Back in November 2006, I was covering mixed martial arts, but only on a limited basis. My real job, aside from being a medic in the United States Army, was tech blogging. I mostly covered startups and the Web 2.0 scene, checking out the latest web applications from tiny little companies around the world who were seeking the angel investments that would help them turn their dreams into reality.
November 2006 is when I discovered Twitter. I signed up on November 20, which makes me an old man when it comes to boiling my thoughts down to 140 characters. I knew the service had promise, because one of the guys behind it had also created Blogger, the service I used while blogging from Iraq. If Evan Williams created Twitter, it had to be good.
Plus, it was just interesting. All of my tech geek friends used it, and it seemed like a pretty good way to interact with people. But there's no way I, or anyone else using it at the time, could have foreseen just how big Twitter would eventually become.
Nowadays, Twitter is just part of the world. It's used widely in sports, entertainment and technology; you name it, and there's probably a hashtag or a Twitter account devoted to it. And the coolest thing about Twitter, to someone who has followed it as long as I have, is that it's being used to connect celebrities and athletes with the fans who are so devoted to them.
Never before have regular people had the chance to interact with their heroes the way they can now, because the tools never existed. Twitter changed all of that. There's no real filter between the athletes or celebrities and fans. They can say what they want, when they want to say it and without a public relations specialist toning down the message.
But that lack of filter isn't always a good thing, and a recent controversy involving UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is a perfect example.
On Tuesday, Rousey sent out the following tweet:
@rondarousey: Extremely interesting must watch video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wx9GxXYKx_8
The video, in case you don't feel like watching it, is a nutjob piece that theorizes that the December shooting of 20 children and six adults was a government conspiracy dreamed up so that President Barack Obama could push his gun control legislation, much like all of the whack-job theories claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were created by the government so that the United States could go to war in Iraq.
In short, it's a completely ludicrous video with zero basis in reality. And the reaction from MMA fans on Twitter was swift and fierce.
Rousey initially defended herself against the criticism.
"I just figure asking questions and doing research is more patriotic than blindly accepting what you’re told," she tweeted, but she later deleted the original tweet entirely.
Now, look: I'm not saying that modern media is without bias, because that's clearly not the case. And I think it's great that people don't accept what they're told by the talking heads on cable television. It's good to think for yourself, to question what you're told and to seek the truth out on your own terms.
But there's a difference between seeking the truth and putting any sort of weight behind nonsense like the video that Rousey tweeted.
This isn't the first time that a UFC star has found themselves in hot water over something that occurred on Twitter. Miguel Torres was famously fired after tweeting a rape joke; he was brought back a short time later, but released for a second time after another questionable tweet last summer.
The problem, as I see it, is that the UFC doesn't have a concrete social media policy in place that applies evenly to the entire roster. In November, Forrest Griffin tweeted the following:
"Rape is the new missionary," Griffin said.
If Griffin were being held to the same standard as Torres, he'd be fired. Or at least you would think so. But nothing happened to Griffin, just like nothing happened to Rousey, because they are superstars for the UFC. Torres was not a superstar—at least not on the level of Ronda or Forrest—and so he was fired while Griffin and Rousey get a pass.
I'm fine with meting out punishment for infractions, whether they take place on Twitter or a different space in the public eye. But I'm not fine with fighters being held to differing standards based on how much money they can make the company.
Each year, the UFC holds an event called the Fighter Summit in Las Vegas. Held at the Red Rock Hotel and Casino—a property owned by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta—the Summit consists of two days filled with classes and conferences on everything from the UFC's health insurance policy to, yes, the proper usage of social media.
Next time the Summit is held, pay close attention to Twitter. If you follow any amount of fighters on the UFC's roster, you'll see tweet after tweet of guys sleeping, joking around and generally passing time while not paying attention. That's partially because most of them have likely been through the same classes the year before, and it's partially because the classes just aren't very exciting.
I don't know what the UFC's social media curriculum consists of. I'm sure they're told to behave themselves on Twitter and to use the platform they've been afforded wisely.
But it's clear that the message just isn't getting through in an effective manner, and so the UFC must take extra steps to ensure that their fighters understand that what they say on Twitter or Facebook or MySpace (if anyone is still using that service) reflects on the company as a whole. A UFC fighter's identity is so very closely intertwined with the company that promotes them, because the UFC brand is promoted just as heavily as any fighter on the roster.
It is long past time for the UFC to put a social media/personal conduct policy down on paper. It's time to tell these fighters what they can and cannot say, even though their Twitter accounts are their own, because it's clear that some of them still don't understand how powerful their words can be. And it's time to create a system of punishing those who break the rules, and it shouldn't matter if they're a main event superstar and champion or a fighter that's appearing in the first preliminary bout on Facebook.
If used correctly, Twitter can be a powerful tool for effectively marketing the sport directly to the fans who follow it religiously. It's one of the best marketing tools in the world today.
But it also has the potential for pitfalls, and that's why it's so important for the UFC to create concise and even-handed social media guidelines that apply to the whole roster. If these kinds of incidents aren't curtailed, it could be damaging to the sport, to the fighters and to the company that promotes them.