Paper presented by Tim Highfield at the ECREA conference, Istanbul, Turkey, 25 October 2012.
Sporting events featured among the most popular topics covered on Twitter in both 2010 and 2011, both in terms of volume and frequency of updates (Twitter, 2010, 2011), with social media used as a backchannel for spectators to post their own commentary while watching the event. In this paper, we analyse tweets published during the Tour de France cycling race. However, unlike a standalone event as such the football World Cup final or the Super Bowl, the length of the Tour de France makes its coverage on Twitter more akin to an election campaign than a sports match; the main protagonists are known in advance, but their fortunes rise and fall over three weeks of competition.
Like other professional sports, many cyclists, their teams, and journalists are active on Twitter, and share their thoughts with their followers (Hutchins, 2011; Kassing & Sanderson, 2010). However, this communication is not one-way; for an event such as the Tour, broadcast live around the world, social media can foster the development of a global, participatory audience, not just watching the race but commenting and asking questions specifically of the competing cyclists. This can reduce the distance between the race and its audience; regardless of whether a spectator is in Paris or Brisbane, they are able to use social media to be directly involved with the race, posting instant comments and using tweets to show support and encouragement for their preferred riders.
To examine how social media may create a connected, global audience for events such as the Tour de France, despite the varying distance and time zones of spectators from the race, we analyse tweets posted during the 2011 and 2012 Tours. The project tracks ongoing discussions containing the #tdf hashtag, which acts to centralise discussions about the race and its surrounding themes. Data are collected and analysed using an innovative methodology developed to study Twitter activity during acute events, such as natural disasters, and ongoing conversations, including election campaigns. This approach allows us to identify patterns of Twitter activity during the race, as well as the connections between users created through @replies and retweets.
Preliminary results from the 2011 event find a central group of individual cyclists, teams, and international (cycling) media who attracted mentions within many tweets. However, there are also several country-specific groups, each containing its own local audience, journalists, and cyclists. This raises a further question about whether the race is covered by a strongly interconnected global audience, or if the use of social media only highlights the distance between the many spectators focusing their attention on a particular event.
The paper then provides important information on the presence of a global social media audience for a central event, and the creation of connections between different users and regional groups. The findings of this research have clear applications for studying additional international news stories, whether they are, for example, of a sporting, cultural, or political nature.