This .pdf is a literature review written in the Fall of 2013 by Daron Vaught on the effects of social media (namely Twitter) on the processes of fan identification as they pertain to social identity theory.
Fan Identification, Twitter Use, & Social Identity Theory in Sport
Fan Identification, Twitter Use, and Social Identity Theory
100 Campus Drive
Elon, NC 27244
The purpose of this paper is to observe the variables of social
media (particularly the social networking site Twitter), fan
identification and engagement in sports entertainment media, and
social identity theory, as well as the contexts in which they are
used together and the effects they have on one another. Works
criticizing social identity theory are also considered, but it is
ultimately concluded that the variables of fan identification and
engagement, fan motivation, social media use via Twitter, and
social identity as they pertain to sports fans and sports media
interact with one another with primarily positive impact.
This literature review will create analysis based on case studies
involving four variables: social identity, fan motivation, fan
identification (and engagement), and Twitter use among sports
fans. Conclusions are drawn based on the interweaving
relationship(s) between all of these factors.
Social identity theory involves the groups and communities in
which media consumers are associated and how these affiliations
affect their self-perceptions (or “identity”), as well as how others
perceive their personalities (Dietz-Uhler and Murrell, 1991).
Social identity can be influenced greatly by surrounding
circumstances, such as the extent to which a sports fan identifies
with a favored team or player. Fan motivation is easily catalyzed
by positive interactions, including interactions via social networks
like Twitter, leading to strong connectivity and identification.
Twitter is a social networking website based on simplicity and
brevity, only offering one tool for sharing information (the
“tweet”) and enforcing a 140-character limit for each of these,
though users have the option to attach pictures and videos to
Another foundational theoretical construct discussed is
“parasocial” (Kassing & Sanderson, 2010) or “pseudosocial”
(Weiss, 1996) interaction between fans and sports figures, which
pertains to interpersonal relationships in which one party knows a
great deal about the other, but the other does not. A noted example
of this in sports is the constant use of the pronoun “we” by fans
when referring to a favorite team. Of course, this level of a
perceived relationship only works in that direction and is not
returned; players of teams do not use “we” to conglomerate
themselves with fans.
It is obvious that the four factors previously mentioned are joined
in a fluid, interlaced web of interconnectivity, and although their
affiliations create opportunity for negative outcomes for fans
socially, personally, and generally, the works studied collaborate
to conclude that the relationships between fan engagement, fan
motivation, fan identification, Twitter, and social identity are
ultimately positive and beneficial.
2. TWITTER IN SPORTS
Social media have exploded within the past five years or so in
sports news coverage especially the social networking site
Twitter. According to a poll by Catalyst Digital Fan Engagement,
sports fans prefer to interact with teams and players through social
media rather than traditional news sources like newspapers,
magazines, television, and radio (Broughton, 2012). “Tweets,” the
140-character posts facilitated by Twitter, have been integrated in
just about every facet of sports entertainment: television and
radio shows, the live experience of attending a professional
sporting event, and fan forums all included. Whether used to
nominate a ‘top play’ of the day during a highlight recap or to
participate in up-to-the-second commentary of a game or match
from the bleachers, sports fans certainly have embraced social
media and have implemented “tweeting” into the basic format of
fandom. In fact, recent surveys show that 83 percent of fans will
check social media sites while watching a game on television, and
63 percent will tweet, update a status, and/or skim their news
feeds if they are actually attending the game in person (Wolford,
3. ACTIVE USERS VS. PASSIVE USERS
All fans are different, though, and use Twitter individualistically.
Romero, Galuba, Asur, and Huberman (2011) theorize that, in
contrast to the notion that user-generated content comes easily
from the general “user” because he or she has a tendency to want
to share, the majority of Twitter users are passive information
consumers and do not forward information to their networks.
Thus, the content creators are in the minority (Romero et al.,
2011). This begs discussion of whether or not the extent of social
media use outside of only viewing others’ content (posting and
sharing information to various networks) should be accounted for
in these types of research studies.
