How the internet and social media changed the game for football 6 months ago

How the internet and social media changed the game for football

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, Patrice Evra doing unsanitary things to raw chicken probably wasn't what he had in mind. That said, he has always espoused the virtues of diversity of thought and expression, so who knows? A former French international salivating all over an unlucky ex-clucker may not advance human thought in any discernible way, but it certainly connects people, and that's half the battle.

You know what else connects people on a visceral level? Porn. Porn and football. Sadly this piece will focus on the grubbier of the two. It will seek to examine how our consumption, enjoyment and interaction with the sport has evolved due to the growing prevalence - and influence - of social media. But do not be fooled into assuming you are reading a comprehensive examination, because that would be impossible and daft.

Instead, it is a collection of informed vignettes. A dot-to-dot of different perspectives that will (hopefully) serve to provide some form of collective examination of the football experience in the information age. For some, it has been about adapting with the times and embracing new forms of expression; for others it has been a transformative era that has allowed them to turn their passion into a profession. This is a look at football, online. Don't @ me.

"I believe in the internet. The internet has made my fortune," is something David Amoyal doesn't say. Which is a pity, because that lazy Italian-American stereotype borrowed from the Godfather would've made for a cracking intro. Regardless, he is acutely aware of the opportunities that online networking and a social media presence have afforded him...even if he doesn't express it in the manner of a proud but slighted fictional undertaker.

"Simply put, I wouldn't have started a second career in sports without social media," Amoyal says with self-effacing candour. "It has allowed me to collaborate with many great journalists and writers, and helped me to publicise my work. I know we often talk about negative sides of social media, but for many of us it has been life-changing in a positive way."

For context, Amoyal is a protege of Gianluca Di Marzio, the much vaunted Italian journalist who is known for having inside scoops on many a European football story. He writes for Di Marzio's website, as well as the likes of ESPN and the Athletic, but his great passion project is the CalcioLand podcast he created alongside Alex Goldberg. Focusing primarily on Serie A and Italian football (but going pleasingly off-topic at times), the show is growing in popularity and esteem.

 

Amoyal is understated, humble, and faultlessly generous in letting others take the spotlight - in short, the opposite of the kind of opportunistic look-at-me media types who push their way to the front to be noticed. And yet his no frills disclosures and unadorned reports have earned him a reputation for reliability and, importantly, integrity. Amoyal is grateful for his community of followers/listeners, but appreciates it is very much an opt-in silo of opinion.

"Social media has allowed fans to connect with like-minded people, which in many ways is a good thing. It can however also become a bubble; an echo-chamber where a lot of misinformation gets even more traction. On the bright side, compared to previous decades, there is easy access to so much more information for fans around the world.

"It has also made it a lot easier for writers and journalists to publicise their work. It allows us to get immediate feedback, whilst also testing out material in tweets. The back and forth with others on social media can be a great way of developing ideas for content. In fact, some of my favourite features started that way."

This sense that the online consumer is more than just a passive audience is echoed by the Guardian's Sid Lowe. In spite of his more traditional journalistic background, Lowe values the reciprocal nature of social media as not only a channel to share content, but also to gage opinion and receive feedback - even if that feedback can sometimes be strewn with a string of 'pricks' and 'nonces' (as in those are the insults offered, not those expressing them. Although...)

"Journalists have always written about how fans feel about certain topics or issues, but the likes of Twitter allow you to ask them directly," explains Lowe. "Fans will quite often provide you with certain ideas or perspectives you haven't previously considered. Of course not all fans will think the same way, but when you get an overwhelming surge of responses of a certain type, it does help inform you in a way that wasn't possible before."

That said, Lowe does warn against using any form of social media as a wholly reliable sounding board. The internet, by its very nature, is manna from heaven for a certain type of vocal minority who may not know their Arsenal from their Eibar, but as sure as shit have a strong opinion to share with the world regardless.

