If you’re at all tuned into the world ice dancing rankings, then the dynamic sibling duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani is a pair you’re very familiar with. If not, let me introduce you to Maia and Alex.
The two surprised the figure skating world when they stole the 2011 World Ice Dancing Championships spotlight and grabbed the bronze medal. Many skaters begin their quest to the Olympics with their sibling. But, these two stand out and have successfully skated with a sibling for their entire skating career. Undoubtedly, a very interesting story.
Like many athletes, the, “ShibSibs,” as they call themselves, have turned to social media to tell their unique story. They connect to their audience through their personal Twitter, Instagram, and Vine accounts. However, they excel particularly in their Youtube video productions, featuring many other top-level figure skating athletes.
They are prime examples of social athletes.
So, I asked them a couple questions about how and why they use social media. Here are my questions, their answers, and a few takeaway points on what we can learn about being social athletes from each answer.
1. You guys are very active across various social media platforms. What got you into using social media?
On a very fundamental level, our involvement with social media today probably has its roots in the fact that a very important part of what we enjoy as athletes – particularly in a performance sport such as figure skating – is the opportunity to share experiences. As siblings, we have always been very close. As partners, essentially “growing up” together in the sport, we have had so many unique experiences. Every step of the way – from our first time competing on a national championship “stage” as juveniles, up through our current fourth season on the senior international circuit – we have done it together. To have an accessible way to share moments and memories is so enjoyable and satisfying.
Probably another important factor that enabled us to embrace social media so readily has been that we have always been interested in learning about and interacting with members of the “traditional” skating media. Skating is a small enough world that many of the same journalists and photographers who cover even National Championship level events, also covered events such as the Juvenile dance event at the Lake Placid Dance Championships. Maia and I were both naturally interested in understanding the sport from the journalists’ and fans’ perspective, and we were so fortunate to have some unique opportunities to become involved with the skating media as well.
— Alex Shibutani (@AlexShibutani) October 4, 2013
Back in 2005, right after completing our first season of competing together and winning the silver medal in Juvenile at Junior Nationals, I asked for the opportunity to “shadow” a photojournalist backstage at the 2005 US Nationals in Portland. I wrote about my experiences in a piece which ended up getting published in SKATING Magazine, which I believe was a first for a skater my age 13.
The following season, after winning the Intermediate title at Junior Nationals, we attended the 2006 US Championships to watch. This time, both of us had the opportunity to work “behind the scenes.” Our experiences were posted online in one of the first “blogs” (most people didn’t know what the term “blog” was back then). The original posting has not been archived by USFS, but we have the verbatim text posted to our official website.
Maia has had many of her photographs posted to various sites through the years – including from the 2006 US Championships and from the 2007 Four Continents Championship when it was held in Colorado Springs.
The final key ingredient underlying our involvement with social media comes from our experiences as younger children – attending competitions and events, and meeting some of our skating idols. These included the 2001 World Championships in Vancouver, and the 2003 World Championships in Washington DC – as spectators, of course.
— Alex Shibutani (@AlexShibutani) November 23, 2013
We met skaters like Michelle Kwan, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and many others – all of whom made such a positive impression on us. Their kindness and genuine enthusiasm for what they were doing clearly attracted those around them to their presence and to the sport of figure skating. Those interactions became potent memories that inspired us.
Now that we are the ones on Team USA competing at World Championships, we have ingrained within us, a tremendous awareness of the responsibilities that come from being a “visible” representative of the sport. As such, we strive to be positive influences, and in our view, this includes sharing our experiences with fans.
The development of social media has been very exciting and has changed the way people communicate and share information. Our generation is innately comfortable with the broadening of communication channels and the interactive “sharing” component of social media platforms, which simply weren’t in existence for athletes a generation or two ago. For us, it feels very natural.
— Maia Shibutani (@MaiaShibutani) November 13, 2013
Takeaways: Athletes have inherent responsibilities as high-profile ambassadors for their sport. They are the people to look up to. Social media can be the connection that can help flourish and strengthen your sport, creating a strong bond between those in the sport now, learning the ropes, and the pros.
The advantage of growing up with social media is a huge one. Maia and Alex grew up knowing how to connect with their audience on social media without any specific training. Athletes a generation ago didn’t have this kind of opportunity.
2. You have multiple accounts between the two of you and your combined accounts. Do you find that it’s tough to manage, and are there an managing tools that you use?
