PHOENIX, Arizona, May 3. DURING a four-part series, SwimmingWorldMagazine.com will look into the growing phenomenon of fan sites on the Internet. What once used to be personal web-based shrines of favorite swimmers has grown into social networking sites that perform as quasi-media outlets for the titular subjects of each site.
These sites have grown from just a place to comment about fan faves into a concept called citizen journalism or networked journalism. Each of these sites provides non-stop coverage of a focused subject, and each involved fan brings their own insight and information to the table. This collaboration leads to some solid news work as many of the fan sites have had to learn the media ethics as well as all about copyright law as they attempt to provide the ultimate Internet resource for news related to their chosen swimmers.
We spoke to webmasters of three of the more prominent fan sites out there that are involved in the networked journalism concept. Michelle of Brendan Hansen Online, Sarah of Ian Crocker Online and Doerte of Aaron Peirsol Online each spoke with SwimmingWorldMagazine.com about a variety of topics. The three sites are affectionately known as BHO, ICO and APO within their communities.
Today, they give us some insight into their backgrounds and why they began creating fan sites. They also talk about their thoughts on the increased responsibility as each site grows.
Future articles will provide spotlights on each of these three sites.
First off, can we get some biographical information from each of you, like name, age, what type of occupation, and what drew you into being a fan of swimming?
Doerte: My name is Doerte, I am a student of British-American culture and literature, including Commonwealth and Post-Colonial studies. I live in Berlin, Germany. I swam as a child but didn't continue. I remember watching the Olympics in 1996 and in 2000. My friend, with whom I created that first fan site, got me really interested in swimming again and I started up going to the pool in my free time. I stayed with the sport and have followed it ever since. Attending meets, like World Championships, European Championships or the World Cup, renews my interest and love for the sport. Seeing a swim meet live, getting to know the atmosphere around a pool is something which lets me stay a fan. Watching them on TV isn't the same but it is close and exciting every time."
Michelle: Michelle, 38, a Graphic Designer who is back in school finishing up an Art degree, and what's not to love about swimming? It's got it all – incredible athleticism and the hottest and nicest athletes of any sport going. Swimmers are just great people.
Sarah: My name is Sarah and I'm a 20 year old college student from Long Island, N.Y. I'm a communications major at Adelphi University, with a concentration in journalism. I started following swimming when I was in middle school. My cousin Christine swam her entire life and made Olympic Trial cuts in 2000 for the 100 fly, so I paid pretty close attention to that meet. She went on to swim for Cal. I watched the Olympics and whatnot that year, but my interest in professional swimming kind of faded. However, I was on the swim team in High School and it has always been a sport pretty close to my heart. The Olympic Trials in 2004 reacquainted me with the sport on the pro level, and I've been hooked ever since.
How did you get involved in creating your fan site?
Michelle: I wrote the following a few years back when BHO celebrated its one-year anniversary. It all still applies.
First, I didn't watch Olympic Trials and had no idea who Brendan was before Athens. The second confession is that, I get Olympic fever. If I could stop work and life for those two weeks every other year and watch the televised coverage non-stop, I would. And I always have a tough time letting go when it's over, so as so many other fans did, I turned to the Internet for my Olympic fix after the games. Of course, during the Olympic Games in Athens it was difficult not to notice Brendan, Aaron and Ian. They were probably my favorite athletes in Athens. But I wasn't really what I would consider a "fan" until after it was all over. Going back and reading the articles that were published, and seeing how well they handled both the positive and negative press coming at them made me want to continue following their careers. There were a couple of factors that made me consider starting a website for Brendan. The first being that he was the only one of the three who didn't have at least one already. Ian had his official website and Aaron already had APO and a couple of others, but none for Brendan. The other more driving factor was all the negative and just plain untrue press that I'd started seeing. It was one article in particular that made me drop everything and buy the domain name though. I've never posted it on the website because I thought it was so mean spirited and unfair that it didn't deserve to be seen. It was an article by Steve Woodward, published on ESPN's website.
The thing about the press in America is that if something is said often enough it becomes the truth. And Mr. Woodward wasn't the only reporter who decided to twist what had been said by Aaron and Brendan to suit his point of view. Other reporters attributed Aaron's remarks to Brendan and just plainly didn't have a clue what they were reporting. Whenever Brendan is Googled for another article or by a fan they find these false and negative articles. I felt like it was important to have a counter balance because I was struck by how much maturity and sportsmanship Brendan had displayed in Athens and thought it completely unfair that a few ignorant and mean spirited reporters could possibly have so much influence over how future fans viewed him. So I bought the domain name, and started building a small website. I wanted something that would promote Brendan and be an archive for articles written about him. A place where new and old fans could get more information. It soon became obvious through the emails I was receiving that having a way to get fans more actively involved with the site content and connecting them to other fans would be the best next step, and that's when I started considering the blog format.
