On Twitter, players are in even more of a public eye

During the spring, Will O’Neill watched the NBA playoffs and noticed a new platform of communication springing up on his television and on his computer, complementing each broadcast. It was Twitter — an online medium that was succinct, to-the-point and didn’t require a middle man in order to deliver the message.

“I would see LeBron James tweeting every day,” said O’Neill, a Maine senior defenseman. “I would see Skip Bayless from ESPN chirping on it every day. I wanted to give it a shot and see what it was all about. Before I knew it, I found out that I liked it a lot.”

O’Neill set up his personal Twitter account (@willoneill27) in June and sent his first tweet June 19, wishing his father, Bill, the longtime Salem State coach, a happy Father’s Day.

And O’Neill was one of the first Maine hockey players to be active on Twitter, an online microblogging community that allows its users to post statements in 140 characters or less. Founded in 2006, the social media service has more than 100 million active users and is utilized for advertising, reporting and communicating.

Twitter has not only swept the nation, the trend has ingrained itself in college hockey. College Hockey Inc. (@_collegehockey)has lists of 231 current and 189 former college hockey players on Twitter. Almost every Division I college hockey program has its own Twitter account on which it posts score updates, alumni updates and news about the team — administered by athletic departments and sports information directors.

The trend of Twitter in college hockey has even spawned a few fake accounts. In Hockey East, there’s a collection of pseudo coaching personas, notably @FakeJerryYork, @FakeJackParker and @FakeMarkDennehy, otherwise anonymous accounts that, combined, have more than 900 followers.

But the use of Twitter has also brought a little more attention to its users, particularly student-athletes who are considered to be representatives of their institutions. While O’Neill posts commentary about his teammates, about his team’s season and about topics in professional sports, he’s one of the many Maine athletes who must adhere to a certain standard when it comes to social media.

“You’re in a very public eye,” said Laura Reed, Maine’s assistant athletic director for media relations. “We don’t ever prohibit athletes from having Facebook or Twitter pages, but we ask the athletes to conduct themselves properly. Anything posted needs to be kept in mind with the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct.”

While it’s evolved into a means of communication for users — O’Neill recently posted a note congratulating his older brother, Andrew, an assistant coach at Salem State, for a win over Wentworth — it’s also regarded as a means of communication that has both benefits and drawbacks.

Several Division I coaches have banned use of social media by their athletes, including Kansas football coach Turner Gill — who has a team rule that prohibits players from tweeting during the season — South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier and New Mexico men’s basketball coach Steve Alford.

“That can affect a program in the long term,” said Erik Qualman, the author of “Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business,” and a former Michigan State basketball player. “It can even hurt a program. If a person’s on Twitter and you train them on those tools, instead of banning them, it’s going to benefit a program if a star quarterback is Tweeting day to day, talking about things relevant to the program.”

When Qualman addresses college students, he tells them that they have three components to their online history: a digital legacy, a history of online posting; a digital footprint; and a digital shadow, their online following ahead of or behind them. And nothing is ever truly erased. The Library of Congress has Twitter archives dating to Twitter’s 2006 launch.

“You see somebody say something stupid on Twitter, and you think, ‘What were you thinking?'” O’Neill said. “You can’t put everything that comes to your mind, because it can get crazy. Think it out. Think out your opinion so you can say what you want, or just say what you’re doing, like if you’re going to the weight room. It’s a quick read. Everybody might get a laugh out of it.”

But Reed, Maine’s assistant athletic director for media relations, also sees the use of Twitter as a positive force.

“It’s more of a direct connection to the athletes,” Reed said. “Most of the time they’re interviewed by the media, and it’s a second-hand message. This is what they’re really feeling. You have more of a direct route to them.”

On Oct. 21, after he was ejected from Michigan’s 5-3 loss to Northern Michigan after punching Andrew Cherniwchan in a second-period brawl, Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick posted an apology in two tweets on his Twitter account (@shawn_hunwick):

“I want to apologize to the michigan fans in attendance tonight. I play on a edge and my emotions got the best of me. It is unacceptable as a

“Student athlete who represents the university of michigan and college hockey as a whole.”

Conversely, North Dakota’s Dillon Simpson (@simmer18) recently tweeted about a new purchase he made:

“Ladies and Gentlemen… I am now a proud owner of an iphone #about time”

Still, when it comes to using social media, Qualman emphasizes the point that the messenger carries as much weight as the medium, and that the message each person delivers may not be interpreted the same way by each receiver.

“You have to understand the ramifications of who you are, what you do and what you are saying. Athletes are in a position where people are looking up to them. What they say can be interpreted.”

And he likens the digital society to a glass house. Not so much in the fact that it can easily be shattered, but in that everything can be easily viewed.

“We live in a fully transparent world,” Qualman said. “We need to understand that.”