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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

NFL buzz, as viewed on Twitter and Facebook

Analysts comb social media messages to decipher what sports fans are conversing about and determine what's hot, what's not.

January 25, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • Did punter Steve Weatherford's running celebration after holding the game-winning kick in the NFC championship game have anything to do with the New York Giants being more popular than the New England Patriots in social media circles this week?
Did punter Steve Weatherford's running celebration after holding… (Doug Duran / MCT )

I was an old soul at age 7, had my first midlife crisis at 12.

As such, I distrust any "hot new thing" down to an almost molecular level. Social media? I tend to prefer antisocial media.

Sure, I regularly send Twitter notes, hoping that a democracy of public thought is mostly a good and entertaining thing, though as John Adams noted: "There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

But a new development in this frantic sphere is interesting even to a devoted cyber-agnostic like me. Using the latest tools, analysts are combing our Facebook and Twitter messages to decipher what American sports fans are buzzing about.

Much of it won't surprise you, but some of it will. And there is no telling what it portends for fans, players and the often predatory world of sports marketing.

Folks, meet the new A.C. Nielsens of buzz, data companies that are determining what's hot, what's not, who's popular, who's the goat.

For instance, one of those companies, General Sentiment, discovered that interest in the New York Giants had climbed this week, while interest in the New England Patriots waned.

General Sentiment uses something called natural language processing, fancy talk for software that rakes through huge volumes of text for names or terms. The company is not alone in this field. Firms such as Radian6 and Crimson Hexagon also monitor social media for trends.

Not only can these companies measure number of mentions, analysts such as General Sentiment's Steve Kwon can filter messages for positive and negative tone, providing a real-time snapshot of public sentiment.

Nobody is spying your personal missives — the data collectors look only at Twitter and Facebook feeds that are set to "public." Yet, using these new digital toys, General Sentiment discovered the Baltimore Ravens were the most discussed team over the past weekend, and many of the messages carried the word "hate," indicating they were often referenced in a negative light.

"Hate also described feelings for Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, and if not towards him, the manner in which the Ravens lost," Kwon said.

In the case of Kyle Williams of the San Francisco 49ers, social media took an ominous turn. After he fumbled a punt in overtime to hand the New York Giants a victory in the NFC championship game, Williams received hate mail and even death threats over Twitter.com. Such instant, often acrimonious feedback could give head coaches and team execs fits. No doubt, the phenomenon will make Sunday sermons for what it says about our need to win. Or our need to share. Or our tendency to form colonies of like-minded fools.

It is even revealing of the sports fans' age-old inclination to argue till we're blue in the face. Like it or not, this is what passes for barroom debate these days.

There is useful and interesting information to be had as well. For example, the Detroit Lions were the most mentioned team of this NFL season, Kwon said, followed by the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.

No surprise, Tim Tebow was the most mentioned player, followed by Tom Brady and (perhaps a surprise) Cam Newton.

Just how popular was Tebow as a topic this season? From Jan. 14-16, around the time of the divisional playoffs, he received 1.5 million mentions, which was more than Brady (745,000), Eli Manning (341,000) and Drew Brees (278,000) combined.

Noting Newton's high numbers as well, General Sentiment analyst John Stillwell said: "Not only do [Tebow and Newton] represent a new era of quarterbacks, they're a new breed in quarterback in how they run and play. We think that factors in to their popularity."

As for the upcoming Super Bowl, Kwon sees support growing for New York.

"I pulled updated data for the Pats and Giants and found some interesting things," he said. "While the Giants and Pats generated similar ... volume on Sunday, the Giants' volume continued to rise on Monday while buzz about the Patriots significantly decreased. "

Kwon also scrubbed the messages for what he calls "sentiment words," and found:

• On Monday, "win" was attributed to the Giants 98,721 times while "lose" described the Giants 24,141 times.

• "Better" described the Giants 28,019 times. On Twitter, the majority of people who discussed the Giants on Monday seemed to think that the Giants were a better team than the Patriots.

• The top negative sentiment word for Patriots on Twitter was "hate."

The Patriots have been one of the more disliked teams in recent NFL history, said analysts from General Sentiment, which was founded in 2008.

L.A. fans might be interested to know that in nationwide measures of Twitter and other social media traffic, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul are the two most mentioned players in the NBA, and the Lakers and the Clippers are the top two teams in the league.

One more thing for them to compete over. One more measure of our madness.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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