In irony befitting works of fiction like the movies The Matrix or TRON, the rise of the virtual, digital communities has helped create more flesh-and-blood relationships in racing and around the world.
In the case of Twitter, when members of an online community meet in person it’s called a “tweetup,” which is short for “Twitter meet up.”
Kimberley Jackson (@KimJackson), social media manager for Andretti Autosport (@FollowAndretti), said physical meetings are actually the goal of "social media."
“The whole goal of social interaction really should be face-to-face interaction,” said Jackson. “It’s great to interact via Twitter and Facebook or whatever it may be, but what you want to do is build a community and tweetups provide a way to actually meet the people face-to-face. That’s what being social is really all about, meeting face-to-face and having true interaction.”
Pat Caporali (@PCaporali), who has worked in PR for IndyCar teams at Target Chip Ganasssi, Vision (@VisionRacing) and FAZZT (@FAZZT77), pioneered the use of tweetups in IndyCar in 2009. Caporali said she got the idea from the Phoenix Suns NBA team.
“I just tweeted at the Long Beach race in 2009 ‘anyone at the track come to the garage area. I have a couple of hats to give away.’ And it started that way,” Caporali said.
Today there are all manner of tweetups. From impromptu “meet me outside turn four in an hour” gatherings to events planned months in advance, such as annual fan-led tweetups in Indianapolis held in December and during Indy 500 race weekend in May. In the early days, though, Caporali said getting cooperation from tracks to hold a tweetup was a challenge. “They didn’t know what it was and didn’t kind of get it because it was impromptu,” said Caporali. “They all wanted to know why it wasn’t more organized.”
In 2009, track officials at Watkins Glen (@WGI), led by Ryan Lake in the track’s communications department, were the first to jump on the tweetup bandwagon. Caporali recruited crowd favorites Tony Kanaan (@TonyKanaan) and Ed Carpenter (@EdCarpenter20) to attend the tweetup and mingle.
Buoyed by that initial success, Caporali went to the official IndyCar fan club, Downforce (now IndyCar Nation), and suggested they combine forces. Downforce typically had accommodations such as a tent, chairs and a loudspeaker system set up at every track. Caporali asked to use Downforce’s facilities. In return, tweetup attendees would be made aware of Downforce.
Caporali said the high point of early tweetups came at Chicagoland (@ChicagolndSpdwy ) in 2009.
“That was probably the best,” said Caporali. “We had Leilani Münter (@leilanimunter), Ed Carpenter (@edcarpenter), Sarah Fisher (@sarahfisher67), Tony Kanaan (@TonyKanaan), the most amount of drivers and users who came and wanted to be part of it. We had Curt Cavin (@curtcavin of the Indy Star), we had bloggers there, we had just a great turnout, and the Associated Press came by because they heard me talking about it in the media center and (IndyCar VP of Communication) Amy Konrath kind of planted the seed for them to come check it out.” (Read the resulting AP story here)
Digital Followers Become Flesh
What’s the big attraction of tweetups? Jackson said the age-old desire to “put a name with a face” has carried through into the digital social media world. “It’s kind of good to see the real person and see a little bit more of their personality,” said Jackson. “You might view them one way from Twitter and get a better view of the person when you meet. It’s really kind of cool to see them as a person rather than just as a Twitter handle.”
Tweetups are also an ideal forum for twitter friends to interact in more than 140-characters at a time. Tweetup participants often know each other through Twitter, easing any initial awkwardness and providing plenty to talk about in person. Carporali said she eventually identified fans by home tracks and, more to the business point, fans became more motivated to attend certain races to physically meet their Twitter friends in person.
“I started to recognize Twitter users from the different tracks,” said Caporali. “I knew when I went to Iowa (@iowaspeedway) I was going to meet these people and when I went to Homestead (@HomesteadMiami) I was going to meet these people,” said Caporali. “But what really surprised me in the last year was when I’d go to a track like Homestead and run into someone from Facebook or Twitter and say ‘wait a second, you’re not from Florida. You’re from Virginia’ and they’d say ‘we came down for the race.’ ”
Not only did tweetups help enhance the relationship between drivers/teams and fans, it enhanced relationships between fan and fan. There are many stories of acquaintances that started on twitter and grew into strong friendships with the help of tweetups.
Elizabeth Lenzi (@happyfish103) and Monica Hilton (@the_race_gIRL) were inspired by at-the-track tweetups to organize an off-season fan tweetup in December called the Winter Indy Tweetup in both 2009 and 2010. The two also organize the May Indy Tweetup during the Indy 500 weekend.
"Contrary to the popular belief outside the Twitter community, a tweetup is not just a bunch of socially-awkward geeks standing around staring at their phones (though we DO stare at our phones a lot!)," said Lenzi, who admitted signing up for Twitter initially on boredom-induced whim. "It's a great opportunity to make new friends and even to network."
Lenzi and Hilton became friends through Twitter in 2009, which led to them attending the 2009 Homestead finale together, where they participated in a Caporali-organized tweetup at the track.
"Back in Indy, while driving back from the airport, we started talking about how awesome it would be if there was an off-season event to keep our spirits up during the otherwise bleak months without racing," said Lenzi, a registered nurse who lives in Indianapolis. "We started to think maybe WE could organize something like that, a gathering of race fans to come and have fun during the off-season, a tweetup maybe."
The two soon put out an official "tweetvite" (invitation to a tweetup, example here) for a multiple-day, December weekend event in Indianapolis. "We made the tweetvite, tweeted about it, and just kind of waited to see what the response would be," said Lenzi. "I think the real turning point was when people started telling us they were booking flights to come out for the weekend. There was a little moment of 'whoa, this isn't just a little weekend get-together anymore,' but we dove right in and started trying to make it the best event possible."
Lucky for Lenzi she dove in, because she met her fiance, John Wertz (@jwertz77), at the 2009 Winter Indy Tweetup (" 'Hmm, he's cute in real life too!' I remember was one of my first thoughts") and is now mulling a second career as an event planner, thanks to several doors opened by Twitter.
"I feel so very lucky for all that I've had the opportunity to experience so far, and I'm constantly amazed that it all started with joining Twitter," said Lenzi. "I am incredibly excited for whatever the future brings in my event planning endeavors. I know it'll be a lot of hard work, but I'm ready to take it head on and see what happens."
The pressdog™ Original Twitter Series --
Part V: The Fans Tweet about Twitter