Williams, Heiser, and Chinn (2012) make this distinction, though
it does not seem to ultimately affect the ways social media impact
the lives of sports fans. Their study of Minor League Baseball
fans found that Twitter posters and lurkers (passive users in regard
to posting and sharing info, though they very actively seek info
from others’ posts) better identify with their teams and are more
likely to attend games. Heavy use of sport-related Internet media
by Minor League Baseball fans was confirmed, with over 90
percent of fans regularly using new media content (Williams et
al., 2012). As fans consume content, they develop significantly
stronger affiliations toward the team, and in turn are more likely
to attend sporting events (Williams et al., 2012) and engage
themselves with the happenings of their favorite team and players.
4. SOCIAL IDENTITY
Social identity refers to “the part of a person’s identity involving
his or her memberships in various social groups and categories”
(Dietz-Uhler and Murrell, 1991). Numerous examples of Twitter’s
effect on individuals and social identity theory have plagued the
sports news headlines in the past two years or so. In 2011, Denver
Broncos quarterback and fan favorite Tim Tebow hummed a pass
up the middle of the field to receiver Demaryius Thomas,
resulting in a game-winning touchdown after a scamper to the end
zone. Advancing the Broncos to the second round of the playoffs
was not the greatest impact the play had, as it generated 9,420
tweets per second (Twitter, 2011) from sports fans, both heavily
involved and casual.
In a very similar situation, the hashtag “#Linsanity” emerged
during the breakout of underdog Jeremy Lin, a point guard for the
New York Knicks and Harvard basketball product. Lin became a
superstar in less than a month. Hashtagging is a unique tagging
format that links tweets to user-defined concepts (Hsa, 2012).
From February 1st
to March 1st
, his number of Twitter followers
skyrocketed from 28,505 to over 600 thousand (Wolford, 2012).
With both of these phenomena attracting so many fans at all
levels, it is clear that consumers desire to be part of something
bigger than them serves to view specific athletes and teams as
extensions of themselves, and the world of sports has proven to be
an effective avenue by which to do so.
It is widely perceived that sports create a microcosm of society, or
life, providing trials, of sorts, for social dilemmas and allowing
those participating to learn from the situations sports illustrate and
apply the lessons to more grand circumstances. As Branscombe
and Wann (1991) suggest, much like those playing, spectators can
gain much from sports through identifying with athletes. This
form of identification has been tested to boost self-esteem, reduce
depression, and decrease alienation. This allows sports to facilitate
social identity theory, as a fan’s favorite team provides ties with a
larger social structure and a sense of belongingness in a society
that consists of fewer community and kin relationship connections
(Branscombe & Wann, 1991).
Sports fans compile a large network of their own, as well as a
seemingly uncountable number of smaller, more specified
networks within it. These communities have changed recently,
though, given the impact of social media. There are now
Facebook groups and Twitter lists, consisting of people that have
likely never met and are only connected by the World Wide Web.
Though, it has been proven it is more so the case that individuals
identify with teams which are geographically removed from them
(Branscombe & Wann, 1991).
While the benefits of social media include their interconnectivity
regardless of distance, they also create a sort of distancing
mechanism, straying away from traditional communities that are
built on face-to-face, personal communication. A 2011 study
conducted by Coyle Media, Inc. found that fans prefer location-
based social networks on the web (over social media that do not
take geographic information into account), which by nature do not
rely on proximity in order to function, suggesting that perhaps
users now prefer indirect communication through new technology
over traditional, person-to-person interactions (Fisher, 2011).
In a study fairly different from the others cited, Munro (2005)
introduces a fan-centric model of sports event marketing that
illustrates the relationship fans have with the elements of a brand
community including the brand, product, marketers, media, and
other fans. The findings demonstrate the potential for using
conceptual frameworks from social group theories, especially
“common culture,” neo-tribalistic sub-communities, in
combination with the brand community framework (Munro,
2005). Aside from theorizing that social identity could be used to
benefit sports team and merchandise marketers, the study simply
provides more research pointing to the effects of sports on social
5. FAN IDENTIFICATION AND THE FAN-
The fan-athlete relationship provides an interesting paradox in
that, generally, it has become more complex, yet simpler. Before
social media, the only kind of contact that could be established
between—for example—Michael Jordan and a diehard Chicago
Bulls fan was a real, tangible relationship, predicated on person-
to-person communication. Today, however, a sports icon like
former pro football player and current TV analyst Chad
“Ochocinco” Johnson connects with dozens of fans via Twitter
every day. This, of course, enhances the overall relationship
between fans and athletes in some ways, but it also creates the
potential for diluted connections, to an extent, making such
interactions less significant.
