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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media

French philosopher Michel Foucault once framed the general idea of perpetual and omnipresent surveillance under a generalized theoretical term called “panopticism.”  Foucault’s research and theory was largely applied to the study of crime and punishment, predating the rise of social media by a few decades. But the notion that people anywhere and everywhere are increasingly under close watch of the unblinking eyes of cyberspace is now an inescapable reality. And perhaps no single group of people know this better than the men and women of independent wrestling.

Of course, the decision to use social media is, by and large, a voluntary one. But while most folks might dabble a bit in one forum or another, indy grapplers often opt to go “all in” when it comes to the 'net: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tout…all that jazz.  I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like it at some level, either. How else would I know what my favorite indy guy had for dinner last Thursday, right? And I can deal with the steady stream of promos that wrestlers post to my Facebook wall, many in hopes that I’ll tweet them out via our official Twitter page or write about them in the next issue of PWI (Don’t worry guys and gals; I still love you all). Hey, I can’t blame them. If Zack Ryder has taught us anything, it’s that social media is the best way to get yourself over in this day and age, especially when there are so many people competing for fans’ overloaded attention spans.

The ugly side of all this is that there is such a thing as too much information, especially when the ever-present spirit of openness and one-upmanship that’s rampant in social media encourages us to share too much with casual acquaintances and friends of friends. With respect to indy wrestlers, it’s all too often that their personal foibles and the details of their “shoot” lives bleed into their in-ring personas via Facebook and Twitter, tainting the public image that they’ve worked hard to create over the course of months and years. Even when it’s a guy who has done a lot of rough and nasty stuff in the ring, sometimes a gaffe or misstep on the 'net has enough “ick factor” to alienate a handful of sensitive fans or  offend and insult en masse. I’ll never forget how psyched I was to get a Facebook friend request from an up-and-coming hardcore/smashmouth grappler from the East Coast. Then one day I saw him cutting up with his real-life friends on Facebook about the very serious subject of spousal abuse. Having spent over 10 years of my professional life working directly with the victims of intimate partner violence hasn’t left me with much of a sense of humor for the subject, it seems. Was I the only person who found that guy’s comments detestable? Don’t know. Don’t care, really. While I could’ve easily hidden his status updates from that point forward and kept some kind of personal or quasi-professional connection to him, I was far too disgusted to even consider that as an option. So much for our virtual “friendship.”

Does that hurt the guy’s career in the broad scheme of things? Nope. But it could have if the stakes were higher and if his audience was bigger. Consider the incident last year in which Tensai posted a racially insensitive tweet; the backlash was swift and significant, leaving the publicly traded corporate monolith WWE in damage-control mode.  They’ve been there before, too. In 2011, Michael Cole garnered a healthy amount of criticism for a homophobic comment he’d posted on Twitter about his colleague Josh Matthews. (Conversely, CM Punk didn’t attract much scorn at all when he invited one of his Twitter followers to commit suicide a few months ago when the fan took issue with CM Punk's support for gay marriage.) It’s a safe bet that WWE and TNA would absolutely love to do without these kind of periodic prairie fires, which is why both companies often set specific parameters and expectations regarding wrestlers’ participation in social media, as well as podcasts and small-market radio shows. Indy folks usually aren’t subject to those kinds of controls and filters, though. Individual sensibilities vary from person to person; that is, what is offensive to some might well be hilarious to others. And sometimes, one can’t depend on his or her own standards to determine what could invoke intrigue and anger versus what will provoke anger and resentment. A few months ago, I saw a scenario play out over Facebook in which two indy workers – one Arab-American and the other Native American – traded video promos laden with ethnic jokes over an extended period of time. Most fans didn’t bat an eye, and some even lapped it up. But once their work together ended, the Arab-American found that standards and sensibilities were very, very different when he directed some racially charged language and imagery against his next opponent, who happened to be African-American. The ensuing backlash required him to walk back and retract the offending material, but in doing so, he also made a candidly personal appeal to his peers and fans, while noting that he was genuinely surprised at the reaction he’d received.

Most of the worker/fan dynamic that social media brings about is decidedly positive. Workers feel closer to their fans and fans enjoy an occasional brush with greatness. I don’t mean to blame the wrestlers for making things weird, either. Besides, it’s not only the wrestlers that cross the line on social media. There is, in fact, a lot of concern about obsessive fans who might be tempted to take things too far, an issue that was recently brought to the forefront when TNA required scores of indy wrestlers to disclose their real-life names to participate in their 'net-driven “Gut Check Challenge.” Dating back to the good ol’ days of kayfabe, the danger of a single misguided fan was always there, perhaps exemplified in the 1976 incident in which Ole Anderson was stabbed by a disgruntled fan after wrestling a match in Greenville, South Carolina. Harrowing as that tale is, the potential for some fans to become obsessive is magnified through social media.

Generally speaking, cyberstalking – defined by the National Institute of Justice as  “the use of technology to stalk victims… [including] the pursuit, harassment, or contact of others in an unsolicited fashion initially via the Internet and e-mail” is a burgeoning problem. It’s difficult to ascertain valid and reliable statistic on conduct that is both widespread and under-reported, but the lack of hard and fast data regarding victimization shouldn’t discourage folks from using common sense in deciding whether or not to allow relative strangers to become too invested in their professional and private lives.

For the most part, indy wrestlers don’t make a lot of money in their line of work. Many of them do what they do week in and week out in hopes that they’ll make the jump to the big leagues someday. They keep the faith at great personal expense, spending days on the road with no compensation for travel, lodging, gear and all the other expenses that come with the territory.  Reaching out to fans for financial assistance in the form of gifts has, for some indy grapplers, become a relatively common practice. Lots of people have “wish lists” on sites like amazon.com and there’s certainly not anything wrong with that. But it is just a little weird to see wrestlers actively soliciting their lists via social media. I was particularly taken aback when I recently saw a Chicago-area lady grappler hitting up a fan for some pricey Star Wars-themed merch via the guy’s Facebook wall. There’s certainly no room to blame the victim when bad things happen, but there is something to be said for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries when it comes to putting yourself out there for everyone to see. Some might explain this away in the name of the “free market” created by a quid pro quo relationship between an entertainer and a fan. But what if the fan has a diminished mental capacity; someone who is easily persuaded to spend large amounts of a fixed income just to bring a fleeting smile to the face of his favorite female wrestler? At best, targeting someone like that in hopes that he’ll buy a lavish gift or two is almost predatory. What if he’s unhinged, infatuated, or some kind of predator? In those cases, encouraging such a person to believe that he or she enjoys any level of intimacy with an object of affection that is, in reality, not actually reciprocated is almost certainly a recipe for disaster.

Social media is so many things all at the same time: It’s an outlet, a resource, a forum, and a marketplace. It’s also a field of land mines, poisonous snakes, and every kind of perp your parents ever warned you about. Navigating it requires a lot of common sense and vigilance, tempered with a good amount self-respect. 

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor

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