world of sports.

And then on the rare (but seemingly increasing) occasion, its mere existence helps spur a news story splashed across front pages everywhere.

Last Sunday, a knee injury to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler kept him from finishing the team’s NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, a game the Bears lost, 21-14.

Within a day, the dominant narrative in the wake of Chicago’s season-ending loss focused not on the Bears’ sour ending but rather on the Twitter target found on Cutler’s back. As a seemingly fine Cutler stewed on the sideline late in the loss, a number of his NFL compatriots — some of them who had not even made it to the playoffs — had taken to social media to question his toughness.

“Hey I think the urban meyer rule is in effect right now, When the going gets tough……..QUIT,” tweeted Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who himself had sat out the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury.

These days, it’s difficult to find a popular athlete who’s not on Twitter. But unprecedented accessibility can be to their own detriment, especially when there’s no public relation corps hovering over their shoulder with a judgmental eye.

For another example, take former Florida safety Will Hill, who was ridiculed endlessly last week when his lewd and profane log of tweets was posted on a popular college football Web site. He has since claimed that the tweets — which date back several months — were not his own. I imagine few NFL executives will be inclined to believe him. In 14o characters or fewer, Hill surely cost himself a far greater number of contract dollars when he’s drafted this April.

As Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi wrote:

And now that athletes have their own media — social media — with complete editorial control, sports fans are seeing many of them for what they truly are:

Fools.

Will we see any measure of pushback from the professional and collegiate teams who oversee these athletes? It bears watching.