The Twitter Olympics?

31/07/2012  -  11.15am

Paul Brighton, Head of Department of Media and Film

It is one of the accepted wisdoms of Olympic media coverage that the great sporting festival affords an almost unique opportunity for experimentation with the latest technological developments.

Paris 1924 was the first “Radio” Olympics. Our own London games of 1948 could fairly be described as the first “Television” games, though only small numbers of viewers (perhaps 50,000), all in London and the South East, could actually pick up the signal. Tokyo 1964 was seen as the first “Colour Television” games. Los Angeles 1984 as the first “High Definition” games.

London 2012 is being touted as the “Ultra High Definition” Games; with the latest technologies apparently giving sensations of such clarity and dimension that viewers feel as if they are actually there.

Of course, as with television at the 1948 Games, there is a long gap between experimentation and general availability.

It was around a decade after Tokyo before colour TV became a real part of daily life for average Britons. HDTV took even longer. So goodness knows how far away we are from Ultra-HDTV!

However, it is a less complex form of media technology that is, predictably, generating more heat at the Games so far.

For many observers, these are already the Twitter Olympics. As athletes are busy tweeting their armies of followers, the so-called “trolls” are able to vent their spleen and malice on people they will never get the chance to abuse in person.

The weightlifter Zoe Smith, perfectly justifiably, tweeted a rebuke to those who have a particular image of female weightlifters: one which she certainly does not herself embody. She could clearly be seen texting and tweeting between lifts in the competition area. Her comments crossed no forbidden boundaries, and started a lively and useful debate.

But for every sensible Zoe Smith, there remain others – members of the public and even some athletes – who do not seem to understand the difference between an essentially private text message, and a very public tweet: whether it is an attack on Tom Daley from a non-athlete, or criticism of an entire nation by a competitor, albeit now, of course, a competitor no longer.

Those who seem the most avid Twitter users often seem to be the very people with least understanding of the boundaries between the public and private spheres.

Never mind about training us all for the ultra-HD era. We’d better start hoping tweeters get themselves a crash course in media law – and quickly!