Managing multiple accounts across different social media platforms is definitely a challenge. We’re on Twitter (3 accounts including ShibSibs), Vine, Facebook, Instagram (3 accounts including ShibSibs), Tumblr, and YouTube.
We recognize and appreciate that each platform actually has a distinct “positioning” and “audience.” So far, we’ve learned a lot about leveraging each individual platform to hopefully enhance (not duplicate) what we’re sharing/posting to the others. To maintain so many accounts is indeed a lot of work, but we genuinely enjoy the process.
We don’t currently use any social media-managing apps. It helps from a time management standpoint that we are actually able to manage almost all of our accounts with our phones.
Takeaways: On social media, go where your audience is. Note that your audience isn’t everywhere. Maia and Alex aren’t actively using every social network out there. Also, without the use of any fancy tools, Maia and Alex have successfully created a strong social media presence while traveling all over the world. It is possible!
3. What’s the greatest benefit of being on social media for athletes?
There are a multitude of reasons why it is beneficial for athletes to actively participate in various forms of social media. First and foremost, social media gives athletes a voice. Rather than always answering questions that are asked of them by the general media, social media allows athletes to take ownership of their “message”, and have a good amount of control over how they present themselves beyond “the field of play.” We recognize that this can actually be a double-edged sword if common sense and good judgment are overlooked. In our opinion, athletes who choose to stay off of social media have a harder time connecting with audiences.
People’s impressions of athletes are only based off of how they perform in their sport and handle general media. By using social media, an athlete can show their interests, and present different facets of their personality which may not be evident during a four-minute free program or 10 second mixed zone interview.
For us, social media allows us to connect with people and share our journey. Being able to interact directly with people who are interested in what you are doing or who have similar interests as you, regardless of where they may be in the world, can be a really rewarding experience.
Takeaways: Social media allows you to have a published voice and opinion within your athletic network. People will know your message and tone, sometimes before even knowing you in person. This must be taken with a grain of salt, however. Anything posted online is there forever, and athletes have to be careful about what they post. On a more positive note, social media also allows the athlete to convey what they want about themselves over a longer period of time than you would get in an interview, for example. You have more longterm control.
4. How has your presence on social media grown? Has that necessarily been connected to your success in skating?
In some ways, the growth of our presence on social media has benefitted from timing. We have been fortunate to be essentially growing up at the same time that social media itself has grown, developed and gained global mainstream adoption.
Naturally when we were younger, we enjoyed writing blogs, taking photos, and making videos. As various social media platforms have improved and evolved, they have made sharing our experiences easier.
This is our tenth year of skating together as a team. We have been through a lot and people have watched us grow and develop – not just as athletes, but as people as well. It has been a very special for us to have the opportunity to share these experiences with each other, our family, and friends – and also with the broader audience of skating fans.
For sure, as we have had the opportunity to travel internationally at the senior level and achieve success at various events, we have had more opportunities to engage with a wider range of people, from all over the world.
Takeaway: Having the opportunity to travel the world has exposed Maia and Alex to a wider audience. However, it’s the strength of the connections they make with the people they connect with online that will keep those interested coming back.
5. What are some pieces of advice that you can give athletes looking to begin using social media, or improve their “social media game?”
Perhaps the most important guideline that we keep in mind, is that it has always been important to us is that our social media presence be very authentic. We really strive to be ourselves. Advice: Be yourself.
Like anything worthwhile, social media takes time and effort. Any athlete looking to get involved should recognize that in order for it to be truly worthwhile, involvement needs to be consistent, and this takes commitment and discipline.
We really enjoy sharing all the wonderful things we get to experience in this sport and while we put in a lot of hard work on the ice, we also have a lot of fun. Sharing the fun with skating fans and hopefully a broader audience as well is perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences.
We believe that as athletes, it is not just about presenting ourselves, but that there is a duty to know that you are a representative for your sport and your country. Advice: Have respect for the opportunity to have a “voice” and use common sense.
Wow, lot's of responses! We're glad you enjoy the videos as much as we enjoy making them. Thanks for all the #ShibSibs love!
— ShibSibs (@ShibSibs) November 4, 2013
Takeaways: Be respectful, be interesting, but most importantly, be yourself.
Make sure to check out the Shibutani siblings on social media, as well as on their personal accounts linked throughout the post! Let me know what you think about how they use social media to connect with people in the skating world.
Try out some of their social media tactics and see how they world for you. You may see your network slowly start to grow.