First, because it is so simple. With as few as two clicks of a button, an athlete can make a fan for life. Maybe even change perception if he or she has a reputation for being selfish or aloof.
There's almost no downside, either. When athletes begin signing autographs after a game or a practice, it sparks a mad rush of fans waving photos, magazine covers or pieces of paper. That may not sound so bad, but see how comfortable you feel when a dozen or more people are making a run at you. And when the time comes for an athlete to move on, there's always a groan of disappointment — or worse — from the fans who got shut out.
With the retweet, there's none of that. Athletes can sit in the quiet of their own home or cars (not while driving, please) or locker room and thumb through their requests. And because of the constant nature of Twitter, no one expects an athlete will see each request, let alone have time to respond to every one.
"If I retweeted everyone who asked me 4 a retweet I would be doing 24 hours a day," golfer Ian Poulter tweeted last month.
O'Neal chuckled when asked if he keeps track of how many retweet requests he gets — "I've got 5 million followers" — but said when he's on Twitter, he usually spends about 10 minutes going through requests and tries to respond to 20 or 30 of them.
"Especially if they say something funny," he said.
"A lot of people think they can say anything. I just ignore that," O'Neal said when asked his criteria for giving a retweet. "Whoever's funny."
Rather than getting angry, fans who miss out simply keep trying. Because deep down, all fans believe that if they only had the chance to meet or connect with their favorite athletes, they'd become the best of friends, hanging out, watching games together.
The retweet furthers that illusion.
"You feel like you're connected to them," said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia who studies social media and its impact. "But you don't really have this connection."
No, that would require your hero to actually follow you back.
"That's the ultimate test," Sreenivasan said. "Can you send a direct message?"
Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour
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