Tagging Fans, Tweeting Beards: Major League Baseball, social media, and the body

Curator's Note

One way Major League Baseball promotes an avid fandom through social media is the MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan, where two “Dream Job” winners watch every regular season game, meet players and celebrities, shoot short films, and interact with fans and players on Facebook and Twitter. Fans can do more than merely live vicariously through the contest winners, however - they can also interact directly with players on Twitter. Marlins’ Logan Morrison (@LoMoMarlins) and Reds’ Brandon Phillips (@DatDudeBP) are particularly avid (and entertaining) users of social media, engaging with fans in ways that sometimes go beyond one’s computer or smartphone and into real life and onto actual ballfields.

MLB also promotes fans’ social engagement through “the tag.” With the term’s clear connection to both baseball and graffiti, body-to-body and body-to-site notions of the tag layer onto the seemingly body-less Twitter hashtag. For example, “#WORLDSERIES” has replaced nearly every appearance of the fall classic in promotional materials and branding. Drawing on another "tag" in social media, MLB introduced the TagOramic, where spectators (via Facebook) mark their body-to-site presence at a postseason game they attended. Fan-generated tweet-ups at ballparks allow twitterers to connect in real life to do what they already do during games watched at home (discourse with fellow fans in real-time). Twitter’s ability to connect fan to player, though compelling when it is realized, pales in this very real ability to connect fan to fan in real-time (and even at real sites).

The clip’s final hashtag sample comes from a seemingly disembodied source: the beard of Giants closer Brian Wilson (@BeardOfBrian). Wilson’s famous facial hair (whose mystification MLB encourages) is not the only body part that tweets, however, as fans increasingly create voices for players’ injured parts, accessories, and facial hair (@TClippardsSpecs and @JWerthsBeard, to name two from this fan’s team, the Nationals). To varying degrees, these twitterers shed their own bodies and perform an attachment to those of their “owners” that is unhinged from gender norms or expectations (unlike the Fan Cave, a clear rhyme of “man cave”). Though the gender of such twitterers is unknown to me (and is beside the point), the performative and playful nature of the tweeting beards, like the emotive, bodily, and real-time engagement of both players and fans on Twitter, challenges the predominantly masculine, coldly analytical internet fandom of sabremetricians and post-game analysts.

Comments

Nicholas David Bowman's picture

Twitter and the (para?)social interaction with athletes

A very intriguing post! I’ve been increasingly interested in the use of social media by sports leagues, teams and athletes as a method of reaching out to fans. 

One comment that you made "Twitter’s ability to connect fan to player, though compelling when it is realized, pales in this very real ability to connect fan to fan in real-time (and even at real sites).I found particularly interesting. I generally agree with this statement, but I’m not so sure that I’d agree that it "pales in comparison". Prior to our social media selves, most all fans had only the idealized para-social interaction with athletes. Through traditional media venues as well as their own observation of games, fans have always known far more about the athletes than the athletes have ever known about the fans - in fact, few athletes are aware of their fans as anything more than a deindividualized mass (i.e. #CardinalNation as the supporters of the St. Louis Cardinals). Yet, social media usage allows athletes to engage in three distinct behaviors than can at least give the perception to the fan that the relationship is more personal. The programs allow athletes to (a) interact with fans, (b) have idiosyncratic knowledge of fans [through profile postings and other information-sharing behaviors], and (c) use this idiosyncratic knowledge to respond in kind to fan comments and behaviors. Indeed, these three things are the hallmarks of an interpersonal relationship. So, I would completely support and agree with your thoughts, but I would challenge that social media is so inferior - in fact, for the 1.5M followers of MLB, they might be realizing a far more intimate relationship than ever before. Of course, the question becomes is this interaction parasocial or social? And, do fans really want such an intimate relationship with sports? After all, nothing is worse than your hero losing his or her luster once you meet them "for real". 

Thank you for your insights on this topic, this was a very enjoyable read!

( I recently gave a talk on this very subject to West Virginia University’s Sports Management students and faculty, if anyone is interesting in browsing through my presentation notes here; scroll down for the PowerPoint slides.) 

Annie Dell'Aria's picture

But LoMo never tweets me back...

