(Robert Crumb, predictor of Twitter? via)
There are all kinds of ways to conduct discourse in this Digital Age with the Information Superhighway and the Facingbook, and one of the newest is Twitter. Like all new means of communication, Twitter transforms debate, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill; that’s elementary enough, and a subject for people who study such things, not a boxing blog. But many of the ways it transforms debate apply to the sport to which this blog is devoted, which is why I care.
I’ve been on Twitter since early 2009, when the big idea was merely to amplify the right column of The Queensberry Rules, where a module features my latest tweets. News in boxing happens fast, and often I don’t have time to write a full post on it, so I thought it would be a good way to keep visitors current on my views on what’s going down. That sort of worked.
In some ways, I suspect Twitter hurt the blog more than it helped it. But this isn’t a sour grapes post, or at least didn’t feel like it when I was writing it, some kind of “I’m an old man of the blogging world, MYAH, I can’t program my VCR so what’s this Tweeter business?” condemnation of the medium. After all, in some of my interactions with some boxing writers for mainstream, newsier publications, there’s been a distinct eye roll-worthy “You’re in your pajamas in the basement” kind of vibe toward me, the same kind of dynamic that happens in mainstream news vs. blog relationships in politics, sports and more. We’re still wrestling with those things, years and years and years since blogs began. It keeps me feeling young.
What this post is, though, is an examination of how Twitter has affected boxing-related communications, based on my observations and experiences and a few insights I’ve stolen from others. And yeah: I have some unkind things to say.
If I had to pick two things Twitter offers that are good, it’d be:
1. The instant feedback to events from other people who care about boxing. For example: It used to be I’d have to patrol message boards, wait for news stories and scan other blogs to see what people were thinking about a controversial bout and who they thought won. No longer. Most boxing fans, and many boxing writers, score fights round by round. That’s handy when you’re trying to size up a broad consensus about a thing, for testing your perceptions against others.
2. The ability to connect with other fans, boxers, boxing writers and promoters. I’ve met some friends via Twitter I might not have otherwise. Twitter is not unique in that regard, mind you — I’ve met visitors to this site who have become real-life pals. But it’s a shortcut to other kinds of boxing figures, too. Many boxers respond to those who reach out to them on Twitter, for instance, and I’m not going to meet most of them via this site. You also get insights into their character and interests you wouldn’t otherwise.
From there, all other things spill. (Those are two distinctly different things, by the way: There is a difference between knowing what everyone’s thinking in toto merely by following them versus connecting with those people, communicating with them.)
If I want to watch an overseas stream of a fight that isn’t available in the United States, and I can’t find one on my own, one of the fastest ways to do it is to put out a feeler to my Twitter acquaintances. If there’s a YouTube link to a recent fight available, someone will often post it. Boxers sometimes make announcements on Twitter before they do anywhere else. Again, blogs like this one provide the same service, as can message boards and other outlets. But Twitter often adds a dimension of speed.
There are other, minor good things about Twitter. Since brevity is the soul of wit, Twitter is responsible for a number of brief quips I’ve laughed at about boxing. And so on.
But yes. Some unkind things to say here. And I don’t even mean about how it has or hasn’t affected my site — I won’t bore you with that kind of thing at length. Suffice it to say , as just one example, that as a promotional tool, Twitter hasn’t resulted in any meaningful expansion of my audience or traffic, despite the hype about Twitter being able to do that. I’ve no idea if it’s helped others in that regard. It arguably has shrunk my site’s visitor base as some debates move from this forum to Twitter; it’s hard to tell, since any number of people have told me they prefer the kind of discussions offered here to the kind that are available on Twitter.
The major issue with Twitter is that sometimes immediacy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And what it begets sometimes isn’t pretty.
My snap judgments about a piece of boxing news or a fight aren’t always correct. Tweeting one’s first thought, without deliberation, can lead to one being flat wrong when a little extra consideration would prevent it. At minimum, that snap judgment often leaves out crucial pieces of information that haven’t yet surfaced and might help shape a better judgment. Getting in the habit of broadcasting snap judgments probably has a debilitating effect over time, especially because Twitter reinforces these habits. Because it’s not just me broadcasting my snap judgments — it’s everyone. And I see what those snap judgments are from others, sometimes before I offer mine. Thus, Twitter can create a kind of group-think about a boxing event even before all the news is out.
Let’s take the case of super middleweight Andre Dirrell pulling out of the Super Six tournament. When the news hit Twitter, the backlash against Dirrell was instantaneous, even though the news from tweets to that point only included reporters who listened in on Showtime’s skeptical-sounding announcement of Dirrell’s injury. Dirrell was guilty the second the news hit the wire for at least one person, then for the next person, and before long, almost everyone. No reporters had yet contacted Dirrell, nor his promoter Gary Shaw, nor anyone from his team, seeking an explanation from their side of things. Pre-Twitter, no one is reacting anywhere until after at least one reporter had written a full account with responses from both sides. No columnists and no bloggers would have reacted as quickly about Dirrell pulling out, because they wouldn’t have known as quickly, and they wouldn’t have reacted without the full story from both sides. I’d hazard a guess that if that had been the case, Dirrell wouldn’t have been treated SO roughly SO quickly by boxing fans. And that, more broadly, would have trickled down to a different kind of slower, more well-considered consensus about Dirrell, if not still a potentially negative one.
