The Real Shaq, raw and unfiltered

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Both Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal have accounts on Twitter. Both are fan favorites, extremely talented basketball players and were teammates on the Phoenix Suns last season.

But there’s a slight difference between their Twitter accounts. Nash has a little over 61,000 people following him, O’Neal has nearly 1.5 million.

Shaq has used social networking websites to an unparalleled degree of success among athletes – and everybody else. Twitterholic ranks his as the 10th most-followed account on Twitter, ahead of Demi Moore, Jimmy Fallon and The New York Times.

But why?

Shaq’s Twitter offers fans a level of access that no other athlete has had before; most of his tweets are responding to questions sent in by his fans. Others show an unfiltered look at what he is thinking or doing at any given moment – what movie he’s watching, what items he’s shopping for, etc.

His success in this medium is ushering in a new age of fan-athlete relationships, one without the barriers of PR agents or journalists.

Through this means, fans get to see what players are thinking at almost any moment. To a casual fan, it’s like gaining access to their inner circle. O’Neal’s account may be an unfiltered look at him, but it also reflects his legendary persona – he’s a friendly guy.

He’s the same on camera, too. O’Neal, as we all know, is the guy who cracks jokes during press conferences, hams it up for the cameras and spends time with fans.

The lack of difference between the unfiltered Shaq and Shaq’s carefully-crafted public image is why he has resonated so profoundly on Twitter. That he’s an exceptionally popular player doesn’t hurt either.

But so is Steve Nash. And while his Twitter is popular, it doesn’t reflect anything much at all – it’s not hard to imagine that somebody else manages his account on his behalf.

While that scenario may not be happening yet, it could happen, especially in the wake of what happened to Brandon Jennings.

Jennings’ Twitter account, Bjennings3, was taken down late in June after an appearance on rapper (and friend) Joe Budden’s webcast. There, Jennings made several off-color comments about the Knicks, Ricky Rubio and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.

Jennings sounded like he didn’t know his comments were being broadcasted and he spoke frankly, like he was in a private conversation.

Nothing really ended up happening to Jennings, but despite that, his tale remains cautionary. With the barriers removed between athletes and the world, what happens if somebody messes up and says something more obscene than “Fuck the Knicks”?

Removing the barrier between their public and private lives can show us more than we want to know about professional athletes. After all, somebody could be a great athlete on the court and nothing worth cheering for off of it.

Take former NBA player Tim Hardaway for example. In 2007, after the release of Man In the Middle, John Amaechi’s account of playing in the NBA while in the closet, Hardaway said, “I hate gay people I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

His peers in the NBA ostracized him for his comments and eventually Hardaway expressed regret for his words and apologized.

It’s the sort of action that could happen on Twitter. A player is asked something by a fan and responds with a careless comment in which they don’t consider all of the possible repercussions – just like the rest of us do. They don’t have their PR rep or a friendly reporter to diffuse the comment.

As the saying goes, you can’t unring a bell.

It’s that risk that will likely bring an eventual shift away from true social networking. It won’t be long before an athlete’s Twitter will be ghostwritten (ghosttweeted?) with an eye towards avoiding the controversial.

But that takes away from the very point of why Twitter is so popular. The base appeal is the unfiltered look at our athletes’ lives. If that look goes away, what happens next?

Well fans would likely move to the next social network and start following them there.

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