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Rise of social media allows unfettered access

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We’ve gone from the water cooler to cyberspace.

But what do we make of this new world that’s all-a-Twitter? How serious can we take it?

Evan Frederick, an assistant professor of health exercise and sports science at the University of New Mexico, has been studying social media as it relates to athletics.

He finds some of it good, some of it disturbing and much of it intriguing.

“What we’re finding is that people are going to state their own opinion,” Frederick says. “They are setting the agenda more … regardless of what the media are saying. For better or worse, Twitter has led to citizen fans feeding the media as much as the media feeds the fans.”

It’s led to instant analysis, such as the fashion criticism Lobo coach Craig Neal received during the San Diego State game:

Clearly New Mexico basketball coach Craig Neal hit the @JosABank_Brand sale of the Craig Sager men’s coat line

– Tim Rosales

And the one which came to his defense:

Craig Neal’s suit was probably funny to a lot of people before New Mexico started straight crushing SDSU

– Jason Linkins

But others are more cruel:

I wish only the worst on New Mexico. We will meet again Craig Neal … you are ugly and your son sucks.

– Kritter Hayes

Neal seems to be particularly tuned into his critics. On Wednesday, he interrupted a recruiting trip in Nevada to call Bob Brown of 101.7 FM after hearing that Brown, on the air, had differed with Neal’s stance that handshake lines should be eliminated.

Criticism has always been part of the dance between coaches, media and fans. But now sensitive guys like Neal have more than just the mainstream media to contend with.

Frederick offers a word of caution.

“Coaches need to do a better job of filtering,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do. They took the job. Obviously they know, or should know that. It’s like 30 years ago, only on steroids.

“Just imagine 5,000 negative news stories written about you in a day, only in shorter form.

” … Somebody who gets too overwhelmed and involved in that, nothing good can come of it.”

Meanwhile, athletes have turned to Twitter.

“It allows an athlete to bypass how traditional media might frame them,” Frederick says. “It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it allows them to create their own brand image.”

He points to Lance Armstrong and his feverish denials of performance-enhancing drug use.

“His ego was so large that in the heat of the investigation, he would post tweets showing him with his seven yellow jerseys around him, thumbing his nose at the media and governing bodies,” Frederick says.

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall took to Twitter to express sympathy for Osama Bin Laden. Former Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito showed us a whole other side of the NFL with his Twitter rants about former teammate Jonathan Martin.

“There’s a feeling of anonymity when there is no anonymity,” Frederick says. “For a split second, they are fired up about something. They’re not thinking, ‘My 1.5 million followers are going to see it.’ ”

But many of the 500 million tweets sent on an average day are more benign. Here’s a recent one a Lobo quarterback posted:

I swear being a fat baby runs in my family… My niece was just born at 9 lbs 9 oz and I was born 10 lbs 11 oz!!

– Cole Gautsche

Some are more philosophical, such as offered by a UNM running back:

Don’t let your insecurities ruin a good thing

– Crusoe Gongbay

Or not so philosophical:

About to Order 2 XL pizzas to eat myself

– Crusoe Gongbay

Some athletes will engage in Twitter conversations with their followers.

“We found the more social the athlete, the more closeness people felt in the relationships, the more they felt they could hang out and be friends,” the professor says. “More fans feel like they get to know the individual on a more level playing field, with no ivory tower.”

Lobo basketball player Kendall Williams, for instance, was asked on Twitter, if it came down to an arm wrestling match between him and teammate Cameron Bairstow for the Mountain West MVP title, who would win?

Sad to admit it would be @cbairstow41 award if it came down to an arm wrestle

– Kendall Williams

Frederick says fans cherish when an athlete re-tweets one of their messages.

“Re-tweeting, that’s become a digital autograph,” he says. ” ‘Wow, they not only recognized my opinion, but liked it enough to re-tweet it.’ ”

The dangers? Tweets declared Joe Paterno dead when he was still alive. Tweeters began firing off racially charged messages to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman after his infamous postgame rant.

“It’s not like they’re walking up to LeBron James and criticizing him to his face,” Frederick says. “They’re not worried about getting punched in the face by an athlete.”

The water cooler has exploded.

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