The Social Media Games

The 2012 London Olympic Games came to a close on Sunday evening and the impact the Games have had upon social media are almost as impressive as Michael Phelps’ historic medal count. When rare and incredible feats occur, our natural impulse is to share that event with our friends and family. This impulse is easier to act upon given our accessibility to smart phones, readily available data plans, and free and easily downloadable applications that facilitate the instantaneous sharing of information.

Prior to the start of the 2012 Olympics, the prediction was that these Games would be the most social. However, just how strong of a grip social media had on the Games could never have been predicted. According to Reuters, during a men’s cycling road race, race officials were “unable to tell viewers how far the leaders were ahead of the chasing pack because data could not get through from the GPS satellite navigation system travelling with the cyclists.” The reason for the signal interference? Spectators were sending too many tweets and texts. This gap in receiving information resulted in many fans tweeting their frustrations, thus perpetuating the problem.

In many ways, the influence of social media was not confined to the internet. For the duration of the Games, the London Eye displayed the overall feeling and sentiment from Twitter users all over the world through a colorful display of lights. This Twitter mood expression has been dubbed “the first social media light show.” The more positively users tweeted about the games, the brighter this London landmark shined.

Twitter was truly a hub for Olympics talk. Athletes attracted scores of followers in addition to competing and winning medals. The Wall Street Journal tracked the increase in athletes’ followers over the course of the Games and found that the gymnast Gabby Douglas had the biggest change, with a whopping 1,522% gain.

One way to get a sense of the chatter that surrounded the London Games is to look at tweets that mention the top athletes. During Michael Phelps’ events, for instance, we would expect a surge in tweets mentioning his Twitter handle, as a direct results of users tweeting about his races.

Metamarkets examined the fluctuations in the mentions of three Olympic athletes during the Games (July 27-August 12): Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps), Usain Bolt (@usainbolt), and Gabby Douglas (@gabrielledoug). A word of caution: we are using data that Twitter makes publicly available, which is only 1% of all tweets. Nevertheless, the Twitter “sprinkler” provides ample information to convey the sense of the Twitter talk mentioning our three athletes.


The graph above displays tweets mentioning Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps), whose events came predominantly at the end of July and beginning of August. Phelps amassed six medals in the 2012 Games, bringing his career total to 22, the highest in world history. We see a large spike in mentions leading up to the time period when he was racing; a small drop-off after which some momentum is maintained; and then finally a decrease down to pre-Olympics levels.



This graph shows Gabrielle Douglas’s (@gabrielledoug) mentions during the Olympics. The tweet volume is much lower here (2.20k vs. Phelps’s 3.99k), and we see a single impressive surge in mentions, right around August 2nd–when she won gold in the Women’s Individual All-Around Final. At 16 years old, the “Flying Squirrel” has much ahead of her, on the gymnastics mat and on Twitter.

Finally, we have tweets mentioning Jamaican runner Usain Bolt (@usainbolt). Bolt has two large spikes that come towards the end of the Games: one around August 5th, and one around August 9th. These are the dates that he won gold medals in the 100m and 200m finals, respectively.

The vast landscape that social media, and in this case, especially Twitter, has covered is undeniable. The Summer Games have helped to uncover the strength and prevalence of social media in our lives and it has introduced typically isolated cities to a unifying world sporting event. As with Twitter mentions of athletes, the media buzz surrounding the Games will fade, but the effect of social media upon major events such as the Olympics will persist, uniting all of us in the ongoing social media games.