Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From the acoustic coupler Com Games to the Twitter World Cup

I'm sitting high above the halfway line in Durban, with a paper notebook, TV monitor with replays and a laptop hooked to superfast internet line. On one screen I have the FIFA matchcast, giving its running text commentary and, on another, the story header for the running copy I'm filing to The Associated Press. On a third screen is my Twitter feed and on a fourth the Word folder with all the background bio I've prepared on the players.
Far below, on that brilliant patch of green, Australia and Germany are going for each other but there is so much electronic noise and, with having to file a fresh story every 15 minutes throughout the game, I find I'm drawn to what it means on one of the two screens, rather than seeing the action myself.
This was the first Twitter World Cup and it has changed the way millions are now interacting during sporting events.
The Twitter feed works on many levels. There are friends and family from home. There are constant statistical updates from services such as Infostrada and Otpa; there is live, bite-sized, opinion from football literatti such as @sidlowe or @marcotti; there are fans who you might follow but don't know, who give you a quick poll, a mood, like a verbal worm in an election debate. "Grella can't hold ball, #aus are getting killed in midfield #ger #worldcup...".
Perhaps most interestingly, you can eavesdrop into the thoughts of other media people, often rivals, and see the genesis of what they will be writing later for their employers. It also, strangely, brings you closer to people you might have been wary of in the past. Twitter can be getting your message out to a "massive", to promote your employer by linking to your work, but it can also be quite personal too. I 'met' several journos this way this way before we met in person. And I found them funny and smart and likeable before I met them too. As well as after.

I spent six years from late 1990 to post Atlanta Olympics as AAP's track and field writer. There were some people who did that round for the papers who I respected a great deal, but I never got to know them beyond professional courtesy and what I could glean of their personalities from how they were in press conferences or in print.

Twitter, if you follow the right folk, gives you a mass of information, in fact often way too much information. Carles Puyol heads in a winning goal against Germany and, within, a minute, we have two stats companies telling us that it was his only attempt on target in 13 matches at a World Cup finals. Once upon a time, if you wanted such an offbeat stat, you would have needed to keep very good notes. Later, with the rise of stats data bases, you might have been able to search it online if you had the thought to. Now, you just flick a switch and information like this flows in a torrent - at times during the World Cup, Italy's dramatic loss to Slovakia being one such time and Spain v Chile another -  the surge was far too much for the technology and the service melted down.

Twitter has delivered up more information than you need so the danger is you accept what is there and don't go looking for what isn't. Or you don't think enough for yourself, you let the consensus think for you. Look at Howard Webb's performance in the World Cup final. My opinion: he handled a tough job well and the players were shown up variously as crude, unsporting and as moaners. But Twitter's loudest voices decided he was to blame, and the mass blame game started, not as it might have in the past with some comments from players, but as soon as he peeped for the last time.

Twenty years ago I headed off for the Auckland Commonwealth Games, my first "major" event as a sportwswriter. I had just started at AAP in Brisbane but hadn't been there long enough to make their team so took holidays and wrote for APN's regional papers, targetting Queensland country athletes such as Cathy Freeman, and writing under the byline Grant Forster, a name taken from a couple of Brisbane musicians who were extremely important to me in 1990.
I remember the majority of my baggage allowance was chunky sports media guides and a huge wad of paper notes and photocopies - research I'd done from clipping files on the swimmers, athletes and lawn bowlers I would be covering at the event.
My means of filing was a tandy with four lines of text and an acoustic coupler. This was pretty much the setup.

IN South Africa last month, my Acer suffered from charge issues and, a few minutes before having to file running copy every 15 minutes on Serbia v Australia, it gave a blue screen of death and shut down. The biggest problem I remember from the above set up was the rubber rings on the acoustic coupler, which kept coming off if wrongly attached to the public phone you were using. Editing your copy was maddening though - because you could only see four lines at a time. The good thing: most papers had copytakers back then, or at least someone, usually a jealous desk-bound mate, who was happy to take it all down.

I grew up with technology from this very basic point, until the 2003 Rugby World Cup, after which I morphed into Mr Mom. In between those years, Google (and I hear there are other other search engines out there) came to life and life on the road became less reliant on heavy wads of hard copy research.

As a news junkie, back in the live coverage game, I enjoy Twitter. No, that's not strong enough. As with any junkie, I need Twitter. Even when I left South Africa and watched the later games from the couch, I had Twitter there with me in case there was something, like that Puyol stat, I might have missed. Or to chat with people on the ground, to find out what I wanted to know, and not just what others thought I wanted to know.
It is enjoyable and essential, for me. But what I'm not saying is that Twitter is a good thing, just as the 40 smokes a day I enjoyed through my 20s weren't good either.

In 2000, on a night off from the Fairfax Olympic desk, I went to Homebush, as a paying customer, to watch Cathy Freeman win the 400m. It's still the most exhilarating experience I've ever shared with more than one person at a time. And I'm grateful now I got to watch it, feel it and understand and process it my own way, without a Twitter addiction.

Twenty years ago in Mount Smart Stadium Grant Forster could never had envisaged Google or Twitter. The man who was briefly him wonders what is coming in the next 20.

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