As the number one golfer in the world for 623 weeks (nearly 12 years), Tiger Woods had to endure criticisms of his foul language, whispers about steroids, and constant media attention; and that was before his wife chased him with a golf club one infamous Thanksgiving. Lee Westwood, the current number one on Earth for all of five straight weeks and 22 in total, is still trying to simply cope with Twitter aggressors.Amid a barrage of abuse on the social networking site, Westwood has threatened to shutdown his account. “It’s losing its meaning,” Westwood told the Associated Press. “It’s social media, not social slagging. It seems to have turned into that for some people.”
Westwood is from England, which seems to be the center of a surge in fan abuse towards athletes. In the sports world at least, it seems there is much more aggression taking place on twitter from fans towards athletes in and around England. Fellow golfer and Englishman Ian Poulter has also said he has endured a heavy amount of criticism on Twitter.
English footballers seem to get it much worse as hoards of fans have forced other athletes to shut down accounts, while some stars are openly admitting to being attacked online. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney has engaged in heated exchanges with followers online, while midfielder Darren Gibson was forced to close his account mere hours after starting it up one afternoon when fans bombarded him with scorn and ridicule.
“It’s just pathetic,” Westwood added. “It’s there to interact with people and give them an idea of stuff they might not ordinarily be able to engage with. But some always take it too far and spoil it.”
Still, some athletes, like fifth-ranked Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, think it is part of the territory of making yourself publicly available online; and though he didn’t say it, it would seem to be part of the territory being a star in that part of the world.
“People open an account and all they want to do is abuse celebrities and sportsmen to try to get a response,” McDowell said.
Second-ranked Luke Donald of Hempstead said he will keep his account open despite negative comments. Scotsman Paul Lawrie, however, has shut his down.
What makes this story most interesting, it would seem, is that these golfers have a very specific idea for which Twitter is and was designed. “That’s not the tool it was meant for,” said Donald, referring to criticism,” … but it hasn’t got to that point for me yet,” where he would shut it off.
Donald is wrong, as is Westwood when he says Twitter “has lost it’s meaning.” Twitter, like Facebook and any other social network, does not have a universal meaning, but instead an infinite amount of specific ones; it is defined by all of it’s users. Despite what some celebrities and athletes would want to think, Twitter is not solely an exercise in vanity. While in a perfect world athletes and celebrities will just be praised by adoring fans, the reality is that by making yourself directly accessible online, you will encounter people who don’t like you.
In the sports culture, heckling is an accepted part of the game while at an event. Hockey fans will drone a goalie’s name, while those in the bleachers will jeer an outfielder at a baseball game. If anything, taunts on Twitter are more acceptable. It is far more impersonal, and it does not take place at an event where the person is in fact working.
There is no justification for violent threats, and surely much of the derision is inane and poorly-worded, but that doesn’t mean it devalues Twitter or changes it’s meaning. Direct, real-time, and impersonal communication between people is the operating vehicle. How people use it is up to them, because at the end of the day, an account can be closed just as easily as it is opened.