A watchful eye

It may be hard to believe, but Twitter celebrated its sixth birthday this past March, and its rapid growth has a considerable part of society hip to retweets, followers, and hashtags. The social media service reportedly eclipsed 900 million users this year, and it is estimated that more than 400 million tweets and 1.6 billion searches pass through Twitter’s server on a daily basis.

Users can post status updates and pictures, limited to 140 characters or less, from Twitter’s website, their cell phones, and several different applications available on a multitude of different channels. Twitter has virtually no limitations in terms of content- pictures, political stances, and reactions to popular events are all on the table 24/7. With such a large youth presence in terms of demographics, Twitter can be a great way for people to get the word out. The question looms, however, is it the right word?

“I think Twitter can be useful as a way of getting information out there about your program in a healthy way,” said Vanderbilt University head coach Tim Corbin, who has an account of his own but hasn’t tweeted since April of 2009. “Where I think it’s adverse is with inappropriate information. When you throw yourself out there publicly, you really have to be careful.”

“Another issue is that you’re allowing the possibility of a message from others that’s being conveyed to you,” Corbin added. “If they are saying something, they’re representing our program and our University, so they have to be careful.”

With the considerable development of Twitter and its accompanying controversial issues, several software programs have been developed to monitor content.

One such program is UDiligence, one of the industry-leading social network monitoring services that helps collegiate athletic departments protect against damaging posts made by student-athletes. Coaches, compliance officers and student-athletes all receive alert emails whenever a troublesome post occurs, so staff can address the issue before it becomes a bigger problem for the student-athlete and the athletic department.

UDiligence searches social network profiles for profanity, racial slurs, sexual connotations, and mentions of weapons, drugs and alcohol, allowing each school to come up with their own customizable list of flagged terms. Entire athletic departments have used UDiligence to provide ongoing mentoring for student-athletes about the consequences of problematic posts.

UDiligence also contends that its software prepares student-athletes for their lives after college, and serves as an early warning and preventative method for public embarrassment and other potential issues before they become major distractions.

The software flags potentially offensive words and has the capability to e-mail coaches and administration of violations. The programs are by no means perfect, as they are required to sift through massive amounts of information, to determine what may be inappropriate behavior, and act on it. Several athletic departments have utilized such software as a means to keep an eye on their student-athletes.

Of course, there are several that contend that such software implementation violates the right to free speech, as some states have even taken action to prevent schools from monitoring their students in this manner. UDiligence does not require access to, or use of, the student-athlete’s username/password or friending of anyone to monitor accounts. Instead, UDiligence uses apps for each athletic department, working within the Terms of Service established by each social network. By installing the apps, the student-athletes grant UDiligence access, consistent with their athletic department’s social media policy.

“A lot of these student-athletes are not very selective on who they allow to be their friends,” said UDiligence founder Kevin Long in an ESPN interview. “Anyone who wants to be their friend, they accept. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

“On the one hand, they’re looking at it like: ‘Well, if I’ve got 1,600 friends, I’m a big man on campus; it makes me popular,” said Long. “On the other hand, they have access to your page when they’re your friend. All they have to do is right click and save, and even if you delete it later on, they’ve still got a copy of it … so it’s a good idea to be careful and selective about who you allow to be your friends. It could come back to work against you later on.”

Several athletic departments have utilized this software in hopes of educating their student-athletes on the impact- positive and negative- of social media outlets.

“I speak at great lengths about how our kids communicate publicly with other people,” Corbin said. “It’s not just them, it’s our program,” he added, explaining that players are constantly “conveying messages of what Vanderbilt University culture is all about.”

In an interview for California Watch in September, Tim Gasper explained that “Twitter is, like, 90 percent noise – bots that are producing erroneous or extraneous tweets.” Gasper, who is the product manager for Infochimps, helps companies produce meaning from extremely large sets of data. “You’d be scrolling through all of that just to see if anything caught your eye,” he continued, “obviously, that’s not a very efficient use of people.”

In the same article, Ginger McCall (open government program director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center) posed that she “follow[s] a lot of accounts of people who are potentially breaking various U.S. laws. Does that association necessarily mean that I am?”

Ethical concerns also arise from monitoring certain data, as many users create fake accounts and follow employees, students, and players. Likely done in hopes of preventing sticky situations, this practice may actually be creating one.

There are a lot of good things that Twitter can be used for, however. Getting the word out about weather alerts, disaster procedures, and even (to a lesser extent) practice times and which uniforms to wear are just a few examples. It’s also a great way to get raw feedback from people that have interest on practically any topic.

“This is not about being a police man for them, it’s about helping them understand what’s going to protect them beyond today and tomorrow, it’s about helping them get a job when they’re done,” Long said.

All told, it doesn’t seem like Twitter is close to slowing down in terms its users and the information it pumps out. Finding a way to screen that information may be as tricky as, say, eliminating the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. Regardless of what some people may deem to be appropriate, offensive, or otherwise, this issue has certainly opened eyes on a worldwide scale.

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