The Social Media Paradox: The Closer We Get, The Further Apart We Become

jamie.mccormick    November 22, 2015


Company Name:  Sportsnet
Industry:  Sports Broadcasting and Interactive Technologies
Contact:  J. Austin, Senior Programming Editor
Roy MacGregor,


The Great Social Media Paradox suggests that the more connected and integrated technology seems to bring us, the further apart, and more isolated we become.  That the online communities and connections that we make only serve to divide and distance us. And nowhere does this dynamic seem to expose itself more than in the world of sports.

‘Before Now, There Was Then’
Before we look at how social media now directs the form and function of engagement and interactions, let’s first revisit an era passed.  An era when kids would achingly wait for the 8pm launch to the highlight of their weeks.  Where they would gather with their families around televisions to watch the weekly broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada.


“Our first priority was staying alive. Our second was stopping the puck.”
                                                                                                           – Glenn Hall


It was a time when favourite teams were a function of who you got to watch on Saturday nights.  When the stories you heard passed around arenas and schoolyards helped decide whose photos from the papers you would place on your bedroom walls and whose number you’d imagine on your back while you played hockey in the street.  When box scores were reported in weekly papers and highlights were often courtesy of weekend roundups of the sports world.  The media were as much a part of the celebrity culture as the athletes, and the discussions between these media types were the playground fodder for the week to come at school.  A display of team colours was enough to warrant discussions with complete strangers about the challenges facing your particular heroes, and even just knowing you shared a mutual love of a team was enough to make you feel included in a privileged club amongst your peers.  And in the greatest of moments, should they be so lucky, they might actually get an autograph from one of their favourite stars, which as Roy MacGregor once noted, was “tangible proof that you had stood beside your hero long enough to have an interaction”.

And while this sounds like a view from the 1950’s, remarkably, it was still very much a reality in the early 1980’s.  A distant era to travel to discuss the arrival of social media, to be sure, but a trip worth taking to fully illustrate the changes that have occured in the accessibility and interactions with hockey players, courtesy of social media.


‘After Then, There Came Now’
Down the road considerably, and as broadcast television gave way to online live streaming and improving mobile accessibility, the ability to follow multiple games, simultaneously, became the mundane, and viewers began to seek new ways to view and interact with what they were seeing.  Enter the social media revolution, and a launch forward that left everything we thought we knew we could experience in sports, decades behind, both literally, and figuratively, speaking.

Today the broadcast of NHL hockey games are boundless.  Every single game, of every single team, is broadcast on TV, radio, and online, and many of these games are offered in multiple languages ranging from English and French through to Spanish and even Punjabi. Simply stated, the broadcast of NHL games has reached its cap, and this finite amount of choice has meant that viewers are now looking for alternative ways to view and engage with their favourite teams and players.

Social Media – Inverting the Pyramid
What started as a way to connect friends and colleagues ultimately became the model for all social media platforms moving forward.  Provide a platform and outline that allows people to fill in the data and information, and you have socially-generated media.  Social media.  Profiles about yourself.  Photos.  Interests.  Articles.  Thoughts.  Reviews.  Re-posts of things you found interesting. Opinions about things you’ve seen posted.  And you take all of these types of thoughts and experiences and apply them against your interests, location, business, values, status, etc., to the point where you now have thousands of socially-generated media sites online.  Below are just a few of the top ones from each area of interest or format.


Top social media sites by format.

What has evolved has been a means to become intimately familiar with those you have chosen to follow, or befriend, or subscribe to, online.  You have gained access to their worlds, their thoughts and their concerns.  You see them in pictures, in videos, in articles, in references, and you see them closer than you may see some of your closest friends who do not subscribe to placing their lives on display for all to see.  And it is here that the social media paradox takes root.  By having this insight and access into the people around you, we take on an almost passive, voyeuristic approach to getting to know people.  And it is in these silos of interaction that we start to exist almost exclusively.

And while this paradox has influenced society considerably over the past decade, there is another element to this world that serves to entertain and enlighten fans and enthusiasts of all walks of life – access.

Social media offers a means to get inside the outer circle.  It provides an all-access pass to areas and people that one did not typically have growing up prior to the 2000’s.  And it’s by creating these types of relationships with people, organizations and entities online, that we start to feel connected, or a sense of belonging, with things that we never would have been able to access in eras past.  Yes, this is the concept of getting closer to something by being further away physically than you’ve ever been.

A Whole New, Old World
So now we revisit the experience described above, only circa 2015.  On Sportsnet, kids now have the ability to view games, interviews, analysis, and player reactions, on devices that allow them to view it privately, wherever they want, however they want, whenever they want.  And accompanying all of this is access to the athletes that has simply never existed before.  They are now able to visit sites that provide feeds with special cameras and angles not available on the typical broadcasts, but rather through social media sites only. They can learn about the values, interests, and worlds of their favourite athletes via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, fan sites, league sites, or any combination thereof.  For instance, below is a tweet taken from Jaromir Jagr’s Twitter account, which also sends people to his Facebook account, talking about notes that were eventually posted on a website, to promote an upcoming book.

These sites serve to further the informal interactions that people can have with their favourite hockey players.  Yesterday’s autograph has been replaced by today’s retweet, or should you be so lucky, a direct response to a post, for example:


Yet the great irony is that while social media allows athletes and networks like Sportsnet to broaden their appeal and reach, they are doing so from further and further away.  What once required a visit to an arena can now be accomplished via a Twitter connection.  And the closer that fans seem to be getting to their heroes, the greater the actual distance that exists between them.  This is the reality of social networking and one that these athletes, networks and media personalities are only too aware of.

In the end, this new approach to interacting with our hockey idols offers up an interesting microcosm of the world today.  Some things we can learn from how the hockey world and the fans interact, include:

  1. A carefully controlled and maintained social media presence can offer a link between your audience and yourself that serves to enhance and elevate the perceived level of accessiblity and interactions.  But the first person nature of writing, the intimate nature of the things that are shared, and the immediacy of the postings, mimic those interactions of personal relationships, and leave people feeling potentially more connected than you may in fact intend to give off.  This is where celebrities, such as athletes, end up with people assuming they want to interact with them on very personal levels, which may not in fact be the case.  So it is important to create a plan and approach to your social media, so as to ensure you control the type of information that is shared and to protect your brand, and in their cases, their personal space.  While your situation may not require personal security considerations, it is still a very valid approach for businesses as they seek to grow their online presence.  Control the message.
  2. And finally, do not fall victim to the Social Media Paradox.  While the physical distance and barriers between hockey players and the fans seem to be increasing every year, the online proximity and personal nature of the interactions is on the rise.  This has created the situation whereby the fans seem to be getting closer and closer to their heroes, while in reality they have never been more physically distant.  It is important to remember this as people seek to create and establish physical interactions with your products or services.  Just because you have established a social media connection with your end-users or customers, it does not eliminate the need to be out in the marketplace with your products, offering real-world interactions and experiences.  At this point, social media is part of the marketing mix, and should not be considered the only option for marketing your products or services.