Fan Identification, Twitter Use, & Social Identity Theory in Sport

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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.

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Fan Identification, Twitter Use, & Social Identity Theory in Sport

  1. 1. Fan Identification, Twitter Use, and Social Identity Theory in Sport Daron Vaught Elon University 100 Campus Drive Elon, NC 27244 (336) 278-2000 dvaught@elon.edu ABSTRACT 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. 1. INTRODUCTION 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 tweets. 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, 2012). 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.
  2. 2. 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 identity. 5. FAN IDENTIFICATION AND THE FAN- ATHLETE RELATIONSHIP 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.
  3. 3. 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 all), etc. 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 and athletes. 6. NEGATIVE OUTCOMES OF FAN IDENTIFICATION 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 identification. 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. CONCLUSION 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.
  4. 4. 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. REFERENCES [1] 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- 453. [2] Branscombe, N. R. Wann, D. 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