Olympics shine spotlight on social networks

Fans and athletes expected to light up Facebook, Twitter and Google+ as they update and cheer during Summer Games

As Olympic athletes take to a global stage in London this week, participants, coaches and fans are expected to take to their favorite social networks in record numbers.

Whenever something big happens -- tornadoes, political unrest, the World Cup -- people turn to sites like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to voice protest, share their excitement and connect with their friends.

And with more people than ever using social networks, the 2012 London Olympics are expected to light up the major social networks over the next few weeks.

The athletes and contests in these games are expected to be pinned, liked, tweeted, plussed and uploaded more than in any other Olympic Games.

"If there's intrigue or when there are big moments, sure, you'll see some stupendous traffic," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with CurrentAnalysis. "But I don't expect to see these sites explode under the weight of the traffic. They are very versed at scaling for extra load."

And that's the message coming from Google. A spokeswoman told Computerworld that Google was not concerned about the weight of the increased traffic caused by the Olympics overcoming either their search engine or their social network, Google+. Actually, increased traffic has already begun.

The Google+ page for NBC Olympics already is in more than 1.3 million circles, the Google spokeswoman noted. And searches for the word "Olympics" on Google are two and a half times greater leading into the Games than they were before the last Olympics.

"Google's data centers are designed to handle massive amounts of data every day, so we don't expect to see much of an impact due to increased traffic during the Olympics," the spokeswoman said.

At Twitter, which has seen some of its greatest traffic spikes connected to sporting events, the company is already seeing increased traffic related to the Olympic Games. A representative said Twitter was seeing 100 times more tweets about the Games than they did in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Twitter is taking a more active role than usual with this year's Olympic Games.

The site has teamed up with NBC Olympics, which is an arm of the NBC Sports Group, to aggregate the best of all the tweets from Olympic athletes, coaches, family members, journalists and commentators on a dedicated Olympics page.

Twitter is trying to highlight the best of its Olympics-related content and help people tell great stories about their experiences, the representative said.

CurrentAnalysis' Shimmin said it's smart for NBC, which is airing the Olympic games this summer, to reach out to social networks, like Twitter and Google+.

"People aren't just sitting in front of their televisions," Shimmin added. "Why not reach them when they're waiting for a bus or waiting for dinner? The information needs to be packaged so it's digestible in a more sporadic way. People want to get their information and cheer for their favorites throughout the day, not just in the evening when they're in front of the TV."

By using Facebook to give people updates on specific sporting events, videos of the competition and clips of athlete interviews, social networks allow fans to create moments of spontaneous camaraderie, he gave as an example.

"It might be akin to what you'd experience if you were sitting in a bar with people are watching a sport," Shimmin said. "Someone stands up and cheers and you feel that. With social networks, it's the same, only virtually. It's that sense of belonging."

However, for the athletes who are tweeting and posting updates to their social pages during the games, there are some big risks involved.

Just ask Paraskevi Papahristou, a 23-year-old triple-jump athlete from Greece. After making what was considered a racist tweet, she was kicked off her Olympic team on Wednesday.

So far, though, most athletes are having better luck with their social networking.

U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones has more than 172,000 followers on Twitter. And she's keeping them entertained with tweets like this, "Notify Olympics: I can't run. Injury:BroKeN heart RT @LonaPete RT @eonline Prince Harry is off the market! Sorry,ladies".

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who won 16 Olympic medals in previous Games, has his own Facebook page with nearly 5.5 million "likes," as well as 277,000 followers on Twitter.

The International Olympic Committee realizes how important social networking is this year so it created a social media hub to help fans keep track of their favorite athletes and events.

"We're in uncharted territory to some extent," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "The last Summer Olympics was four years ago -- before the massive global surge in social networking. It'll be interesting to see if the Olympics spurs significantly more interactions or if it's on par with what we'd see with other major sporting events."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

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