Even Olympians Get Stuck In A Social Media Feedback Loop

·7 min read

Let’s just start here: All of us are, eventually, at some point in our lives, alone at night. They always say looking at your phone in bed is bad for you, but most of us seem to do it anyway, and somewhere deep in Tokyo, this must hold true for a good share of the Olympic athletes, American or otherwise.

During the skateboarding street finals, Jagger Eaton ludicrously, awesomely had his phone out, clearly picking a track to skate to. Many of the swimmers, most of whom were completely anonymous to the majority of Americans before Sunday, have been posting cheerful Instagram stories from the Olympics. Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of Washington and 16 ahead of Los Angeles; NBC controls time during the Olympics, so what feels like day can be night, but eventually, like everybody else, now or later on, the athletes will lie in bed or sit on a plane and look at their phone. And they will not be looking at a different version of reality or discourse — just a more distilled iteration.

A few years ago, longtime NBA reporter Jackie MacMullan said of a league general manager, “When he walks into the training room, everybody’s on their phone. When the game ends — and this is something we never see, because we’re not allowed in the locker room until 10 or 15 minutes later — everybody runs into the locker room and checks their phone to see how people viewed what they did that day.”

Before players even get to the NBA, as ESPN’s Joon Lee wrote about, Instagram has changed high school basketball for better — and for worse. “What's the end game here? A million followers? Two million? Sponsorships?” a Cornell professor, Sahara Byrne, asked in that piece. “The numbers are empty at a certain point. For every increase in 100 followers comes two awful followers. At a million, it's 50,000. Suddenly you have 50,000 people who hate you more than anything, and there's an inability with people to navigate that right now.”

This isn’t specifically about Simone Biles, who’s dealing with what sounds like a mental health issue that could have resulted in catastrophic injury, and I won’t pretend to know what is or isn’t a factor for her. Instead, I am talking about the Olympics overall as a showcase for the interconnectedness of our daily life now, and how it sounds on the other end. Specifically: They definitely can hear us over there when we talk about them over here, even in the more civil and goofy iterations.

There’s a broader dynamic here of athletes and the way communication has changed that relates to one of the problems we may deal with in the 2020s.

As the core platforms have grown since 2010, divides have ossified between user experiences — it’s miserable to share your thoughts and feel like nobody’s listening, and it's disorienting and overwhelming to hear everyones thoughts. Most people who use any social media platform exist someplace between those extremes, but because the experience of social media is immersive and individualized, it’s hard to imagine what the other areas of the spectrum would feel like. And the dynamic between the extremes reinforces itself because most people with major followings eventually remove themselves from dealing with each individual strain of conversation for reasons from pure logistics to the fatigue of enduring the abuse some might hurl their way. For each individual, the distance then looks bigger and more anonymous, like the impersonal surface of a mirror. You wouldn’t expect the TV to turn toward you and respond to what you just said.

But the impersonal, opaque divide doesn’t often exist. We have this rolling machine of commentary now that can be funny, deep, vicious, and bitter while elevating people and issues that never got the time of day decades ago, and sometimes it does most of these things at the same time. And everyone can see it. Case in point: In Tokyo, two of the men’s gymnasts posted TikToks of them making fun of a TikTok that made fun of them.

Sometimes the fluidity between us all is fun and good; athletes (and other kinds of public figures) are inside that discourse and can be like anyone else — funny, petty, kind, etc. Sometimes everyone is perfectly in tune with the vibes. Other times, it’s like this: After Ohio State’s March Madness loss this year, forward E.J. Liddell posted horrific DMs he'd received on Instagram, in which people told him to die: “Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human.”

Looking at that landscape, it’s natural to long for the return of more centralized, less interactive media — some of the Friends allure to people under 25 has to involve a time before iPhones. But for both good and ill, it’s unlikely to be 1995 again.

When people say that if they became astronomically wealthy (which most of the Olympic athletes are not, and certainly not the college ones) you’d never see them again in any kind of online discourse, that can’t always be true. People never stop wanting to be understood; it is difficult to tolerate the knowledge that you’re being discussed elsewhere. That’s no excuse for interpersonal cruelty and bad behavior, which is usually the starting point of the stories about online life, and the reality is, of course, that people can be cruel or bigoted or dismissive. I just mean on this subject of hypothetical quitting at a level of fame or wealth, it’s fundamentally core that people want their actions to be understood, and their lives to feel like they have a narrative, and to experience events in a communal way, and that makes disengagement challenging.

Kevin Durant, who is also in Tokyo right now, is known for responding to strangers on Twitter. (See: responding to someone who told him to relax: “There’s No relax champ. No relax when I’m on Twitter. I’m on 10 until the second I close the app. You relax!!”) Earlier this year, he told the New York Times the following:

What Durant understands, he explained, is that the people writing to him aren’t actually writing to him. Kevin Durant, to them, is just an abstraction, a guy on the TV, a figment of their imaginations. … Hatred, he told me, is just another form of passion, and therefore a sign that you’re really alive.

“I can work with that,” he said. “I want to see what’s underneath.”

“And you can get there?” I asked.

“I know I can. People are naturally emotional when they talk to somebody they feel is on a higher pedestal than them. I’m trying to say: We equals at the end of the day. Once I bring ’em up to that, then they realize what they was doing was childish.”

Power differentials complicate matters online in both directions (wealth and authority shouldn’t allow public figures to get a pass; people with large platforms can turn disproportionate vitriol back on anonymous people). So, too, does the subjective nature of what feels like fair game and what should be expected when you achieve a bigger platform — it’s not like society is just going to cease ever making another comment about sports or culture, nor would anyone want that. And this specific divide doesn’t explain everything or even much about life in 2021.

All I am saying is that most of the athletes in Tokyo are like us: people who look at their phones. And that while managing the full onslaught like this is probably just a feature of being a seriously great athlete, or any kind of public figure now, this distance between total silence and endless noise — and the problems of living in those states, and the way they can be linked — feels like an information dynamic we’ll be dealing with in the 2020s.

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