"Of course you do need to be careful about which fans we're talking about. I suspect match-going supporters are less vociferous than fans who don't go to games. I have this displacement theory that the more angry, aggressive, and expressively 'die-hard' fans are actually the displaced ones. The Manchester United fan who's not from Manchester, or the Liverpool fan who's never been to Merseyside. Maybe it's an attempt to close that distance by being more radical."

The directness of feedback and immediacy of the net is not restricted to the writer/fan dynamic. Indeed in some ways the press pack is in danger of becoming part-redundant, as player presence on social media cuts out the middle man/woman to some extent. Lowe sees this less as a threat and more a welcome development, although he suggests the more cannier pros can see the virtue in harnessing the media rather than bypassing it altogether.

"There was a very interesting quote from Gerard Pique in the Panenka magazine, where he basically said 'I don't really need you anymore' to the media. That's quite an important point and perhaps why some footballers engage the way they do. I don't think there's anything inherently problematic about that from the player's point of view, but I do think they sometimes lack a cynicism, for the lack of better word, to use the media, who still act as opinion informers.

"There are also players under the strict control their very commercially sensitive clubs, so their output is incredibly anodyne. At the end of the day, good media work is beneficial for everyone. It's something Manchester City have understood and benefitted from, in that coverage that makes you seem closer and more approachable goes a long way."

If Lowe is someone from a traditional media background who is fully plugged into the Twittersphere and beyond, Melissa Reddy is very much an old-school style journalist who has made her global name at online titles. In my opinion, she is definitely in the top two best football writers at JOE.co.uk. As far as her experience regarding football clubs and their approach to new media, it is generally positive, albeit with caveats.

"I've not found any club to judge me differently. I worked exclusively with Liverpool when I first arrived in the UK, and they have always been amazing and cared about my credentials as a journalist rather than what I looked like or where my byline was appearing. Leicester City, Bournemouth and Huddersfield have also been very accommodating. [That said] I do think most clubs still favour traditional media - you see that with press box allocation, for example."

Reddy started her career in her native South Africa, and her experience is still relatively unique in that her gender, race and nationality set her apart from most of her predominantly white, male, UK-born colleagues. Add the fact that she represents new media into the mix, and you have numerous points of difference from the 'norm'. She has built her reputation through hard work and talent, but it wasn't without some suspicion that he rose through the ranks.

"I first entered football journalism, there were whispers of 'token female' regarding my appointment. That would emerge again when I received promotions and pushed on while many of my male counterparts remained stagnant. When I moved to the UK, there were the added layers of being foreign, of colour, and younger than the average age in the press box. I had to prove - through my work - that I had earned my place.

"Being part of new media brings about heightened scepticism. There's an unwritten obligation to show that you're not just part of a patch because you understand social media, but because you're a real journalist with contacts, interesting angles, and a deep knowledge and passion for the game. I'd be lying if I didn't concede it was a lengthy process, but I now count many of the nationals as friends, and my biggest sources of support and encouragement."

No one can deny that Reddy fully deserves her press pass to some of the biggest games in European football. Not only does she have the requisite skills and experience, but her drive and ambition have led her to where she is today. But such is fluid nature of social media - particularly in terms of football - that the lines between content provider and consumer can begin to blur. In less wanky terms, normal fans can find themselves covering the clubs they love.

Take my mate, Paul Ansorge. He is very talented and absolutely adores Manchester United. Nearly 15 years ago, he started Rant Cast with his childhood mate Ed Barker because...well, they just wanted to rant about United. Over time it went on to become a worldwide hit and one of the leading independent football podcasts. Which is great and all, but it didn't end there. In fact it led to a domino effect of opportunities and being excellent at those opportunities.

"It opened up loads of surreal and unexpected professional avenues for me. I started my football-related Twitter account to have a place to chat to listeners of our podcast, but then ended up becoming Bleacher Report's Manchester United correspondent through contacts made on there. That in turn led to me going to press conferences, going to United games as press and getting a whole fascinating insight into the behind the scenes of that stuff."

