Exploitation, self promotion, and pro-athletes online

Twitter has a lot of celebrities on it, basking in additional attention paid to them from the masses while reporting mundane things in their lives.  Fans hang on their words and their news about every minor or major happening, helped along by the link of said celebrity to the medium in which they work:  movies, politics, television, and sports.

Of course, with all of these real celebrities on Twitter, there are plenty of imposters as well, who try to accomplish one of several things:  To pay homage to the person, to satirize them/mock them, or to capitalize off of the famous name and promote themselves a little more. 

Members of the Tampa Bay Lightning are not exempt from this.  While team executives such as former owner Oren Koules,  Angelina Lawton, and former team captain Dave Andreychuk have official Twitter accounts, there are imposters that have popped up during the course of the season under different player and staff names.

This faking-it epidemic goes much further than just the Tampa Bay Lightning.  You can find fake player accounts devoted to members of any team in the league and with most any sport for that matter.  Even prospects that have yet to turn pro can be subjected to this.  John Tavares, last year's #1 overall draft selection, was victim of an imitator during the lead up to the 2009 NHL entry draft.  The fake Tavares kept reporting about the whirlwind leading up to the June 26th draft event, including the false announcement he would nto be the #1 selection overall.

You have to wonder just how players combat this.  What can be done?  Who is going to protect them when something like this is going on?  They're busy enough with their own lives and seldom have little interest in actually using Twitter, or Facebook, or any other social application that is not direct contact with people.

Lightning communications director Bill Wickett admitted that the Bolts don't have a policy in place at this time, "We do acknowledge that there may be a need to start looking out for our players and staff in the future."

Wickett also pointed out that, "NHL Security department gets involved if needed to help protect all of our players as necessary."

Ultimately, legal responsibility for protecting a player's name and reputation falls to their agent or personal management, t he guys who represent them in contract negotiations with teams or in other business facets.   Sure, a team could step up to protect the identity of one of its stars - but an agent worth his salt is going to protect the identity and reputation of his client if and when a line is crossed or a potential opportunity is robbed by an impostor.

But how many agents actually make it a point to be proactive about this?

Jim DeLorenzo, Vice President of Octagon Sports Agency's Digital Division, explained that Octagon has no official policy regarding social media.

"However, my advice to athletes is that one of the best ways to combat impersonation is to join the service where there is an issue and announce your presence," DeLorenzo wrote in an email.  "Also, both Facebook and Twitter have impersonation policies in place that allow athletes to have the fake profiles removed.  In my experience, Facebook and Twitter have been very responsive when contacted on impersonation issues."

What's the big deal anyway, though?  Besides hijacking a famous person's identity online and treating it as just all in good fun, it's a business hazard for the player/person-of-note that is being imitated.  In January 2010, comScore reported that Twitter brought in 75 million unique visitors (per this TechCrunch article with graph ).  With that many eyes reading 140-character messages, it has the strength to take a message and spread it with speed among a massive audience.

While a lot of people only see Twitter as someone spreading mundane things to entertain the masses, it does have its viral uses in reporting things as they happen, earning attention to situations of note, and can be a means of promoting an event or a cause that a person with a direct audience (or following) holds dear to them.

All this Twitter talk does not even address the 300+ million worldwide users on Facebook and the potential reach that it provides.  Some personalities are more involved with the more established social networks than with Twitter.  Current Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier already has a profile with the network (as well as on MySpace), and the foundation that shares his name is active in promoting his causes.

On the other hand, there are six different personal profiles that claim to be Steven Stamkos.  We're not talking about "fan pages", which are designed for fans of a person or product, but presenting themselves as Stamkos himself.

Martin St. Louis has five. 

Back to Twitter, they're very forthcoming with this and make it clear that "name squatting" is against Twitter's terms of use.  Impersonation, however...:

Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts. Please refer to Twitter's Parody Policy for more information about these accounts. Accounts with the clear intent to confuse or mislead may be permanently suspended.

That parody policy gives clear rules on how to operate and put you in the clear.  As for what players and agents can do to secure their identity on Twitter, there are clear rules on how to stop impersonation accounts

Twitter is also now implementing a verification policy, which makes it clear how you can tell if an account is that of the famous person it claims to be (and steps a player or celebrity can take to become verified).

As a fan on the Internet, you're free to follow the name of someone famous, as well as whomever you want to on any social network site.   But to follow someone real is better than to follow an opportunist trying to capitalize off a famous person's reputation.  You're empowering an impostor when you follow the fake. 

Make sure you do your homework and research just who you are adding.  After you verify, then you can trust.  Players and teams can do only so much to deal with impostors.  It's ultimately up to you and your judgment.

For the record, we checked in with Lightning media relations manager Brian Breseman and asked him for the verified accounts for players and staff with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He stressed the one official account with the team as the verified source for the Lightning on Twitter:  @tblightning.

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