03/08/2012 03:01 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

RT for your biggest fan? For social media-savvy fans, retweet is new version of the autograph

Forget standing in line for hours, hoping for a scribbled, barely legible autograph on a wrinkled piece of paper. Or jockeying for spots behind the dugout, on the off chance a signed ball or batting glove gets tossed your way.

When it comes to souvenirs from your favourite athlete, the retweet is where it's at these days.

Fans have turned Twitter into a digital version of the autograph session, asking — sometimes begging — stars from every sport for a shoutout. Oh, sure, some requests are designed to raise the profile of a charitable cause. But most fans are simply looking for a little love from their favourite athletes.

"(at)SHAQ the real superman, can i get a birthday retweet from the most dominant big man of all time?"

"It's my birthday and all I want is for (at)KingJames to tweet me !!

"(at)Donald_Driver80 I love you so much. I have a piece of your jersey, I want more. I want(need) an RT from you. See ya in a lambeau leap!!

"(at)serenawilliams please don't let me go 0-5 for (hash)serenafriday RT from my favourite female tennis player?"

"It's almost like capturing a photo of yourself with that person," said Chris Abraham, senior vice-president at Social Ally, a social media firm. "For a second there, you've breached their celebrity. They've actually allowed you to come over and take a camera shot of you two together, and you can share it with all your friends."

Now, a retweet might not sound all that thrilling. You can't frame it and hang it on a wall (though you could do a screen grab and print it out), and it can't be passed down to your kids and grandkids. You can't collect retweets in a book and show it off to your friends. And no one's going to pay six figures for a retweet, as someone once did for a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

But that's the old-school way of thinking. An autograph is going to be seen by 15, maybe 20 people. Get a retweet from Shaquille O'Neal, and you're now the coolest thing ever with the 5 million-plus people who follow the Big Tweeter. To say nothing of the bragging rights you'll get when the folks who follow you see it.

"You can tweet that to your boys. Or if they're following you, they see it," said O'Neal, now an analyst for TNT. "You have 15 minutes of fame."

Sometimes you get even more than that.

A few weeks ago, New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, perhaps the most prolific athlete on Twitter, showed up on the doorstep of a follower who invited him to come over after Ochocinco tweeted that he was driving around Miami.

When Ochocinco posted photos of their meeting, the follower's timeline was flooded with so many messages he'd need until next month's NFL draft to respond to them all.

For the last three semesters, David Gerzof Richard has given his social media and marketing class at Emerson College the assignment of making contact with a Boston-area celebrity through social media. The class picked Ochocinco last semester and, not only did he respond, he took the entire class to dinner, spending more than three hours talking about social media and why he considers it important.

"Publicists and the agent are still very relevant (for athletes) to getting the main stories out there. But now there's this side door that people can go through, and they know that it's there. It's not hidden," Gerzof Richard said. "When you're a big fan of someone, being able to connect with them is a huge thing."

(And yes, Ochocinco picked up the tab.)

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was this semester's quest, and the class got a response almost immediately.

"We've connected with two out of the three. ... If they had to sit down and call the agent or publicist, I'm pretty sure our success rate would be zero," Gerzof Richard said. "I would never have imagined that the course that took me into academia would, in a million years, have me connecting with athletes. That's the wonderful thing about social media, it literally opens doors that people could never imagine."

But what's in it for the athletes? Why should they be bothered to do something as simple as a retweet, especially when retweeting even one person means they'll be inundated with requests from hundreds more?

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 favourite 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?"


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