Isn't that great?! Twitter helped a football fan with no formal media training but a natural vocation to learn on the job, and ultimately ask direct questions to the manager of his club! You'd be forgiven for thinking Ansorge loves Twitter. You'd assume that he more than anyone would be a committed advocate of that beautiful little blue bird and the utopian meritocracy it helped create. What's that? His Twitter handle? He doesn't have one - he deleted his account.

"I think Twitter is really bad for you," Ansorge explains. "I think both in terms of content and form, it generates and transmits a great deal of anxiety. We are not wired for the constant drip feed of information that comes with it. It's inherently addictive because it's always piping out new content, but how often do you feel better after looking at Twitter for a bit?"

"At around the 10-15k followers mark, the joy of the interactive part for me started to be outweighed by the amount of abuse and misunderstanding that would come with almost every tweet. I was contractually obliged to keep an account while I was still working for B/R so when they let their football writing team go I was glad to be free of it.

"I have made some brilliant life-long friends from Twitter (Hi Noz). This is by far the biggest, most meaningful thing about it. I still get sent funny tweets by people and have contact with a lot of the people I really care about through other means, so apart from the few people I don't, I can't say I miss it at all."

Ansorge will be the first to admit that his Twitter experience - for which he is ultimately grateful as it allowed him to pursue a career in psychotherapy and open his own practice - is coloured by the fact that his following and interactions were overwhelmingly Manchester United-centric. It's one of the biggest and most...abrasive fanbases on Twitter, so it's easy to see why the more toxic element was not to the liking of someone who is so inclined to kindness and empathy.

There is however a football Twitter following that is even more bifurcated, fanatical and self-immolating than United's, and that of course belongs to Arsenal. For some reason, Gooners tend to dominate the football conversation (and polls) online, and like Texas, do everything bigger. Their familial squabbling is louder, their campaigns to usurp stately managers more epic, and their general drama-loving messy-bitchness is legendary.

Amidst the cacophony of contrary voices and fan channel related pantomime, one man adds a level of sense and decorum to it all. Andrew Mangan is the founder of Arseblog, which sounds like Sir Mix-a-Lot's favourite corner of the internet, but is in fact an online fan institution of some 16 years. It is about as far removed from the neck-tatted, fam/blud/fam performative Arsenal following of recent stereotype. Mangan is characteristically magnanimous of social media's failings.

"In general it's a work tool for me. I can't do what I do without Twitter, and for the most part it's a positive thing. It's great to be able to chat to other fans, and also have access to people who previously you'd never be able to communicate with. It also teaches you the value of time. Life's too short to engage with trolls or people who don't like what you do and feel it absolutely necessary to tell you that.

"If you're not careful you could spend far too much of your day trying to reason with people who have no interest in an alternative point of view anyway. We all know the adage about do not feed the troll, but it's true. Even when the troll is really, really wrong, and you're 100% in the right, don't give them the oxygen they desperately want."

Mangan seems to have found relative calm at the centre of football's most notorious fandom. It's a case of zen and the art of social media maintenance:

"Some fans will make the most of social media's positive aspects, others see it as a way to call their least favourite player a cunt. Of course your own social media experience is what you make it. You can do a lot to ignore the worst excesses in terms of who you follow and so on, so if you want to avoid the nastier elements you can pretty much do that successfully."

You would think that, with such a mammoth and impassioned support, Arsenal's club Twitter account would in some way reflect certain aspects of their following. That's not really the case. As with most of the larger official channels, they tend to play it safe to the point of banality. It's somewhat inevitable that something essentially designed to keep over 10 million people happy (or perhaps the least unhappy) would become devoid of any real character.

You can't blame them. As with footballers, one misstep and a single tweet can become headline news. On the odd occasions when clubs do attempt to show any personality, it nearly always comes across as lame and contrived. There have been instances where the marketing bods have clearly pre-scripted a light-hearted club vs club 'beef', and the results have been toe-curlingly bad. That said, there is one club stands apart as the Kings of Twitter game.