Lim, Witkemper, and Waldburger (2012) suggest that
relationships with fans can be built and maintained through
Twitter as a way to keep fans informed and close to players and
organizations (Lim et al., 2012), whether a perceived “close” or
real. Twitter gives fans the opportunity to interact with favored
athletes. Therefore, it brings fans closer than they have ever been
before to establishing a relationship with their favorite athlete
(Lim et al., 2012). This study attempted to cultivate a reliable and
valid model through which researchers and practitioners could
measure the motivations and constraints of Twitter usage. Lim et
al. discovered the most significant reason that fans follow athletes
on Twitter is because of their love for the team or individual
player, and the greatest constraint on Twitter use for fans is social,
in that they do not have many friends, co-workers, or
acquaintances that use the medium (Lim et al., 2012).
Hsu (2003) explored the relationship between sports fan
motivation and the level of team identification among college
students in Taipei. A sample of nearly one hundred college
students taken from five randomly selected universities in Taipei
completed the “Sport Fan Motivation Scale” to measure fan
motivation and the “Sport Spectator Identification Scale” (both
developed by Wann et al. in 1995) to measure team identification.
Results showed a moderate level of team identification among the
college students, while there were significantly higher levels of
fan motivation and team identification revealed among the men.
The most common fan motives were entertainment and eustress
(Hsu, 2003). This makes for very interesting cultural observation,
seeing as how other studies (including the ensuing research by
Rothschild) have come to find that American college students
identify the most with university and professional teams and
players (Branscombe & Wann, 1991). As Hsu also mentions,
Branscombe and Wann (1991) insisted a clear difference between
sports fans and sports spectators, defining the former as
“individuals who are interested in and follow a sport, team, and/or
athlete,” while sports spectators are “individuals who actively
witness a sporting event in person or through some form of
media” (Branscombe & Wann, 1991). The two terms may not be
exactly the same, but fandom and watching sports have
intermingling interests in terms of sports fans and social identity.
There is a confliction between the dissertation study of Hsu
(1996) and the research conducted by Branscombe et al. (2012)
regarding whether adults or students harbor the most identification
and make the most use out of social media like Twitter. Of course,
these studies extracted their research from subjects in two
different countries on different sides of the world. It seems it
would be worthwhile to examine the cultural implications of all
facets, including fan identification and motivation, the validity of
social identity theory on a country-to-country basis (if it varies at
Weiss (1996) describes the communicative situation of sports in
media as what he describes as a pseudosocial relationship which
the recipients have toward the athletes, meaning the same thing as
Kassing and Sanderson’s “parasocial” (2010), also referred to by
Weiss: “One can slip mentally out of the real social world and
enter an artificial world of vicarious experience. And we all spend
much of our lives in the ‘other worlds’ of the media. An important
form of artificial role playing involves the complex process of
‘identification’” (Weiss, 1996).
Much like Rothschild (2011), Kassing and Sanderson (2010)
focus on social media as a marketing tool for engaging fans
through Twitter at a stadium or field for a live sporting event (in
this case, cycling’s Tour of Italy), but the primary function of
Twitter in this study is to be a means of communicating directly
with fans. After tracking tweets of American and English-
speaking cyclists, it was found that tweeting increases immediacy
(transparent, instantaneous feedback) between the races’
spectators and participants (Kassing & Sanderson, 2010),
establishing Twitter as a strong communicating tool in blurring
the lines between social and parasocial relationships between fans
6. NEGATIVE OUTCOMES OF FAN
As with the lens through which Branscombe et al. (1991) viewed
their findings, fan identification and engagement are usually
viewed very positively. Weiss (1996) is somewhat speculative,
but Dalakas and Melancon (2012) definitely work as a devil’s
advocate in their study, as they identify the negative outcomes of
high identification with teams and players, including the concept
of Schadenfreude, a German term describing the pleasure one
party feels as result of the misfortunes of another. Dalakas and
Melancon (2012) also aim to point out how dependent
identification and fandom are on the importance of winning
(Dalakas and Melancon, 2012). They note that high identification
is associated with high levels of aggression and willingness to
consider anonymous acts of hostile aggression (Wann et al.,
2003), especially in the case that a fan’s favorite team loses in
competition (Wann et al., 2005).
