In real life, we don’t (or at least try not to) loudly reference someone when they are within earshot of you. As children, we were taught that such a practice was as impolite as pointing.
So why do we do it on Twitter?
Obviously, talking about a sport requires referencing its athletes, but when opining in real life, we are free from worry over whether the athletes in question can hear you. With that sense of security, we speak frankly: what they are doing right, wrong, their recent results and why would they get that haircut?
This almost always good-natured chatter has seamlessly transitioned onto social media. The practice of “live-tweeting” matches can drum up thousands of point-by-point reactions with commentary that can have as many violent swings as a match’s momentum allows. But there is one problem: among the inhabitants in the big cafeteria known as Twitter can easily be that athlete with the bad haircut. Whether they choose to listen or not, how easily do we forget their ability to hear.
Think that because you aren’t one of the foolhardy souls to use a player’s Twitter handle when referencing them directly, this warning doesn’t apply to you?
Every word you tweet can be pulled up via Twitter’s cartoonishly simple search engine. Whether they have a Twitter account or not, players need only search their surnames to open the proverbial Pandora’s box of opinions, positive or negative, about them posted by fans, journalists, and in the rarest of cases, other players.
But I do not mean to write a cautionary tale.
Instead, I would like to point to a case of successful player marketing. When players become known by only one name (the Vikas, Serenas and Carolines of the world), they make the awkward transition from person to brand. With images to maintain and sponsors to please, they do not use social networks in the same way as those who follow their accounts, and as a result the “social” aspect of “social networking” can get lost in the shuffle.
Enter Donna Vekic.
Despite her many sponsors and for all of the strides made in her debut year on the WTA Tour, the young Croatian is not yet a one-named celebrity. At least for now, fans have the privilege of interacting with Donna the person instead of being updated by Donna the brand. Frequently uploading photos and tweeting with a general joie de vivre, @DonnaVekic is a highly recommended add to your “following” list.
When one follows another person, he or she becomes privy to details of the person’s life that they deem relevant. But real people, especially real professional athletes, can start to wonder what people are saying about them. And when you, the fan, tweet something (however innocently) about a real person, you run the risk of getting a real response. Such was the case when I tweeted rather absent-mindedly about Ms. Vekic two weeks ago.
I will not recant that statement, because at the time it was true. I do not follow many players for the reasons I outlined above; I would rather fill my timeline with fan commentary and links to pertinent articles than engage in the world of tennis twitter celebrity.
I was not, however, prepared for a response from the Croat herself.
For all this winding prose, we have reached the crux of my argument. With one tweet from one person to another, a tennis player gained a lifelong fan. Therein lies the beauty of social media; all tweets are not created equal, and a tweet from a direct link to a sport fans devote their lives to can breed nothing if not good vibrations. A player with hundreds of thousands of followers may not feel obligated (or even allowed) to interact with others as if they themselves were real people, yet a personal tweet is truly the cheapest PR one can think of. No lengthy autograph session or trans-Atlantic exhibition necessary.
To be clear, tennis players do not owe anything to fans; this is not a call for professional athletes to take to social media and perform for our amusement. But it cannot be denied that the relationship between player and fan does have a certain symbiosis. If fans felt there was nothing to get invested in, then the sport would not grow, and nothing can endear a fan to a player more than a player breaking the fourth wall. Why else do we tune in to these off-season exhibitions? We like watching our favorite players, these superhuman athletes, acting silly and like, for lack of a better phrase, they are just like us after all.
So to fans, remember that players can hear you. To players, know that fans love to hear from you. As for me, I’ll be tweeting my BFF.