Unravelling the Ravelympics

I’ve been sleeping quite badly recently, waking up around 4 in the morning and having difficulty getting back to sleep, so I often pick up the iPhone and have a little rummage around in Twitter and Facebook for a while before giving slumber another go. When I did so on Wednesday night, I walked right into the middle of the Ravelympics row, which presses a number of my buttons: it’s a *social media* row about people *knitting* during the *Olympics*.

For those of you that haven’t followed it, Ravelry (login required) is “the best social network you’ve never heard of” according to Slate. It’s a platform for knitters and crocheters, where yarnheads can catalogue their ‘stash’ (unused yarn), find patterns, get advice, post pictures of what they have knitted, send messages etc. Since 2008, during every Olympics, summer and winter, they encourage people to take part in the “Ravelympics”, where you knit an item as you watch the games.

This year, the US Olympic Committee sent them a cease and desist letter. We’ve all heard the stories here in the UK of people being stopped holding events using terms like ‘Olympics’ and ‘London 2012’. What has got the knitting community so riled are the terms in which they did it (I’m sorry, I can’t find a link to the original letter that isn’t on Ravelry itself, which is members only, so you’ll have to trust me that this is a non-doctored cut from what was posted there):

The USOC is responsible for preserving the Olympic Movement and its ideals within the United States.  Part of that responsibility is to ensure that Olympic trademarks, imagery and terminology are protected and given the appropriate respect.  We believe using the name “Ravelympics” for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.  In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.

This is clearly someone who has never unpicked several rows of mohair lace knitting.

When Casey Forbes put this up on Ravelry, it caused quite a stir, with many fibreheads taking to Twitter to berate the USOC. What I found interesting from a social media point of view was that in the hour or so I was watching the hashtag #Ravelympics, there didn’t seem to be any reaction from the US Olympic Committee, not even a holding ‘we hear you’re angry, we’re looking into it’ kind of tweet that might have mollified a few people (just as some people were holding off getting riled at Argyll and Bute last week during the #neverseconds issue until they had put their side of the story).

Then the USOC did come out with a statement and I think you can see why this made things worse. Firstly he says this was a standard cease and desist letter, when that clearly wasn’t the case (I doubt the standard letter has the paragraph I extracted above). Then he finishes off by saying

To show our support of the Ravelry community, we would welcome any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games.

This statement has, unsurprisingly, been taken as “I will try to fob you off with transparently rubbish excuses and then ask you for free stuff”. Not designed to get the community on side.

The knitter part of me is definitely with those that are upset that an attempt to encourage knitters (I’m sure some are sporty, but many are not) to engage with the games has been deemed denigrating and disrespectful. The social media part of me is keen to learn the lessons of this experience, which I’ve summed up as:

1) Know who you are taking on

I remember talking at an event in Brussels on blogging and the web years ago, maybe 2005. I said how one of the most active online communities is the knitting world, and the digital expert there with me laughed, because he said this was well-known and he had been about to mention it. Knitters love social media, because they love sharing – exchanging yarn, tips, patterns, pictures. Knitting is a solitary activity, yes, but one best done in a group, whether on- or off-line. So social media works well for this community: they have taken to it and understand it. Upset one part of it (and a very important part, such as Ravelry, at that) and you will have the whole community on your head.Taking this at another angle, knitters have a pretty cuddly image. If you have a mental picture ofthe sort of people taking part in the Ravelympics, it’s probably a little old lady working on pastel baby clothes. Every element of that stereotype can be challenged by those in the know, but it does come across as the USOC whaling on the little people, while it takes the big companies’ money.

2) When things are going wrong, engage quickly

It seems to me that USOC’s biggest mistake was to let the #Ravelympics hashtag go on so long without any engagement. They must have known there was a problem, as just about every tweet I saw was an @mention to them. But it took them almost 24 hours to react. Even some sort of holding reply would have made people feel that USOC appreciated how upset they were.

3) When you react, get it right

The original mistakes were compounded by the perceived insincerity of the apology. They have extended the life of this social media storm by another 24 hours (I am still watching tweets come in on the #ravelympics hashtag). A little more thought, or running it past someone in the USOC that knitted (given that one blog I read said that 1 in 3 Americans is involved in fibrecrafts, that would have been quite easy), might have made the whole thing go away a lot more quickly.

4) There are no dividing lines

This morning’s Twitter storm is this afternoon’s headline. A quick search a few minutes ago showed the New York Times, AFP, National Public Radio, US Metro, USA Today and any number of local news websites carrying the story. Probably a day their press team would like to forget

Goodness knows that there are many examples of these kind of mistakes (maybe even today…). Looking at one from outside my immediate realm of work is useful in seeing where the common lines are and identifying what went wrong where. Anything else to suggest?

[Amended at 18.03 to correct quote and add the Slate reference]


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