At this point, nearly everyone knows that the San Francisco 49ers will not be going to the Super Bowl this year. They have also heard about the two fumbles by wide receiver Kyle Williams that helped cost us the game, and the threatening messages he received via Twitter afterward.
I was reluctant to write about the 49ers’ loss, and the extreme reactions to it by some. What more is there to say, that hasn’t already been written, blogged or tweeted? But yesterday’s events raised several questions that lingered in the back of my mind all day.
Why does Twitter bring out such hatefulness, particularly on the topic of sports? Some chalk it up to the anonymity that is available with social media. They say people lose the will to censor themselves, if their words can’t be traced back to them. This may be true in some cases, but most of the comments I saw yesterday came complete with full names and photos attached. If these guys thought they were incognito, they are even dumber than their tweets suggest. (Why is it that the nastiest tweeters are also incapable of spelling the word “you’re” correctly?)
Perhaps it’s less a matter of anonymity, than of proximity (or lack of it). I doubt that yesterday’s tough-talking-tweeters would have been so bold, if a 49er had been within swinging distance.
Are these folks just uber-competitive athletes who love and understand the game better than the rest of us? Doubtful. I envision washed up high school sports heroes long since gone soft, and guys who passed out towels after practice… but like to pretend they did a whole lot more. Regardless, they know nothing of sportsmanship, teamwork or compassion.
Where does that kind of venom come from? Alcohol? Probably a factor, but that’s the Mel Gibson defense which always seemed a little shaky to me. Alcohol may give you liquid courage to blurt out something you shouldn’t, but it doesn’t plant the idea in your head and heart in the first place.
I sense the pack mentality at work. At its best, Twitter is a conversation, and just like in face-to-face interactions participants want to be liked – even admired. We want to make other people laugh. We are flattered and validated by follows and retweets. So it’s easy to dog pile on a struggling pitcher after his fifth walk in two innings, each tweet a little more biting than the last, to keep the conversation going. If he can’t take the heat, he should stay off Twitter, right?
On the whole, I think social media is a blast. But just like in “real life” I choose who I interact with carefully. I surround myself with people who lift me up, make me laugh and challenge my thinking. In turn, I try to stick close to my values and apply common sense rules to my part of the conversation. If the person I’m writing about read this, would I feel guilty? Could I look him/her in the eye and say it? Would I be OK if a stranger wrote something like this… about me? If the answer to any of these is “no”, I do the digital equivalent of biting my tongue, and hit delete.