Twitter is one of the best innovations to happen to the following of sports. It provides us with a virtual communal sports experience watching events. It supplies a constant stream of updates, idea exchanges, insights, and story links at the speed of thought.
It is also one of the worst developments to happen to sports consumption, serving as an online autobahn of vitriol, snark, schadenfreude, and captiousness.
It is the home of 140-character missives and a missing moral compass. The New England Patriots learned this the hard way on Thursday when a Twitter promotion went awry because some twit decided to turn a good-will gesture into an opportunity for racist speech — #reprehensible.
Maybe we should look up from our screens, from our mentions and retweets, and ask exactly how social media and the supposedly joyful exercise of following sports became so jaded and spiteful? The Patriots didn’t suffer a Twitter fail. Twitter failed the Patriots. On Twitter there is little room for spaces between characters, but too much space to spew invectives and hatred.
Owners of the most Twitter followers of any NFL team, the Patriots tried to use Twitter to give an online lagniappe to their loyal fans for crossing the 1 million follower mark.
A message was tweeted out Thursday thanking fans and saying if they retweeted the message they would get a tweet from the team with a picture of a Patriots jersey with their Twitter handle (e.g. @ TB12forever) on the back.
One of the people who retweeted the Patriots used a Twitter handle that read as “I hate” followed by a racial slur, evading filters by adding an extra ‘s’ to a deplorable slur for African-Americans and employing a lowercase ‘L’ before the word hate. They got an automated thank you message with their hateful handle displayed on a digital Patriots jersey.
Of course, the team was lampooned by blogs and members of the Twittersphere who live for this type of mistake. They chided the team’s social manager and ridiculed the team for not foreseeing the ill intentions of Twitter followers.
A snide Salon.com article declared the skill set for a social media manager was . . . none.
Of course, not one of these sites could pull itself away from staring at the reflecting pool of its own snark long enough to call the Patriots for an explanation, or ponder how Twitter has devolved from social media to anti-social media, a clearinghouse for antagonism and misanthropic outbursts.
I know the social media manager for the Patriots. She is smart and conscientious. She has degrees from Boston College and Boston University and has taught classes at BU. Like most of the members of the Patriots’ media relations department, she often works 12-hour days or longer. But no one can be awake 24 hours a day to baby-sit a Twitter account, which is why more than one person does it.
Her work on social media is well-regarded around the league. The Patriots’ Twitter account has been nominated for a Shorty Award, which is the social media equivalent of the Emmys.
The Patriots were the first team to feature Twitter prominently, tweeting out their draft picks back in 2009. The team also ranks first in the NFL in followers on Vine and Google+.
No word on where they rank on Bill Belichick’s favorite social media sites, “MyFace” and “Yearbook,” as Belichick refers to social media in jest.
I’ve always thought that Twitter’s best use is as a personal news wire or a personal newsletter.
Trying to have a sports argument on Twitter can be painful. There simply can’t be any context or nuance in 140 characters.
Most tweets read like hastily prepared haikus.
The backlash when communicating via Twitter can be swift and vile. It is civility that often gets the block button.
Athletes, teams, and media members can be the recipients of bullying antagonism, name-calling, and even threats. Social media anonymity removes bad-behavior barriers.
What is socially unacceptable behavior in public is social media acceptable behavior on Twitter.
Last month, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith announced he was quitting Twitter. He cited the antagonism of tweeters. Fellow Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith (no relation) contemplated quitting too because he was being harassed by fantasy football players.
Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall is currently embroiled in a Twitter beef with a Detroit Lions fan. Marshall has suggested settling the discord with a boxing match against the fan, who insulted Marshall’s mother in a tweet.
“Internet courage is like a Cover-2 corner,” Steve Smith said. “When you got safety over the top, you feel better about yourself.”
The Patriots aren’t the first team to have a social media promotion go wrong. Sometimes a team asks for it.
The New York Mets tried to start an #ImAMetsFanBecause stream of tweets. As you can imagine with a franchise as inept as the Mets, it did not go well. The responses were humorous, ranging from because “I love disappointment” to because “I am a masochist.”
There is room for deprecating humor and sardonic wit on Twitter, but there is a line that too often gets crossed.
Twitter should not be allowed to erode into a forum for personal attacks and hate.
It is capable of being a great uniter, providing a place to exult or commiserate with fellow sports observers in real time, breaking down the boundaries between athletes, media members, and fans.
Many of the tweets that athletes send are the digital version of the Stars — They’re Just Like Us! feature found in Us Weekly. You can tweet at your favorite athlete and entertainer and they might even tweet back, like getting a digital autograph.
But at its worst, Twitter is a loathsome social experiment gone off the rails, a tool for spreading acrimony and basking in the shortcomings of others.
Consider me #disappointed in Twitter.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.