Para-Social Interactions, Social Media, and Sport

It is commonly said that social media platforms have disrupted the traditional media ecology by allowing two-way communication between audience and senders (see Gantz and Lewis, 2014). In a way, social media platforms broke the communication barriers between the two by reshaping who controls the flow of communication. This newly found media interactiveness is at the heart of many – if not all – social media platforms we commonly use in the Western world as with the likes of Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik-Tok, Snapchat, etc. Those platforms not only blur the lines between who is to be considered the audience and sender, but their success is indebted to the continuous work of audiences in producing content to be consumed by others. This has not only changed interaction patterns between senders and audiences, but has also disrupted the way traditional media organisations source their news stories.

Nevertheless, we might have to take this idea of an equal two-way communication system with a pinch of salt. Maybe what we are witnessing is the 2.0 version of the illusion of intimacy that Horton and Wohl have proposed back in the 50s. To check this I have collected the twitter hashtag network from the UFC event (#UFC249) that took place last Saturday – maybe the first truly global sporting event after the beginning of the current new Coronavirus pandemic.

In the first image – below – the size reflects weighted in-degree and the colour (blue to red) the authority in the network. What can we see? UFC, fighters on the card, and some traditional media outlets are not only bigger – meaning having more users tagging them (@) alongside the hashtag – but also redder meaning that they have more authority. On one way it shows how social media platforms can disrupt traditional media ecology as audiences can now contact athletes directly without the need for the traditional mediation role that media outlets usually had. This is very similar to what I have discussed in this post about the UFC McGregor v Khabib network.

But, is this direct contact reciprocated? Are we truly seeing a two-way communication where those athletes, the UFC, or even traditional media outlets engage in mutual conversations with audiences? Or is this only an illusion caused by the lowering of costs to participate in this conversation [a tweet is only a click away]? Maybe a way of checking this would be to invert the visualisation, and instead have the bigger nodes reflect out-degree (how many tweets they fired out). And what is the surprise when we see the below visualisation?

Now we can see a different collection of users being prominent in the visualisation. In the middle there are a few bigger users (not red, but blue) who have fired numerous tweets during the event but as it seems did not get many replies back. Also, they do not seem to have the power to shape discussions and spread their message – very similar to what I have discussed in this post about media spreadability and sport. It is also interest to note those clusters on the fringes of the network, that I am calling as the cacophony bots. Bots because those accounts are currently temporarily restricted due to unusual activity, and cacophony because the message seems to circulate predominantly only within the bot cluster.

In a way, those users in the middle are on para-social interactions with their beloved athletes and the event, as even if they have being noted by fighters or prominent figures in the network (first visualisation) this would amount to only small talk that gives the impression of a true two-way communication.

Maybe it is not two-way communication that disrupted the traditional media ecology. But it is illusion of intimacy 2.0 that disrupted the sport media ecology as social network platforms such as twitter and Instagram allow for prominent figures to show their humanity (the so-loved behind the scenes posts) and strength their illusory reciprocity and rapport with audiences.

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