I think there’s a telling comparison in how I subsequently blogged about Dirrell to that of Bad Left Hook, which isn’t as active on Twitter. Much of what I wrote was jumping into the debate over whether Dirrell was a big faker. Bad Left Hook didn’t even mention it.
Let’s take another case, much less based on shaping of perceptions and more on reacting to falsehoods. One piece of information on Twitter can travel pretty far pretty fast, and it can take a while to be rectified. It’s why someone pretending to be junior welterweight Timothy Bradley succeeded in faking out everyone for almost a week, with respected boxing sites running information from this fake Timothy Bradley as though it were true. Maybe you can chalk that up to bad reporting, but it’s bad reporting that happened directly because of Twitter. In my own case — because this isn’t about making me look like some perfect Twitter user who resists its shortcomings — I recently posted a link to a news story on Fightnews about heavyweight Shannon Briggs being in critical condition with a concussion this past weekend, an item that spread far and wide via myself and others, and only later in the day when I returned to Twitter did I see a volume of news reports contradicting that account.
The tendency for wrongness or half-truths can apply even to discliplined thinkers and reporters. I recommend this piece by Bill Simmons recently on how a rumor (ultimately, in this case, a truthful one, but one born of an accident and poor vetting) spread over Twitter, and the fact that ESPN (wisely) keeps its staff on a tight leash on Twitter, and about writers throwing out “pseudo-reporting” via Twitter.
Because boxing writers sometimes broadcast their immediate doubts, theories, etc. on Twitter before reporting, they themselves can influence the debate. We trust them more because they frequently know more, more directly, about what’s happening with a story at that moment. When they broadcast thoughts and theories before checking them out, only to later write more even-handed and moderate stories (it happens to a great, great many of them) in some cases, the damage is already done — the trusted messenger has put out an untrustworthy message, and it’s altered the discourse. And forget about retractions on Twitter from anyone, not just reporters. The next time I see someone say on Twitter, “I was wrong, I reacted too quickly” it’ll be the first time. Instantaneous opinions harden into intractable facts, all of which can build into a faulty narrative about a fighter or a piece of news.
The net result of this is a kind of radicalized populace. I’m sure some would consider that a flattering description. But I do honestly think Twitter leads some people, sometimes, to adapt more extreme views of a situation than they would otherwise, and I don’t think that’s a good thing for any kind of informed debate, for the medium to corrupt the message. And that, in turn, leads to people then sometimes seeking out negativity, reproducing it then seeking it anew, with negativity thus feeding itself in a cycle. I saw this recently via Gawker, and I thought it was pertinent not to the Tea Party — I can’t comment on the Tea Party here — but to boxing fans.
As Twittergate shows, the same Tea Party exists on Twitter as in the real world, only magnified absurdly: Blowhards dominate the discourse… [and] conspiracy theories bloom at every coincidence.
Twitter sometimes magnifies the worst in boxing fans, in other words, and they have some blowhard/conspiracy theory tendencies as it is.
I’ve felt myself at times getting sucked into this cycle of negativity. My most retweeted remarks, the ones that draw the most positive feedback, are often the most acidic. My diss of Sergio Mora’s broadcasting skills got me some pats on the back. I don’t know how much that kind of thing subconsciously drives people to be more negative, and I can’t possibly know. But I suspect it has an effect.
The darkest element of this negativity cycle is that sometimes, people with different opinions become targets of harassment or bullying. I know there will be people reading this and thinking that I’m talking about them, or myself, but I’m not talking about any one person. It happens a lot. Too often. It is very widespread. It would be easy enough for someone who doesn’t like someone else to leave well enough alone, and simply stop “following” the person they don’t like. But the usual option is to turn nasty. Even worse, it all happens in public. It used to be if someone didn’t like somebody else, they’d have to torment them in person, and then later, send them an e-mail, and now, they can torment someone before all their Twitter followers — and since Twitter is as close to high school as anything I know of, someone with a lot of Twitter followers will sometimes have his or her clique join in on the battle. A simple argument over boxing can turn into full-blown drama, and everyone watches. It’s embarassing to all parties, save those who like participating in or watching idiotic pissing matches, I guess.
It’s up to every boxing fan to decide for themselves whether Twitter is for them. For me, for now, the negatives are pretty close to outweighing the positives. But even some of the negatives, in a roundabout way, are positive: I’d rather have a corrupted, too-negative data stream than shut one off.
Don’t expect this to be the last word on Twitter and boxing; the medium is still evolving, and the entirety of the boxing world isn’t on Twitter, nor will it ever be. But it’s a snapshot of what I see happening with it now.