I agree that social media does allow for a fan voice to be potentially heard by athletes that is more accessible than before (where such things could only happen a meet-and-greets, in quick moments at the stadium, or through fan mail).  However, due to the sheer volume of fans tweeting at players, one has to wonder what percentage they even notice.  Even the most active of Twitterers, Logan Morrison, must feel faced with a barrage of digital noise when he signs on.  Certainly when a tweet illicits a personal (or ballbreaking) response, followers take notice.  But often times fan tweets go unanswered by their intended source so frequently, that one can’t help but wonder if they are heard at all.  Also, athletes aren’t following fans, so they can only potentially notice tweets directed at their account.  In this case, the fan is simply shouting at someone who isn’t listening, performing their fandom more for their personal followers than anyone else.

Jeremy Groskopf's picture

But he DID tweet @NatsDude98...

I wonder if both avenues aren’t actually correct.  Does social media paradoxically make one feel both more and less connected to the athletes?  On the one hand, I would imagine that, as Annie says, creating a constant barrage of unrequited love would make one feel like social media is more a performance of fandom than a social interaction.  They are tweeting as much for themselves to be seen as for the player to see, and I’m sure the fans often realize this.  And yet, whenever LoMo (or any other) responds to a single fan (like my fictional fan in the title), does the event not become the fuel for every fan’s desire to receive a personal response?  OMG, maybe LoMo does read my tweets?!?  (And, of course, lets not forget that "on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog"…or Logan Morrison.  Who knows who is actually writing any given post.)  This disembodiment is not just an avenue to the performance of new identities, but potentially a powerful tool of random reinforcement - maintaining old star / fan relationships through the sporadic, squeel-inducing moments of seemingly real contact.

Nicholas David Bowman's picture

The cacophony of fan voices

 Wonderful insights. I do often wonder about the "sheer volume" argument and of course, the true frequeny of connections and interactions. To some extent, this speaks to a larger issue about using social media for relationships and some of the challenges that it poses - one of the biggests ones being the rate of information (usually slower online, cf. Walther 1992). At the same time, we tend to (especially in computer-mediated communication; CMC) idealize communication partners that we want to be friends with, so it may be the case, as Jeremy seems to suggest, that when it comes to being a real social interaction online, athletes just have to make sure that "everybody gets one" and you’ll be okay.

The "performing of fandom" using social media is also very compelling. Recent reserach on sports fandom has started to reconceptualize fandom to some extent as an expressive act rather than looking at motivations to be a fan (i.e. a more causal model). A really great read on the topic is DeSarbo (2010) who talks about understanding fan avidity in terms of distinct expressive behaviors - he tested his model on Penn State football fans. I’ve been using his thoughts in my own research, and I could absolutely see how the act of Twittering and #hashtagging can be a fan behavior in its own right. After all, only a true fan would know that the @BuschSquirrel is pulling out all of the stops for #11in11!

[Okay, in the interests of full disclosure I MIGHT be a St. Louis Cardinals fan!]

Elizabeth Rawitsch's picture

Embodied Fandom

I’ve heard of people tweeting as characters from television programs like Mad Men and The West Wing, but I wasn’t aware of the tweeting beards. How fascinating! It’s hard to imagine anything more immersive than playing along with (and, for that matter, doing everything along with) your favorite player, always being a part of them. It removes the temporal distance of role playing or reenacting.

And yet it also seems very ephemoral. I’ve been thinking all day about tattooing: a more permanent way that fandom and the body can intersect. A tweeting beard seems flippant compared to the fan-player devotion that a Brian Wilson tattoo would signify. 

I suppose it’s a question about the personal vs. private in relation to Twitter. Is tweeting as a player’s beard really about forming a one-on-one connection with the player or is it about performing a one-on-one connection?

 

Annie Dell'Aria's picture

Play and Twitter

I think the performance that happens with the tweeting beards is great precisely because it’s ephemeral.  The level of devotion a tattooed body may be high, but it’s still a marking of the fan’s body, rather than a gesture of ownership of (at least part of) the athlete’s body.  This is particularly radical when you consider the gender issues at play.  

I don’t think what makes the uses I cite of social media in MLB  interesting is any sense of heightened devotion or forging real connections with players (in fact I argue quite the opposite).  What I find interesting, however, is the ways in which fans have a new space to perform gestures of fandom and mark their physical and/or emotional presence on the bodies and sites of their favorite players and teams.

Another interesting inscription of the social media fan-body onto MLB is the "mosaic" the MLB site started doing this post season.  For the World Series, see: here.

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