Social media the name of the Games

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2012, 12:00am


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When Usain Bolt crosses the finishing line after the 100-metre dash this summer, he's likely to have quite a few followers - but only a tiny fraction of them will be anywhere near London's Olympic Park. Social media has come into its own in recent years, but next month's Olympic Games will see Twitter, Facebook and Google+ used to report and discuss the on-track happenings like never before.

About 700,000 people will cram into Olympic venues between July 27 and August 12, but this, the first mass sporting event where social networks are established and the use of smartphones and tablets is common, will be the most connected yet, fuelled by the BBC's decision to broadcast 24 live high-definition TV streams, and more than 2,500 hours across all platforms.

Twitter is fast becoming a major platform for breaking news and will be used by most of the 20,000 accredited media to get the latest updates out. The iPad looks set to take on a new role at London 2012. 'There were no tablets at the last Olympics; it's a completely new market,' says Carl Hibbert, a tech analyst at Futuresource Consulting in London. 'Tablet owners will be able to catch up on the judo or weightlifting in their lunch hour,' he says.

The Games are also expected to give a push to a phenomenon called 'second-screen viewing'. Maybe you're tweeting about a live TV programme using your smartphone, reacting to hashtags that flash up onscreen, or perhaps an iPad is being used to watch another live channel. Basically, you've got one eye on the TV and the other on a second device - perfect for live sport.

'It provides a new resource and touchpoint for the broadcaster,' says Hibbert, who thinks second-screen viewing offers many creative opportunities. 'Maybe with tablets becoming more common, it means a multiscreen experience, or an additional screen providing another video feed, live updates or more stats.' While watching the 100 metres, you can bring up profiles of runners, statistics, or even simple virtual video games where you could 'race' against Bolt and the others.

In Hong Kong, the rights are held by i-Cable, which will broadcast live both online and through its Joemud app for iPhones and Android smartphones. The multiplatform apps developed by the BBC include its successful BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport app - both of which are available on smartphones, tablets and smart TVs, though, sadly, not outside Britain.

The BBC's output - almost all of which will be shown in Hong Kong - is so prodigious that it could be difficult to keep up with where the medals are going. That's where social media steps in. In his time as future media controller at the BBC, Anthony Rose was responsible for the iPlayer, but his new tech start-up's smartphone app, Zeebox, seeks to simplify things.

'It knows, second by second, where the buzz is,' says Rose, who explains that Zeebox can list television channels according to popularity. 'Trending' television works perfectly for live sport, and Zeebox's tie-in with relevant Twitter updates could be useful, too. It will even automatically subscribe to Olympic athletes and presenters and present a virtual 'couch' of celebrity friends. Sending a 'shout out' via Twitter is par for the course.

Hibbert thinks such 'social' television is good for both viewers and broadcasters. 'Social TV is very much in its early days, but the idea of being more engaged in what you're watching isn't going to go away,' he says, adding that each viewer becomes an interactive member of an event. 'I really think it should be pushed during the Olympics.'

The BBC itself may not have specific plans for a social side to the Olympics, but the organisers do. Trying to get Facebook's 900 million users involved with the Games is the what the Explore London 2012 page on the platform is all about, but it's no passive fan page.

'All athletes can have an audience, and every fan can track how their heroes are doing, support them, encourage them, and share their stories with the world,' says Joanna Shields, Facebook vice-president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The Explore London 2012 page already includes more than 100 million connections between fans and athletes. Mark Adams, the International Olympic Committee's director of communications, thinks these will be the first truly 'social' Olympic Games: 'The Olympics has been connecting fans with memorable sporting events and moments for more than a century - first in the stadiums, then through television and now on social media. It makes sense to give fans the best experience we can.'

Relative to the anticipated global television audience of four billion for the opening ceremony, the number of social media users is still relatively small, though it's growing fast. Twitter's users have increased from three million to 140 million in the four years since Beijing, and in the same period, Facebook has seen a nine-fold increase from 100 million.

The opening ceremony, broadcast in both hi-definition and 3-D in Hong Kong, should get viewers tweeting before the first pair of running shoes are laced.

Exactly 119 live animals will controversially 'perform' for the occasion, but Twitter's 140 characters could form the lasting impression of the most connected Olympic Games yet.