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Five years of Twitter, five reasons sports and social media are becoming seamless

Twitter just celebrated its fifth anniversary, a period that’s seen it ascend from techie curiosity to an integral part of any beat writer’s toolkit and any team’s marketing strategy. Twitter’s near-ubiquity has threatened to make it invisible, turning it into an information source we hardly notice even as we use it to consume ever-more sports news, opinion and commentary.

For technologies, being taken for granted is a sign of success — one that can make us forget how unlikely that success was. Imagine if I’d told you back in the fall of 2006 that a web version of text-messaging inspired by one man’s childhood fascination with emergency vehicles would soon become essential for everyone from writers breaking news to athletes arguing about labor issues. You’d have thought I was insane, but here we are — and Twitter’s fifth anniversary is a good opportunity to identify five reasons the service has been such a huge success in the sports world.

1) Brevity is the soul of a lot: Twitter’s 140-character limit can be agonizing for new users trying to compact big news or a complex thought into an unforgivingly small space. (Particularly since you don’t really have 140 characters: Hyperlinks take up space even with a shortened URL, and you want people commenting on a tweet to include your username and preserve the essence of what you said.) That ruthless limit teaches writers to pen good bon mots, boil opinions and analysis down to bedrock essentials, and craft teasers that will hook readers. The web’s elastic real estate has opened up new opportunities for long-form narratives; Twitter requires you to be short and sweet.

2) The power of the speed read: In the technology world, “ambient awareness” refers to how social media allow us to stay in touch with our personal and professional circles with relatively little effort – quick posts about what we’re up to and/or thinking, and reading our peers’ posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or some other service. One reason ambient awareness works is that years of reading emails and feeds of information have trained us to be better and better at scanning lists of items and quickly extracting information. (If you’re objecting that the flipside of this is we risk getting worse at reading deeply and attentively, point very much taken.) Twitter is a perfect example of this kind of scanning: We’re so well-trained at separating signal from noise that a rapid scroll through our Twitter lets us find news and opinions we want to know more about, or reassures us that nothing much is going on. That’s great for readers, but it’s also good for writers. It’s true that few of your followers care what kind of sandwich you’re having for lunch. But it’s also true that most of your followers who don’t care will process that sandwich tweet so quickly that they won’t begrudge the time required to do so. As long as you’re not habitually off-topic, our speed-reading habits turn quirky observations or goofy asides into a welcome bit of personal touch.

3) Twitter fits the rhythm of sports: Sports is news, but most of it isn’t news the way a plane crash or a scientific discovery is news. I know the Mets are playing the Marlins tonight and one of the two teams will win, even though I have no idea which team it will be. Previously, accounts of games generally emerged only when all was said and done: We got a game story or a highlights package. But this isn’t how we watch sports – we do that in real time, constructing narratives as we go. Each twist and turn is good or bad, and we like to guess at how things will turn out, note potential turning points, and gloat, celebrate, commiserate or argue along the way. Twitter is a perfect fit for this: Now, beat writers can note significant plays, provide historical context, analyze decisions and so on long before their gamers are filed, and fans can talk to them and to each other as the game winds its way to a conclusion.

4) It’s easy: To craft a game story or blog post, you need a laptop — or a tablet, accurate fingers and a fair amount of patience. (I’ll take the laptop, thanks.) But Twitter’s character limit and quick-fire format makes it ideal for a smartphone, whether you’re writing a tweet or uploading a picture or video. This is one reason Twitter is increasingly popular with athletes: To tweet, all they need is a minute of downtime or in-transit time and a gadget that’s already in their pocket or on a shelf in their locker.

5) It feels like a level playing field: Unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn’t require reciprocity – I can be your follower without you needing to accept me as a friend. (This isn’t true for “locked” accounts, but few if any such accounts are influential.) By now we’re used to the idea that this allows athletes and public figures to communicate with thousands or even millions of people in ways that aren’t possible in other media, and that’s obviously significant. But Twitter’s user interface encourages a level playing field in other ways, too. With the exception of check marks for verified accounts, famous Twitter users are treated essentially like everybody else – Bill Simmons or Shaquille O’Neal gets the same amount of real estate in a feed that’s given to me or that guy whose picture is still an egg. Anyone can mention another Twitter user, allowing his or her communications to be easily found by that user, or anyone else. And there’s a certain expectation that such messages will be seen, even if they’re not acknowledged or responded to, and a certain pressure to respond. In the physical world, I have zero chance of picking up the phone and reaching Shaq or, say, Bill Gates. On Twitter, it’s at least plausible that one of them might write back.

We’re still sorting through how all this works and what it means, but the last five years have opened our eyes to intriguing possibilities. Beat writers now talk with readers in real-time; teams, agents and leagues eliminate the middleman by bringing news directly to fans; and athletes who grew up with social media are continuing to use it now that they’re famous. The next five years promise to be no less surprising or startling.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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