Sarah: I started ICO back in January of 2005. I became a big fan of Ian Crocker during the Olympic Trials, and then even more so at the Games themselves. I began visiting Brendan Hansen Online during the Olympics, because it was the only real fan site that was kept up to date, and it was a great community of people as well. I had become friends with a few of the people on BHO, as well as Michelle, who runs the site. I noticed that there was nowhere that I could find up to date information on Ian, seeing as his official site is nothing more than an outdated set of stats, a list of sponsors and his agent's e-mail address. I mentioned this to the BHO girls a few times, and they helped talk me into putting it together myself.
Doerte: A friend of mine and me discussed doing a fan site for Gary Hall Jr. At first, we weren't really serious but we kept on talking about it, wrote a letter to Gary (who was awesome about it all) and later ended up turning talk into actual html. Gary answered some months later and in 2002 we created "Live Freestyle". Through the website, our interest in the sport increased and so we did more websites, she did the now defunct Michael Phelps Online, I started APO and Klete-Keller.com. Since seeing Aaron Peirsol swim in Sydney and in Fukuoka and not having much information about him, I thought it to be a good idea to start some small site where I could post links and some info for other interested fans. I never really thought about what might come out of it, it was just for fun and keeping (mostly myself) up to date. And it mostly still is the same today, only slightly bigger.
With the whole concept of networked journalism, where fan sites and blogs are now becoming quasi-media members that provide insight to long-standing media outlets, what are your thoughts on the added responsibility that comes with now being seen as a potential source for stories and information?
Sarah: I think it's something that has both positive and negative affects on both the blogs and the news media. On one hand, it's great that there are now so many sources for people to get their information from. Each blogger is going to have a slightly different take and point of view on things. Blogs are typically much more interactive as well. They allow for discussions on the topics at hand, allowing people to learn from others' points of view. The mainstream media is now privy to many more varying views than were previously available.
Also, let's face the fact that when a blog is quoted or used in the mainstream news outlet, it is great exposure for the site itself. An increase in traffic and visitors can only prove to make the blog more interactive and interesting. On the negative side, however, it puts a lot of pressure on the bloggers themselves to watch what they say, which may not be a good thing.
Typically, I think of 'unofficial' blog sites (such as ICO) as places where people should be able to freely express their opinions without having to worry about any kind of backlash or responsibilities that other sources such as the news media and "official" sites carry. Part of the reason I enjoy running the fan site so much is because I don't have to worry about catering to sponsors or watching what I say on certain topics. It allows me to be stupid and a bit funny (I hope!) and not take myself so seriously.
The sport of swimming is fun, the athletes are interesting and complex people who have more than just the "business" side to them, and I like to think that's what swimmer fan sites are for. They bring out the fun, the personality, the quirks and the human aspect of the sport that the more "official" sites don't really have the freedom to talk about at will. Also, although not the case with ICO, I think some of the things that are written on blogs are in a way too personal to be put out there. Things like athlete journals and the like, to me, unless given permission from the person who wrote them or the knowledge on the part of the writer that the content could possibly be used in the news, shouldn't be subject to the same intense media scrutiny.
Although I said before that the varying opinions and views are a positive thing, they can also lead to some negatives. Blogs and the Internet give people free reign to write whatever they want, fact or fiction. If the news outlets are picking up information from blogs as their only sources for fact-checking and cross referencing, there is the possibility that they could end up printing fallacies.
So, to more directly answer your question, I think my biggest responsibility with the site is to Ian's fans and Ian himself.
Doerte: Most of the time I don't see it as a responsibility because in the end not much has changed. From the beginning, I tried to promote the sport and the swimmers. I want to make sure that the things I post are somewhat reliable or at least from a source which has proven to be correct when it comes to dates, results and so on. When I update the site, I try to think about what I (and hopefully other people) want to see on a site, what information is important and what kind of news and site content are useful to get people, who are visiting the site, a better insight on the things which are going on.
The only real difference from the beginning is that the number of fan websites has increased and we can actually do some networking. And the interest fans have in swimmers' private lives is bigger now, too, and all the websites have to deal with that somehow. That means we have to step in sometimes and try to protect the family and friends of the swimmers (sometimes real names and addresses are posted on message boards).
Michelle: It's more difficult to run a site with someone else's name on it than I conceived it would be when I started. Opinions of fans that have posted on the site have been attributed to Brendan by other fans who have read them and I'm regularly sent fan mail intended for Brendan, which is wonderful to read but makes me realize just how confusing it can be for fans who aren't careful readers. As a result, I've felt the need to be extremely careful about what I post. Some of the early character of the site included a Dolphin Safe tuna logo, and some rather sarcastic and occasionally R-rated humor. All of that has been phased out and a strict PG policy put into place.
It's also really important to me as a middle man to make sure that I properly source the information I post on my website. BHO was set up with the idea that it would save fans from having to hunt for news – a one-stop Brendan Hansen information shop so to speak, but I'm not a reporter and I think it's an ethical responsibility to make sure the folks who provide the articles, videos and photos that we love so much are given proper credit and a link back to the original work whenever possible.
In the next three parts of the series, we will focus on each individual site with more questions posed to each web site owner.