This is a lesson about social media and the power of the internet. It’s a tale of hilarity and humanity. It’s a story in which Piers Morgan has a lot to answer for…
It all started in a public swimming session at the Royal Commonwealth Pool, in Edinburgh, when I had a nice chat with an old lady. I was cruising up and down, completely oblivious to the fact that the upcoming interaction would be result in 8 million twitter viewings, nine interview requests with the press (including BBC Breaking News), and a call from Team England headquarters asking if I needed them to put out a statement on my behalf.
At the time I was a professional swimmer but was training in the public swimming times because I had a flight to catch that afternoon and was going to be missing a later scheduled training slot with the performance squad. At that point in my career I tended to avoid busy public swimming sessions at all costs—navigating screw breaststroke leg-kicks is a fairly hazardous game. Nevertheless, I’d done my risk assessment, chosen a lane clear of any dawdlers, and was completing a steady session of freestyle, backstroke and intermittent daydreaming.
Halfway through my session I stopped at the wall in between reps and a lady from the ‘medium’ lane leant over the lane rope and announced, “You’re really good at swimming”. I took a quick glance around but the only other person in the immediate vicinity was a guy who’d set off from the wall four minutes ago and hadn’t quite reached the 5m flags yet. Assuming then, that she was indeed addressing me, I mumbled some awkward thanks and prepared to push off again for my next rep. “No”, she stopped me, “Seriously. You should do a trial with the local swimming club”. My embarrassment heightened exponentially at her sweet compliment and I did some mental panicking about how to tell her that I was a professional athlete. “Erm”, I stumbled, “Well, I’ve actually been to a couple of Olympics”, I replied bashfully, hoping that I didn’t embarrass her as she realised that I’d surpassed county level swimming a decade or so ago. Instead, her eyes lit up in delight and she exclaimed with excitement, “Me too! Which sports did you manage to get tickets for?!”
In true deferential British style, I considered lying to her and fabricating an Olympic experience as an enthusiastic spectator, but in the end I told her the truth—that I’d competed at two Olympic Games, for Team GB. Her eyes widened even more, she apologised, and I immediately absolved her apology, making it clear that I appreciated her taking the time to encourage and compliment me. We had a quick giggle about the misinterpretation and then quickly moved off topic onto more pressing matters—front crawl technique tips.
Fast-forward 24 hours and I decided to recount the interaction to Twitter, believing it to be an innocuous example of awkward British humour. Limited to a stringent 280 characters I just managed to fit the dialogue into one post, added an emoji for good luck, and sent it out to the world. Amused as I’d been by the story, I imagined some of my fellow swim fans would also be entertained, and that perhaps some other athletes would be able to relate to the experience.
Off the grid for a couple of hours, and I checked back into the Twittersphere mid-afternoon, in order to catch up on the day’s happenings in snapshot form. My phone was very slow to load but I put this down to the usual—Instagram inhaling battery power and Facebook stealing all my personal data. When I eventually got back to the tweet, it unexpectedly had accumulated 30,000 likes and hundreds of comments from people that I do and don’t know. What the actual fudge was going on? Each time I refreshed there were more and more likes, although my Twitter seemed to be stuck announcing specifically 14 likes at a time, before systematically freezing or crashing.
I read some of the comments and was pleased to discover that people were also tickled by the story. I don’t know if I’ve personally ever laughed so hard that I cried but that was the predominant emoji featuring on my feedback timeline, so I can only assume that UK Kleenex stocks were in high demand. Content, if a little bemused, by the popularity, I closed the app and got on with my Saturday afternoon.
When I went back online another couple of hours later, the tweet had soared to 60,000 likes and I noticed that Piers Morgan had retweeted the interaction. Piers Morgan has 6.7 million Twitter followers, which was a few more than me (by about 6.68 million). Given that many of his disciples are from the States, he effectively jumped my tweet across the pond, into the hands of thousands of impatient Americans. Somewhere along the way, ESPN’s ‘Sports Center’ managed to get hold of it and decided that a screenshot combined with an image of me made the cut for their Saturday morning Twitter and Instagram posts. And that’s when things really started to go tits up.
I’m not a big fan of American sports because they don’t have slices of orange at half time, so when one friend text me with a screenshot of the @SportsCenter post featuring yours truly, I replied with “It’s crazy isn’t it?? Where is this sports centre anyway, and why have they spelled ‘centre’ wrong?”