A year and a half before Mo Salah left AS Roma for Liverpool, a far less publicised transfer occurred in the opposite direction. Bostonian Paul Rogers swapped his role in International Digital Development at Anfield to take up the position of Head of Digital and Social Media at the Serie A side. As in the case of Salah, no one could have predicted just how sensational the move would be. Under Rogers, the English language Roma account has been a revelation.

Whether it's football in-jokes, prescient memes, hip-hop playlists, or savvy cultural references, Rogers has done the impossible and made an official club account seem cool. Even more remarkably, he has somehow managed to breach fierce tribal lines and made fans of natural enemies. Rogers suggests this is part of greater phenomenon of fans around the world putting aside partisan - if the content is engaging enough.

"The biggest difference we’ve seen at Roma, particularly over the last couple of years, is that many fans are not afraid to openly admit to liking or following another club’s account if they think the content is entertaining. We see a lot of fans of rival clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid engaging with Roma’s account and choosing to be part of the Twitter community as it’s more entertaining than only following their own club.

"In the past you were brought up to basically hate every other club but now, if the content is interesting or entertaining, it seems perfectly acceptable to follow another team on social media as well as your own. Good content is good content and fans are so social media savvy, they choose to share the best content because they know it will entertain their friends- regardless of who they support."

That's all well and good, but how the fuck did he convince a club of AS Roma's prestige and history to buy into his eclectic, often random, brilliantly irreverent style? Rogers explains that his authority to let loose came straight from the top.

"We’ve been lucky that we have an owner in Jim Pallotta who understands this world. He understands that when it comes to social media, we’re in the entertainment business and he doesn’t just allow us to be different, he demands it. With that mandate, we’ve taken big risks in establishing a personality for our account – personified as Roma Admin – that allows us to strike up a different kind of relationship with our followers.

"When you follow Roma’s account, you know you are not engaging with the club in a corporate way. Roma Admin can be cheeky and funny but he/she is likeable, inclusive and understands the language of Twitter so whether we want to talk about football, music, trainers or baby bears climbing snowy mountains, that’s what we’ll do. Football Twitter can be fun or it can be serious. We have chosen fun."

Some have tried to mimic certain aspects of Roma's success with varying levels of effectiveness. Alas, as soon as you actively try to copy something that's authentic, it's not authentic anymore. According to Rogers, the human aspect is key. Any attempts to please all of the people all of the time is folly because you essentially become a bland compromise of everything.

"Through Twitter, we’ve made fans feel closer to the club. Whether its football clubs in Zimbabwe, the national team in Nigeria, American hip-hop collective A$AP Mob, or even a Roma fan whose son was born last week, we’ve managed to interact in a human way from a football club account.

"When one of our followers notified us that his wife was due to give birth, we asked the global football community to welcome baby Daniele to the world. Thousands of fans from all over the globe posted messages and even clubs – from Champions League giants Bayern Munich to amateur Scottish side Saint Anthony’s – took the time to tweet out personal messages to the new parents. For me, that’s why we love Twitter."

And there you have it. A panorama of disparate views of what football in the social media age has become and could be. It does not tell the full story, and what could? The internet is far too big a place, and a very different experience for each of us. But in a way, that's kind of the point. It can be whatever you want it to be. Football used to be fed to us. Old media was very limited, and even mass fan expression was restricted to the few with a platform.

As with any other aspect of life, the internet has opened up horizons and broken down convention. Sometimes that's a bad thing. Sometimes it's terrible. But unlike democracy-skewing fake news, or the global rise of the alt-right, football remains a wonderful bit of nonsense we take far too seriously. It matters, of course it does, and brings people together in a way that nothing much else can, but unlike matters of life or death, there is little harm in creating your own personal experience.

We all curate. Even this article is heavily biased to people I personally admire and wanted to talk to. Football lends itself to the polemic, but you can be as inclusive or exclusive as you wish. We can embrace all aspects of football in the social media age and consume it 24/7. Or like Paul, we are free to just log off and walk away. I guess the most important thing to take away from all of this is, if you're asked to write a long read article, fill it with lots of quotes.