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Just How Social Are the London Olympics?

BY Jon Worth | Thursday, July 26 2012

At one level the XXXth Olympiad that starts Friday in London will be the most social Olympics ever. Athletes, volunteers, spectators and the media covering the event will be armed with an ever-greater array of social media tools on their smartphones and computers, and the ability for social networking is greater than at any games that has taken place in the past.

But that should not be news, right? Every Super Bowl or World Series is going to be more social than the previous editions, simply as the requisite technology becomes more mainstream, and the boundary between mainstream and social media becomes more blurred.

Instead the right question to ask is whether the way social media like Twitter or Facebook are being used during these games is maximizing their potential, and – if not – what lessons can be learned for the future.

The starting point for this inquiry is that any Olympiad is a major and costly event. While estimates of the cost vary, all estimate it to be upwards of £9.5 billion ($14.7 billion). The main way to recoup the costs of the games is through sponsorship, backed up in London's case by the 2006 Olympics Act which sets out the framework for the enforcement of the marketing (and by extension social media) rules. The official Olympic Partners expect a return on their investment (estimated at £100 million ($155 million) in the case of Adidas), and that extends to brand protection online – with the legal backing of the state.

The most stringent social media rules apply to athletes themselves, who are not allowed to blog, tweet or post to Facebook anything about any product that is not an Olympic sponsor, nor comment “in the role of a journalist” about the competition they are involved with, or that of fellow competitors. Video from within the Olympic Park is also not allowed.

Similar rules are also in place for the 70,000 so-called "Gamesmakers," the volunteers who will man the venues throughout the two weeks, who are warned to “not get involved in detailed discussion about the Games online” and given strict rules on what they can and cannot post. This has not stopped informal groups of Gamesmakers springing up on Facebook and Twitter, so far without sanction.

There are tight restrictions for spectators too, including a ban on uploading video or images of events to Youtube, Twitter, blogs, and, if privacy settings on your Facebook account are not adequately restrictive, presumably there as well. Also, do not try to take a 3G router into an event although iPhones with Personal Hotspot presumably will escape. Further there have already been stories of Twitter accounts being criticized for copyright infringement and rules on how to link to Olympic websites. There is even a dedicated website to allow the reporting of infringements.

The reaction to these restrictions has been generally negative, with some degree of admonishment that rules like these have no place in the modern world. However this should be set against the backdrop of considerable jaundice about the Olympics overall; as ITV's polling in April showed this is not a city fervent about the games.

The social media restrictions are viewed as just the latest in a long line of missteps by LOCOG, the London organising committee for the games. Their first — and most major — error concerned allocation of tickets for the games, and since then Londoners have been treated to a string of issues from traffic problems to problems with the security company (G4S) contracted to secure the venues. These issues have been largely unnoticed outside the UK, or at least they do not impact spectators watching from afar. This explains the strong reaction to the social media restrictions in the USA, while for locals it has elicited little more than a collective shrug.

There are of course plenty of interesting and creative projects around the games, such as the Museum for London's #citizencurators and The World in London but these projects feel very much the exception at the moment with the games just days away.

So what then can we expect over the next fortnight? The sheer quantity of information uploaded to social platforms will probably swamp the games monitors, some infringements will undoubtedly be punished, and compulsive sharers may just be deterred from hitting 'Send' before thinking twice. Yet ultimately this whole issue boils down to the Olympics being an environment where the old-style brands and communications channels, armed with considerable financial resources, rule the games. Everything else – including social media – remains very much secondary. So these may be the most social games ever, but they most definitely will not be the most social games possible.

(Additional insights and thoughts provided by @kcorrick @brie_rl and @euonymblog on Twitter.)