Quickly up to speed on the popularity of ESPN’s flagship sports programme, I started to read some of the comments from their 35 million followers. Whereas us Brits had had a jolly good laugh at my little anecdote, it was a whole different story on the other side of the Atlantic. The comments ranged from relatively benign: “Who the hell are you?”, and “I don’t know who you are so why would this lady recognise you?”; to being described as pompous, obnoxious and arrogant; to statements about how “the cockiness of some athletes is disgusting”. Things quickly downgraded to a confidence boosting: “You’re a complete failure at life and this is why you needed to tweet this story for attention”, which I personally thought was a little harsh because I do have some GCSE’s and at least five friends. There was also a fair amount of completely unsolicited sexism from some chauvinistic gentlemen, including a polite assumption that I’d be good in the kitchen (where I belong), and one chap’s reckoning that I’d swim “real good” if I was in his sink doing his “damn dishes”.
Initially I was horrified by the comments I was receiving from the trolls wearing stars and stripes. Undoubtedly the story had been taken completely out of context, with people thinking that I’d tweeted the anecdote because I was outraged that I hadn’t been recognised by this lady in the pool. This was wholly untrue—I am not a household name and do not get recognised in the supermarket (although I was once recognised by a swim fan just as I was tucking into a large Burger King meal at an airport… #athlete). I had absolutely no expectation that the lady should know who I was, I just retold the story because I thought it was an entertainingly British hurdle in a harmless conversation. I was also called out for ridiculing her, with guardians of misplaced integrity jumping to her defence, furious that I’d had the audacity to divulge the story publicly. If the lady was offended, she definitely didn’t show it when we were discussing her front crawl breathing pattern five minutes later…
I felt compelled to start answering the trolls to justify myself, but soon realised that it wasn’t worth my effort (and because I couldn’t keep up with the alarming speed that people were typing abuse at me). I also realised that the contextual misinterpretation was cultural, and that many of my trolls from across the pond were likely the same people who had voted a misogynistic Jaffa Cake into presidential power. A justification that they could comprehend would probably involve more than 280 characters, plus the sole use of one syllable words.
Following a couple of further tweets of outrage at the absurdity of what was going on I started getting interview requests from local and national media platforms. Apparently funny conversations going viral is big news! My interview with the BBC hung around at the top their ‘trending’ list as 700,000 people scanned the article whilst sipping their morning coffee.
Following the exposure in the wider media the pendulum swung the other way again, with hundreds of lovely people (British and International) defending me and the context of the original story with faithful indignation. In a way the whole experience was a beautiful analogy of the absurdity of the internet: the reactions jumped seamlessly from hilarity to insanity, to vulgarity and then to humanity, with very little effort on my behalf!
Luckily, a couple of weeks on, the media storm had died down. ESPN soon posted pictures of sports stars that were closer to home for their followers to fling their poo at, and my tweet came to a standstill at 210k likes and 27.5k retweets. My self-esteem slowly began to recover from the barrage of insults, and I finally felt able to show my face at the pool again, albeit in our scheduled training sessions.
Just after things had started to calm down I received some back-dated media guidelines from Team England headquarters (I was about to fly to Australia to compete at the Commonwealth Games), advising the team to act with caution because “the slightest indiscretion, silliest joke or bizarre comment has the capacity to be a controversial story”. They recommended us athletes “clean up” our social media accounts, maintain professionalism, and avoid contentious topics at all costs. Oops. As my mother so wisely put it, “Darling, I think the horse may have bolted”.
I have never experienced something escalate this quickly before, a true exhibition of the exponential power of social media. I now regularly get asked to regale the story during talks to young people, as an example of how even the best intentions can be misinterpreted by the internet. My advice to youngsters? Enjoy the socials but pause before you upload—once your comment/picture/video is up, it’s published for good. I can only imagine what it’s like to actually be famous—I’d probably have to hire a troll to troll the trolls! It was a disconcerting experience, but a lot of fun too, and taught me an important lesson: aiming to please everyone is always futile. I still feel a bit dirty admitting that Piers Morgan made me go viral though…
P.S. for those wondering, no I haven’t seen the old lady since, and I hope to God she doesn’t have a Twitter account…