The issues of over-identification brought forth by Wann et al. are
very drastic and real, but there are more idealistic, abstract
repercussions. Fischer and Reuber (2011), based on their study,
find that Twitter-based interaction can trigger effectual cognitions,
but high levels of interaction via this medium can lead to effectual
churn. Effectual churn refers to the ongoing process between
social interaction through Twitter and the reassessment of means
and effects achievable without any progression toward such goals
(Fischer and Reuber, 2011). Simply, an over-user of Twitter is
susceptible to becoming stuck and lackadaisical, in a sense, with
regard to life goals and potential for achievement. This, of course,
highlights another negative aspect of identification, such as the
examples given by Dalakas and Melancon. This is true, of course,
if the conclusion is made that fandom may lead to Twitter
interaction, which brings about closer engagement and fan
Over the course of a fourteen-week university football season,
Beth Dietz-Uhler and Audrey Murrell (1999) conducted a study
that was performed on seventy-four participants who were
surveyed on their perceptions of the team following each game.
This study serves as an aside to the most relevant information
gathered, allowing further discourse regarding the correlations of
team success (building upon the arguments of Dalakas and
Melancon), fan engagement, and social identity. Dietz-Uhler and
Murrell (1999) claim that fans with strong university identity
evaluated the team more favorably following wins and positive
game events, and the perceptions of fans with weak university
identity did not sway much between wins and losses or good and
bad events (Dietz-Uhler and Murrell, 1999). These findings
regarding weakly identified fans contradicts the findings of
Dalakas and Melancon (2012), which concluded that winning and
losing does matter with regard to the engagement of all fans.
Taking all of the aforementioned research into account, it can be
concluded that the variables of fan engagement and fan
identification, social media use (especially via Twitter), fan
motivation, and social identity in sports media correlate with one
another in a primarily positive manner.
As a longtime proponent of sports as a microcosm of life, the
observations made from these works strongly support my claim. It
is often perceived that such an outlook pertains only to those
participating in sport, and that holds true to the same extent, but
being a sports fan has so much to offer an individual when
pertaining to his or her social identity. The groups with which
people associate and the people with whom fans mingle are all
connections made because of a common ground, a shared interest.
Sports teams incorporate the shared rooting interest, but most also
offer a more communal sense of belonging, such as with a specific
town or school, thus doubling the level of connectivity.
Now, with social media such as Twitter, that same connectivity
can be achieved with the actual team and players. This emotional
state of bliss in belonging is the same that is experienced when
watching a movie or television show: no one is oblivious to the
fact that the sequences on screen are completely fictional, but
there still exists a certain type of attachment, or identification. It is
even believed to be healthy, in fact, that a simulated, surrogate
emotion is felt through someone reenacting a situation that, if not
vicarious, would provoke the same feelings.
Dalakas (2012) and Fischer (2011) pointed out negative effects of
becoming too engaged with Twitter and other social media, but as
Kassing and Sanderson (2010) observed, while relationships still
may not be “real” to most, Twitter interactions are just as—if not
more—real than anything fans could experience via television or
radio. Social media make the distant, intangible relationships
perceived through the celebrity of others one step closer to the
real thing. Again, this has the ability to cause problems, but the
good implications far outweigh the bad.
Despite the conclusion that fan engagement and identification,
social media use on Twitter, fan motivation, and social identity all
have distinct, positive effects on one another, there is always
cause for further research. This portion of the paper seeks to
highlight some key points that should be addressed as future
studies are conducted.
Additional research intended to explore the sports fans’ potential
to distinguish between “real,” human-to-human interaction and
social media conversation would serve this topic well. Does a fan
feel just as engaged with a Twitter response as he/she would if
speaking with the athlete in person?
I concur with Lim et al. (2012) that, going forward, research
should continue to be conducted, extending into more areas of
social media, including Facebook, YouTube, and fantasy sports,
to understand the impact it has on sport consumers. A stronger
understanding of these topics could pave the way for more
effective sports marketing strategized to connect with fans and
enhance social connections and relationships.
 Blaszka, M., Burch, L. M., Frederick, E. L., Clavio, G., &
Walsh, P. (2012). #WorldSeries: An empirical examination
of a Twitter hashtag during a major sporting event.
International Journal Of Sport Communication, 5(4), 435-
 Branscombe, N. R. Wann, D. L. (1991). The positive social
and self concept consequences of sports team identification.
Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 15, 2, 115–127. doi:
 Broughton, D. (2012). Survey: social media continues to
fuel fans. Street & Smith’s Sportsbusiness Journal, 15, 13,
 Dalakas, V. Melancon, J. P. (2012). Fan identification,
Schadenfreude toward hated rivals and the mediating effects
of Importance of Winning Index (IWIN). The Journal of
Services Marketing, 26, 1, 51–59.
 Dietz-Uhler, B. Murrell, A. (1999). Examining fan reactions
to game outcomes: a longitudinal study of social identity.
Journal of Sport Behavior, 22, 1, 15–27.
 Fischer, E. Reuber, R. (2011). Social interaction via new
social media: how (can) interactions on Twitter affect
effectual thinking and behavior? Journal of Business
Venturing, 26, 1, 1–18. Retrieved from
 Fisher, E. (2011). Survey: sports fans embrace location-
based social media platforms. Street & Smith’s
Sportsbusiness Journal, 14, 33, 6.
 Hsia-Ching, C., Iyer, H. (2012). Trends in Twitter hashtag
applications: design features for value-added dimensions to
future library catalogues. Library Trends, 61, 1, 248-258.
 Hsu, M. (2003). Sports fan motivation and level of Taiwan
professional baseball team identification among Taipei
college students. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and
Theses. (UMI Number: 3093116)
 Kassing, J. W. (2010). Fan-athlete interaction and twitter
tweeting through the giro: a case study. International Journal
of Sport Communication, 3, 113-128. Retrieved from
 Kwak, D. Kim, Y. (2010). User- versus mainstream-media-
generated content: media source, message valence, and team
identification and sport consumers’ response. International
Journal of Sport Communication, 3, 402-421.
 Lim, C. H. Witkemper, C. Waldburger, A. (2012). Social
media and sports marketing: examining the motivations and
constraints of Twitter users. Sports Marketing Quarterly, 21,
 Ma, Z., Sun, A., & Cong, G. (2013). On predicting the
popularity of newly emerging hashtags in Twitter. Journal
Of The American Society For Information Science &
Technology, 64(7), 1399-1410. doi:10.1002/asi.22844
 Mastro, D. E., Blecha, E., & Atwell Seate, A. (2011).
Characterizations of criminal athletes: A systematic
examination of sports news depictions of race and crime.
Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55, 4, 526-
 Munro, C. E. S. (2006). Sports fan culture & brand
community: an ethnographic case study of the Vancouver
Canucks booster club. Kinesiology Abstracts, 18, 2, 10–11.
 Romero, D. M. Galuba, W. Asur, S. Huberman, B. (2011).
Influence and passivity in social media. Lecture Notes in
Computer Science, 6913, 18–33.
 Rothschild, P. (2011). Social media use in sports and
entertainment venues. International Journal of Even and
Festival Management, 2, 2, 139.
 Sevin, Efe. (2013). Places going viral: Twitter usage patterns
in destination marketing and place branding. Journal of
Place Management and Development, 6, 3, 227.
 Smith, L., & Smith, K. D. (2012). Identity in Twitter's
hashtag culture: A sport-media-consumption case study.
International Journal Of Sport Communication, 5, 4, 539-
 Twitter. (2012, Jan 9). “Last night @TimTebow lead the
@DenverBroncos to an overtime playoff win and a new
sports Tweets per second record: 9420.” Retrieved from
 Wann, Daniel L. (1995). Preliminary validation of sport fan
motivation scale. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 19, 377–
 Wann, D. L. Haynes, G. McLean, B. Pullen, P. (2003). Sport
team identiﬁcation and willingness to consider anonymous
acts of hostile aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 5, 406-
 Wann, D. L. Hunter, J. L. Ryan, J. A. Wright, L. A. (2001).
The relationship between team identification and willingness
of sport fans to consider illegally assisting their team. Social
Behavior and Personality, 29, 6, 531–36.
 Wasike, B. (2013). Framing news in 140 characters: how
social media editors frame the news and interact with
audiences via Twitter. Global Media Journal, 6, 1, 5.
 Weiss, O. (1996). Media sports as a social substitution
pseudosocial relations with sports figures. International
Review for the Sociology of Sport, 31, 1, 109–117.