Race Weekend Central

Too Much of a Good Thing? How Social Media Has Changed NASCAR

The NASCAR Sprint Media Tour Hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway spent its 31st anniversary visiting with the sport’s biggest names, from team owners to drivers to NASCAR executives. Optimism abounded about the new sixth-generation race cars, while sponsorship talk was a mixed bag with some teams announcing new backers, others championed extensions with old ones while the rest revealed a number of races still unpaid for. NASCAR outlined its plans for a much faster track-drying procedure and expressed continued support of the much-maligned Chase format.

A few teams debuted new drivers, like Penske Racing’s Joey Logano; Roush Fenway trumpeted Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s rise to Cup and Travis Pastrana’s Nationwide presence. A few new paint schemes were unveiled, to limited fanfare while Nationwide Series drivers took on the media in some game-room challenges. All in all, there was plenty to talk about; none of it Earth-shattering, but plenty of tidbits to feed the race-starved masses in the heart of the winter offseason.

On the surface, this Media Tour looks no different than any other. So, what’s changed?

The way news is reported has been altered drastically with the dawn of social media, particularly Twitter. News which, even in the Internet age, reached the public for the most part as a complete story fleshed out with details and the who, what, where, why, when, and how, is now reduced to 140 characters or less the first time many people see it. And, increasingly, people are turning to outlets like Twitter for their news.

Drivers like Brad Keselowski have become fully connected to fans through Twitter in recent years. But is that influx of additional information also indirectly hurting the sport?

Is that a problem? Well, yes; it often is. It’s one thing not to know every detail of a story right away. Learning that, for example, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing added Cessna to its pool of sponsors via Twitter is all well and good. However, what people aren’t doing more and more often is taking the time to go to a website or pick up a publication to read the rest of the story. People are increasingly content to know the bare bones of the news without the details.

This pattern becomes a problem in a couple of ways. One, it’s contributing to the death of the print industry. Why buy a newspaper if you already got the details online? And that slow death means that newspapers, in particular, have discovered that it’s less expensive and easier to use a wire service for racing or other areas. That means that longtime journalists, who know the sport inside out and backwards, are out of a job. Not that the wire writers don’t know their stuff, but if everyone uses the wire to fill the pages, there’s no difference in one paper to the next, and readers are left with little original content or analysis of the sport. It used to be that you could pick up three different papers and have three different analyses of a story. Not so much anymore.

Sure, fans can still get plenty of in-depth content on the Internet — but do they? Will the casual fan take the time to seek out the rest of the story, of is he satisfied with the 140 characters he saw on Twitter?

For example, it would be easy to see the Tweet that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has several unsponsored races and, if you’re his fan, worry about his situation. But in reality, it’s not particularly bleak. Car owner Rick Hendrick has had plenty of interest; in fact, he’s had to turn a few away because they wanted the whole car (National Guard has space during races when they aren’t the primary sponsor). HMS is currently working on other deals and will put his own business on the hood if need be. There’s every reason to be optimistic, but it’s hard to convey that effectively in a few short phrases and sentences mixed with a hash tag or two.

There are a couple of other inherent problems with people using social media for the majority of information. One is that people — and the news media is included here — aren’t fact-checking like they should. Taking information, even from a source one believes they can trust, is at face value a risky proposition. There have been recent incidents where news stories have been written and published nationally where the reporters, tipped off by Twitter, wrote without calling anyone involved and verifying facts. And, in some cases, those reports have later proved false. Shame on those reporters (not necessarily within racing) for not doing their job, but such incidents do illustrate a growing problem.

The other thing about social media is that it’s hard to convey a tone in 140 characters. A sarcastic comment might not be taken as such, leading to a misunderstanding. It’s also easy to give the wrong impression when news and information is interspersed with personal interjections. In order to connect with fans in a different way than they can in a column, writers often use Twitter to toss out a joke or an observation. I do it.

Unfortunately, sometimes those comments aren’t received in the way they were intended. That’s nobody’s fault, and it’s hard sometimes to tell which ones will go the wrong way. Case in point: Kasey Kahne’s new haircut was the topic of some Twitter jokes and comments during the Media Tour. Several media members posted about it, and some fans enjoyed the relaxed rapport, but others wondered why reporters were talking about a driver’s haircut as if it were news. I can only speak for myself, but I included those comments because they aren’t going to get the space in a column and they aren’t really important, so I use Twitter as a way to poke some gentle fun at something, or to connect with fans on a more personal level. But I do understand where the complaints are coming from; if someone reports news and makes observations on unimportant details on the same feed, can every reader always tell the difference? And is that our responsibility as reporters for them to know the difference?

Social media, as a whole, is a great tool for media to have in their arsenal. It allows for a different type of interaction, because fans can enter into direct conversations, ask questions, and connect on a personal level. But never should those outlets become a substitute for taking time to read the entire story when it’s published. Social media is not a news outlet.

The other part of the social media phenomenon that changes the game is its perpetual presence. There used to be little racing news during the offseason, and talk of the sport in the media dwindled. That meant that the Media Tour was an oasis for race fans — the first time in months that their hunger for all things NASCAR was satisfied. It felt like the unofficial start of the season: teams were making announcements and things were ramping up. Daytona was now just weeks away.

Now, fans are inundated with racing talk all the time on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites. Drivers post photos on Instagram and host Twitter chats during the offseason. NASCAR doesn’t go away; it barely even quiets down. News is often days old when an official announcement is made, as sponsors and fans don’t want to wait until January for updates. But does that desire for instant gratification take the shine off things like testing and the Media Tour? The anticipation of a new season is part of the fun, waiting to see a favorite driver after a long vacation made the beginning of race season that much sweeter when it did happen.

That dullness, if true threatens to become a year-round affair. Have we, as a whole, become so oversaturated with the constant glut of information and interaction we’re numbed to the sport overall? With the abundance of news handed out in short order, are fans turning to soft stories to fill the void? Before Twitter, Facebook, and the like, would things like who drivers are dating and their offseason grooming habits have mattered to fans or media as much as they seem to now? And are media substituting soft content for hard news in order to keep people engaged after they’ve gotten their fill of important information?

Human interest stories are necessary for sure; they humanize what we cover. A good feature piece or column makes for good reading and brings fans closer to the people in the sport. That’s always been the case. But it seems as though information that was once relegated to the tabloids is now being put out there as news. And do fans in general need or even want that much of it?

The more we become connected by technology, the more the world shrinks and the more the game is changed. In general, it’s great to see fans interact so often and so openly with drivers, reporters, and each other through social media. These “conversations” are a valuable tool for us all. The caveat is in leaning on them too much, in letting Twitter replace a news outlet, in putting out so much information that people stop wanting it. Once upon a time, we waited for this time of year with baited breath, and that made it special. Too much of a good thing, though eventually loses its luster as people begin to take it for granted. Social media has changed the sport in many ways… but letting it make traditional media obsolete would be a tragic mistake.

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